iPhone 5s camera review for photographers
You could be forgiven for not getting too excited about the camera in Apple's new flagship iPhone 5s. They've put dozens of tweaks into it, but not a single one sounds... sexy. It's still 8 megapixels, it still doesn't zoom, and the phone's still the same size as last year. Do all the little changes add up to something bigger?
If you already have an iPhone 5, here's what AU$1,129 (US$1,060) buys you for a 64GB iPhone 5s, photographically-speaking:
15% larger pixels, a slightly wider and 20% brighter lens, and a colour-changing flash. Plus benefits from faster processing, including a burst mode, a "dynamic local tone map" said to improve highlight and shadow detail, a behind-the-scenes multi-shot feature to reduce blur, panoramas that change brightness through the scene, and slow-motion video.
This suite of changes would sound impressive in a dedicated camera. And it strikes directly at the common complaints that we hear from people who shoot on phones: wobbly pictures, poor low-light results, slow shooting and a truly hopeless flash. But will it make enough of a difference to be worth buying?
I started the day skeptical, and if the queue for the phone was anything to go by, I wasn't the only one. 15 minutes before opening time, an impressive 240 stood in line, but it's less than half the number who queued for the iPhone 5 last year.
But after 12 hours of using the new phone I was completely won over, and here's why...
It's all about Speed
The iPhone 5s will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone before. Its lens is marginally wider, equivalent to a 30mm lens on a film camera, and its wider aperture lets in 1/4 stop more light. With iOS7 it looks a little different, but the basic features are all easy to find. But the one thing you aren't ready for is the speed.
Compared to the iPhone 5, the camera on the 5s flies. The new burst mode discreetly shoots 10 full-quality pictures per second for 100 seconds, and it works very well. Too well. If you pick up the phone the wrong way, you can take 999 photos before you know what's happened. I did. Luckily, the Photos app lets you delete any or all of them together. HDR photos are now almost instant, with no "Saving HDR" message. Just like any dedicated camera, the only thing you need to wait for is focus, and that takes the same amount of time as on the 5.
In a break with previous iPhones, you can't press-and-hold to focus in advance. The 5s shoots when you press the on-screen button, not when you release it. You can still use either of the volume buttons on the phone to shoot, or the volume buttons on the earphones as a remote control/cable-release. I like the new way - it feels much more responsive, but I have to be careful of wobbling the camera in low light.
The slow-motion video has kept my family entertained for hours. Our little kids (and, frankly, the big kids in the house too) have been fascinated by watching themselves slowed down fourfold. It's smooth, beautifully implemented, and the sound turns everyone into Barry White.
Picture quality in bright light
How do iPhone 5s photos stack up against dedicated cameras and the iPhone 5? The following series of photos compares the same scene shot on different cameras.
All of the cameras were set to base ISO where possible, and shot on a tripod, without using the zoom on the phones. Focus was set on the trees towards the right of the frame that were around 80m away. The light was bright and sunny. I took several shots at different exposures and chose the images that were 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 from phones are untouched jpegs straight from the camera. To get the most out of the Panasonic camera, I shot raw format and treated the raw file to a full round of sharpening in Adobe Lightroom 5 to my taste. The pictures below show 100% crops from the centre of the main picture, and also from the left hand side, close the edge, because some lenses give 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.
Brisbane city, taken with an iPhone 5s
The winner is the Panasonic dedicated compact camera. In the centre of the picture it shows more detail, especially in the shadows. At the edge of the picture, its lead is marginal, but it's still the best of the bunch.
I can barely see any difference between the phones at the centre of the image. At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy S4 looks like a winner, with crisp, clear definition. But the difference is largely down to 'sharpening' applied by the phone, not real extra detail. I found I could make the iPhones look the same by adding extra sharpening to the pictures in Photoshop. If pushed, I'd say that the 5s looks a little softer, but it's debateable. At the edges of the picture, the iPhone 5s has a smoother sky than the iPhone 5, but otherwise looks much softer and less detailed than either the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S4.
I'd rate the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 as a tie for first place of the phones, with the iPhone 5s coming last in good light. But things are different as the light gets dimmer...
Apple's changes to the sensor and lens on the iPhone 5s are geared towards improving low-light shooting. And they work well... up to a point.
At dusk, the iPhone 5 (left) is left in the dark compared to the iPhone 5s (right)
The iPhone 5s can give cleaner, crisper results in low-light than the iPhone 5, with more detail, less smearing from noise reduction, and much less chroma noise. Compare these two pictures taken in dim light (about EV2).
iPhone 5s, 1/15th sec, f/2.2, ISO 1600
iPhone 5, 1/15th sec, f/2.4, ISO 2000
The image from the iPhone 5s is clearer in every way than the image from the 5. Apple have done away with the pixel-binning "Dynamic low light mode" of the iPhone 5 which smeared detail horribly in dim light. I like the new, grittier, more detailed photos, especially for street photography. I certainly don't miss the hesitation on the iPhone 5 as it wondered whether to turn on the pixel-binning mode - it sometimes needed a tap on a dark part of the image to turn on the Dynamic low light mode and avoid underexposing. With the 5s, I had a much smoother experience, with the ISO freely ranging up to a peak of 2,700, compared to the maximum of 3,200 on the iPhone 5. I feel much more confident using the iPhone 5s in dim light - it's easier, better and more fun than the iPhone 5.
So it's a slam-dunk for the iPhone 5s in low light? Not exactly. The sensor has improved, but the focus hasn't. It took seven attempts to get an in-focus version of the shot above on the 5s. That's not surprising; EV2 is pretty dim and some dedicated compact cameras struggle with it. But with a dedicated camera, you'd have a clear indication of what the camera had focused on before you shoot. Add to this that I'm still getting more wobbly shots with iOS7's press-to-shoot shutter button, and it took some of the fun out of night shooting. I found that although I could get clearer shots in extremely dim light, it wasn't something that I'd choose to do for pleasure. So the iPhone 5s is great in low light, but still limited in extremely low light. I'll be keen to see the improvements when all the dedicated night shooting apps like Nightcap are updated for iOS7. In iOS6, these allow low ISO night shooting on a tripod for much better quality.
iPhone 5s, 1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 800
Controlling the Phone
The settings on the iPhone camera aren’t controlled directly by apps, but by the phone instead. And the phone responds to light in the same, predictable way every time: in the same level of light, it nearly always chooses the same settings, regardless of which camera app you’re using. It’s only recently that a handful of apps like Nightcap and 645 Pro have found ways to let the user try to tweak the settings for shooting, and then only in very dim light. But the phone reserves the right to veto your choice of settings if it suspects they’re not appropriate.
How the iPhones pick ISO and shutter speed in various levels of light.
Note the steady drop in the lowest ISO with each subsequent model.
It's only a slight over-simplification to say that in bright light, iPhones just change their shutter speed, and in dim light, they just change their ISO. And the tipping point to swap between the two is the typical indoor brightness.
Essentially, when you're outside during the day, the iPhone 5s clings to its base ISO (32) to give the best picture quality, and only changes its shutter speed. When you're indoors, it parks the shutter speed around 1/15th sec, and just boosts the ISO until it meets its limit at candlelight, when the ISO is maxxed-out at 2,700.
The 5s adds a wrinkle to this simple relationship to help avoid wobbly shots. When the light dims enough that the shutter speed would drop below 1/30th sec at EV9, it starts spending ISO to buy a faster shutter speed, trying to hang onto 1/30th sec a little longer as light levels fall. This is a sensible strategy to reduce wobbles on a phone without an optical image stabiliser.
Flash and red-eye
Let's be frank. The flashes on previous iPhones have been appalling. Too dim, too small, too close to the lens and too green; they leave their victims looking like zombies. With the iPhone 5s, Apple has promised a change, and has introduced a genuine innovation. And the best part about it is that you don't need to buy your own iPhone 5s to make the most of it...
The 'flash' on iPhones isn't really a flash; it's a bright LED headlight. Uniquely, the iPhone 5s has a pair of them - one white, the other amber. When the 5s uses them to brighten up your subject, it adjusts the relative brightness of these LEDs, so it can change the colour of its flash anywhere along a spectrum from white to amber. The goal is to avoid a problem that all flashes face: light in nature is always coloured. It looks unnatural to mix the sterile white of a photographer's flash with softly-coloured natural light. Indoors, lights are often orange, or orangey-green, and that doesn't play nicely with white light.
The iPhone 5s is the first camera to try to do all this by itself, from judging the colour of the room light, to choosing a matching colour for its flash. This is how well it works:
To my eye, the iPhone 5 gave its usual result: too bright and horribly green. iPhone 5s was much better at judging the brightness for the flash. It dropped the ISO when the flash was used, so both the flash and the room came out darker. The colour of its flash was much warmer (more orange) and it suited the scene better. It's not accurate, but it's way more flattering. But it still showed too much green in its light, and red-eye was still rampant in the pictures - more so than in the iPhone 5 shots.
The verdict? Not ideal, but much, much better than normal flash.
The best part is that you don't need to buy the iPhone 5s yourself to take advantage of it these improvements. On our iPhone courses, we show people how it always looks better to use someone else's smartphone flash, not your own. Just synchronise shooting with someone beside you for even better light:
Taken on an iPhone 5, using the flash from a nearby iPhone 5s. 1/15s, f/2.4, ISO 500
By fooling the iPhone 5s with coloured gels over the lens (but not the flash), I provoked it to change the colour of its flash for me, and found two things. Firstly, the phone chooses the colour of its flash before it shoots, rather than while shooting. Secondly the range of colours that I could coax from the 5s spanned from a very orange 3350K (roughly a normal flash with 3/4 CTO added), to a slightly orange 4350K (roughly a normal flash with a 1/4 CTO added). It may have a broader range, but that's what I saw. It's also a very useful range - the middle of that range (flash with 1/2 CTO) is what I use most of the time when shooting under artificial light.
For the iPhone 6, can we have 3 LEDs, please? White, amber and green to play better with fluoros?
To change the direction that you want to pan, just tap the arrow.
The problem with stripes in panoramas still hasn't been fixed. When you select the panorama mode, the camera chooses a shutter speed of 1/120th sec. That's perfect if you live in the US with 60Hz power, as it precisely matches the flickering of artificial lights. But in countries with 50Hz power, you get vertical stripes through your panoramas. Sometimes the camera notices and sets 1/100th sec to match the flickering (aiming directly at a light for a few moments sometimes helps). But normally, you get zebra-striped panoramas like this:
iPhone 5s, 1/120s, f/2.2, ISO 1250. The vertical stripes come from flickering lights with 50Hz power
Flare and the end of the purple fringe
Storing and managing photos
Managing your photos has improved with the introduction of iOS7, and we've put a video here showing the latest changes and how to make the most of them. But there's still no star-rating system to separate the wheat from the chaff, nor keywording for images, so you'll still have to rely on your memory too. Some apps offer both keywording and rating, but only by duplicating all of your photos. The biggest challenge is that the iPhone's organising system stays on the iPhone - you can't see or use it when you plug the phone into the computer. To your computer, your photos are strewn through the phone in folders with cryptic names.
Personally, I take the photos off the phone and then manage them by computer using Lightroom 5.
iPhone 5s, 1/200s, f/2.2, ISO 32
Colours and brightness
The display on the iPhone 5s appears similar to that on the iPhone 5, and that's a good thing. Mine has slightly warmer colours than my iPhone 5, and slightly darker blacks, but it's not a major difference. Other manufacturers, particularly Samsung, offer displays with more vivid colours. But I found the iPhone 5 screen to be very close to the look of a calibrated monitor, so I have been able to trust it to evaluate colours in photos.
Close-up performance remains unchanged compared to the iPhone 5. You can still fill the frame with something slightly smaller than a business card (about 7.5 cm long).
The iOS7 camera interface has a few changes over the old. The display now shows the exact image you're going to get, instead of a cropped view, so you can frame pictures more accurately. Another welcome change is the new unmissable yellow AE/AF lock icon when you lock focus or exposure. As before, you activate the lock by pressing and holding the point you want to focus on.
There are two new ways to open the camera: a swipe up from the bottom of the screen to open the control centre, or just ask Siri to open the camera.
The settings for HDR and Panorama in the camera are now "sticky". The stay on even between sessions, so it's very easy to accidentally leave HDR on or to go to take a picture and start a pano instead.
I often get phone calls asking me what camera I use, and I first have to clarify "Do you mean for work or pleasure?". The answers are very different. My workhorse cameras are no-compromise performance tools, with no concessions at all to being easy to carry or enjoyable to use. They are all business, and they're the last thing that I would want to take with me on holiday. I see the iPhone 5s as an attempt to make the opposite, a no-compromise fun phone-camera that adds to life. Each does its job better for not trying to do what the other does so well.
Looked at from a technical perspective, the iPhone 5s camera is another casual step forward for iPhones. And with the exception of the clever flash system, most of the photographic improvements seem to come from its processor, rather than from revolutionary hardware. The biggest change lies in the extra speed and flexibility.
But I'd argue that technical innovation is not what this phone is about. I've found the iPhone 5s to be the most fun iPhone camera to date. Instead of extra pixels, I'm enjoying the speed, performance, and the new party tricks of burst shooting, slow-motion video, and easier, better low-light shooting. It's the most 'invisible' of the phones, as it just gets out of your way, so you can enjoy what you're doing. If you like shooting on smartphones, I'd recommend that you give it a try.
If getting the best technical quality and detail is important to you, none of the improvements in the iPhone 5s is likely to appeal. Picture quality in good light hasn't improved compared to the iPhone 5 - arguably it's deteriorated a little. Picture quality in poor light has improved considerably, but is still far short of both the quality and usability of a dedicated camera for night photography.
Compared to shooting with a dedicated camera, shooting with a phone has lots of technical compromises. No zoom, no raw, no shallow depth of field, no shooting darker than EV-0.5, and relatively poor picture quality once you step indoors. And these are exactly the things that draw me to mobile photography, because they force me to be creative and keep it fun.
Want to get the most out of your iPhone camera? Get all the video materials for our iPhone Photography course without leaving home. With over 90 minutes of video tutorials that stay bang up-to-date, you'll find out the best apps for shooting and editing, and how to use them. Just $40 plus postage. Click here for an example of the videos included. Or click here to get the full set now.
Or if you're near to Brisbane, book a place on the World's only jargon-free iPhone Photography course.
A huge thank-you to the following people who helped-out with this review:
Dave Edney from imagescapes.com.au - key grip, spontaneous model recruitment, equipment provisioning, bag carrying, and many of the good ideas.
Roger and Angie - for a great job as spontaneous models when they just wanted to see the museum
Sue - coffee, understanding and logistics
Isabella and Carmen - hand models and lots of jumping
All photos are unedited unless otherwise labelled (except for a spot of sharpening after resizing). 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 are Apple developers, but the agreement with Apple does not restrict us from being critical of Apple hardware where warranted. We queued and paid normal full price for the iPhone 5s. Photoshop and Lightroom are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems.