Thoughts on the Apple iPhone 5 camera

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Don’t worry, I’m not about to start claiming the various image-processing apps are the best thing since sliced bread; they aren’t. What I am going to do is take an objective look at the iPhone 5’s camera as a tool for photographers. Firstly, we’ve got to remember that the device itself has a lot of limitations: it was never designed primarily to be a camera in the first place, which means a lot of niceties are missing: a dedicated shutter button, for instance. It is therefore important to consider things in perspective, and be realistic 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 the effective focal length of the lens is a somewhat longer 30mm – now five elements and with a fixed f2.4 effective aperture. The new unit is made by Sony, and focuses and shoots noticeably faster than the 4.

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The Good
Where it counts, there’s more resolution; you can clearly see this under daylight conditions and low ISOs. It’s faster, quite noticeably so, in fact. Sony/ Apple claim that there’s up to a two stop improvement in low light performance. Capture speed is fast enough that HDR mode is usable handheld. For us photographers more important is the fact that the semi-spot meter now appears to have a wider adjustment range, meaning less chance of clipped highlights or blocked shadows. Color and auto white balance is far more accurate than the 4; color casts (especially under artificial light) are mostly gone, though clear blue skies don’t seem to have quite the same punch and purity. There’s an auto-stitch panorama mode, selectable grids and now the either of the volume keys default to being the shutter button, but those are products of the OS rather than anything to do with the hardware. Oh, and of course the ability to instantly upload humiliating and compositionally mediocre images remains…or perhaps is made worse, with increased social media integration in every subsequent iteration of iOS.

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The very visible effect of HDR mode – not difference in highlights.

The Bad
The ‘claimed’ improvement in low light performance comes at the expense of fine detail. It seems that noise reduction has been cranked up another notch from the 4S, and runs much higher than the 4 by default – and of course being an Apple product, there’s absolutely no way to adjust this. Base ISO is now lowered to 50 instead of 80; the moment the camera increases it to anything above this, you’ll instantly see the noise reduction smearing kick in – it looks rather impressionistic, if you like that kind of thing. I suppose the good news is that at higher ISOs, conversion to B&W results in something reminiscent of film grain in a high-ISO 35mm negative.

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Not particularly dark, but quite a lot of grain – even though the subject was mostly highlight.

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And again, under similar circumstances. That’s not wall texture, that’s noise.

I prefered the gritty luminance noise of the iPhone 4; at least it gave the impression of there being fine detail, even if this wasn’t really the case. Personal preference, I suppose – but at least I can choose to get rid of the luminance noise myself afterwards, or leave it there. And like every other Apple device, you have absolutely no say over the output: aside from the overly strong noise reduction, there are often mild sharpening haloes, saturation and contrast are too high, and the JPEG compression is also quite aggressive – meaning that there’s not a lot of latitude for post processing fixes, either. I don’t think it would be that difficult to offer a few more toggles for contrast, saturation, noise reduction and sharpening, but perhaps I’m oversimplifying the programming required.

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Whole frame

Obvious smeariness due to overzealous noise reduction – clearly visible even here, but if you enjoy this kind of thing, click here for the 100% version

The Ugly
There’s one real problem for photographers: inaccurate framing. Since the iPhone 5’s display got longer, the aspect ratio has changed; the live view preview now doesn’t show the full width of what the camera is capturing; there’s about 10% of the frame missing. As a result, you have to learn to compensate, or be prepared to crop later – which both defeats the point of extra resolution, and is completely inexcusable for a camera which only uses an LCD finder. It’s a rather surprising omission for Apple, and even more surprising that the plethora of ‘expert’ reviews – including DPReview – somehow missed this. I suppose it says a lot about the usual users of this kind of device.

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The device itself
I have to be honest here: I’m really not a big fan of the iPhone 5. It appears that Apple gets every generation slightly wrong on purpose so you’re forced to buy its successor. The original iPhone had great tactile and build quality, and the battery lasted several days but nothing faster than EDGE data; the 3G became plastic but no cheaper, and you had to wait for the 3GS to get decent battery life and speed. The 4 and 4S were superb designs that suffered from antenna issues, and now we’re stuck with a cheap-feeling (but no doubt expensive) device that not only scratches and dents very easily (thank the soft, thin aluminum casing) and can’t seem to hold enough charge to make it through a day. Hell, the home button on the three or four phones I’ve handled isn’t even flush with the screen; there’s a sharp bit that sticks out and catches your thumb. Oh, and did I mention its inability to hold a 3G (let alone LTE) signal for any length of time without dropping? Yes, it’s fast, and operationally mature, but what’s the point of having a portable telephone if it has to be tethered to a wall in order for you to make use of all of its functionality?

