The iPhone as a camera

IMG_1310b copy

I admit to being one of the skeptics who didn’t believe that anything that wasn’t designed primarily as a camera would be able to function in a worthwhile capacity as one – I remember my first camera phone having all of VGA resolution (a Nokia 6600) and not being very much good under any conditions. In fact, the thing didn’t even have autofocus, much less any sort of manual adjustments. Successive phones thereafter all came with cameras of some sort, mostly held at the 1.3 megapixel level with sensors about the size of this full stop. In the meantime, I was shooting with APS-C DSLRs – no comparison!

IMG_0940b copy

But the relentless pace of miniaturization eventually delivered a sensor of sufficient quality and resolution, coupled with a decent enough optical system, that I put aside my biases for long enough to give one a decent try. That was the iPhone 3GS – it had a 3MP camera with autofocus; tap to select the focus point and lock exposure. A little, bit like weighted spot metering. I got a decent image or two out of that.

IMG_1319bw copy
The waiters

The iPhone 4 was a revelation, however. Not only was the sensor and optics greatly improved, we finally got a decent field of view – my favorite 28mm! Still tap to focus and expose, with no provision for adjusting any controls anywhere. Despite all that, it was (and is) possible to get some pretty good shots out of the camera – especially considering it’s a phone first, small computer second, and camera somewhere around a distant third.

IMG_1665b copy
Filling stop

In other ways though, it shows. Despite the increasing complexity and controllability of competitors’ offerings, Apple decided to keep it idiot-proof and deny the iPhone user any sort of exposure control other than the pseudo-spot meter. Nokia released a 41MP sensor that used binning to generate some of the most amazing 8MP images I’ve seen from a small sensor camera – let alone a phone – and Apple just quietly went to 8MP, and fiddled a bit with the FOV again, so it’s probably closer to 30 or 32mm in the 4S than the previous 28mm.

IMG_1446b copy

I don’t have a 4S, nor do I intend to pay the Apple ‘upgrade tax’ every year to buy one. The iPhone is a great piece of technology, but I’m entirely happy with mine until it breaks, or the new model actually offers something I want that I can’t currently have. And only then will I think about buying another one. (From a commercial point of view, I actually find it pretty amazing that they can turn a $800 precision device into a piece of fast moving consumer electronics.)

IMG_1281bw copy

What the iPhone lacks in controllability it makes up for in development possibilities – just so long as you stay within Apple’s limits. I still remember the app which had a shortcut option to put the camera shutter onto one of the volume release buttons – it got pulled, only for Apple to subsequently add it as a system option to the latest version of iOS. To be honest though, I’ve tried most of the popular photo apps and find them a bit cheesy. Instagram, Hipstamatic and Camera+ are the prime offenders: use the app, and your images look the same as everybody else’s who used the app – what’s the point of photography if you’re going to produce the same work as the next guy? They might as well forgo the camera and just put in a library of random images that appears whenever you press the shutter instead.

IMG_0838b copy
Auckland marina sunset

There are some good apps, however – PhotoForge is one of them. It comes much closer to being Photoshop lite than Photoshop Mobile does; that I find pretty amazing. Still, I wouldn’t do any serious editing work on that because it lacks the fine control of the real desktop version.

IMG_0926b copy
Dew on leaf in playground

I want to talk about three more things before I close.

Firstly, real world limitations:
– You can’t control white balance. This is the biggest of them all, to me – especially when the iPhone 4 does a pretty poor job at deciding what color something is. Shade is much too cool, and incandescent is much too warm. And worse still, it tends to blow out the channels so you have no hope in hell of recovering any tonal information later.
– You can only control exposure to a certain degree, and that’s linked to focus point. Generally, this is okay because it’s how spot metering works – you expose for your subject, which you also obviously focus on. However, I find again that the latitude of adjustment for exposure is limited – perhaps because the camera has an electronic shutter only – so sometimes it can’t give you a fast enough shutter speed, or a slow enough one. It would actually be nice to know what exposure parameters the camera chose, too.
– You can’t control the output JPEG parameters. All you get is Disneyland color mode – that’s it. Again, once a channel goes, so does any hope of recovering tonal information.
– Speed. Focusing speed, shooting speed and shutter lag are all slow – the 4S improves on this slightly, but still feels unresponsive compared to a good compact like the Ricoh GR-Digital III or IV. Realistically, that means you’re not going to be shooting anything moving, unless you prefocus.
– Tap to shoot. The lack of a physical shutter button means awkward hand positions and ensuing camera shake while trying to poke the button on the screen. Sure, iOS5 gives you the option of using one of the volume buttons, but it isn’t a solution – you still need to touch the screen to focus.

