4) Though the iPhone 5 camera (second from left) is still best-in-class, other phones (such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, left) shoot just as well, in decent lighting.
Updated: October 4, 2012 10:42PM
A signature is something that uniquely defines a creator. In that sense, I regard the iPhone’s camera as its signature feature. Apple frequently described themselves as sitting at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Doesn’t that define the nature of an exceptional phone camera? Beautiful photos from a absurdly thin device like the iPhone are the result of photons being beaten into whimpering submission by serene, advanced engineering.
They’re also the result of a computer company that truly understands and honors the value of photography in people’s daily lives. Given that your phone is the camera you’re most likely to have at hand when something unexpected and wonderful happens, wouldn’t you want it to capture photographs that you can hang on your wall? Instead of just crummy snapshots that are barely even good enough for Facebook?
The iPhone 4 was a breakthrough for phone photography. For the first time ever, a phone that I would define as “mainstream” was capable of taking photos that I’d describe as “real photos.” And then the iPhone 4S camera delivered just as big a leap forward in picture quality.
My Christmas card photo last year? Shot with the iPhone 4S when an opportunity presented itself. Any other phone would have shot a photo that could only be used as a reminder to come back to this place later with a real camera.
So I’m always eager to figure out how good the camera in a new iPhone is. The iPhone 5’s camera has the same above-the-marquee specs as the one in the 4S: an 8 megapixel image sensor, with backside illumination for fab low-light performance. The improvements aren’t the kind that produce an immediate “Wow!” (with one major exception ... but I don’t want to get ahead of myself). They’re the kind that make themselves known after a lot of experimentation.
Over the past week, I’ve gone out on a bunch of walks with my pockets filled with cameras. I shot a wide variety of identical scenes with the whole menagerie: the iPhone 5, 4S, and 4; the Samsung Galaxy S III; and my Panasonic GX1 compact system camera.
These tests left me with a four broad conclusions about the iPhone 5’s camera:
1) It’s clearly an improvement over the 4S. But don’t expect a miraculous step up. The differences between two photos of the same scene were usually subtle. Usually, the photo taken by the iPhone 5 had smaller areas of blown highlights than the one shot with the iPhone 4S. Otherwise, color and clarity were practically identical.
2) When shooting scenes with halfway-decent lighting, the iPhone 5 and the Samsung GSIII are in a dead heat as cameras. It varied from shot to shot. Sometimes I preferred the iPhone 5 version, sometimes I clearly preferred the Samsung, and sometimes, I just couldn’t tell the difference between the two. So I’m going to call that matchup a draw...but only when the lighting is acceptable.
3) The iPhone is still the king of low-light photography. Although the GS III performed like a camera when it was outdoors or in a room with halfway-decent lighting, it turned back into a mere cameraphone when it was confronted with any kind of a low-light challenge. Whereas the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 maintained their high standards.
4) There’s still a vast difference between even the best cameraphone and a “real” camera like the Panasonic GX1. As good as the iPhone 4S and 5 are, there was only shot in the whole set in which the Panasonic image wasn’t head-and-shoulders above the others. Even the lone outlier wasn’t a slam-dunk loss for the Panasonic; the camera’s exposure choices were merely conservative.
Otherwise, there are a lot of subtleties — both pro and con — about the iPhone 5’s camera.
Apple says that the iPhone 5 has a new dynamic low-light mode that kicks in when the sensor detects a low-light situation of total, abject desperation. When that happens, the iPhone 5 sacrifices image resolution to boost the sensor’s sensitivity: it combines the light info from four adjoining pixels into one, and then re-interpolates the image back into 8 megapixels.
I went into the laundry room with and shot a bunch of statues on top of the washing machine, with the overhead lights off and an open basement door as the sole source of illumination. Four shots with four phones.
Result: three photos of black rectangles interrupted by a smudge of discolored highlight. And one actual photo, taken with the iPhone 5. Yup, that’s the “wow” effect I mentioned earlier.