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The only reason I bought the 5 was because my 4 went on the fritz after two years; after barely a month of using it (and being careful of the surfaces it’s put down on, living in a case etc) it looks more beaten up than my 4 did after two years of abuse; I can’t help but feel both slightly cheated and disgusted at the lack of environmental responsibility: this is a disposable device, and feels like one. But I’m sure it won’t be easy to take apart and recycle, nor is it priced like you’d expect to replace it after a year. It simply doesn’t feel like a $800 device – that’s what it costs in this part of the world. In comparison, even Apple’s other devices feel better built – the Mac Mini, Macbook Air and iPads, for instance.

Bottom line: it does what it’s supposed to do, but has enough of those ‘not-quite-right’ niggles that you don’t go away feeling pleased with it. And before somebody suggests another OS, I’d like to suggest trying to get all of your data in various apps out of the Apple universe: short of manual reprogramming, it’s simply impossible.

But I digress: this commentary is supposed to be largely about how the iPhone 5 performs as a camera; the phone part is somewhat secondary, and taken as a given. I suppose the fact that we had to make a diversion to say how poorly it performs in that role isn’t a good sign. Perhaps part of the problem is the hype surrounding the beast; if it was an unbranded phone, at a price not inclusive of its share of Apple’s enormous marketing spend, then chances are we’d marvel at the one or two standout features and just ignore the quirks, or put them down to small-budget development.

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As a camera, it’s useful because you always have it with you, and it’s really not that difficult to use: press the power button, swipe the standby screen up, and you’re in camera mode. Tap to focus and meter, then pick a button to shoot. Done. Under situations where there’s ample light, the camera does its job well and without fuss. It’s fast and responsive, and focuses close enough for people to shoot their food and then be a twit about it. It does the job; use it if you need to, but don’t expect to be wowed by the output. I think half the trouble is that the processing really kills the potential of the sensor; I think if we just had a spot meter and a raw file, you could get some nice B&W images out of it. The first shot in this post is actually a good example: I was driving at the time, and had the phone suction-cupped to the windscreen and acting as my GPS device. I just rotated it a bit and hit the camera button. Certainly wouldn’t have gotten that with the ‘Blad.

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The moment it gets dark, you’ll be wishing you had something with a bigger sensor, faster lens, or preferably, both; though image stabilization of some sort (probably wouldn’t fit inside the phone housing) would go a long way to improving things. I did notice slightly increased sensitivity to camera shake over the 4; I think this is partially due to the resolution increase, but more due to the reduction in weight and resulting difficulty in holding the camera perfectly still. As for the photographic parameters that matter – some control over the development settings, more metering latitude, and ideally, a raw file – Apple remains indifferent, and since the passing of Jobs, seemingly at the mercy of its marketing department. We’re not really asking for anything that doesn’t exist in other devices, or devices with less processing power; (I’m thinking of all the compacts that can put out a raw file, or at very least, a neutral JPEG) instead, we’re getting more of everything that doesn’t matter, and no change in what does. Buy it if you need a new iOS device, but that’s about it. MT


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  1. you mention the missing dedicated shutter button. What I found quite useful is (also in street photography) the use of the headset as a shutter release

  2. randomesquephoto says:

    The problem with android is. The numerous low end manufacturers. But the os is awesome at the same price. So much customization. Vignette is the greatest photo app I’ve ever used.

  3. pyktures says:

    The HTC one is out for lowlight cellphone photography… any thoughts on that?

  4. Got to agree with bob prangnell, above! Insightful review and – as always – great images.

  5. Dear Mr Thein,

    I’ve being enjoying your articles and your work (!) for some time now. Your insight is a guidance and fun to have. For which i thank you and wish you many more years with light. Your iPhone 5 thoughts are also insightful, and i particularly like the paragraph where you talk about losing 3G and all. In my personal, and shall i say – extensive experience with the iPhone as a camera i found the following – im listing them in order for readability :

    1. Want to immediately start with the dreaded magenta flare under certain conditions – appearing in the top / side edge of frame. You don’t seem to mention this, but it requires fine weather, light posts, and the like in order to exhibit itself.

    2. I have not had so much fun and such great results with the iPhone, since the .. LC1 i believe ! I am so happy with the results, that i have put on hold the purchase of a (the much needed after robbery) digital camera, X20, RX100, G15 ..

    3. I will respectfully disagree with your hint about tools on the iPhone – i personally feel that that iPhone should not be shot as a normal camera but mostly / only with tools, it is the Polaroid and Instamatic of XXI century in my view, and im using it 99% as such. The output could be rewarding depending on what you are looking for and how large you want to print i guess – examples for such tools many – my favorite are Hipstamatic, Scratchcam, KitCam ..

    I use my 5 more as a camera than as a phone 😉 Right now i have a Leica and a Nikon sitting loaded with magnificent films, and waiting to be touched .. I have started opting more and more for the iPhone .. I even enrolled recently on iphoneart (I am Nightlight there), where some of the finest work made with iPhone is exhibited.