IMG_0912bw copy

Secondly, advantages and strengths:
– It’s always there. We always carry our phones, and even if I didn’t, the iPhone 4 is small enough and sleek enough that I wouldn’t notice it in my pocket.
– The image quality is finally good enough. Hell, even Getty Images thinks so – I’ve got photos in the library that were shot with an iPhone 4.
– It’s silent. Thankfully that annoyingly cheesy shutter sound can be silenced by putting the phone in vibrate mode; or you could just stick your finger over the speaker opening.
– Connectivity. Sometimes, you need to share an image – something stupid, something important, something for information only. And you can’t do that easily with a camera that isn’t also internet-connected.

IMG_1663bw copy
Just another KL traffic jam

Finally, possible improvements for a future version, bearing in mind the original Apple gestalt for simplicity:
– More latitude for auto white balance and the touch-spot meter
– Show us what the exposure is! I want to know in advance if it’s too dark or will be grainy etc.
– Two more manual settings: ISO, and image output parameters.
– RAW files (we can dream, I suppose). I still have to run the jpegs through photoshop to pass muster, so I might as well start from a better base. Sorry Apple, there’s just no way you can develop one set of color/ tone/ sharpening settings that are going to work under all situations.
– Two stage shutter button, or if Jonathon Ive lost a few points of his bonus percentage for each button he added, then make both of the volume buttons do double duty: one to AF and lock exposure, and the other to shoot.
– Put the damn camera in the middle of the phone, at least in a position where you’re not likely to stick your hand into it if held in landscape orientation. The design of the phone is superb, but it’s way too easy to stick your finger into the lens.
– Better low light performance (taken as given)
– More speed! (taken as given)

IMG_1209bw copy
The Interrogator, or Behind the two way glass

In conclusion, I use the iPhone a lot as a camera because of one reason and one reason only: it’s the one I know I always have with me. (And even if I did have another camera, what would I use to take pictures of the camera? photographer’s joke 😉 MT

IMG_0682b copy
Magritte strikes again


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Your photography is absolutley stunning, I still think that no matter how good the camera (phone or otherwise) it still takes a great photographer to take a great photo.

  2. Great post, I think how well the iPhone works as a camera comes down to the apps being used/the level of talent the phone owner has at taking pictures.

  3. ProCamera app has the option to show you shutter speed, ISO, and even a histogram while you’re shooting, as well as separating AF point and exposure point… You even set a White Balance lock… Highly recommended.

    • It still doesn’t let you choose the shutter speed or ISO though. The rest is icing. I’d just like to have either a proper spot meter or exposure compensation…

  4. It’s just amazing what you made out of this tiny camera in the iPhone. I keep trying 😉

  5. Fishnose says:

    That leaf is absolutely delightful.

  6. Ming,

    First let me say I love your blog – tons of great articles, well written and informative.

    I’ve been trying to use the iPhone 4 more lately when my M9 isn’t at my side. Has been a revelation – as Chase Jarvis says the best camera is the one you have with you. I plan to post a few images on my website once I have enough for a portfolio.

    In the meantime have you tried VSCO cam app. I find it gives great results even if the interface is a bit convoluted.

    Happy shoting!


    • Thanks Phil! The iPhone is very good for certain things, acceptable for others – you just have to know its limitations and how to work around them.

      Convoluted interfaces and odd apps get in the way…I did love them putting the camera shortcut on the unlock screen, though.

