Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

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Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro MaxPutting the new iPhone 13 Pro Max through its paces.

"What camera did you shoot that with?" If you want to see a photographer's blood boil, this might be the perfect question to ask. But let’s be honest: the camera we use does play a role in our ability to capture great photos, just maybe not in the way most people think it does.

The best camera is the camera that lets us discover a moment, frame it, and then capture it. If we agree on this, then the best camera is one that is accessible, simple to use, and quite frankly, one that gets out of the way. Whether it's a top of the line mirrorless full frame camera or the camera built into our phone, upon closer inspection, we'd see that if a camera were to give a photographer a creative upper hand, it would only be because it shares these fundamental qualities.

I think as seasoned photographers, we inherently know this. But on a weekly basis, I have multiple conversations with aspiring photographers who still nervously wonder what expensive gear they need to buy in order to get started. In most cases, it boils down to “can I just take watch photos with my phone??” Rest assured, my answer is always an encouraging and resounding yes.

Having spent the past week playing with the newly released iPhone 13 Pro Max, it felt like the right time to put it to the test and show off what the camera in my (and pretty much everyone else's) pocket can truly do.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max


This week's challenge

Whether you're rocking a new iPhone 13 or any other smart phone with a built-in camera, let's see your best mobile watch photos! Remember to tag #watchstudies to share your work with the community!


Can a phone’s camera take watch photos?

As you’ve already heard, the answer is yes. But like any tool, there are some basic things to keep in mind when shooting photos with your phone. To demonstrate, I thought I would take the iPhone 13 Pro Max on a tour of my favorite watch shots and see how it measures up to my usual cameras.

6 tips to improve your watch photography flatlaysA flatlay taken with my Fujifilm X-T2.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’ve written tutorials on how to shoot flatlays, table shots, and pocket shots. So today, I’m going to revisit each of these tutorials again, but this time, shoot them with just my iPhone. Let’s go!

The flatlay

Those who know me, know that this is one of my favorite shot styles to do. Something about the wabi sabi nature of curating chaos just brings me to my happy place.

Photographically, it’s also not a very demanding shot, so it felt like the right place to start today’s tour. You can shoot this handheld holding your phone over the composition, though for me, I’ve mounted my phone to my overhead rig using the MagSafe tripod mount by Moment.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

And here’s how the shot came out, after editing with Vanta, my personal Lightroom preset pack:

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

This was shot using the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s 23mm f1.5 Wide lens (also known as the 1x Photo mode). The iPhone Pro Max also features 2 other lenses: a 13mm f1.8 Ultra Wide lens (0.5x Photo mode) as well as a 77mm f2.8 Telephoto lens (3x Photo mode).

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro MaxImage courtesy of "All Apple iPhone 13 and 13 Pro camera upgrades: Explained", published by DPReview.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

While I didn’t expect the iPhone to have much trouble with this shot, I did observe a few nuances that helped me get the most out of the iPhone Pro’s 3 lens system.

There are essentially 2 ways I could have shot this to get the absolute best results and sharpest details. The first way would be to shoot using the Wide (1x) lens with the phone fairly close to the table top. In my case, the phone was about 18” from the table (the lowest my overhead rig could go), and I ended up cropping in quite a bit in post.

The second way would be to shoot using the 3x mode from a higher position. However, while testing, I learned that there’s a minimum distance required between the lens and the subject in order for the Telephoto lens to kick in (for me, it seemed like roughly 2 feet). If you want to shoot closer than that minimum distance, the iPhone uses the Wide lens and digitally zooms in to 3x, which results in a photo that is less sharp.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro MaxA sharpness comparison between shooting with the Telephoto lens (top), Wide lens at 3x (middle), and Wide lens at 1x (bottom).

In other words, if you have the ability to shoot over 2 feet over your flatlay, use the Telephoto lens so that you can finish with a higher resolution photo (since you wouldn’t need to crop in post). For most people though, including everyone whose phone doesn’t have a Telephoto lens, shooting with the Wide lens at 1x and closer to the table will yield the best results. Depending on your composition, you just may need to crop the photo in post.

The table shot

How to recreate the table watch shotA table shot taken with my Fujifilm X100V.