Check. But in scenes where the lighting was poor, but not so desperately bad, photos shot with the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4S were very difficult to tell apart. And in some of those low-light scenes, the iPhone 4S actually produced a nicer, brighter image.
(What about the Samsung? It was consistently dead last.)
That’s not a big deal. Even when the iPhone 4S took a better photo, the iPhone 5 image was just as good after a slight tweak of the exposure in any iOS or desktop photo editor.
Alas, I did find one serious problem with the iPhone 5 camera, and I do indeed consider it a big deal. It has to do with that miraculous dynamic low-light shooting mode: the iPhone 5 often uses it when it’s not necessary.
I remind you that I was shooting the exact same scenes with the all of these phones. In many of the test scenes, the iPhone 5 photo was the only one that came out blurry. I took two or three shots...none of the three was clear. The iPhone 4S, the Samsung, even the iPhone 4 produced clean, sharp photos.
Whuhh? What was different about the iPhone 5?
I suspected that the blur was the result of camera shake, and I assembled a little theory that the thinner body was forcing me to hold it awkwardly. But nope, I experienced the same problem even after I retested it inside a thick Otterbox case.
Then, after delaying this review way too many times in search of a solution, I figured it out: the common factor in all of these unusable iPhone 5 images were scenes in which the lighting was poor, but not so poor that I’d expect a camera to need to do anything heroic to produce a useful image. One of the samples was a test shot I’d been making for years: the majestic main reading hall of the Boston Public Library.
In this situation, the other phones and the “real” camera just gritted their teeth and proceeded as normal. The iPhone 5 said “Aha! I have a special mode for exactly this situation!”
The images weren’t “blurry,” so to speak. They were quarter the resolution of the others, with those fewer pixels blown up and interpolated into a 8 megapixel image.
That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. This conclusion seems to fit the evidence provided by the metadata of the troublesome photos.
Whatever the cause, during my testing the iPhone 5 definitely had problems taking a clear, sharp photo in situations that other cameraphones handled without a peep. Even previous iPhones. If the iPhone 5’s special low-light feature is indeed the culprit, I hope Apple introduces an update that causes the phone to use it a little more wisely...or at least lets the user override the low-light feature if they so desire.
Speaking of problems, some iPhone 5 users are complaining about weird purple lens flares that “ruin” some of their shots. I was indeed able to reproduce the phenomenon: if I’m stupid enough to point the iPhone 5 directly into the sun on a clear day, yes, what a surprise, I get an enormous lens flare and it’s purple in color.
I tried the same shots with other cameras. I recorded lens flares that ruined the shot just as triumphantly as the flares on the iPhone 5, except these weren’t purple.
I don’t get it. I admit that the Thing Wot Ruined The Shot in my testing was larger on the iPhone 5 than the Same Thing Wot Ruined The Shot on the other phones. But a wrecked shot is still a wrecked shot. Do these complainers just...not like purple?
But I pride myself on diligence and therefore I duly report that if you enjoy taking photos of the midday sun, perhaps the iPhone 5 isn’t the right phone for you at this particular time.
Apple touted another major improvement to the iPhone 5’s camera: a smart filter integrated into the image signal processor that smooths out the noise in a textureless field (such as snow or sky) while leaving detail in place.
As with the dynamic low-light mode, the smart filter is employed by the iPhone 5 on its own initiative. I found that it does indeed improve the blue skies in photos, but it only diminishes the disruptive artifacts and noise. The sky in a test photo shot with the iPhone 5 wasn’t that much clearer than the same sky shot with the iPhone 4S. And the Samsung’s rendition was actually better than the 5’s. The Panasonic GX1’s images were free from any kind of noise or compression artifacts at all. Another sky shot in another location repeated these same results.
