Why I Always Use a Case on My iPhone 4

iPhone 4 lens micro-scratch
iPhone 4 lens micro-scratch

I have both an iPhone 4 and 4S. Some people prefer to use their iPhone 4 models without a case… “naked.” Others like the protection and look that a good case adds.

I’m a case guy. While the iPhone 4S is designed to take real world bumps and scrapes, I prefer the protection that a good case offers. If you use a “naked” iPhone 4 or 4S, chances are good that your back lens cover has micro-scratches. How do I know? I found out the hard way.

A naked iPhone 4 model is a beautiful piece of electronics. With its sleek glass front and back and aluminum trim, it’s not only a technical marvel, it’s also a sexy looking device.

If you use an iPhone 4 model without a case, the chances increase of damaging its lens. As photographers, we want to shoot with the lens in the best shape possible, but a naked iPhone 4 is very susceptible to tiny lens scratches or micro-scratches.

The lens cover of the iPhone 4 models is made of a softer plastic and not the super indestructible Gorilla glass that the rest of the iPhone is made of. To see any scratches your lens cover may have, simply hold the backside of the iPhone underneath a a good light and angle the lens until you see the minute scratches in the shiny surface of the lens cover.

I used my iPhone 4 for for about a month before discovering my first micro-scratches. See the photograph above. I found the damage before the scratches became bad enough to start obscuring the images. I was lucky.

On both iPhone 4 models, the important rear lens is flush with the flat back of the phone. The risk of permanent micro-scratches is greatly increased with everyday usage such as any time the phone is taken or in or out of a pocket or slides across a table. It’s a design problem that Apple did not address with the 4S.

Most of the time the scratches won’t affect an image or cause any aberrations. However, due to the small size of the lens, continued damage and scratches could cause blurry and dim images. The scratches are permanent.

Here are sample images which illustrate the effect a very badly damaged iPhone lens can have on a photo. The lens damage for these photos was simulated using a single fingerprint smudge on the lens.




A larger lens like that of a DSLR can sustain a lot of damage and still take decent pictures. Check out this link on LensRentals.com for a few examples. But because of its small 3 1/2 mm size, an iPhone lens is more sensitive to dirt and scratches.

Earlier iPhones didn’t really have this problem. The lens cover of the iPhone 2G, 3G, and 3GS was on a curved back and recessed about a millimeter which offered some protection against accidental scratches.

A case, even a lousy one, restores that 2 to 4 mm gap between the delicate iPhone 4’s lens cover and everything else that wants to scratch it.

I love devices like the Glif and OlloClip for the iPhone 4 and 4S, but both of those devices require that the iPhone be used without a case. This increases the risk of permanently damaging your iPhone’s lens cover.

There are many iPhone 4 cases that offer various levels of protection. There are several cases that add functionality and are great for iPhoneography. There are a lot of cases that are just plain sexy. Any of them will increase protection against scratches of your iPhone 4’s delicate lens.

If you have micro-scratches on your lens cover, it’s not the end of your iPhone. You’ve probably been taking a ton of photos unaware that they’re even there. Even the small lens of the iPhone can take be obstructed by a moderate amount of dust and fingerprints and still take fairly good pictures.

But it’s a good precaution to take to ensure that the damage to the lens cover doesn’t increase. Right now, any damage is probably not visibly effecting your photos. Sustaining damage over time will.

For an iPhoneographer, your phone is your camera. Protect your camera. Protect your lens. Use a case.



Related Post: This is also a good time to point you to our classic post “How to Keep Your iPhone 4’s Lens Clean”

About Marty Yawnick 1830 Articles
Marty is a self-employed graphic designer in the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex. He is an avid Rangers baseball, Chicago Cubs, Packers and Highbury Arsenal fan. In addition to capturing random moments with whatever camera is close by (usually his iPhone), his other interests include coffee, Pink Floyd, film, music, and traveling in seats 5E and 5F with his fiancé.
  • heroiicc

    One should research the iphone case they buy as well. Some iphone cases change the way that photos can be taken with the flash due the size of the opening near the back lens and light. In my experience, the black incase slider case works very well when taking pictures with flash. PDP cases obsure the photo when flash is given based on the color the iphone case.

  • iPhone lens cover is part of the back cover of the phone. Whole new back cover for iPhone 4 is only 5$ on eBay and it is very easy to replace. My strategy is to replace it when needed and not to worry too much.

