The iPhone 5. Photo: Reuters
The iPhone 5's improved camera makes it easier than ever to leave your compact digital at home.
Better photos are something you can generally take for granted with each new iPhone, so it's surprising to see that the iPhone 5 offers the same 8 megapixel rear camera resolution as the iPhone 4S. But there's more to picture quality than the pixel count and the iPhone 5's camera is still a considerably improvement on its predecessor.
On a bright sunny day you won't see much difference, but the iPhone 5 shines through when it comes to dynamic contrast and low-light performance. It retains the iPhone 4S' f/2.4 aperture, which means the camera can capture more light than the iPhone 4. But Apple has made other tweaks to improve the iPhone 5's picture quality over the 4S. When you take shots in a darkened room, or with a bright window in the background, you'll see a lot more detail in the shadows. That's great for parties and the extra contrast helps deliver more lifelike images and prints.
Apple has also added a slick panorama feature to iOS6, which is available on the iPhone 5 and 4S but not the 4. It lets you slowly pan around the room while it takes lots of photos which it then stitches together. An onscreen guide helps you get the best results although it still can be a little warped, depending on the scene.
You'll also notice the improved low-light performance when capturing video, along with the fact that shooting widescreen 1080p now almost perfectly matches the phone's new widescreen aspect ratio. Apple has improved the video stabilisation and has added the ability to capture photos while recording video. It's the latter that really caught my eye, because I hate being forced to choose between shooting videos and stills when recordings events such as kids blowing out birthday candles. Denying this feature to iPhone 4S owners seems harsh, although I don't know whether it's a technical limitation or just Apple's way of "encouraging" you to upgrade.
By now it should be clear that this isn't a full iPhone 5 review, as there are plenty of them around, this is just a closer look at one interesting aspect. If you own an iPhone 4 then the quality of the iPhone 5's photos and video alone could be enough to convince you to upgrade. Despite its best efforts, the photo quality of the iPhone 4 still can't rival that from a decent entry-level compact digital from the likes of Canon. The iPhone 5 closes the gap considerably. The faster processor means it also fires up faster and responds sooner when you tap the button to take a phone or shoot video.
If you've got an iPhone 4S then the improvement are less striking, but still impressive. I've seen complaints about the iPhone 5's flash misfiring but I haven't encountered this issue. From my tests it does a more even-handed job than the 4S in dark conditions, and when you disable the flash the iPhone 5 picks up a lot more detail in very dark rooms. Move into a room with bright windows, or outside with the sun behind your subjects, and the iPhone 5's improved picture quality really shines through. These three photos make it clear how the much the iPhone's camera has improved over the last few years -- with the iPhone 4 on the left, 4S in the middle and 5 on the right.
You see a similar improvement when you switch to video mode. Panning across a scene with the setting sun in the background almost completely overwhelms the iPhone 4S, whereas the 5 copes much better -- offering more detail in the shadows and more accurate colours.It's not just the light handling which has improved. In in good light the colours are slightly more vivid and bright areas are less washed out. This means that some photos actually look sharper than the 4S even though there are no extra pixels at play.
It's worth remembering that photos will look slightly better on the iPhone 5's screen, compared the 4 or iPhone 4S, due to the whiter whites and boosted colour saturation as I discussed on Monday. But even when you copy photos to a computer you can see the improvement in the iPhone 5's shots.
If you're still using the iPhone 4 then you'll be amazed at the iPhone 5's camera, but to be fair the iPhone 4S' camera isn't too shabby unless you put it in really punishing conditions like the photo above. Perhaps of more interest to iPhone 4S owners is that Apple has also boosted the iPhone 5's front camera from VGA to 1.2 megapixels. It obviously improves the quality of self-portraits but, more importantly, the jump allows the iPhone 5 to support 720p Facetime HD video chats. These look significantly better than standard Facetime, assuming you've got the bandwidth to let it shine. Even when you make Facetime calls to owners of older iPhones, the image they see is improved thanks to the iPhone 5's camera. iPhone 5 owners can make Facetime calls over both wi-fi and mobile broadband, as can the iPhone 4S after the iOS6 upgrade (but not the iPhone 4).
Camera phones might never satisfy hardcore photographers, but the iPhone 5's impressive efforts make it easier to leave your compact digital happy snapper at home. Later in the week I'll wrap up with a look at the iPhone 5's mobile broadband performance and new features such as HD voice calls.