The table shot was one of the earliest shot styles that I put some concerted effort into studying. As far as watch shots go, table shots are one of the best to showcase a wealth of depth and detail. How the iPhone 13 Pro Max was going to handle all that depth was what I was most interested in seeing.

For this shot, I wanted to shoot with the lens that would give me the shallowest depth of field, which would be the 23mm f1.5 Wide lens. Without going into the technical nuances of equivalence, it’s important to note that the f1.5 aperture here is approximately equivalent to a f6.8 on most dedicated cameras. That said, this is widest aperture any iPhone has ever offered and, as I found through my testing, is still plenty to work with.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

As the table shot recipe calls for, I staged my scene with items in my foreground, middle ground, and background. In fact, knowing that I was shooting with a f6.8 equivalent aperture, I strategically staged my set in a way that would intentionally augment the sense of depth in my shot.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

As you can see, I essentially stretched the distance between my foreground and middle ground by placing certain objects really close to the lens. I also used coffee beans to form a “trail” that leads the eyes from the foreground to the middle ground (where the watch is) and helps to accentuate the focus contrast. Lastly, I ensured that the background had items with subtly noticeable details (like the distressed leather briefcase) to again emphasize that contrast in focus as you move further back.

And here’s the final shot with Vanta applied:

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Overall, I was impressed by the sharpness of the details, and the softness of the bokeh in the foreground and background. I was most skeptical about whether the iPhone would be able to pull this style of shot off, but was pleasantly surprised by the results.

The pocket shot

6 tips to perfect the pocket shotA pocket shot taken with my Fujifilm X-T2.

The next shot I was eager to try was a pocket shot. Complemented by layers of folds and rich textures, the pocket shot is not only a beautiful way to showcase a watch on the wrist, but also a staple of the watch photography community. What I was most interested in seeing was how the iPhone would handle all the intricate details that come with a close-up pocket shot.

Similar to my learnings from the flatlay, this shot can be accomplished by using the Wide or the Telephoto lens (as long as you’re further than 2 feet from the camera). In my case, I decided to use the Wide lens again, primarily because I needed to be closer to the iPhone to hit the shutter.

On that note, the solo pocket shot requires a bit of setup. Firstly, I setup my phone on a mount and tripod. Secondly, since I didn’t have a remote for your phone, I had to put my phone’s camera on a timed shutter (I chose the 10 second timer to give myself enough time to get back into position).

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Thirdly, and somewhat optionally, since I wanted to make sure I was framing the shot properly, capturing the hands at their optimal positions, and landing the flecto on the crystal, I cast my phone to my computer screen so that I could see what my camera was seeing (you can do this by just using QuickTime and a standard charging cable).

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Once I had all this in place, the rest was somewhat simple. I just needed to wait til my watch’s second hand was at 20 seconds, hit the 10s shutter timer, and then get back into position. I know this sounds complicated, but once I had done it enough times, it became a well orchestrated dance.

And here’s the final shot, edited with Vanta:

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Out of all the shots I took for this tutorial, this was the one I was most impressed by. This shot felt like the perfect showcase for how far phone cameras have come (the iPhone’s cameras in particular here) and proof that one’s choice of camera really doesn’t hinder the ability to create great photos.

Bonus: the macro shot

I know, I said I was only going to test 3 shot styles out, but with all the fanfare around the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s new macro mode, I just had to give it a try.

Of course, I’m no expert on macro watch photos, let alone shooting them with a phone camera, so I had to check in with my buddy Brent (aka @this.is.watchable) for a little primer.

@this.is.watchable on Instagram@this.is.watchable

The main question on my mind was how shooting macro was any different from shooting other styles of photos. What should I do differently?

According to Brent: “I like to find the angles and perspectives that are impossible (or unlikely) to be caught with the naked eye. The elements I like to focus on showcasing are texture, layers (applied or recessed indices, logos, etc). And if I can catch light in an epic way on one of these elements, then I know I have found something that people will enjoy looking at. I also find shooting on a slight angle and allowing the layers to reveal themselves gives a great perspective on these shots (as opposed to shooting straight on).”

@this.is.watchable on Instagram@this.is.watchable

This clicked for me as soon as he said it. After all, macros can’t just be about shooting something really, really closely. It’s about revealing something new most people wouldn’t see.

Knowing this, the next obvious question on my mind was… how?!

