The iPhone 5’s new camera lens isn’t a gigantic improvement. But where Apple does make more significant advances is the software. My tests shots show the iPhone 5 has faster photo capture, better low-light performance, and improved noise reduction.

iPhone 5 camera

The other day I was rummaging around in my junk drawer and found my old point-and-shoot camera. I had forgotten I even owned one. The iPhone took over that job long ago. A few months ago I wrote about how I use the iPad and iPhone for my photography, and this post is an update on how I’ll be using the iPhone 5.

Initial camera impressions

At first, I was a tad disappointed with the camera in the iPhone 5.  Each iPhone’s camera has been significantly better than its predecessor’s. My general experience has been that for most day-to-day uses where the image has some decent lighting, you’re not going to notice a gigantic difference between the iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 cameras. I think that’s because the iPhone 4s camera was so good, that’s it’s like the Spinal Tap version of cameras: How much better can it be? None more better.

Instead of the camera lens, where Apple can make more significant improvements is in the software. According to Apple, the iPhone 5 has faster photo capture, better low-light performance, and improved noise reduction. My initial test backs those claims up. I noticed a huge difference in low light captures between the iPhone 4s and the iPhone 5. Below are two images of the junk pile on my desk:

iPhone 4s

iPhone 5

There are a few obvious points here. The first is that I really need to tidy up my desk. The second is the the iPhone 5 photo really is a lot better than the iPhone 4s. I’ve tried to line the two shots up as close I could (and for the pixel peepers, the controls for my headset have moved between shots).

With the iPhone 4s camera you can vaguely see an iPhone 5 box and my EarPod case. With the iPhone 5, the overall image quality is lot better. There are only two light sources with this capture: a Luxo-style lamp behind the iPhone 5 case, and a 27-inch monitor slightly off-camera. The iPhone 4s picture also has a lot of noise, which gives it some unwanted grain. The iPhone 5 camera, again, is much sharper. For giggles, I also took a panorama with the iPhone 5 in the same conditions.

The screen

Aside from the size, the iPhone 5 screen covers the full spectrum of sRGB. Apple has also eliminated one of the layers in the screen composition, moving the pixels closer to the edge. While overall the screen has better blacks and more saturation, it’s a subtle, subjective difference.

As a photographer, the overall screen quality between the two phones isn’t a big selling point. That’s because for the most part, I rarely show someone a photo on my iPhone. Usually, I’m posting it on Flickr, or sending it directly to someone. Where it will, however, come in handy is how it affects my overall workflow.

My iPhone 5 workflow

I tend to shoot a lot of low-light images — bands, for the most part — and the iPhone 5 will come in handy for that. While I doubt an iPhone camera will ever replace my DSLR as my main photo for these shoots, the iPhone 5 camera will increase the images I capture and immediately post to Facebook.

The screen, though, I think will have the biggest impact to how I handle shots taken on my iPhone. Since iPhoto for iOS takes advantage of the larger screen, I won’t feel as cramped when I edit the image. iPhoto is great for taking a photo, performing some minor edits like cropping and white balance adjustment, and then posting directly to Facebook.

One personal challenge I’m taking on this year is to enter a photo taken and edited solely on my iPhone 5 in one of the competitions my camera club runs. I continue to be amazed at what the iPhone 5 and iPhoto can do, and want to shake myself free of the mentality that I need to use my DSLR to create a competition-ready image. I’d be surprised if the technology hasn’t gotten to the point where an image taken and edited on an iPhone won’t at least score well. I’m a firm believer that the real magic of photography happens with the person taking the photo; not the camera he or she uses.

Final Frame

The iPhone 5, and the Camera app, is the best iPhone camera yet. But, that’s what we expect these days, isn’t it? While you may not notice a difference in the majority of your shots, if you deal with less-than-ideal lighting and don’t want to use a flash (an example that comes to mind is shooting someone blowing out the candles on a cake) the iPhone 5 camera will blow you away.

That said, previous iPhone cameras I’ve felt were worth the upgrade alone, but this camera upgrade feels more situational and subjective. I expect this is likely to be the case going forward. There’s only so many dramatic improvements you can make in a camera designed to fit into a slim body.  The biggest software improvement I want is an app — either from Apple or someone else — that shoots true RAW images. This would allow for better post-processing edits in software like Lightroom and Aperture. Unfortunately, the closest app I’ve seen, 645 PRO, still doesn’t take full RAW images.

  1. As a photographer myself and with my contract up on 10/1, I’ve been researching my next phone that doubles as my anywhere/everyday snapshooter. I got to say though, I was intrigued by the better camera in the iPhone 5, but there’s been lots of word about purple flares showing up in shots.

    Sure enough, in the “junk pile” shot, there’s tons of it in the upper left. Little surprised you didn’t call it out. I mean, I love me some Holga-style lens flare & light leaks, but I’m betting a few people may not be too happy about it, eh?

    1. Joseph DeRuvo Jr. Sunday, September 30, 2012

      Yes flare can be an issue (with any camera)
      I just hold one hand up to shield the lens from strong light sources coming from the side
      I think what is needed is an removable lens shade :-)
      Until then the hand works ok
      Also another point is that I am suspicious sometimes of the effects of some of the cases I see people using for there phones
      It is for this reason that I run mine naked :-)

  2. are you a photographer? O’Rly?

    didn’t you notice the purple flare up to the left? Jez The new camera lens are flowed.

    Also, you still believe that can’t be better cameras that the one on iphone4? Maybe apple can’t do it – they actually screw it on 5 – but you haven’t look far outside the apple store, have you?

    Keep as updated if anything change in the world of photography, would you?

    1. That is a lens flare which occurred when there is a light source capture by this large lens which is F2.4.

      Kind of funny the obsession in trying to find faults with Apple products.

      Better luck next time guys.

  3. Interesting how unless I missed it, there’s no mention of the “purple haze” lighting issue on the iPhone 5 that people are now starting to report. It’s clearly visible in the dark sample image you have – look in the upper-left corner (purple). It’s turning up in quite a few iPhone 5 pics people are uploading where there’s a bright light source to the side or near a corner, and it stands to be a huge issue from the looks of it. For that alone, I’d give the iPhone 5 camera a “D” grade. You may also wish to inspect your outdoor shots, as the noise reduction feature also seems to be smoothing out details in things like grass and hair, even in good light; the camera doesn’t shut it “off” in good light in other words.

    1. We have 2 iPhone 5s and do not have this problem. I even tried to make it happen with the lighting conditions and use that others say might cause this to happen and I do not get it at all on either phone.

  4. Compare iPhone 5 vs. Lumia 920 photo with dark exposure and iPhone 5 is loser.

  5. Joseph DeRuvo Jr. Saturday, September 29, 2012

    Everything for the past two years have been shot with either an iPhone 4 or 4s
    We make 20″sq prints no problem :-)

    1. Saw your site. Really impressed that you did all this on an iPhone 4/4S (does this include the Dance Studio pics?) Wow!
      What app do you use to get the black & white shots?

      1. Joseph DeRuvo Jr. Sunday, September 30, 2012

        Everything on the “Personal” page, last two years is iPhone. Not sure what Dance Studio stuff you came across in there :-)
        The smaller kids at the top of this gallery was done with the iPhone
        As well as
        All of these also Edited on the iPhone, we use FilterStorm for most of Tweaking
        It’s a phenomenal app that even allows you to record actions for later use!
        I shoot everything Color and then process Black and White after the fact
        When I hold my iPhone vertical it is Black and White, when I hold it Horizontal it’s color, and everything I shoot is Square! :-)

  6. How was the lumia 920 not mentioned in this article? $$ from apple?

    1. This was a review of the iPhone 5’s camera explicitly. We ran a separate story on Friday about the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5 cameras. Feel free to take a tour of our site.

    2. I have a feeling that you may see more mention of the Nokia when it’s actually available. Hell, why not mention the Lumia 980. It’ll probably be out after the 920. Then the 1050 will be out so why not mention that while you’re at it.
      I find it fantastic that you see no mention of an unreleased phone as $$ from Apple. If he had mentioned it you would have just complained about some other device that you’re in love with even though you’ve never seen one in person.

  7. Sorry but the terms “point and shoot” and photographer really just don’t mix well. I’m sure a lot a lame wanna-ba photographers will jump up and disagree so they have the liberty of calling themselves “photographers”. I looked at the photos on your blog, they look like someone took them with a point-and-shoot and have just about that much thought behind them. You can say that you are writer that likes photography but stop passing yourself off as a photographer, please. There are 100s of examples of good photography out there. Please compare your work photos with those. A person who takes photos is not necessarily a photographer. That term implies a long investment in learning a craft.

    1. Geez Dude, a person who drives a car is the “driver”, a person who cooked a meal is the “cook”..therefore a person who takes a picture is what…a “picture taker” and not the “photographer”? I am a person who owns a D90 DSLR, an S95 Point and Shoot and a 4S. By no means am I an “expert Photographer” but I do take nice shots on occasion and appreciate good pictures as well. I can therefore claim that I am an “amateur Photographer” but a Photographer nevertheless. Peace

      1. Simone Radice Sunday, October 7, 2012

        Well, yes but in english (which is not my native language) there’s a differene between “Driver” and “Pilot”, “Cook” and “Chef”… I Think so….There’s one in italian, so I suppose is the same for English…

  8. Did you notice if the low light quality was a lot worse when in panoramic mode compared to the normal camera mode? If so, any idea why it would do that?

    1. You can do better, use your point and shoot you will encounter the same problem.

      The light emitted by the screen is much stronger than the surrounding hence the brightness but look at the screen it is not a washout (try to look it up so you will understand what I am trying to say).

    2. Because the ISO filter is only a “Software” one, it’s not about Lenses and Apertures…So in a panorama mode it is just skipped by the software…

  9. Have you considered trying the lumia 920?

  10. No mention of significant, obvious purple fringing in the “photographer’s view”.


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