The camera on the cheaper iPhone XR can do almost everything that the dual camera on the iPhone XS can, except when it comes to two important tasks.

Cesar Salza / CNET

If you’re deciding between the new iPhone XS and its cheaper, more colorful sibling, your choice ultimately comes down to the camera. The iPhone XS ($999) and iPhone XR ($749) share a lot of the same specs, but the XS has two lenses on the back, while the iPhone XR only has one. Is the second lens — which enables the 2x optical zoom that’s unavailable on the XR — worth it? That’s the $250 question.

We took both phones on a photoshoot through San Francisco to find out the differences and help you decide between Apple’s newest iPhones.

General photos and video are neck and neck

Looking at the results on the actual phone screens may be misleading because the two phones use different screen technology. The iPhone XS has an OLED display, which shows richer colors and deeper blacks than the iPhone XR’s LCD screen, which has a slightly different color temperature and less contrast.

But if you’re looking at them off the phones, on the same computer screen for example, you’ll have a hard time noticing any differences when it comes to your everyday photos of people, landscapes or objects. That’s because in theory they should be exactly the same. The iPhone XR has a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with an f1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization. This happens to be the iPhone XS’ main lens too — the one you’ll use to take the majority of your shots that aren’t in portrait mode or zoom. And both have the same image sensors, the same software for processing and the same new Smart HDR feature that Apple added to the cameras in its 2018 iPhones: the XS, XS Max and XR. (The XS Max has the exact same dual rear camera as the XS, too — it’s just got a larger screen.)

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This sunset shot looks great on both phones: the colors in the sky look vibrant, while the city on the bottom looks sharp despite the challenging light.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

And the results are impressive: colors look vibrant, highlights and shadows are well balanced, and the shot looks sharp. The same applies to video. Both the iPhone XS and the XR are among the best phones we’ve tested for video, whether you’re a budding cinematographer or just taking fun clips of your kids.

Winner: Draw

Selfies: Same front cameras, too

Selfies should also turn out looking exactly the same. Both the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS have a 7-megapixel front-facing camera that’s able to perceive depth. This “TrueDepth” camera, as Apple calls it, is what enables the FaceID unlock feature. It also forms the backbone of the iPhone’s portrait mode for selfies.

Although last year’s iPhone X was the only one in Apple’s stable to make use of multiple lighting effects right on the camera interface, the iPhone XR can access all the same settings as the iPhone XS on the front camera, which means there really is no difference.

Winner: Draw

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Both phones have the same depth sensing front-facing camera for portrait mode selfies.

Cesar Salza/CNET

Zoom: The big differentiator

Here’s where you may start to notice a difference between these two phones. The iPhone XS uses that second, telephoto lens as an optical 2x zoom and then switches to digital zoom beyond that. The iPhone XR uses digital zoom exclusively.

This means photos and videos at the same 2x magnification will look sharper on the iPhone XS than on the iPhone XR. That’s because the iPhone XR relies on software alone to crop into the shot, rather than a lens that can capture higher quality natively.

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The one shot on the iPhone XS looks sharper at 5X zoom because of the second telephoto lens.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Since the iPhone XR doesn’t have that optical zoom, you’re limited to a maximum of 5x total zoom. The iPhone XS can go up to 10x using a combination of optical and digital zoom.

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The iPhone XS can go up to 10x zoom, whereas the iPhone XR can only go up to 5x.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

It’s also a lot easier to use the zoom on XS. The iPhone XS has a 2x shortcut on the camera interface that allows you to switch to the closer telephoto lens with the press of a button (basically, toggling between the two lenses). The button also turns into a slider tool to zoom in up to 10x one-handed, which is especially helpful for when you’re shooting video. The iPhone XR requires you to manually pinch-to-zoom, which means you’ll need both hands to zoom in, and the effect isn’t as smooth as the slider.