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro MaxThe iPhone 13 Pro Max in macro mode.

“The technique I use is that I hold the phone in one hand and also hold the watch in the other hand. I’m constantly moving the two around hunting for cool angles, interesting light, etc. It’s a very fast process. But with both the phone and the watch in constant motion, it’s easy to quickly find magical angles and light.”

Okay, got it. Armed with these new insights and inspired by Brent’s brilliant work (worth a follow!), I put the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s new macro mode to the test.

The way the macro mode works is a little magical. As I get closer and closer to the watch, the iPhone automatically switches to the 13mm f1.8 Ultra Wide lens and allows me to get up to 2cm away from the watch while maintaining the 1x framing (I can also at that point switch to a wide 0.5x crop or a closer 3x crop, but it’ll continue using the Ultra Wide lens). As I back off from it, it’ll switch back to the Wide lens.

Being so intensely close to the watch meant that every subtle movement was amplified. As such, rather than hold the watch in my hand as Brent suggested, I placed the watch on the table, and even leaned my phone on something so I could shoot with more stability.

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

And after an afternoon of tests, here are a few of my favorite macro shots:

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Shooting watch photography with the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Admittedly, one of the biggest challenges with shooting these macro shots was avoiding the reflection of the iPhone in the dial. With the iPhone’s glossy camera plate and how intimately close I was to the crystal, it was practically unavoidable against the black dial of my Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight. With the white dials of my Seiko SPB213 and Cartier Santos, or the skeleton dial of my Zenith Defy Classic, it was much easier to hide the reflection.

But all in all, while I have more studying to do on what makes a great macro watch photo (I’m coming for ya Brent!), I’m very impressed by the early results. The macro capabilities of the iPhone 13 Pro Max is seriously mind-blowing.

General notes on shooting with an iPhone

While I was putting the iPhone 13 Pro Max through its paces, there were a couple common things I kept in mind across all my tests that helped me get the best results. Here's a list of them:

  • Starting with the iPhone 12, the Pro models started offering the ability to shoot photos in RAW format, aptly named Apple ProRAW. With all of the shots showcased today, I made sure I had RAW enabled on my iPhone 13 Pro Max, which gave me a lot more control during the editing process.
  • Whether I was shooting RAW or not, I noticed that the iPhone naturally captures photos with more warmth and color saturation. When editing the photos, I found myself needing to turn the Saturation and Vibrance settings down more than usual. The iPhone 13 now includes the ability to make global tweaks to the way the camera captures photos (called Photographic Styles), so I could have also dialed down the warmth that way.
  • I found that for the darker style of photos I was shooting, the iPhone's camera tended to brighten my photos a lot by default. To compensate for this, I manually lowered the Exposure setting in the camera app while shooting.
  • Images captured by the iPhone seemed to have some amount of sharpening applied already, so when editing, I turned the Texture and Clarity settings down more than usual.

Your turn!

Whether you're rocking a new iPhone 13 or any other smart phone with a built-in camera, let's see your best mobile watch photos! Remember to tag #watchstudies to share your work with the community!

And if you've made it this far in this article, THANK YOU! Post a 📱 in the comments of today's Instagram post to let me know!


Thanks for joining another edition of Sunday Study Club! If you're interested in learning more, here are some related tutorials you may enjoy as well:

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3 comments

Verne Ho

@Luc Hey Luc! Thanks for checking out the tutorial! With the iPhone, I pretty much just put my faith in the autofocus. My watch was centered in frame and there weren’t other elements competing for focus, so it was a little easier. If I’m able to stand still though (like for the flatlay), I’ll do a focus lock by tapping and holding the dial of the watch. Couldn’t do it for the pocket shot since I had to move to hit the shutter!

And thanks for the asking about the lighting setup! I described the setup a bit in this post: https://www.instagram.com/p/CUXqK41JuAj/. For the flatlay, it was pretty similar to what I described in this lighting tutorial: https://watchstudies.co/blogs/notes/3-ways-to-light-a-watch-photo. I’ll try to do more lighting breakdowns in the future!

Luc Albert

Also would be nice to see where your light source(s) are located for these shots.

Luc Albert

Hi,

Love this article. I have a question about the pocket shot – how do you make sure the focus is right? Do you simply trust auto focus or do an AE/AF lock before stepping in front of the phone?

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