    This is becoming too long now .. i look forward for your new thoughts and rumblings.

    • Thanks for your compliments.
      1. It exists, but I find that moving/ tilting the device slightly helps a lot.
      2. You know what they say about the camera you have with you…
      3. Personal preference. I dislike those because you have zero control over a good portion of the artistic decisions, but each to his own…
      4. That’s because a lot of the time, it doesn’t work well as a phone…

      • i agree with your reply, good points, and no 4 brought a smile on for a difficult day 😉

        And the crippled Photos app in it .. No select all button .. and so much more untested / rushed / purposefully crippled in this “camera” pretending to be a cell 😉

  6. “Base ISO is now lowered to 50 instead of 80”

    I don’t know about the iPhone 4, but my iPhone 4S has a base ISO of 64. Not that it makes much of a difference … BTW, both the Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC One have optical image stabilization, though both phones are much larger. I still think the iPhone is the best phone on the market and Apple is doing very well, but that’s just my opinion and off-topic.

    My favorite camera app is Kitcam: It offers various aspect ratios including square; and its filters aren’t just kitsch like Instagram, but (at least some of them are) based on actual film simulations. It’s true that it’s not available from the lock screen (I’d really wish Apple would open up on that more), but I’ve placed it on a prominent position on my home screen so I can open it rather quickly as well. The camera of the 4S takes its due time to load, though. 😦

  7. WaltFrench says:

    I’m quite shocked that a person with supposed experience in digital photography would “review” the iPhone camera with such lack of perspective.

    The iPhone5, very much like other smartphone cameras, has a sensor approximately 5% of the size of your typical compact DSLR. That means each pixel gets about 5% of the light — ISO 100 on a smartphone should get similar quality to ISO 2000 on a modern DSLR.

    Rather than call the noise/averaging levels disappointing, you just have to recognize Apple has tried to make a pleasing compromise between noise, portability and detail, that cannot possibly match a bigger system on all three measures.

    Nor, as you beg for the option of different tradeoffs of noise versus detail, do you address the issue of complexity that necessarily results. Phone buyers can’t be expected to make halfway sensible choices about graininess versus detail even if they HAVE the choice: even if they could be educated to check, the screens aren’t detailed enough to show how the pictures will look at print resolution.

    Methinks you are just in a bad mood. The very good cameras in most smartphones is a $20 part; don’t expect it to take the same photos that your $400 DSLR — or even a $250 compact point-n-shoot — is capable of (assuming you lug it to where you’ll use it, and have time to set it up for shooting). It should take pictures consistent with its cost, size and simplicity — and by all measures the iPhone5 camera does exactly that.

    • I’m comparing the camera to its predecessor or a compact, not a DSLR, with appropriate expectations. I don’t expect 36 clean megapixels. I think you’re missing the point of the review…do you by any chance work for Apple? You seem to have also missed the point that I’m more than capable of making great images despite the incredibly limited sensor. This is where my ‘supposed’ experience shows. I don’t think asking for a separate button is too much either, considering most other phones have this.

  8. Don’t think of the camera in your phone as such, think of it instead as a portable photocopier and scanner, and it suddenly starts making much more sense. If you already have a RX100, why would you ever bother using the iPhone camera instead?

  9. Great Review Ming! I really like the portrait.

  10. nitrogenseekers says:

    Is this app a scam? I bought it and the files that Lightroom imports are just TIFs, and are such a mess that they are unusable. Your opinion, please?

  11. Thank you for this review. It puts things in perspective.

  12. Have you tried another app besides the built in Camera, for example Camera+? Apple gives a good green box shooting mode solution because they have to cater to the masses who don’t inspect every pixel, but other apps do offer the fine control you’re talking about. You’re criticizing the device, but what you really have problems with is one bit of software. Try another.

  13. I guess you changed from iPhone 4 to 5 skipping the 4S. Because I did feel that the 4S camera, tho supposedly similar to 5, it’s white balance is better. Strange that both are on iOS 6.1.3, same camera module, possibly same sensor, but different processor. However, iPhone 5 is much faster overall. If you have fast fingers, probably can shoot 3 fps with the 5. 🙂

    About the aluminum casing, well, just like the chrome back of the iPod touch, or iPod … I actually thought having scuffs and scratches to it gives the phone some character and kind of personalize it for me. Just like my E-M5, I relish the scratch, scuffs and dents of the camera as I use it. These things are meant to be used and enjoyed. When its time to be replaced, they will be replaced anyway. They won’t last forever.

    On photography, I really envy you eye and you photos. They are the best I have ever come across. Cheers!

    • I probably would have skipped the 5 if my 4 hadn’t died. But yes, I was surprised how fast the 5 is – comparable to a good compact.

      Maybe I should just get a piece of sandpaper and go to town on the phone…

  14. No dedicated camera button? Eh!?. Try pressing the volume up button 😉

    • That doesn’t focus or meter, it just shoots. What they should have at least done is put focus/metering on one volume button, and shutter on the other.

  15. I’m still using my Nokia N8 which is over 2 years old. I kept the phone even though I upgraded my contract because it has a superior camera and image quality in it. You can at least adjust ISO settings and exposure compensations, resolution etc. Even has a macro mode! Image quality is comparable to many compacts.
    Perfect to carrying around when I can’t be bothered to lug DSLRs and lenses. 🙂

  16. It’s a source of annoyance to me, that you can take better pictures with your phone than I can take with my dslr 😉 Keep it up Ming.

  17. Hi! Have you considered reviewing other camera phones out there like the Nokia Lumia 920 or the Samsung Galaxy S3? I’m curious to see what your take would be on both devices as cameras.

    • Honestly? There’s no way I’m buying another phone just to use as a camera. The $700-800 they cost where I live would get me a very, very good compact. Or another ‘Blad. Or a lot of film – etc. I review the iPhone camera because I happen to have it as part of the phone (which I need), rather than a standalone with the specific purpose of being a camera…

  18. A well rounded article on the iPhone. An iPhone will never replace a blad, nor will a blad ever replace an iPhone. I was using androids and I wanted to share my reason for switching to the iPhone 5. The Screen. Apple does a much better job of calibrating their screens for viewing – especially at full brightness. On the other hand, some android phones have this terrible colour cast. It often turns regular black and white images into cyanotypes – or worst still if it has this greenish tint.
    The battery life and home button does make it very difficult to live with an iPhone, but when I am showing people my photos (and I don’t have prints on hand) I’m glad I have my iPhone or iPad (not the mini), apple can be momentarily forgiven.

    • Absolutely – the screen in the iphone is so much better than any camera I’ve ever used. Makes me wonder why none of the camera makers have bothered…

      • I’ve just upgraded to an iPhone 5 myself and am constantly surprised at how much better the screen looks compared to the iPhone 4. I’m also surprised more manufacturers don’t pay attention to this little detail. AnandTech has a pretty in-depth look at the screen and they seem to like it:

        “Wrapping up, the iPhone 5 display is a quantum leap better than the display on the iPhone 4. Contrast levels and light output have both been increased, and color performance is astonishing. The full sRGB gamut is present here, and color errors are remarkably low even for a high end desktop display. While many were hoping for a move to OLED or some other screen innovation, this really is a huge step up that is very easy to quantify. To put this in perspective, in the past few years I’ve reviewed probably 30-40 different displays, from PC monitors to TVs to projectors. Not a single one, out of the box, can put up the Gretag Macbeth dE numbers that the iPhone can, and perhaps one projector (which listed for $20,000) can approach the grayscale and color accuracy out of the box.”

  19. I have the iPhone 5, upgraded from 3GS. I was considering switching to an Android but a friend suggested I stick with Apple. It does what I need it to do for a smart phone. The way I see it, the camera is extra and can be decent in good light. I hate it when LTE is dropping like crazy and at one point I cannot even get connection again without restarting the phone or resetting the network settings. I scheduled an appointment with a Genius but I found a workaround and it eventually was fixed. Would I be happier with an Android, maybe? And at the expense of re-purchasing all the apps that you already bought in the App store. I think I will be happier sticking with the iPhone and live with the shortcomings.

    • The phone itself could use some work…though it’s unclear if it’s a design issue, a network issue, or a QC issue. I’m having all sorts of network/ battery issues at the moment.

    • I have both, and Android has its issues as well. In a pinch in a good light iPhone 5 does the job. Not bad for the form factor really. After all it is the smallest and lightest of the bunch.

      As a mobile developer I looked at Android for a more native API to develop a ‘true’ camera app for it, and you’d be surprised Android doesn’t offer any more control than Apple.

      • Not surprised at all – after all, these things are phones first, cameras second. I keep reminding myself such functionality is a bonus, not something to be expected (unlike say, a DSLR having proper photographic controls).

  20. It is what it is – better than nothin’. iPhones not even on my radar as I rarely have any real use for a mobile. A cheap non smart phone does fine for me.

    I did buy the iPad Mini shortly after introduction and I have done some shooting with it. It’s fun, and like the iPhone, better than nothin’. I’ve taken a few nice pics with it. One guy on the web bought the Mini and touted it as the greatest thing since sliced bread. He promised a full extensive review of the fantastic camera in it. He never did. Maybe he found out what crap the camera is. I think it’s the same camera as the iPhone 4.


  1. […] All images in this article shot with an Apple iPhone 5. […]

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