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How the iPhone’s New Ultrawide Lens Actually Works (and When You Should Use It)

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When I was in film school, we still used actual film cameras for the first couple of semesters. And the first camera I used was a manually wound 16mm Bolex that featured three interchangeable lenses: a 50-mm telephoto lens, a 25-mm standard lens, and 10-mm wide-angle lens.

If you look on the back of an iPhone 11 Pro, you’ll see three little lenses arranged at a triangle in the corner. Those lenses, small compared to the trio stuck on the front of my old Bolex, correlate almost perfectly with that classic camera’s hardware. The Pro boasts lenses rated at a 52-mm, 26-mm, and 13-mm focal length (the standard iPhone 11 has only the 26- and 13-millimeter lenses). In case you don’t know much about photography, I’ll cut to the chase: That’s amazing.

A camera with a 13-mm focal length is considered very wide angle, which means it has a huge field of view. A lens with a longer focal length has a narrower field of view and more magnification, while a shorter focal length is a much wider, less detailed shot. In fact, the iPhone 11’s ultrawide lens captures a 120-degree field of view. For comparison, the average human eye has a 135-degree field of view.

So why is a superwide-angle lens such a big deal? In short, it allows for better pictures of big, open scenes and of tight, close-up tableaus.

The ultrawide lens creates four times the viewing area of older model cameras, allowing you to create images you could never have managed before, like staggering landscape photos with almost the entire view your eye sees captured in the frame. The wide lens also means a better field of view closer to the lens, such as pictures from the party last weekend. With the wide-angle lens, those group photos can now actually fit everyone even if your arms aren’t that long or there’s no space to step back.

There are a few drawbacks to note here. The iPhone’s ultrawide lens lacks optical image stabilization, so if you have shaky hands or are in a moving vehicle, you’ll get blurry shots. Also, perspective can seem off with wide-angle lenses, especially in the hands of an amateur photographer. Objects quite close to the lens may appear to be unnaturally large or appear curved, while objects more removed from the lens can seem too distant in relation to the foreground. Everything might look a little stretched.

(This photo of Harry Styles was not taken with an iPhone, but hopefully you get the point.)

Since the release of the latest lens (and the iPhone to which it’s attached), plenty of people have been having fun with the thing.

TikTok celeb Mourad shared a stunning image with both land, water, and sky that could never have been captured by previous iPhones, with his own legs at the bottom of the frame for perspective.

Photographer Scott Stein, with CNET, used the ultrawide lens to create some stunning cityscapes of New York, including both images with expansive views and with uniquely distorted perspectives. Patrick Holland, also with CNET, used his iPhone 11 to demonstrate how the wide-angle lens can create drama as it creates depth by taking a downward-looking shot of his cat’s face in a food bowl.

Travel photographer Austin Mann used his iPhone 11’s ultrawide-angle lens to show how the larger capture area allows for brilliant framing featuring both distant, expansive backgrounds and detailed foreground image capture.

And not surprisingly, it has occurred to many that the iPhone 11’s ultrawide lens can make certain objects appear larger than they actually are. Fortunately, so far, most photographers have used a banana to make their point.

How the iPhone’s New Ultrawide Lens Works, and What It’s For