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Product Review: Apple iPhone 4S Camera
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Product Review: Apple iPhone 4S Camera

A photographer's serious look at the smart phone that's killing stand-alone compact cameras

Photography purists may scoff, but snapshooters as well as more serious photographers around the world are chucking their stand-alone compact cameras in favor of the Apple iPhone 4S. To find out why, I spent several weeks shooting with one. Here's what I discovered.



Are stand-alone compact digital cameras still relevant? The Apple iPhone 4S, with its 8MP sensor, easy sharing abilities and thousands of photography-related apps that effectively let you create your own custom camera (which happens to live in your smart phone), made a huge dent in the compact camera market. In fact—let's be blunt—in the final months of 2011, compact digital camera sales tanked while smart phone sales skyrocketed.
Over the past year, the iPhone was the most popular camera on the photo sharing site Flickr, outpacing uploads of photos shot with the most popular Canon and Nikon DSLRs!


[UPDATE, December 28, 2012: How does the Apple iPhone 5's camera compare to the 4S? They both use the same sensor, so you can expect that the image quality shown below from the iPhone 4S will carry over to the iPhone 5.]



It is no wonder that  many camera manufacturers are putting Wi-Fi (and in one case, the Android Operating System) in the latest crop of cameras announced at PMA@CES last week. Smart phones, with the Apple iPhone 4S leading the charge, are poised to change the photo industry and how we relate to photographs as significantly as iTunes revolutionized the way we buy and listen to music. 

 

Sharing: The iPhone gives you six ways to share your photos, with apps such as Instagram giving you access to entire online communities that didn't exist a year ago.


The reasons so many snapshooters (and even some more serious shooters) are ditching their stand-alone compacts in favor of smart phones are compelling:

  • Apps! You can customize your iPhone's camera by downloading programs that are free or cost just a buck or two. Add filter effects, basic editing and much more.
  • Easy Sharing: Within seconds of taking a picture, you can tweet it, text it, or post it on Facebook. You can blast the message “look at what I'm doing right now” to your entire social network.
  • Image quality: It's getting better. Much better. My old iPhone 3 had a 2MP sensor and produced OK results for screen resolution but that was about it; the latest iPhone has an 8MP sensor, and it aced my image quality test (see below).
  • It's pocketable: Nearly everyone carries around a cell phone, while they might not always think about bringing a camera.

 

My main camera's battery died a few minutes and so I used the camera I had—the iPhone—to get up close and capture this New York City close-up. Great color, but the highlights got slightly blown out.


I decided to take my fresh new iPhone 4S (“4S” is rumored to be short for “For Steve”) and push its camera to its limits to see if it can deliver both image quality and a picture-taking experience that photographers can appreciate. How did it do? Read on!

iPhone 4S camera specifications

  • f/2.4 6mm lens (35mm equivalent: 35mm)
  • 5 lens elements
  • 8 MP camera
  • 614.4k Dot resolution 3.5-inch multitouch screen
  • Auto exposure
  • HDR, Grid modes
  • Autofocus
  • Tap to focus
  • Face detection (still images only)
  • LED flash
  • HD Video (1080p) up to 30 frames per second with audio
  • Video stabilization
  • Front camera with VGA-quality photos and video at up to 30 frames per second
  • Photo and video geotagging

 

The iPhone's camera interface is simple: Across the top: Flash on/off/auto button, Options turns rule of thirds grid, HDR on or off, right icon lets you shoot yourself with lower-res rear camera. Press the camera icon, centered at left, to take the picture, use switch at bottom left to toggle between stills and videos. The most recent previous image appears in a square thumbnail.

 

In the hands

I was struck not only by the iPhone's slim dimensions (it measures 4.5x2.3x0.37 inches) but also by its heft. At 4.9 ounces, it is more substantial than I expected, and that's a good thing for promoting steady shots. Press the main control button, hit the Camera icon, and you're ready to roll. As one would expect from an Apple product, on-screen controls are minimal but cut to the chase. There's a flash control button, with Auto, on and off; an Options button which lets you shoot with a “rule of thirds” grid and also lets you turn on HDR for expanded dynamic range. This is useful when trying to get details from contrasty subjects; and a button that turns off the front camera and turns on the rear one so you can shoot self-portraits or talk to friends using FaceTime. Take a picture by pressing the centered camera icon button at the bottom of the screen. You can switch between stills and HD video by flicking the slider on the right. When the picture is taken, it goes to the small icon on the left and is added automatically to the camera roll.

The lens is flush against the back of the camera (in previous models, it was recessed slightly) so it's easy to clean—but be careful not to smudge it with your fingertip. Placing the camera in a case provided a slight recess for the lens which served as a tactile warning that my finger was dangerously near the lens. Keep a microfiber cloth handy, and use it to wipe off inevitable accidental smudges.

 

The Volume Up button on the iPhone's side is now also a shutter release, but using it is ergonomically awkward.


With the 4S, you can now trip the shutter by pressing the volume-up button on the side of the iPhone; this is an improvement over pressing the screen because it allows the user to hold the camera so it is steadier. The problem with pressing the touch-screen button is that you are pushing the camera, which is more likely to result in camera shake. I used the volume up button as a shutter release almost exclusively. One problem with this technique? It places the lens on the lower right (facing away from the user), right under your right hand—which means it's easy to block the lens with your fingers as you grasp the camera and shoot. You'll have to be conscious of how you grip the camera and hold it firmly in your left hand; even with that, large-handed users may find it impossible to use the camera this way without blocking the lens.

Alternatively, you can buy the Belkin LiveAction Camera Grip (above), which lets you more comfortably grasp and shoot the iPhone much the same way you would with a stand-alone compact camera.


Manual control? There are apps for that!

Out of the box, the iPhone 4S offers no exposure or focus controls (other than tap focus); instead, you must rely on the camera's metering system (which is very good, except in extreme backlit situations) and face recognition autofocus. You can tap on the screen and the camera will focus there. For more experienced shooters who want manual exposure and control, this could be frustrating. If you want to add manual focus and exposure, there are several reasonably-priced apps available. I liked ProCamera 3.5 ($2.99) and Camera+ ($0.99), both of which offer ways to manually override exposure and focus and generally provide enthusiast-level control.

The iPhone handled casual moments like this with aplomb. I used Photoshop Express (a free must-have app) to fine-tune exposure, contrast and saturation, and to add the “filed negative carrier” border, which I like because it reminds me of my darkroom days.


In the field

The advantage of having virtually no control means operating the camera is a cinch. As mentioned before, I preferred using the Volume Up button as the shutter release, but also ended up pressing the virtual button on screen when the light was good and the chances of shaking the camera were minimal. The 614.4k Dot resolution multitouch screen, with its 800:1 contrast ratio, was quite bright, and automatically adjusted brightness depending on ambient light. I was able to use it comfortably in bright sunlight. In very low light, however, the auto brightness was sometimes too dim. I did not try to calibrate the monitor (Datacolor has just announced the Spyder4, which has tools for calibrating iPhone and iPad screens) but found that image color consistency was pretty good when viewed on a calibrated desktop monitor or when printed.

The slowest part of the picture-taking process? Finding and opening the camera app. From  the moment I unlocked the camera and opened the camera app until the iPhone was ready to shoot took about four seconds. However, there's a shortcut: Quickly press the power-on button twice, and the camera icon appears at the bottom of the screen immediately. That saved a couple of seconds of hunting and allowed me to capture more ephemeral moments.

 

My friend Harry, shot with the illuminator on. The lighting is pretty good (and note the detail in his sweater!), but he has a mild case of "white eyes." Other indoor people pictures were worse, and pets had both white eyes and green eyes!


Flash

The built-in front illuminator (I can't quite call it a flash) momentarily brightens dark scenes but it suffers from the same problem of any point and shoot camera that has a flash within millimeters of the lens: When shooting people, it caused either red-eye or “white eye” (since the light source isn't that bright it doesn't reflect off the cornea but does reflect off the surface of peoples' and pets' eyes). It looks weird. Yes, there are apps to fix this, but so far the ones I could find took too much time and were hit and miss. The flash also blew out highlights and didn't successfully balance with ambient light. There is lots of  room for improvement here.


Performance

The click-to-shoot time was surprisingly short. The iPhone's shutter lag was minimal, with the camera quickly finding its focus target by the time I'd composed the shot. As with most compact cameras, the iPhone hesitated when focusing in low-contrast or low-light situations but it was very fast when shooting under normal outdoor lighting conditions.

In fact, here's a very interesting surprise: I was in the middle of testing another camera, doing street photography in Manhattan, when its battery ran out. I decided to keep shooting with the only working camera I had with me, the iPhone. Here are some results. Whatcha think?



 


Surprise street photography stress test: While some subjects simply moved too fast for the iPhone's autofocus to keep up, I was surprised at how many images came out well: Around 50 percent (for you non-street shooters, that's a pretty good hit ratio for a compact camera)!


Image Quality

The iPhone 4S's image quality simply blew me away. Although it only shoots JPEGs and most likely applies noise suppression at higher ISOs, the resolution at its lowest ISO (64, based on my examination of the file EXIF data) is amazing.

 

Above: A handheld shot under optimal conditions (direct sunlight, ISO 64) Note the fine detail in the 100% blow-up, below. I made a sharp 8x10-inch print of this shot, and while it's not DSLR quality, it rivals results I've gotten with stand-alone compact cameras.

 

The highest speed I shot at was ISO 800. Those images appeared grainy (plus had noise suppression artifacts) and with noticeably lower dynamic range. That said, these low-light indoor shots, which were lit by two 100-watt incandescent bulbs at 10-15 feet away, yielded 4x6-inch prints that would probably be acceptable to most snapshooters and, again, were comparable to results I've obtained shooting with stand-alone compact digital cameras.

The only downside? I felt that the dynamic range was somewhat limited and if you look critically at the sample shots you may notice some blown-out highlights. Nevertheless, having spent time with older cell phones with 2MP or lower-resolution sensors, the overall image quality better than what I expected from a smart phone!

 

The iPad lens focuses down to around four inches or so, which close enough to get this detail of a pair of pliers next to a big of fabric. I ran this image through one of Photoshop Mobile's special effects filters to get this funky look.


There's an app for that

But the the fun really begins when you start playing with apps. Photoshop Express is a must-have, free app that I used for most of the images here. Keep in mind that as soon as you apply any app to a photo, the new saved version loses all of the image's EXIF data. Fortunately, the original version's EXIF data is always preserved. There are gimmicky apps like Phototropodelic or FingerFocus, but other apps such as BeFunky offer a wide range of filter effects, creative borders and more to keep you busy with your handheld digital darkroom. The best part? Many pretty good apps are free, and the ones you pay for don't really cost that much.

 

BeFunky is another free app I'm having fun with. In addition to its many special effects, it has a wide range of great borders, including this film-like one. The original image was shot at ISO 800.



Sharing and storing

There are many methods for saving your images. Using iCloud is a great convenience because it operates in the background, but if you are on a limited data plan this can quickly eat up your data without even knowing it, and generate additional charges (I went over my allotment halfway through my first month with the camera and have since made changes to prevent this) so I recommend simply downloading/storing images to your computer the old fashioned way, by syncing while charging.

Image sharing is the iPhone's greatest strength: At the touch of the button, you can share images via Facebook, email, texting, tweeting, or by sending the image directly to a bluetooth-enabled printer, or to  networked printer in a WiFi hotspot. You can do this moments after taking the shot, or after you've modified it in one of the myriad apps available.

Minutes after my dog returned from the groomer and had his hair cut very short (he's the same dog as in the previous photo) I texted this shot to my daughters, who were on their lunch breaks at school. Moments later I got a bunch of  "OMGs"! Instant photo sharing is just one of the many features that sets the iPhone camera apart from currently-available stand-alone cameras.

 

Conclusion and recommendation

They say the best camera is the one you have in your hands, and as a camera, the Apple iPhone is surprisingly good. At its best, it can produce enlargeable image files and even at its worst it can produce results that aren't far off from what you can get on a typical compact camera (to the non-discerning snapshooter's eye, at least). After spending nearly a month with the iPhone 4S, I feel comfortable using it as a camera for casual use and even to get creative. Thanks to the hundreds apps—free and otherwise—anyone can customize their camera to fit their needs.

From a purely photographic perspective, there are a few design flaws (in an Apple product? No way!) that need to be addressed in a future version. Notably, the camera needs better shutter and flash placement, and the lack of a built-in optical zoom keeps stand-alone compact cameras relevant (of course, you could buy an Olloclip to expand your optical options). That said I was generally very happy with the results in a variety of shooting situations, and can recommend using your iPhone as a camera in a pinch and beyond.

As I said at the beginning of this article, the iPhone may do for photography what iTunes has done for how we listen to and buy music: Make it more portable, more shareable, and more fun.  Insisting on high-quality image capture in the iPhone 4S may have been the last great thing Steve Jobs ever did.

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