Thoughts on the iPhone 5S camera

by Volker Weber


Apple has improved the iPhone 5S camera with a faster lens (f/2.2 instead of f/2.4) and a larger sensor (+15%). This means that each of the 8 million pixels catches more light, giving the camera software more information to work with. Apple also introduces a second flash LED. By mixing the two colors, it can create a flash suitable for different light scenarios.

Frankly, there isn't much more Apple could do, given the physical restraints of the iPhone body. It's a much smaller gun than a Lumia 1020. That's a race Apple cannot win. Nokia has a "real" Xenon flash, which isn't only more powerful but also produces a shorter flash, which enables the camera to freeze motion in dark surroundings. Having 34/38 megapixels to draw from when building a 5 megapixel image gives Nokia another big advantage. Finally, the 1020 (and the 92x) has an optical image stabilization, that's missing on the iPhone.

However, Apple is pulling a few other tricks. The iPhone camera is fast. Really fast. It loads much faster and shoots photos much faster. One of the tricks the software is using is that it shoots a couple of frames, combining them into a better photo. I found that all of the quick shots I did without much thinking came out extremely well. When you watch your lighting and frame it right, there is hardly anything you can do wrong. No messing around with settings, just a quick shot and you have a great photo.

If you keep your finger on the shutter release, the iPhone 5S keeps shooting frames at an incredible pace: 10 frames a second. And it's not polluting your camera roll. All frames hide behind a single one. You can go back to that frame and select your favorites from the series. iPhone picks one for you, but you can pick others that you like more. And then you can delete the large stack. It was never easier to shoot a photo of one person. A couple of persons are a different question. Here the Lumia has the upside since it lets you combine faces into a final shot, a feature missing from Apple's camera.

Slow motion video is another cool feature. There is a separate setting that reduces the resolution to 720p from 1080p and shoots 120 frames per second. It will automatically save the video into a three part sequence: normal speed, slow motion, normal speed. When you edit the video, you can move the start and endpoints of the slow motion part. The resulting video looks very cool, since you are slowing down the interesting part of the sequence. Of course you can get this completely wrong by letting the viewer wait for the action, but you can quickly get the hang of it.

And finally, there is an old feature where the iPhone camera shines: panoramas. I never get them right on the Nokia, but on the iPhone they are a breeze. It's not stitching large frames, but rather very thin stripes. If you hold the iPhone close enough to the center of rotation, it's very hard to mess up the panorama photo.

All around great improvements for the iPhone. I haven't tried any tricky situations, but photos are turning out great. As soon as I move into a loud and dimly lit environment, the iPhone gets blown out of the water by the Lumias and their rich recording audio and low light performance. But for everything else, the new iPhone has a great camera.


The LA Times has an article and video with one of their professional photographers comparing the camera in the iPhone 5S to the ones in Nokia 1020, HTC One, and Galaxy S4.

It is well worth the read, and the photographer explains the differences in detail.

Harvey Lubin, 2013-09-29 20:14

Here's the link to save others having to look for it

John Keys, 2013-09-30 11:37

"It was a beautiful day and what appeared to be a perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon was testing smartphone cameras."

Oh dear.

Volker Weber, 2013-09-30 11:43

For me the decision to get a 5c vs. a 5s will likely come down to a tradeoff between more memory (which I really need) with the 5c or the better camera (which I'm not sure I need) with the 5s. In your opinion, if what I'm primarily doing is taking pictures of the kids playing around the house or in the yard, with the occasional blowing out the birthday candles video... will I regret passing up the 5s's superior camera? (I've got a DSLR for the karate promotion, school graduation type occasions.)

Adam Gartenberg, 2013-09-30 15:32

The full price for an unlocked 5C is 599 (16) or 699 (32).
The full price for an unlocked 5S is 699 (16) or 799 (32) or 899 (64).

If you are paying less, you are financing through the data plan. If you are looking at 100 for a 5C and 200 for a 5S, then the 5S isn't really double the price. The down payment is double.

Is the camera $100 better? I believe it is. The killer feature is the rapid fire. It lets you capture the frame you want to keep much easier. And remember: this is the camera that will shoot 95% of your photos. The photos you will be looking at in 30 years.

Volker Weber, 2013-09-30 15:45

Thanks... "Is the camera $100 better? I believe it is." was the answer I was looking for.

Adam Gartenberg, 2013-09-30 21:04

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