  7. MT, do you have an iPad? If you do, I would like you to try an App I build. I’m working now on version 2.0 and good feedback is always welcome.

    • Yes, but it’s an original version 1 – so if it needs a camera to work, or the A5x, I’m afraid it won’t work…

      In any case, happy to discuss – please send me an email so we can take it offline?

      • MT,
        I’ll happily do that. However, I forgot to write my two cents about the topic.
        First, I think you should give Camera Awesome a try. It’s free and you can ignore the presets included or not. It’s pretty fast and you can lock White Balance, and tap for exposure and focus independently. Also, inside the App you work on a non-destructive environment and what you export is a full res JPEG.
        As far as having the volume button as the shutter release, I don’t like at all. Those buttons are stiff enough, that I feel I’m shaking the iPhone when I pressed it for taking a picture. I prefer the soft button, where I can press and HOLD until I’m ready to take the pic, and let go my thumb as smooth as I can.
        One more thing, I will always prefer the highest quality I can get. So my iPhone is for photos I didn’t expect the oporunity to take. But if I’m 33% sure the opportunity will be present, I’ll be on the safe side having one of my other cameras near.
        MT, I’ll be emailing you. Thanks!

        • It’s better than having no camera, agreed – and handy for copying things or emailing aide memoirs to others or yourself. You can even do serious work with it if you trap focus/ exposure and use the lift off trick as you described – now if only they’d put a proper two stage shutter on it…

  8. A few quick responses as writing on an iPhone:

    1. Take your point about Instagram sameness, but still find the app very useful for sharing up-to-the-minute shots and editing on-the-go, eg for documentary purposes. I stick to one filter which I use to bring out detail in shots.

    2. I don’t use it, but Camera Awesome allows WB lock and separate exposure and focus points. So it’s possible to address those issues in software.

    3. Not having the camera in the middle of the phone is very useful for taking close up shots undetected, as you can pretend you’re talking on the phone standing next to your subject. Admittedly hit and miss, and can seem ridiculous, but sometimes it’s the best way to get the picture.

    4. I’ve read the iPhone 4 camera has a 30mm FOV. Might be wrong… but it doesn’t feel as wide as 28mm.

    5. Surprised you didn’t mention the built-in HDR feature. Used carefully it can compensate nicely for the dynamic range limitations of the sensor. If this is the direction Apple is taking, next up: real time adjustable DoF done in software?

    • Hi Mehran,

      1. You can also do the same via email to flickr.
      2. Oh, that’s not the problem for me because inevitably the subject is the one you want focused and properly exposed – if not, the DOF is so great anyway that most of the time just about everything is in focus; the problem is that it’s not a true spot meter, so the range of possible exposures is pretty narrow.
      3. Interesting idea…
      4. The iPhone 4S is 30mm, the 4 is 28mm.
      5. I don’t use it because I’ve had very hit and miss results…

  9. Try 645 PRO app.

  10. Hello Ming, those images are really good if not amazing. I know you’ll probably not get another phone when you already have one, but the Nokia Lumia 800/900 have all those features you request: white balance adjustment, exposure compensation, exposure method (average, center, center point). Saturation, contrast and scene selection is also part of the adjustments, but not RAW output and image quality is on par with the 4s.

  11. One evening in late December last, my wife and I stopped at a waterfront hambuger joint in Sarasota, FL (US) for a sandwich. We sat next to a large group that consisted of 4 generations of the same family. It was about dusk and the cameras appeared. One was a Blackberry and two were iPhones. Photos were made and a good time was had by all. Not one person had even a very inexpensive pocket digital camera. I suspect that camera phones are considered good enough by most people.

    I think that there are two problems here. First, down the road, somebody is going to want a good photo of Grandpa and Grandma on the last Christmas that they were alive and all that might have survived of that wonderful moment is a low quality cameraphone shot. I think that that is sad. Second, manufacturers of inexpensive cameras may be affected adversly by the general acceptance of cameraphones as good enough. I think that a $129.00 digital camera is far superior to any camera phone and I think that it is important to keep the low price market going.

