Oct 30, 2020 | General

The iPhone 11 Pro is Only 12 Megapixels?



How is the iPhone 11 Pro such a good camera with only 12 megapixels?  With DSLR and mirrorless cameras and even some phones pushing 50 megapixels, is the iPhone 11 Pro ready for the dustbin of history?  Is the new iPhone 12 Pro worth getting if it has only 12 megapixels as well?  Let’s get to it.

Megapixels are just one part of image quality

Having a huge megapixel count isn’t the same as having a quality photograph.  Megapixels come into play in marketing because it is a number, and bigger is always better, right?  This older full-frame camera only has 21 megapixels but this new smartphone has 108 megapixels, the smartphone will take way better photos!

Wrong.  Megapixels only really matter when you zoom way, way into an image (called pixel-peeping) to see the individual pixels.  With a 12 megapixel iPhone 11, you won’t be able to crop way, way into an image before running into pixilation.  That is simply a limitation of how many pixels the image sensor captures.  If you do need a large amount of cropping on your images, that is when you would want to look for a camera with a large megapixel count.  For the rest of us that crop a bit here and there, the iPhone 11 Pro will be just fine.

Let your eyes be the judge of a quality image.  Your eyes see in beautiful colors and gradients of shadow.  Your eyes can detect the difference between the sharply focused subject and the softer focus of the background.  The hue and saturation of colors jump out at us and our eyes pick out contrasting differences in the photo.  

I don’t notice how many megapixels an image has these days since I don’t see many images outside of a screen.  A printed image can run into resolution issues if a low megapixel image is printed too large, which is essentially the same as pixel-peeping.  The minimum resolution for an 8×10 print would be 8 megapixels (it’s really 7.3 megapixels).  A larger print, say a 16×20, would need four times the megapixels to keep the same resolution since the area of the print is four times as large.

How many printed photos do you look at these days?

Sensor size is another factor of image quality

Sensor size is another factor in overall image quality.  All else being equal, a larger sensor will usually capture a better image.  If you had two 24-megapixel image sensors, the larger of the two would be preferable since it has the same number of pixels spread out over a larger area.  Thus, the pixels on the sensor are larger and can collect more light.

Now imagine two sensors of exactly the same, small size.  One is 12-megapixels, the other is 50-megapixels.  Which sensor would have the larger sized pixels?  Obviously, the 12-megapixel sensor since it has about one quarter the number of pixels in the same space.  That 12-megapixel sensor and its larger pixel size will be more efficient at gathering light onto the pixels since they are larger.

Larger pixel size is also important when it comes to performance in low-light situations.  When photons of light are in short supply, a larger pixel will capture more photons than a small pixel.  

Think of pixels as a bucket and photons as rain.  If it is raining heavily (well-lit scene), either a small or large bucket will easily gather a cup of water.  If it is just barely raining (dimly-lit scene), a larger bucket will capture a cup of water faster.  In less than ideal lighting conditions, larger pixels win.

With social media, megapixels get reduced anyway

A quality 12-megapixel sensor can capture a far superior image than a low quality 50 or 100-megapixel sensor.  The iPhone is widely regarded as one of the best camera phones on the market.  There is no denying the pleasing images coming from iPhone 11 cameras.  The internet is full of them.

Selfie photos
Selfie photos have led to the desensitization of bad quality photos.

When an image, any image, uploaded to the usual social media outlets the images get compressed upon upload.  That means that no matter how high the resolution of the image was when it was taken, it will get squished down to something much smaller for social media.

This keeps Instagram moving at a brisk pace.  Since the images are compressed to smaller sizes they will load faster for users.  Performance is the name of the game here.  If you want the best-looking Instagram images, just compress the images yourself before you upload them.  Honestly, Instagram compression isn’t that bad.  The maximum resolution it will allow an image to be viewed at is 1080, or right around 8-megapixels.

12 megapixels is better for storage

More megapixels in an image means more data.  More data means more storage space used per image.  Storage space used is linear with megapixels – 12 megapixels takes up about half as much as 24 megapixels.  That is theoretical, of course.  JPEG image compression will cause the file size to vary a bit from image to image.

Most of us use some form of cloud backup for the images on our phones.  Larger files from high megapixel sensors would chew through data faster, just as it would chew through storage faster.  Take it from someone who shoots a 24-megapixel DSLR and has to store (and backup) RAW images that are close to 24 megabytes each, storage can fill up fast with big image files.

Apple Image Sensor Processing is phenomenal

This is the meat and potatoes of the Apple iPhone 11 Pro’s camera system.  This is where the magic happens.  This is a big part of the reason Apple’s 12-megapixel cameras are among the most highly regarded cameras out there.  This is also one of the reasons traditional camera manufacturers are going to go out of business if they don’t step it up.

When a user snaps a photo with an Apple iPhone 11, the phone itself might take up to nine images at once, compare them all and take the best parts of each image, and then combine them all into one image with great quality and dynamic range.  It does this in less than a second.

All of those images are run through the Image Sensor Processor (ISP) and the Neural Engine (NE) on the iPhone’s processor.  Using machine learning, the iPhone takes the best pixels from each image and combines them into one image.  This is called Deep Fusion by Apple, and it is amazing.  This computational photography is the way of the future.

There are other things that affect image quality too

There are certainly other things that affect image quality other than megapixels and sensor size.  

The dynamic range of the sensor is a quality of how sensitive it is to light.  How much of the shadows and how much of the highlights it can capture at once. The color accuracy of the sensor and lens quality round out the list of items that matter more than the raw megapixels of the image sensor.

Man walking into a tunnel in high contrast


While the 12-megapixel camera in the Apple iPhone 11 Pro might seem to be low by comparison to other phones on the market, the image quality from the Apple iPhone 11 Pro is second to none in my opinion.  There is a reason that the most highly regarded camera phones all use 12-megapixel sensors for their main cameras.  It strikes a good balance between resolution, storage, and processing demands.

If you enjoyed the post, please drop a comment down below or leave a suggestion for future topics above. Until next time, go take some pictures!



Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.


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