Follow the iPhone 12 Pro Max on a rugged Lost Coast photography adventure – CNET

California’s Lost Coast is a world of its own at the edge of the continent. Located in Humboldt County, in the far northern part of the state, this remote stretch of pristine coastline sits atop the backpacking trip bucket list. With few towns or major roads, it’s best explored via the 25-mile Lost Coast Trail that winds along black sand beaches and rocky shores.

A few weeks ago, I took the iPhone 12 Pro on location to the high Sierra, visiting Lake Tahoe for a wondrous 24 hours to test its camera. The results were excellent, and now Apple’s adding even more camera punch with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. As it goes on sale Friday, let’s take a look at Apple’s latest photographic monster that’s definitely made for photographers. 

We went off the grid in the Lost Coast for a few days, exploring the beauty of this isolated coastal wilderness. For this trip, I left my bulky Canon 5D Mark III and array of lenses at home and brought only the iPhone 12 Pro Max. While it’s still no replacement for my usual gear, the phone was a worthy companion along this incredible stretch of wilderness.

An image taken on the iPhone 12 Pro Max with the Telephoto lens.

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Most of the time, the Lost Coast Trail isn’t really a trail at all. For miles we scramble along rocks at the water’s edge with waves crashing at our feet. Along vast stretches along the trail, it’s completely impossible to pass through at high tide. The terrain is challenging. The weather is highly unpredictable. This is the Lost Coast.

Mountains reach the sea at the black sand beaches on the remote Lost Coast.

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Jagged, steep cliffs rise straight from the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean to elevations of more than 4,000 feet just a few miles inland into the King Range National Conservation Area. 

Along the rugged Lost Coast Trail, every step is a challenge.

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During periods of low tide, there are opportunities to get down to the hard packed sand near and explore tide pools with kelp, sea anemones and fish. 

Kelp in the Pacific tide pools along the Lost Coast Trail in Mendocino County, California.

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Check out the detail the camera captured in both the sand and star-shaped echinoderm.

A starfish in the sand along the Lost Coast trail, shot on the iPhone 12 Pro Max with the wide lens.

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As we entered the first impassable tidal zone, we had a few miles of beach hiking and scrambling over rocks before we made it to the first night’s camp at Randall Creek. 

The rugged hiking conditions along the rocky shore of the Lost Coast Trail.

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There are no roads, no people and no cell phone service out here. Except for a few remote, off-the-grid cabins and the Punta Gorda lighthouse, there’s just mountains falling sharply into a sea of cold, chaotic waves. 

Once you leave the impassable high tide zone, you quickly find yourself in four miles of open meadows and grassy bluffs.

The abandoned Punta Gorda Lighthouse was built in 1910 with materials delivered via a high line cable coming down the mountains to the shore.

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Massive pieces of driftwood washed ashore by strong winds and crushing waves pepper Mattole Beach as the sun sets. The Lost Coast is a perfect place to go for dark skies and empty beaches. The feeling of quiet and seclusion will make you feel like you’re cut off from the rest of the world.  

Driftwood along Mattole Beach.

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Low light at night 

Photography is all about light. Images are made by capturing the different amounts of light reflected from the various parts of a scene. Dark objects absorb more of the available light and reflect less back into the camera, while bright objects reflect more light to the sensor. Getting great photos when there isn’t much light available is a challenge for any camera.

A hand held night time photo, taken without Night Mode, shows the incredible detail of which the iPhone 12 Pro Max is capable.

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The iPhone’s Night Mode allows you to take low-light photos without a tripod, creating sharper images with finer details and limited noise, all without using the camera flash, which is never a subtle light source. 

With just the light from our headlamps and the glow of the sky after sunset, there was just enough light for the iPhone 12 Pro Max to capture great photos.

Another hand held non-Night Mode image taken with the iPhone 12 Pro Max wide lens.

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It was difficult to stand still for this 30-second exposure, which caused some blur, but it was worth it to capture the stars in the sky, the tent and even the beam of light shining into the sky from the headlamp. 

The starry sky and remote camp along California’s Lost Coast.

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In this handheld image taken with the ultrawide lens after sunset, there’s still some beautiful detail evident in the ocean and the waves crashing on the rocky shoreline with relatively low noise. 

A non-Night Mode image from the iPhone 12 Pro Max ultrawide lens shows very good detail and of the waves in the very low light after sunset.

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Due to the tide schedule, we were forced to hike more than four miles of the Lost Coast Trail at night. Here, we follow the trail up and over an impassable section after sunset. This Night Mode image was taken without a tripod on the 5.1mm wide lens while the two hikers were moving.

Night hiking, taken with a hand held three-second Night Mode exposure while the hikers are moving.

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We took a break during the four-mile night passage through the usually impassable tidal zone on the narrow rocky shore. Even with a single small light source, the camera renders some great textures in the rocks in the foreground and with realistic colors throughout.

A wide lens nighttime image lit only by a headlamp.

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Wide gets even better on Pro Max

The wide lens on the iPhone 12 Pro Max camera gets an additional boost over to the iPhone 12 Pro. The main camera has a 47% larger sensor and larger pixels, along with a faster 1.6 aperture. That should translate to a combined 87% improvement in low light performance — a noticeable difference. More light should mean more detail and better color in your photos.

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Nothing but the Pacific Ocean for thousands of miles.

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You can see the wide range of tonal detail in the image below. From the bright morning sun in the sky to the sand and the waves, the image contains many tones, all showing much detail.

Take a look specifically at the sand from its highlights on the left as it moves toward the ocean. There’s some very crisp detail here. Even the waves in the foreground and background are crisp and richly detailed.

Crisp detail in the sand and crashing waves, from the foreground to the background.

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Another noticeable difference with the Pro Max is the bokeh throughout the images — the selective focus that keeps the subject sharp while blurring out the background of the image.  

The blurred foreground of the larger sensor on the wide lens and deep detail in the distance.

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This sensor size (when all other things are equal) is what dictates the amount of area in focus, as well as the size of the bokeh in the out-of-focus area. In other words, the bigger the sensor, the more bokeh you get with faster lenses. 

The effect is noticeable in just about every image. It adds a certain professional level aesthetic to photos that have miraculously been shot on a phone. In this image to the right, I moved close to the foreground rocks, and chose the focus point to be in the distance.

Larger camera sensors also capture more data. That means you get images with more light, more detail, less noise and more of that beautiful blur. 

What’s more, the wide lens on the 12 Pro Max has bigger pixels — 1.7um versus 1.4um on the iPhone 12 Pro. These bigger pixels on the wide camera help reveal intricate patterns, subtle textures and incredible detail, from the foreground to the middle of the image and the distant coast.

Take a look at the patterns on the abalone shell to the right, the stunning array of glimmering colors and the fine details visible in the surrounding rocks.

The stunning array of glimmering colors of an abalone shell along the beach.

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You can see the narrow focal plane and crisp textures and details of the image below due to the larger sensor on the wide lens.

Kelp in the sand at Mattole Beach.

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The wide lens delivers the rich texture and detail of the sea foam and Pacific Ocean waves crashing on the rocky shore.

Waves crash on the rocky shore along the Lost Coast Trail in northern California.

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Look back along the rugged shoreline of the Lost Coast Trail shot with the wide lens of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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Zoom, zoom, zoom

The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s telephoto camera has a 65mm equivalent lens versus a 52mm on the iPhone 12 Pro, meaning it has 2.5x optical zoom instead of 2x. That gives the cameras a range of 13mm to 65mm. While it’s nowhere near the capabilities of some Samsung camera phones like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, it’s the biggest zoom on an iPhone yet.

These sweeping coastal vistas are great for wide-angle images, and the 2.5x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is able to highlight more specific detail of the environment along the way.

Triumphantly crossing through Split Rock at Black Sands Beach at the end of the northernmost section of the Lost Coast Trail. 

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Dedicated photographers know how important a camera lens can be, and think nothing of spending $1,000 or more on a quality lens. That’s why given the camera improvements and the 65mm-equivalent lens the iPhone 12 Pro Max brings, it’s worth spending an extra $100 over the iPhone 12 Pro. (Starting prices for the phones are $1,099 and $999, respectively.)

The additional zoom gets you just a bit closer and lets you see all that close-up detail without being right next to your subject. 

Elephant Seals along the beach near some rusted debris of a shipwreck.

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Elephant seals were often lounging along the beach adjacent to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. The massive animals can weigh up to 4,500 pounds, but they can move quickly if provoked. A sign at the trailhead warns against taking selfies with the animals. We were sure to give them plenty of space but used the Telephoto lens to get some great close up photos.

A 5X zoom image taken with the iPhone 12 Pro Max Telephoto lens.

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The Telephoto lens captured this bird in flight while showing the rich textures of its feathers.

A bird in flight using the Telephoto lens on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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The Telephoto lens let me capture some distant details that might have been unnoticeable otherwise. Even in the distant rocky point, we can see detail in the rocks and trees.

A surfer hikes out toward Big Flat Creek with his board on his back.

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While the new 65mm Telephoto camera doesn’t compare to a classic DSLR portrait lens like Canon’s 70-200mm, it does let you zoom in tighter on portraits, and it feels more like a classic portrait focal length than you might expect from a phone.

Paul gives his feet a rest along the Lost Coast Trail.

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The Smart HDR & Deep Fusion combo

Apple’s new Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion processing technology, which are on all four rear cameras and the front-facing camera on the iPhone 12 Pro and the Pro Max, are a significant part of Apple’s camera success puzzle. 

Deep Fusion’s advanced machine learning enables some pretty noticeable pixel-by-pixel manipulation of photos. In the below Portrait Mode selfie taken with the front-facing camera, you can see some incredible ultra-fine detail and significant noise reduction. Even the texture in the backpack straps is visible, as well as details as small as the fibers in my bandana.

A Portrait Mode selfie with the front-facing camera on iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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You can really see below how the pixel by pixel processing of Deep Fusion and Smart HDR brings out details across the array of tones in the images. Smart HDR 3 helps to bring out the bright setting sun here and the shadow detail in the foreground rocks and the birds. Even the sea spray from the crashing waves is crisp with fine, rich details.

Sunset along the coast, shot on iPhone 12 Pro Max with the Telephoto lens.

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Even at midday, you can see detail in Paul’s face as he looks out over the Pacific Ocean in the image below. The shadows have a gradient that graduates from brighter blacks in the sunlight, all the way to a true black point, with details and textures throughout.  

In this image you can see the detail is preserved in the background with a wide tonal range and detail in the waves and a well-exposed blue sky with rich color.

Paul looks out over the Pacific Ocean from a bluff along the Lost Coast Trail in Humboldt County.

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In this photo, Smart HDR 3 gives a true-to-life white balance in beautiful light at sunset. The sea foam is crisp and rich in detail from the foreground back to the crashing waves.

The tide rolls in at Mattole Beach along the Lost Coast. Shot on the iPhone 12 Pro Max with the ultrawide lens.

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Waiting for ProRAW 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a camera ready for any photography adventure. The ability to have such a compact and capable camera in a remote wilderness like the Lost Coast was a huge benefit. With Apple’s ProRAW file format coming later this year, we’re sure to see the juiced-up benefits of the hardware/software combo paired with more powerful post-processing abilities.

I wished I had taken my DSLR with me only a few times. I particularly missed my 100-400mm zoom lens and the ability to get really great dark sky star photos, but I didn’t regret not having to lug it along with me.

Once again, the cameras on this iPhone feel more like the sum of many interlocking parts and a step closer to feeling comfortable without my DSLR. 

Want to learn more? Compare cameras, performance, battery life and more between Apple’s newest Pro phones and last year’s models: the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, and the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max.

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The Lost Coast is otherworldly with iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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