    • Good points – I think we’re also approaching convergence of phones and low end cameras, though. Look at that new Nokia 808 – the images from that are stunningly good, even by high end compact camera standards. I think it won’t be long before we do actually have phones whose raw imaging capabilities match the compacts – perhaps not lens-range or speed, but there’s no reason why we have to suffer small sensors since it’s clearly possible to put a 1″ unit inside a reasonably compact phone…

      • Hey Ming. It looks like i\’m becoming a regular of your blog by now – I really enjoy reading your well thought and insightful posts.

        With regards to iPhonography (or however you want to call it) I come from a bit of a different perspective. What I enjoy the most from taking pics with the iPhone is that it removes a lot of the thought process for me, and invites me to discover/make images in a different way: I think more in terms of shapes, geometric relationships, concepts and ideas. It takes me to a more raw state of mind, and I like that. True, my images lose on IQ because letting the phone take decisions for me, but that’s ok, i can live with that. I feel liberated, in a Lomo-kind-of-way.

        Finally, I can readily share my stuff on instagram, facebook, tumblr in my spare time almost right away…at lunch, on the bus, whatever. That is HUGE for me.

        I\’m still getting to terms with the best workflow for me, and i\’ve been experimenting stuff, but i’m settling on Hipstamatic to take the pic with a couple of chosen fims and lenses, and Hipstamatic for sharing. I don’t see myself post processing my iPhone images in a ”more serious” kind of way in the near future – that would take the fun out of me instantly.

        Just my 2 cents.


        • Thanks for the thoughts – I agree with you, in the sense that you no longer have a lot of the regular photographic tools available once you go to a small format – bokeh, perspective etc are all moot. You have to rely solely on light and subject isolation by composition, and that makes for some much stronger images.

          There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – and in fact, if you can shoot well with an iPhone, you can probably shoot pretty well with a proper camera, too. The thing that gets me is the filters…I just don’t like relinquishing control of the look of my image. Perhaps it’s because I’ve developed a consistent style that I like all of my images to share, regardless of capture medium…that has become my signature, in a way.

      • A link to my tumblr feed:

        All iPhonography.


  12. After giving it some thought, your assertion that phone apps “make all photos look the same” is incorrect or at least too simple a conclusion.

    Consider Camera+ (the one i find easiest to use, though not the most powerful — Camera Awesome by SmugMug takes that cake imo) — yes, there are presets for everything. However, there are 5 different editing categories, and within each there are between 5 and 14 different options. Within one of the categories, FX Effects, there are 4 different subcategories with each having a further 9 sub-options.

    From a mathematical perspective, the combination of these [categories – sub-categories – options] allow for a very LARGE number of possible outcomes. So while it is possible to get the exact same combo as the next fella, it still offers a very large degree of flexibility and customization.

    • True, but you have to remember the target user is going to use one of these apps precisely because it lets them replicate a particular ‘look’. And there aren’t many of these for most people – B&W, high contrast B&W, cross process, HDR, polaroid, super saturated, vintage/ desaturated – that’s about it. So the upshot is that even though there are tons of combinations, we see most photos produced with a few different filters.

      There are excellent photo apps for the iPhone – but these are ones that give you very close to the full flexibility of PS, like PhotoForge – some of the images I used for the article were also processed on the phone using this app. I don’t use it often though, because it doesn’t run that smoothly when dealing with full sized files.

      I think for the vast majority of my readers, the apps they would use would fall into the latter category rather than the former – and even then there’s a good chance they’d just default to PS for any heavy corrections (please correct me if I’m wrong, people). Personally I’d want an app that lets you spot focus/ true spot expose with one of the volume buttons, then shoot and unprocessed and uncompressed image with the other – short of a real two-stage shutter button. And leave the rest to me.