The iPhone 5 also includes some improvements to its video features. Here, your beloved columnist has failed you. I am eagerly obsessive about a phone’s photo features but I can’t crank up the same amount of energy about testing its video capabilities. I did some quick tests which confirmed that the iPhone 5 can take full-resolution photos while it’s shooting video, that the audio is noticeably better (thanks to an upgraded array of microphones across the iPhone’s body), and that its image stabilization can keep up with an idiot chasing after squirrels in a public park.
Many of the advantages of the iPhone 5’s camera are associated with the phone’s basic design. Its CPU is a screamer, and there’s twice as much system memory available to apps. So everything works faster and better. The iPhone 5 can launch the camera app and get itself ready to shoot in much less time than the 4S. Shot-to-shot speed is higher, and it seems to focus more quickly as well.
And another terrific feature — maybe my favorite — is actually a part of iOS 6: a new sweep-panorama shooting mode. It’s the easiest way to shoot panoramas and it’ll be familiar to anyone who’s used a Sony camera in the past couple of years. Just click the shutter button and steadily pan the camera across the scene. A clear guide helps you to keep the camera level as you sweep, and cautions you if you’re moving the camera too fast.
(Tip: don’t “sweep” the camera. Instead, try to just rotate it without moving it away from an imaginary spot on the floor directly below.)
Barely a second after you tap the button again at the end of the sweep, the iPhone hands you a beautiful panorama of up to 28 megapixels in resolution, covering as much as 240 degrees of scenery.
The whole thing is almost foolproof. It produces a gorgeous, seamless image, despite variations in scene lighting from side to side. People can be moving in and out of the scene as you go, too...the iPhone won’t lose its cool and populate your image with ghosts and disembodied heads.
Panoramas previously required you to buy a third party app. My favorite (hands down) has always been AutoStitch Panorama by Cloudburst. iOS 6’s panorama feature is easier to use and it produces images with fewer glitches (such as ghosts and distortion). The only drawback of iOS 6’s panorama feature is that it can only capture a single “stripe” of imagery, whereas AutoStitch can also capture the sky above the horizon, and the ground below it.
iOS 6 panoramas can be shot vertically, too. That’ll come in handy if you find yourself in the presence of the Washington Monument, the Spire of Dublin, or Jeff Goldblum.
Another neat iOS 6 photo feature: Shared Photo Streams. The pictures you shoot and put in the shared stream are pushed out to the iOS 6 devices of the friends and family members you’ve chosen to share that stream with, and you get to see everything they’ve added as well.
Samsung offers a similar feature in the Galaxy S III. On an iPhone, it’s actually useful. Shared Photo Streams is a built-in feature of the tens of millions of different models of iPhone that run iOS 6. How many people do you know carry a GSIII? Right.
I’ve filled a Flickr gallery with a few of those 4-way and 5-way side by side cameraphone comparisons. Check them out and reach your own conclusions about the improvements of the iPhone 5 over its predecessors, and the areas in which the Samsung Galaxy S III keeps up strongly and the areas in which it trips and falls on its face.
I originally posted these comparisons without identifying the cameras. I invited readers to tell me which shots were their favorites. In the blind test, people often seemed to like the Samsung’s photos as much as the iPhone 5’s.
But overall, a week’s worth of responses to photos taken across a wide variety of conditions seem to validate the iPhone 5 as the best phone camera of the lot. The only difference in 2012 is that the iPhone is no longer the runaway winner in image quality.
And as an imaging device, the iPhone has advantages that go above and beyond its technical capabilities. The best-in-class photo apps are all either iOS-exclusive, or arrive on iOS first. Apple’s own iPhoto app is a stunner. The best Android photo editors — and many of them are quite good — can’t quite compete.
But I’ll end with praise for the iPhone 5’s technical capabilities, anyway. The dynamic low-light feature is a potential source of trouble, yes. It’s the only element of the iPhone’s camera experience that doesn’t improve on the predecessor. Unlike the Android devices I’ve tried, the iPhone 5 is a “real” camera, all the time...not just in good lighting and fair weather.
This is Part 1 of a three-part look at the iPhone 5. Next up: the new widescreen display.