Gear Review: iPhone 5 Camera

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iPhone 5 (left) shows less noise and contrast than iPhone 4S (right).
 

 
Over the past two years, my 12-year-old daughter has become slightly obsessive about photography. Her hand-me-down iPhone 4 is a constant companion, and about a year ago my Olympus E-P3 camera disappeared into the pink room down the hall, never to be used by me again. (Oh well, the compact mirrorless camera is better scaled for smaller fingers, anyway.) As the memory card on the Olympus fills up, she hands it to me to empty, and there are now about 5,000 images sitting in a folder on my hard drive, none of which have been seen since she shot them. Meanwhile, on Instagram, her 1,280 followers can view 1,782 pictures that she’s posted.

This observation has been very much on my mind over the last few months as I’ve been testing the iPhone 5 camera against the iPhone 4S, a Canon point and shoot, and a DSLR. Technical features and quality are certainly important, but the largest considerations when buying a camera — or selecting a phone with camera in mind — are how and when you’ll use it and what you want to do with the images. If your photos are going to sit on a hard drive, unseen and unshared, what’s the point in buying a secondary shooter? In today’s digital universe, connectivity is clearly trumping quality.

You’re living this experience yourself, I’m sure. Most of us are. The bottom is dropping out of the middle of the camera market as phone cameras get better and people abandon the casual point and shoot for iPhones at one end and enthusiast shooters on the other. Indeed, this is more than a trend — it’s a fundamental paradigm change. No longer are most people thinking about what camera they’ll buy. Rather, the mindset is why buy another camera when the one on my phone is just fine? And beyond fine, the quality of phone images rivals point and shoots — and perhaps more germaine, is improving at a much faster rate than the connectivity of standalone cameras. If my business was built around $300 pocket cameras, I’d be worried.

The other big factor in this consideration is the phone ecosystem. There are differences between Canon and Nikon cameras, but they’re miniscule compared to the differences between Apple and Android operating systems. As Android’s apps and feature sets grow, the gap between the two worlds becomes less stark, but still, the experience of each varies, and the interface and ease of use will be as important to many people as the photos themselves. With the increasing integration between your phone and actual biological, DNA-based life, there’s a lot more to the decision than megapixels.

200% enlargement of upper left corner of above photo. iPhone 5, left, and 4S, right.


Expectations for the iPhone 5 camera were pretty high, and many were disappointed when the new model arrived this fall. (That’s one problem with expectations.) The reason is that the basic specs are the same as on the 4S: 8 megapixel sensor, f/2.4 aperture, 3,264 by 2,448 backside-illuminated sensor. At first blush, there’s little to get excited about it.

But the iPhone 5 camera turns out to be more than the sum of its specs. Five things stand out as better in comparison with the 4S:

  • The phone’s new A6 processor is significantly faster than the A5 in the 4S. Apple claims the 5 shoots photos 40 percent than the 4S, and while I don’t have the ability to measure this in milliseconds, holding them side by side and shooting the same scene at the same time, the 5 is always faster than the 4S. Sometimes there’s the merest lag, but others it’s significant, as the 4S struggles to find its focus point, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the gap was greater than 40 percent. Whatever the numbers, in the real world you’ll capture a lot shots with the faster 5 that you’d most certainly miss with the slower 4S.
  • Pictures shot in low light look better. Digital noise created from low-light situations is the bugaboo of camera phones, and while it’s still one of the biggest weaknesses of iPhonography, the 5′s processor and aggressive noise-reduction give it significantly better results than the 4S.
  • Colors are truer to life. In ideal situations — good light, a nice range of colors — it can be difficult to distinguish between photos shot with the 5 vs the 4S, but when the scene is more challenging, the image representation diverges. The 5 photos are cleaner, less muddy, have better contrast, and display a more accurate color palette. With the 4S, at least the one I have, there’s a tendency for colors to shift to magenta, giving a faint pinkish tinge.
  • The lens is the same, but the 5′s is covered with a more durable sapphire crystal. Because the lens is so small, any bit of wear will be magnified dramatically, marring your pictures.
  • The front-facing camera is much-improved, with 720p video and 1.2 megapixel photos. You won’t shoot your Christmas card pictures with it, but compared to the 4S’s almost unintelligible blurs, it’s a world of difference.

Despite the improvements, there’s still room to make things better. On my wish list are:

  • Better low-light performance, with less noise. That’s job one.
  • Lower noise throughout. A few weeks ago, I posted a shot of the Grand Canyon for Wallpaper Wednesday taken with my DLSR. I nearly used the same shot taken with the 5, but excessive noise at the larger dimensions prevented it.
  • Elimination of the “purple haze” lens flare that can occur when pointing the camera into the sun. I’ve only experienced it once or twice, but still.
  • A better flash. I supposed any flash is better than no flash, but looking at the blown-out, unnatural shots I’ve taken with the iPhone 5, I’m not so sure.
  • More manual controls. Aftermarket apps like ProCamera and KitCam let you set white balance, ISO, and a lot more, but it would be better if these options were built into the native camera app.
  • The panorama feature available with iOS 6 is terrific, but it only works when the camera is held vertically. Aftermarket apps allow either orientation, and so should Apple. Also, exposure is set with the first part of the panorama — if you’re shooting a sunset, as I did the other night, the middle of your shot might be overexposed.
  • RAW files. Please, give us the option of shooting unprocessed RAW instead of just jpeg.

 
My head to head tests confirmed what I was already understanding intuitively: The iPhone 5 has an excellent camera. Image quality rivals that of point and shoots, while other factors (connectivity, processing apps, etc.) make it a clear winner. It can’t come close to the beautiful images produced by DLSRs, but it would foolish to think otherwise. And while the stats suggest marginal improvements over the 4S, in the real world they’re much more significant.

I can’t begin to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do about cameras and phones, but I can tell you what we’ve done. Photography is my business, and the faster speeds alone made switching to the 5 worth it for me. As for my wife, she’s tired of the comparatively lousy photos produced by her 4 (not the 4S) and is buying the 5 specifically because of the camera.

As for my daughter, the other day we were having the what-do-you-want-do-when-you-grow-up discussion. At 15, my son is already focused on becoming a director and has been researching film schools for over a year. My daughter, though, is just 12 and still delightfully a little kid. But when I asked her this time, she didn’t hesitate. “I want to be a photographer,” she said.

And then she went back to Instagramming.

Below, the iPhone 5 is the first in each set of pictures, followed by the iPhone 4S. All photos are shown as shot, with no adjustments.

Closeup at 200 percent, iPhone 5, left, iPhone 4S, right

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