  13. When I used to restore cars, I would drop by my mechanic’s shop, with a list of tweaks I had in mind. He was, and remains, a good friend, which means he always said it like it was to me.. His best line, which I heard more than once: …” the only loose nut is the one behind the wheel…” Thinking about gear you don’t have is very limiting and if you are in the field, a real serious distraction. Less is more when it comes to camera gear. Today, I attended a party presuming that everyone else would bring a camera. None did. I had my wife’s car, and her(RED) Pentax K-r was in the trunk. The party was shot with that body and a single prime lens. No problem, no brain damage, and a good time was had by all……

  14. have you check ‘snapseed’? i think its the best apps ever for photographer ming, scott kelby also recommend it.., =)

    • Pass – it still doesn’t do what I want.

      • Exactly – I’ve never found a photo app without a dumbass interface or even more excrutiating wait times for things to happen. Having said that, have you seen 645PRO? You can save “raw” (minimal compression jpg’s) and have shutter speeds up to 1sec. The interface is a bit fiddly, but it can give you interesting and useful results. No, I’m not associated with them, it’s just the only other photo app I’ve used more than twice.
        Apart from the great panorama function, is there a compelling reason to go with the iPhone 5? I’m still quite satisfied with my 4, although I wish it was faster.

        • I have no idea. I haven’t used the 5 enough to say. I was surprised by how light and plasticky feeling the whole thing was when playing with one in Tokyo – we don’t have them in Malaysia yet.

      • I meant camera app, not photo app, but I can’t edit the post….Doohhh

      • Plasticky? I would say it feels like an empty aluminum box… extremely light.

        • Or that. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. I like to have some solidity and tactility when you’re paying that much for something. The edges don’t feel that well finished, either, and I think that’s half the problem. I don’t get the same impression from their laptops, and those are all aluminum too.

  15. Some of the photos here and the others on your Flickr set for the iPhone are amazing. Every time someone tells me they want to upgrade their DSLR, i tell them to go see that set to see if an upgrade is really what they need — if these shots can be taken with an iPhone, even the current camera they have should and can produce amazing results.

    At the end of the day, your original message rings true — it’s not the equipment most times, it’s the person behind the camera that needs the most upgrading and there are many ways to do that. I’ve been reading lots of books nowadays, and blogs such as yours, and i think i’ve improved significantly since that first time we met and you poisoned me into this hobby. 🙂

    • Thank you. There’s nothing wrong with the gear lust…I’m as guilty of it as the next guy, perhaps more so because I can actually find rational (heh) reasons to swap and upgrade – but I do remember that a) the limitations now are the sack of meat behind the finder, not the equipment and b) only buy something if what you’ve got really doesn’t work.


  1. […] written several times in the past about the legitimacy of phones as photographic tools My main assumptions have always been the same: that a) one does not compose any differently; a […]

  2. […] written several times in the past about the legitimacy of phones as photographic tools My main assumptions have always been the same: that a) one does not compose any differently; a […]

  3. […] Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4. […]

  4. […] Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4. […]

  5. […] Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4. […]

  6. […] Sometimes, a smoke is just a smoke. Apple iPhone 4. […]

  7. […] about the kind of functionality we can reasonably expect. I reviewed the iPhone 4′s camera here; from the 4S, the camera received a spec bump to 8MP with a slightly different sensor, meaning that […]

  8. […] There’s an article by Ming Thein about how he uses iPhones for his photos… absolutely brilliant pictures: […]

  9. […] so say that mobile phones are useless as capture devices; far from it. My previous article on using the iPhone as a camera is very much in support of it. If you learn the limitations of your device, you don’t need to […]

  10. […] Apple iPhone 4** – The first phone whose image quality I actually liked. Crisp, detailed files; limited dynamic range – as expected from this kind of sensor – some kind of rudimentary spot metering. Color accuracy is horrible in anything other than bright sunshine, and way off indoors. Doesn’t seem to have the range of shutter speeds to cope with very dark or very bright conditions. Also, noisy. Needs a physical two-stage shutter button. Nevertheless, it’s produced images that went into the Getty library, so no complaints. Oh, and I can make calls and blog off it, too. […]

%d bloggers like this: