One of the heavily touted new features of the iPhone 4s is the improved camera. I've always been a fan of the iPhones camera and I was eager to put the new one through its paces. But I was unsre of just how do to go about reviewing it? What benchmark do I measure it against? The iPhone gained popularity as a photographic tool, not for taking really high quality photos, but for taking poor quality photos really artistically. When most people discuss the iPhone camera they do so in the context of using it with one of the many excellent camera apps available on the app store. With the iPhone 4s though, many, including Apple themselves have been touting the camera as being able to hold its own against your typical compact camera. Some have even gone so far as to do comparisons against low end DSLR's (which frankly is a rediculous comparison to make.) So I decided that would be the way I would approach this review. I want to examine how good the camera is on its own, as a pure photographic tool, without any assistance or faux analog effects. This may seem a little unfair, as after all, it's just a phone camera, but as so much hyperbole has been written about it I think it's fair to at least put it in that context.
Image Quality & Usability
So, how does it fare? Well, not bad if you're comparing it to other camera phones. In good light it produces good results. Images are relatively sharp and have good strong contrast in most situations. Noise is there but minimal.
The camera takes really good macro shots too. The previous one was no slouch either, but images from the 4s are noticeably punchier. In good light that is. In less than perfect light things change pretty quickly.
On a dull overcast day (or as we call it in Ireland, a "day") the results are less than stellar. Images have poor colours, blacks are very high and noise is more obvious. It's not a case of the camera not performing well at high ISO either, because in the exif data it's obvious the camera never needs to go to high iso in these conditions thanks to it's 2.4 lens. No, it's the camera's software that just doesn't know what to do and so sets the settings all over the place.
Now, I know most cameras won't produce great results in poor conditions, but most cameras will let you change at least some settings to make the best of it. The only thing you can really do with the iPhone 4s camera (using the default app) is you can lock the focus and exposure. Unfortunately, you can only do both of these together, not individually which limits the usefulness of this feature. You really need to be able to lock the exposure and then focus later.
White balance is another serious issue with the camera. It is always on auto, and there is no way to manually set it. For general scenes it does an ok job, but fill the frame with a particular colour or a particular subject and it will often give you less than pleasant results. It really doesn't like green for some reason.
(Image taken using default camera app - note the white balance is terrible)
(Same image taken using "Pro Camera" with the white balance locked)
I understand Apple's philosophy here of making the camera as easy to use as possible but it would be really great to have at the very least manual white balance and some form of exposure compensation. Luckily there are third party apps that adress some of these issues, although in kind of a round about way. The one I found the most useful in this regard is called "Pro Camera". This lets you lock the white balance and lets you lock the exposure and focus to different parts of the image. It's not a perfect solution as the Ap Store API doesn't allow manual setting of white balance or exposure, but it's better than nothing.
Speed wise it is much faster than the previous one. Most of the time it starts up quickly, and combined with the handy shortcut introduced in iOS 5 that allows you to double click the home button when locked to get to the camera quickly, you can get to use the camera much more quickly than previously. It still does stall now and then though, and you're left with the dreaded closed shutter screen for a bit longer than one would like. Speed between shots has been much I proved too. I won't bore you with stats as to how many milliseconds between shots as no one in the real world really cares, but in reality it’s fast enough not to bother you.
(I was able to get my phone out and camera in action as this car pulled up at the lights beside me - something I doubt would have happened on the iPhone 4)
What you don't get
There are two things you should be aware of if you intend to consider this as a primary photographic tool. The first is the lack of an optical zoom. Even the most basic compact cameras come with some form of optical zoom, and the electronic zoom of the iPhone can't compare.
Tghe other issue is battery life. When I was out testing it, I ran through a full charge after only 200 shots and a few videos. This surprised me, I have to say. 200 is not a lot, and because it's your phone too, you really don't want to run down the charge that quickly. Now, it's possible there was some extranious factor contributing to the discharge, and you could optimise it by turning other things off, like push notifications, etc, but again, that defeats the purpose of having a camera on your Phone.
On board editing, and photo stream
One of the nifty new features is the ability to do basic edits straight from the camera app. While these are fairly limited they are useful. Of particular interest is the "auto enhance" function. This does a basic "auto levels" on the image and it can help correct some of the issues I mentioned earlier that occur shooting in dull weather. What's really interesting though is that it's non destructive. You can go back into the image in the photos App and turn it back off at any time. Not only that, but if you import the photos into Aperture, it comes up as a brick in the adjustments panel labelled "iOS adjustments". This is pretty clever, I have to say.
The other cool thing is photo stream. (an iOS 5 feature, not just on the 4s). Photo stream is really really useful. It works kind of like an eye-fi card (only it's fast - sorry, eye-fi fans) Once you get in range of wifi it starts uploading your most recent images to the cloud and it's pretty fast. Once you open Aperture or iPhoto the images are there in the photo stream section. It means, if you are only shooting a few images at a time you never have to worry about plugging your phone in to offload the images (although you will for video)
Video has been improved substantially over the previous version too. You now have full 1080 video and it has rudimentary stabilisation too. I have to say, the video quality is pretty good, and it's easily a match for your average consumer camcorder. Here's a video of a few different shots to give you an idea. Note that the light wasn't great either, so that should let you know how it performs in less than perfect conditions. I've also deliberately not tried to edit out any shaky bits so you can get an idea of how well the stabiliser performs.
So how does it compare to your average compact?
Getting back to the original premise, is it good enough to replace a typical compact camera. Well, that's a pretty loaded question, isn't it. In terms of pure image quality, it's probably on a par with entry level compacts. Compared to mid range or high end models, there's no comparison. Sorry to disapoint you, but there you have it. But the the thing is, you shouldn't expet it to be as good as a mid range or high end compact. The fact that we're even having this discussion shows how far it has come for a phone camera.
I need to make it clear, I'm not trying to bash the iPhone 4s' camera at all. I think it's great for what it is, but I think people need to be realsitic about what it is too. There has been a lot of excessive statements made about it since it's release and frankly some of the comparisons are a little unrealistic.
But there's more to photography than just image quality. The advantage of always having a camera with you can't be underestimated, and in that respect, the camera on the iPhone is good enough to capture anything that might happen in front of you. If you only ever intend to put images on the web then the quality is absolutely good enough. If you're not a photographer and just want something for taking snaps, then for the most part it can replace a cheap compact.
Then there's the artistic options available by using one of the many Apps that treat your image. I deliberately steered clear of this subject for the purposes of this article because that wasn't the point, but with so many options available you can produce some wonderful imagery with the iPhone and that in my opinion is what makes it a truely unique camera.
Here's some more images for you to peruse: