iPhone 5 camera review for photographers
Apple boasts that the camera on the new iPhone 5 is their best yet. Smaller, faster, four times more sensitive in dim light, a new panorama mode, all shielded under a scratch-resistant cover. Is this the phone that will kill the compact camera? Read on for a hands-on review of the iPhone 5 camera for photographers.
Brisbane's New Farm Park. Iphone 5, 1/2300s, f/2.4, ISO 50. Unretouched panorama
If you’re used to shooting with a dedicated camera, an iPhone might not seem to pose much of a threat to traditional cameras. Sure, it’s always with you, but it’s got a tiny sensor, a tiny lens that’s always exposed to scratches, no optical zoom, no real flash, and little by way of manual controls. Everyone knows that the iPhones 4 and 4s are the two most-used cameras on Flickr, but they’re not for serious photos, right?
Brisbane's South Bank. iPhone 5, 1/120s, f/2.4, ISO 200. Unretouched panorama straight from the phone.
In the hand
The iPhone 5 keeps essentially the same layout as the iPhone 4s, and everything falls to hand in the same way. The camera app makes use of the extra screen height to give a bigger view, but this crops the left and right edges from the view, so when held vertically, your pictures actually record more at the sides than you saw in the app.
Tap-to-focus-and-set-brightness works as before, but you notice a change as soon as you take your first picture: the speed.
The iPhone 5 gives a different look to pictures compared to the iPhone 4s, and you can see the difference in these HDR shots.
iPhone 4s, HDR mode on. 1/590s, f/2.4, ISO 64. Unretouched image straight from phone
iPhone 5, HDR mode on. 1/640s, f/2.4, ISO 50. Unretouched image straight from phone
The iPhone 5 has filtered the picture more heavily to remove 'noise' or speckling - this will be the work of the improved Image Signal Processor (ISP) that Apple touted at the launch. Apple said it intelligently recognises areas (such as blue sky) that can safely be softened, from detailed areas that can't. But all of these filters inevitably smooth over a little bit of detail, so there is a trade-off. I find it's a personal choice how much smoothing different people like. Some like the clean, soft look, while others prefer grit and strong edges.
For my taste, the smoothing on the iPhone 5 is a little too heavy-handed, but its photos do respond well to boosting contrast and 'sharpening' tools in apps such as Snapseed, or in desktop software that can add more 'bite' to the picture. Much of the crispness difference between the two shots above can be restored that way, so the iPhone 5 shots are well-suited to editing. But I miss the initial punch of the iPhone 4s shots.
How do iPhone 5 photos stack up against dedicated cameras and the iPhone 4s?
All of the cameras were set to base ISO where possible, and hand-held with a shutter speed that would be unlikely to cause blur (the slowest was 1/60th second on the NIkon D3), and focus was set on the trees towards the right of the frame that were around 80m away. The light was overcast, and slight rain took away some of the contrast in the pictures. I took several shots at different exposures and chose the images that where closest matched for brightness. Afterwards, I checked the files for camera-shake on the computer - not seeing any isn't a guarantee that they're 100% as sharp as they can be, however. All of the photos except for two pairs are untouched jpegs straight from the camera. To get the most out of the Nikon and Panasonic cameras, I also shot raw format as well as jpegs, and treated these raw files to a full round of sharpening in Adobe Lightroom 4 to my taste. The pictures below show 100% crops from the centre of the main picture, and also from the extreme right hand side because some lenses gives softer pictures at the edges.
The cameras have different numbers of megapixels, and these screen views are enlarged to make the pixels the same size, to show all the detail that each camera can capture. The smallest are the iPhone shots - they represent an enlargement 115cm wide, while the largest are those from the Canon, which represent a picture just over 150cm wide.
Brisbane city, taken with an iPhone 5
I can make out very few differences between the pictures from the iPhone 4s and the iPhone 5 on this image. The edge image shows fractionally less noise in the sky on the iPhone 5, and fractionally more smearing in the rightmost tree in the same image. Apart from that, they could be the same. On these particular iPhones, I don't see any evidence of clearer pictures from better alignment of lens elements. On both of the iPhones, the edge of the picture is as sharp as the centre with no hint of chromatic aberration, while the Canon and Panasonic are both noticeably less sharp at their edge than at their centre.
The cheap Canon A2200 gives remarkable clarity at the centre of the picture. Its slightly artificial look comes from aggressive sharpening that the camera applies to photos. But both contrast and sharpness fall off dramatically at the edge, and chromatic aberrations creep in.
Overall, the Panasonic LX5 has a slight lead over the iPhones when shot in jpeg, and that lead stretches further with raw files. The Nikon D3 gives a more natural look than all of the cameras when shot in raw, but its jpegs are soft by comparison. I would rank the $100 Canon as narrowly at the bottom, then the iPhones with virtually nothing to separate them, then the Panasonic and the Nikon (when shot and processed in raw) narrowly at the top.
To put these differences into perspective, before the release of the iPhone 5, we asked 50 non-photographers to compare 15" prints of a similar image from each of these cameras, to work out which were the cheap ones and which the expensive ones and which was the iPhone 4s. 15" prints aren't a stringent photographic test, but they're bigger than most iPhone photos will ever be printed. Over half of people placed the iPhone 4s above the Nikon D3. The picture quality from the iPhones is 'good enough' for most people.
All of these pictures were taken without using the zoom on the iPhones, as their picture quality plummets if you use the digital zoom, so you have to be comfortable with the fixed 33mm-equivalent focal length of the lens.
One of the big draw-cards for the iPhone 5 camera is that it can shoot in just one quarter of the light needed by the iPhone 4s, and it works both in photos and on the display:
It's too dark for the iPhone 4s (left) to display much,
Photo by Laura, with thanks.
Apple calls this two-stop boost to sensitivity the "Dynamic low light mode", and iPhone 5 pictures taken in dim light can have ISO settings as high as 3200 (the iPhone 4s has a top of just 800). In typical Apple fashion, it enters this mode automatically, with no indication that anything is happening, except that the image on the display brightens considerably, and the image metadata report the higher ISO settings. This 2-stop boost to sensitivity comes with a cost: a lot of the fine detail is lost.
The iPhone 5 can capture images in a quarter of the light compared to the iPhone 4s, but the 100% view on the right shows that the crispness of the image is degraded considerably. iPhone 5, 1/15s, ISO 3200
Is the "Dynamic low light mode" better than simply boosting the brightness of photos afterwards on the computer? The following pictures show the same scene shot on the iPhone 5 (upper images) and iPhone 4s (lower images) in light too dark for the 4s to get a properly-exposed photos. The iPhone 4s was subsequently made brighter in Adobe Lightroom.
iPhone 5, 1/15s, ISO 3200. Unedited original (left) and 100% view (right)
iPhone 4s, 1/15s, ISO 800. The original image was too dark, and it was brightened in Adobe Lightroom by adding +2.0 to the 'Exposure' slider (approximating 2 stops more light). Brightened image (left) and 100% view (right)
The colours are more natural in the iPhone 5 photo, as it did a better job of recognising and removing the red colour-cast that came from the incandescent lights. It's also a more convenient photo to take: you can see what you're going to get when you shoot, while the iPhone 4s image was just dark on screen when shooting. But the brightened iPhone 4s image shows finer grain, and more detail in the shadows. Neither image shows great detail, but both could look acceptable for small prints.
Personally, I prefer the detail of the computer-brightened image from the iPhone 4s over the shot from the iPhone 5.
The iPhone view
The lens on the iPhone 5 is a fixed 4.13mm f/2.4, which gives the equivalent view and depth of field of a 33mm lens at about f/19 on a full-frame camera. The iPhone camera can't change its aperture, so nearly everything is in focus in all your shots. That’s bad news if you want to shoot blurry-background portraits – the iPhone simply can’t take them without help from apps that paint in the blur afterwards. But if you want everything in focus, it’s a pleasant surprise. You get the huge depth of field of f/19, but with an extra 6 stops more light that come from a real aperture of f/2.4. Compared to an SLR, you can shoot landscapes that are 60 times darker without a tripod, all at the lowest ISO for the best quality. At my latitude in Brisbane, Australia (27 degrees) that translates to about an extra 40 minutes of shooting at dusk before the phone starts to lose picture quality by turning up its ISO. Those 40 minutes are enough to reach the dim, interesting light that forces DSLRs onto a tripod if you want a lot of depth of field. If you live closer to the poles, you'll get even longer.
iPhone 5, 1/15s, f/2.4, ISO 640. Original image left, and 100% crop right
Nikon D3, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/15s, f/16, ISO 25,600, jpeg. Original image left and 100% crop right
The 100% crops are from the sharpest part of the spine. In order to match the iPhone’s hand-holdable shutter speed of 1/15th second while also matching its depth-of-field by using an aperture of f/16 (it couldn’t quite get to f/19 in that light), the Nikon D3 needed to set its highest ISO setting: 25,600, which had a serious impact on the quality of the picture. Yet still it couldn't match the the depth of field from the iPhone, nor achieve the same exposure. Score one to the iPhone 5.
This represents an extremely narrow set of circumstances in a contrived test. The iPhone falls behind in quality the moment you bring a tripod into the equation, or change the lighting, or if you want any of the things an iPhone alone can't do: a different focal length, different aperture, raw files, or flash. But to see that there is any overlap between them in quality in any situation surprised me. For reference, here is the same shot on a tripod with the Nikon D3 in raw, processed and sharpened in Adobe Lightroom 4 and Photoshop. The image quality is in a different league to the other images, but it can only be shot on a tripod. With the right camera app, the iPhone shot will also be improved on a tripod.
Nikon D3, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, 30s, f/22, ISO 200, raw, sharpened. Original image left and 100% crop right
Controlling the Phone
The iPhone doesn't offer you any control over aperture, shutter speed or ISO, so you might expect that you'd feel like a "passenger", with the phone making all the decisions and you just along for the ride. I get that feeling when shooting a dedicated camera on automatic. But I've never had that feeling when shooting with iPhones. That's because iPhones are entirely predictable, and you quickly get to know what result they'll give you.
How the iPhones pick ISO and shutter speed in various levels of light.
In bright light, it changes just the shutter speed, and in dim light, it changes just the ISO. And the tipping point to swap between the two is the typical indoor brightness. Essentially, if you're outside during the day, the phone only changes the shutter speed. When you're indoors, it only changes the ISO.
So far, the only times that I have seen the iPhone 5 stray from the line in the diagram above are when shooting panoramas, when it always tried to keep the shutter speed at or above 1/100s, and it may boost the ISO to do so, or when its faced with fluorescent lights, and tries to match the shutter speed to the frequency of their flickering.
Flash and red-eye
Brisbane's New Farm Park. Iphone 5, 1/120s, f/2.4, ISO 250. Unretouched panorama
It even guides you with feedback on-screen to keep it smooth and level, prompting “Slow Down”, or “Move up”. The phone boosts the shutter speed to at least 1/120th second to freeze your motion, and in dim light, it also boosts the ISO to avoid wobbles.
It builds-up the panorama in real-time, piecing it together out of thin strips. This gives a number of differences to traditional panoramic apps that stitch together adjacent photos:
1. iPhone 5 copes well with panoramas that sweep between parts in full sun to parts in shade, getting reasonable contrast and brightness in both areas. But there's no option for making the panorama out of HDR photos to get both the sky and the ground looking good.
2. Like all stitching apps, it occasionally makes mistakes, but the mistakes tend to be minor and localised, and so don't spoil the overall picture. Traditional stiching apps also make mistakes, but they tend to be bigger, such as when they don't 'get' where one of the photos belongs in the panorama, and put it in totally the wrong spot.
4. The 1/120 second shutter speed might work well in the USA with 60Hz power, but it's not the best starting point for good panoramas under fluorescent lights in countries with 50Hz power - here's a crop from a plain wall that's come out covered in vertical stripes due to the flickering of the fluorescent lights. If you see these stripes, point the phone directly at the lights for a moment, and it will measure their flickering and set 1/100th second instead, getting rid of the banding.
The iPhone automatically trims the panorama to get rid of any wobbly edges, and the final saved panorama can be up to 28 megapixels in size (depending on how much was trimmed off). Note that not all editing apps can handle files this big.
The sapphire crystal cover
To a photographer, the lens on the iPhones seems horribly exposed, with no protection from the elements or the keys and change in your pocket. The iPhone 5 has a new covering made of sapphire crystal, which Apple claims will better resist scratches. Pointing it directly at the sun, I couldn't see any extra lens flare compared to an iPhone 4s. In fact, the flare was well-controlled - just a small central spot, and some purple flaring of lights that are just immediately outside of the field of view.
Storing and managing photos
Management of your photos unfortunately appears unchanged on the iPhone 5 with iOS6. Apple seems to want your computer (not your phone) to be the centre of your digital universe, and Apple limits your ways to organise photos directly on the phone. You can create folders called “albums” on the phone, and these will store “aliases” or “shortcuts” to any images that you put there, so you can go ahead and put the same images into as many albums as you like without filling up the phone. But when you plug the phone into a computer to offload the images, you can’t see these albums, and your photos are found scattered through numerous cryptically-named folders on the phone. Apple seems to be gently reminding you that iTunes is meant to be the boss, and handle all the syncing and exchange of photos for you. This may not be practical for photographers, and it is possible to use Lightroom 4 to import iPhone photos onto computers, and simply treat the phone as an over-sized memory card with a camera attached.
Colours and brightness
In natural light, the colours are similar between the iPhone 4s and the iPhone 5. Reds appear a little more vivid on my iPhone 5, but the difference is slight, and you couldn't tell that by looking at the display, because the display on the iPhone 5 shows all colours more vividly. Mine is also noticeably warmer (more amber) than that of my 4s. In part 2 of this review, we'll look at these issues further, and how they affect editing photos in apps.
Under artificial light indoors, the iPhone 5 occasionally does better at removing the orange colour to the lights, but I couldn't provoke it to do this consistently.
Any differences in overall brightness, contrast or exposure in the images from these two phones are small enough not to worry about. The HDR feature of the camera - where it takes three photos at different brightnesses and combines the best parts of each to make a single optimised image - works in just the same way as it did on earlier models... but the iPhone 5 merges the photos into the composite picture so much faster that whole process feels a lot more practical. Both phones give the best HDR result if you tap on a darker area first. But it's still a mild HDR effect compared to that offered by apps like pro HDR.
The iPhone 5's camera is an evolutionary – not a revolutionary – step forward for iPhones. Whether or not you like it will depend more on your goals from photography than on its particular performance or features.
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All photos are unedited unless otherwise labelled. Apple, iPhone and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. Take Better Photos does not claim any endorsement by and receives no sponsorship from Apple Inc. We queued and paid normal full price for the iPhone 5. Photoshop and Lightroom are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems.