The Apple iPhone 4S is a significant upgrade over its predecessor, and boasts numerous improvements, but what does it offer for photographers? Nigel Atherton examines the camera and photographic features of the iPhone 4S
Watch our video review of the iPhone 4S, filmed and edited entirely using an iPhone 4S
The original iPhone was ground-breaking but its lacklustre 2MP camera was probably its weakest feature. The iPhone 4’s camera was upgraded to 5MP, not great but enough to make it the most popular camera on Flickr. Now, finally, Apple has given the camera part of its phone the attention it deserves. The camera in the new 4s is now 8MP, but as we know, its not just about the megapixels. In this case the sensor is a high spec backside-illuminated CMOS type, as used in the best compact cameras. Making sense of the sensor’s data is Apple’s latest A5 dual-core processor which, Apple claims, is as fast as anything you’ll find in a DSLR, with double the processing power and seven times faster graphics performance of its predecessor. In front of all this is what Apple reckons is the most sophisticated lens of any camera phone, with five elements (the most on any phone) and a fast f/2.4 maximum aperture.
The camera can now be accessed instantly from standby by double pressing the home button, as well as the conventional route of prodding the on-screen camera icon and you can now also use a physical button (the + volume button) to press the shutter as an alternative to the virtual one on the screen. The 3.5inch touch screen Retina display is bigger and sharper than anything you’ll find on a camera and in addition to the continuous AF and Face Detection focus modes you can also tap the screen to set the exposure, and lock focus on any area of the scene.
The basic Camera app offers few options other than flash on/off/auto, grid display and an HDR mode, and you can zoom digitally using the pinch-to-zoom gesture now familiar to smart phone users. Download the superior Camera+ app for 69p though and you’ll get extra features such as image stabilisation, self timer, burst mode, scene modes, and special effects filters, plus a post-capture lightbox and additional editing and sharing options. The HD movie mode has been upgraded too, and is now full 1080p at 30fps, with video image stabilisation, stereo audio and H.264 compression. Once you’ve taken your pictures you can crop and enhance them and organise them into albums before sharing them. You can even trim your video clips within the viewer. Of course all this is just what’s built-in, and you can enhance the functionality significantly by downloading some of the camera, editing, video editing and special effects apps on the App store, of which there are thousands.
Apple’s photographic enhancements on the 4S go beyond the phone itself. A new feature included with iOS5, the operating system that the iPhone 4S runs on, is iCloud, which remotely stores all your content and pushes it to all your other devices so they stay synchronised with each other. iCloud has been described as a hard drive in the sky. You get 5GB of storage for free and can expand that at additional cost if required. A key part of iCloud is Photo Stream. This automatically sends every photo you take on the iPhone to iCloud and then automatically downloads them into iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac (or a folder of your choice on a PC). Photo Stream also stores your last 1000 photos in the cloud for 30 days so they can be viewed on your phones, iPads and other devices from anywhere. If you connect an Apple TV (around £100) to your telly, Airplay Mirroring lets you wirelessly stream all the photos and videos on your 4S (as well as games, music and other content) to your TV, instantly, while you control things from your armchair – a new, high-tech way to torture your family and friends! The good news is for owners of 3GS and 4 owners is that you can get these iOS 5 features on your exisiting phone simply by upgrading to the new software.
Performance, Image Quality and Verdict
Apple iPhone 4S camera – Performance
The camera on the iPhone 4S performs exceptionally well. It takes a couple of seconds to boot up but once up and running its significantly faster to use than not only previous iPhones but also many compact cameras as well. The screen on the 4s is the same as the 4, which is magnificent. All screens can be hard to see in bright sun but the Retina display is better than many in this regard. Focusing is quick and accurate, and the focus point is indicated by a square on the screen. If you don’t agree with where the camera has chosen to focus you can tap on something else in the frame and it will lock onto that instead – even following it if it moves around.
Taking a picture, either using the real or touch screen button, happens without any discernable shutter lag and processing time is almost instant – its possible to achieve two frames per second just by pressing the button. As with previous iPhones the placement of the lens in the top corner may take some getting used to if you’re not used to it, and you may need to hold the phone differently to the way you would a compact camera to avoid blocking the lens with your finger.
Also although it’s great to have the option of a physical shutter release button, the volume control is not the ideal choice, being a little small and wedged between other buttons. A larger, dedicated one would be nice to see on the iPhone 5, when it comes.
Apple iPhone 4S camera – Image Quality
Functionality is important, but it’s the final image quality that matters most and here the iPhone 4S comfortably exceeded our expectations. In good light pictures are crisp and detailed, even when viewed at 100%, with pleasingly punchy but not over-saturated colours. The lens is sharp and relatively free of distortion, while exposure and white balance generally perform flawlessly. Occasionally, with high contrast scenes beyond the dynamic range of the sensor, highlight detail can end up being sacrificed but it’s worth pointing out that, although there is no manual exposure control as such, you can effectively control the exposure by your choice of what part of the scene you tap on the screen. Tapping light areas will give you a darker result than tapping darker ones.
In lower light at the higher ISOs (the 4S seems to peak at ISO 800) noise creeps in but the film grain-like structure is relatively easy on the eye, compared with some cameras. The processor clearly does a great job of interpreting the scenes presented to it and turning out pleasing images even in tricky situations.
Above: You can affect exposure by tapping the image in the appropriate place. In this example the two shots are what resulted from tapping the areas within the red squares.
Apple iPhone 4S camera – Verdict
Apple reckons the iPhone 4S has the best camera ever produced for a mobile phone, and we reckon they might be right. It redefines what photographers can reasonably expect to get from a camera phone. The speed of use and quality of the results exceeds not only any other phone we’ve tried but also many cameras too. Based upon this test, compact manufacturers should start panicking now.
Video review of the Apple iPhone 4S
We compared the images from the Apple iPhone 4S with images from two previous generation iPhones, plus a Nokia N8 (which was the winner of our last camera phone group test, and regarded up to now as the best camera on a phone) and a Canon Powershot S95 compact camera. The results were interesting and surprising, with the iPhone 4S the clear and unanimous winner in a blind test with the WDC staff. See for yourself in this example…
These images were taken from the roof of the What Digital Camera offices, looking out over the London skyline. The images were taken in good light but each phone/camera was supported on a monopod for stability, to rule out camera shake.
The Canon S95 was used in jpeg mode. Admittedly, better performance could be
achieved from it by shooting raw, albeit with some extra processing
work, and the Canon may well triumph in lower light. We’ll be conducting a full, in depth comparision test shortly and will post our findings.
Image Samples from the iPhone 4S
Above: Images are sharp and detailed, with natural colours.
Above: Exposures are generally accurate
Even strong backlighting didn’t phase the 4S in this example
Above: Punchy, saturated colours
Above: A low light church interior at ISO 800 shows noise but it isn’t excessive.
Above: Barrel distortion on the iPhone 4S is minimal – better than some compacts.