Winner: iPhone XS, hands down

Portraits: No dogs allowed

If you’re on the camera interface, the “Portrait” option will look the same on both phones, but they achieve the blurred background effect in very different ways. The iPhone XS uses the second telephoto lens to capture the subject, and uses information from both the wide-angle and telephoto lens, combined with software, to discern what to keep in focus, and what to blur out in the shot. The iPhone XR only has that single wide-angle lens, so it’s relying on software to separate the background and foreground.

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The iPhone XR uses the wide-angle lens for portrait mode, whereas the XS uses that second telephoto lens, which comes in closer to the subject.

Cesar Salza/CNET

At first glance, the biggest difference between portrait mode shots on these phones is the distance from  which they were taken. The one shot on the iPhone XR looks like it was taken a lot further away than the one shot on the XS even though they were taken from the same distance. That’s because the XR uses the wide-angle lens, which can fit more in the shot, while the XS uses the telephoto lens, which appears to be taken from a closer angle.

But getting the effect to work on the XR was more of a challenge than on the XS which is able to lock in the yellow portrait mode box almost on command. With the XR I found myself readjusting my distance constantly to get it to work. And when you have squirmy subjects (also known as kids) those extra seconds are key.

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Portrait mode on the iPhone XR didn’t activate fast enough to capture the toddler in motion, so only the XS was able to produce the blurred background effect.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

But once it does get it right, the XR produces pleasing portraits that rival the ones on the XS. The blur effect on the XS appears to be a bit more natural, especially around the edges of the subject. But subjects on the ones shot on the XR appear to be brighter and sharper. Plus you get a wider angle to work with.

The downside of having that wider angle on the Phone XR is that it can distort the edges of the shot — or faces if the person you’re photographing gets too close to the lens.

Portrait mode on the XR is also limited to humans only while the iPhone XS can tackle humans, animals, plants, food and pretty much any inanimate object (though it still struggles with certain objects). Apple may add this feature to the XR with a future software update, and you can install a third party app that will allow it, but for now you’ll get a “no person detected” sign on the camera interface if you try it on anything other that a human face.

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The iPhone XR’s face detection can’t recognize my dog’s face.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

The exception to this rule is when there’s a person in the shot alongside the pet. When I put my dog next to my toddler in the frame, the iPhone XR was able to capture them both and correctly blur out the background. But it took a lot of adjusting and a lot of patience. The XS got my subjects in portrait mode almost immediately.

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The iPhone XR is only able to capture animals in portrait mode when there’s a human in the shot.

Vanessa Hand Orellana / CNET

Both phones have editing tools in portrait mode that let you adjust the intensity of the blur before and after you take the shot. They also have some lighting effects. But the iPhone XR doesn’t include the dramatic stage light effect, which blacks out the background, or stage light mono, which does the same in black and white.

Winner: iPhone XS, but the XR is good enough in many situations if you take the time to frame it right

Low-light portraits

Here’s where portrait mode on the XR shines. Because it’s using the main lens with the wider aperture, it’s able to let in more light in dimly lit scenarios.

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Low-light portrait mode shots look brighter on the Phone XR, because it’s using the wider angle lens with a wider aperture that’s able to let in more light.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

The same portrait shot on the XS looks noisy and dark compared to the one shot on the XR which looks brighter and sharper.

Winner: iPhone XR

The overall winner is…

Ultimately it comes down to what you’ll be using the phone for. The iPhone XR camera is going to do right by you if 99.9 percent of your shots are taken in automatic mode. There’s not a significant difference in image quality between these two phones for general photos and videos and you may be able to save yourself the $250 or more if you’re basing your decision on the camera alone.

But the iPhone XS is your go-to camera if, like me, you’re taking a lot of portraits of kids and pets who don’t like to hold a pose. Or if you use the zoom in stills and videos.

And then there are the other noncamera features to consider: The XS (and XS Max) has a nicer OLED screen, and comes in a larger (or smaller) 5.8- or 6.5-inch display compared to the 6.1-inch LCD screen on the iPhone XR. The XS has a stainless steel frame and a higher water resistance, while the XR has more color options to choose from.

Either way you can’t go wrong. Both of these phones have impressive cameras capable of producing printworthy shots.

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