    • That is great news! I noticed my photos haven't been so crisp, then noticed the ugly scratch across the lens 🙁 nice to know that I can replace that glass instead of replacing the phone! Thank you for the tip!
      Marty – this is a really great article! I wish I had been more careful from the start.

    • Shane Martin

      Yes, thanks for pointing that out. I had no idea you could replace the back. I've just ordered one on ebay! The scratches on my lens make Marty's look pristine!

  • I use an Otterbox Defender… It may be bulky but provides great protection. I remember that the Defender for the 3GS even had an extra lens cover!

  • I used a SwitchEasy Trim case before I let my iPhone go naked. The reason because of the glares when using the camera flash when taking pictures. Right now I'm planning to buy a bumper case style only without any back covers.

  • My new favorite case is the Artwizz…it offers great protection and is still sexy, in my humble opinion. Important article to write, Marty. Thank you!

  • I've used a couple of different cases for my iPhone 4. At first I used a regular case that I got through Apple's free case program. But when I got into iPhoneography, I bought a Hipstacase from HIpstamatic. I love the retro camera look and the lanyard to keep the phone from slipping out of my hand. I recently placed an order for the Gizmon iCA case. I'm just waiting for it to arrive in the mail.

  • I switch between several cases. My everyday case is a Gymbl pro. I like the contour in the form factor. I also like the Griffin Reveal because of its fairly good protection and the rubberized edge similar to an iPhone 4 bumper. The clear plastic back lets the beauty of the iPhone stay visible.

    I use a Canopy Kapok and a modified Default case for shooting. And I just got a DiffCase yesterday that I'll be testing.


  • myronathon

    ja, curous to hear about the DiffCase. Thanks for the heads up on scratches, you can never be too careful. And thanks also Miku for that tip.

  • Elaine (Luxtra)

    I'm another Otterbox Defender lover!

  • I've always had a case on my iPhone since I got my 1st one with the 3G. Protection is better than a naked look of an iPhone.

  • I have a DiffCase – it's cool but bulky and not the sort of thing you want if you need to be using an OlloClip etc.

    I'm actually using the basic flexi case that comes standard with the ALM Mcam (Owle bubo).
    It's good enough to use a s standard everyday iPhone case and you can slot your phone straight into the Mcam without any change over.

    I'm still waiting to get my iPhone 4 camera lens fixed – it has an ingrained dust spec.
    I upgraded to a 4S because of this!

    • Andrew,

      Sorry to hear your iPhone 4 has a cataract.


  • Scott E

    I have had the 3GS, 4, and now the 4S. One thing in common between the 3 phones…I’ve always used the Speck Candyshell. It’s not overly bulky and looks great, as well as provides excellent protection from scratches AND drops, due to its rubber interior and plastic exterior. No problems with the flash, either.

  • Cody Wanner

    I just swapped mine out – it worked great, took 7 minutes tops. Here is a picture of how insanely scratched my original was. http://instagr.am/p/hdVuw/ here is the link to the part on eBay for $2.20 http://www.ebay.com/itm/260871927522 (the metal ring is for magnetic attachment lenses, but now doubles as a protector when I lay it on a table).

  • doncomp1

    Way off the subject, but I was struck by the photo showing the scratch on your camera lens.
    On occasion I need to photograph iPhone screens to show small scratches. Can't seem to get a good photo with my DX6340 or my iphone camera. Sure it must be lighting. Is there a secret or a resource you could point me to?

    • A macro lens, the right light, the right camera angle. A lot of cussing and experimentation.


  • Jo

    Are there any cases available that allow you to slide a cover over the lens. I’ve searched. It seems the most logical thing

    • Not that I know of, other than an OtterBox. Any case will recess the lens a little bit and protect it from most tabletop scratches.


  • I had some smudging on my lens and didn’t even realize it was having a significant effect on my photo quality. This article was enough for me investigate my own situation and become aware of my (sort of non-)issue, thanks!

  • James C

    “Earlier iPhones didn’t really have this problem. The lens cover of the iPhone 2G, 3G, and 3GS was on a curved back and recessed about a millimeter which offered some protection against accidental scratches.”

    Did Apple address this issue on the 5 or 5s? I know the look and feel is the same as the 4s, but was curious if the 5s still deals with this problem.

    • Hi, James,

      Not really. The lens cover on the 5 and 5S are still flush with the back of the phone. However, instead of plastic, they are now made of sapphire glass, I believe. With a hardness of 9/10 on the Mohs scale, it’s pretty scratch resistant. That said, I still use a basic Incipio case that provides some sort of gap between a table or my dashboard and my iPhone 5S.


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