iPhone 4, Camera

Rating 4.5 stars

Bottom Line: Great color, great saturation, great dynamic range, a decent flash. An awesome mobile phone camera in many ways, but a few first edition flaws.

I’ve had my iPhone 4 for two weeks now. It’s an amazing device and I absolutely love it. It’s nearly as much an improvement over my old iPhone 2G as the 2G was an improvement over my old Motorola RAZR. It’s faster. The new retina display is gorgeous. iOS 4 is a terrific operating system; it runs great on the iPhone 4 and isn’t plagued by the performance issues and slowdowns that many users are experiencing with older iPhones. The battery life is improved over previous iPhones. Even taking into consideration that this is a brand new unit, I often go two days without charging.

The iPhone 4 also has a much-touted, much improved camera. It’s like going from your first, old 2MP digital camera years ago and upgrading to a new PowerShot. The new features and specs take what was once a class of digital lo-fi cameras (the iPhone) and gotten very close to a respectable point-and-shoot camera. You won’t be ditching your DSLR for an iPhone 4 any time soon, but you may be leaving the house a lot more without your PowerShot.

iPhone 4 image comparison to 2G


The iPhone 4 comes with two cameras. For the sake of this review, I’m going to discuss the main camera on the device — the rear-facing camera. The front-facing camera is a VGA, 640x480px low-resolution camera that’s better suited for video chat and the new Face-Time feature.

iphone image sizes 2G 3G 3gS 4

Comparison of iPhone image sizes

The new camera now supports up to 5.0 megapixel resolution, up from 3.2MP is the 3GS. It has Auto-focus, which adjusts the exposure and white balance of the selected area. It will also focus the lens to the selected area of the viewfinder. Having upgraded from a fixed-focus phone, I found the 4’s auto-focus to be surprisingly good. In point and shoot mode it does a very good job of setting the overall focus and exposure. Using tap to focus, you watch the camera adjusting exposure and focus. It’s a lot nicer than moving the camera to try and find the scene’s sweet spot.

As for the phone itself, gone are the round edges of previous iPhones. The phone’s glass enclosure is more slippery than previous iPhones and takes a little getting used to. The glass back of the phone offers nice reflectivity for monkey-paw self portrait shots. The flat edges will now let the phone stand up for use with camera apps that have a self-timer.

The iPhone itself is fast and rock-solid. The new 1 GHz A4 CPU is about 40% faster than the 3GS. The 4 has 512MB of RAM, that’s twice as much as the 3GS and four times as much as the 2G and 2G. Photo apps zoom! And memory-related crashes are just about a thing of the past. For example, in my try-to-break-it tests, I gave up trying to generate an image large enough to cause AutoStitch to crash at full iPhone 4 resolution.

Apple’s Camera app interface is still a work of simplicity. Three new controls were added to the finder — flash, zoom, and a toggle that allows you to switch between the two cameras. The controls rotate to match the orientation of the camera — a nice detail. The toggle to switch between still photography and video is unchanged. The camera itself is much faster than previous iPhones. In tests, I was able to get almost 3 shots for every one shot on a 2G/3G class phone.

The new camera is a significant improvement over previous iPhones in many ways — more than just megapixels. It has a wider dynamic range, allowing it to capture much more light. This produces more detail in the shadows with much less noise. It has better color and saturation. There’s a built-in LED flash and the camera now has a very nice 5x Digital Zoom. The camera can now record video in HD resolutions.

More than a camera upgrade, this is like getting an entirely new camera. If you’re used to shooting with one of the older iPhone cameras, everything you’ve come to expect from your camera and how it will capture images in any given situation is now different. The colors are richer, with more vibrancy and saturation. Color on the iPhone 4 is almost super-real. It’s the digital equivalent of shooting with Kodachrome film. Photos are brighter raw. Unless I was shooting into the sun (don’t do this at home….), there was almost none of the overall gray cast that darkens images, something that happened often with older iPhones. Running my iPhone 4 images through a Dynamic Range Correction app often produced very little change.

Shooting in low-light situations without the flash is much improved. The iPhone 4’s greater light sensitivity reveals much more details in darker areas of an image. In my test images, the 3/4-tones showed details that plugged up and were lost in my comparison shot from my 2G. Highlights in the same image were also improved, keeping more of the detail in the bright areas of the image.

The new LED flash is a welcome feature. It does a decent job in a pinch but it’s not without its quirks. Although it’s better than many other mobile phone flashes, I consider the 4’s flash to be one of the weaker new features of the new camera.

In the viewfinder, the flash has three modes — Auto, On, and Off. The Auto mode was a little quirky for me in that it would sometimes trigger when I didn’t expect it and wouldn’t trigger when I thought it would. The flash has a warmer color temperature and doesn’t add as much blue as other mobile phone flashes. The usable range is limited but it’s bright enough in normal flash range and will throw usable light on subjects up to 6 feet away (I haven’t tested it further). It’s not an overall flash. There’s a hotspot in the middle of the frame and it dies off quickly giving the image a vignette effect. Because of the hotspot, it doesn’t make a good fill flash. If you’re used to using a strobe flash on a digital point-and-shoot or DSLR, you will be very frustrated and disappointed with the 4’s flash. I won’t be using it for much serious iPhoneography, but it’s perfectly suited for night or low-light snapshots when out with friends or family.

iPhone 4 field of view

iPhone 4's field of view. Also notice the better shadow detail, color vibrancy, and the lack of a gray cast.

Although the focal length of the new camera lens is still 3.85mm, iPhoneographers will really like the new wider field of view. The 35mm film equivalent of the new lens has improved from a 37mm lens equivalent in all older iPhone to a wider 28mm lens equivalent. This is one of my favorite new features of the camera. I’ve always felt the iPhone’s FOV was just a little constricted for me. The wider angle of the iPhone 4’s FOV allows me to capture more of the scene. It feels more like a real camera. If needed, there’s the option to zoom in slightly or crop in. There are plenty of megapixels in that photo and image quality won’t degrade noticeably.

The new 5x digital zoom in the iPhone 4 is the best I’ve seen for iPhone. Unlike an optical zoom that has an adjustable lens assembly, a digital zoom resamples your photos and adds pixels to keep the original dimensions of the image. While not as good as a lens-based optical zoom, when well implemented, I think in some instances it’s a better option than cropping. And Apple’s digital zoom is nice. When I compared ProCamera and Zoom Lens — both use their own proprietary in-app zoom — to Apple’s, the difference was amazing. I tested all three at 5x (4x for ProCamera). ProCamera’s zoom looked a little interpolated and lacked detail in some of the finer areas. Zoom Lens was sharp but had visible artifacts from its sharpening algorithm. Apple’s zoom showed clarity, sharpness and definition with none of the artifacts the other apps displayed.

The only other issue I found with the new camera is one that many but not all users are reporting. In some units, there is a problem with the camera’s auto-white balance that causes images taken in low light — with and without flash — to have an overall yellow cast and I mean beer-yellow. Older iPhones don’t have this problem. It’s a critical issue for a photographer and so far the only sure fix is to exchange your phone for a new unit. Apple hasn’t officially addressed the problem — the PR machine is ramped up over the phone’s “Death Grip” issue — but it’s an important issue for iPhoneographers. Hopefully this will be fixed soon with a software update — Apple isn’t saying. If it’s defective hardware, this reduces the camera’s usability in low-light situations, which is unacceptable as this is one of the camera’s touted new features.

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Unlike previous iPhones, the lens faceplate — the glass cover that protects the actual lens — is flush with the back of the case. In theory, this makes it easier for dust, smudges and fingerprints to get in front of the lens. After two weeks with the phone, I found no more gunk on my lens than with my older iPhone, possibly because I’m still babying the 4. Either way, the new faceplate is also much easier to clean than the older lenses and can be wiped off quickly and easily with a microfiber cloth or a soft, old t-shirt. The flush faceplate also raises the risk of scratches, so be careful handling the phone.

Overall, the new iPhone is a joy to use. The camera is almost too good for digital lo-fi. For iPhoneography, the onus is on developers now more than ever to give us the tools to make our images look lo-fi. The new camera is a significant improvement over its predecessors. Gone are many of the quirks that we loved (and sometimes hated) about the old iPhones — image noise, weird exposure and color issues. The 4 retains many of the best features of the old iPhones and in some case improves upon them. As a camera, it’s still unobtrusive and you can still take a capture in the middle of a scene without effecting it. With the faster camera, you can fire off almost three times as many shots as you could with older iPhones. Most of the photo apps still work with the new hardware and OS and compatibility updates are being released daily.

It’s an amazing device. It’s a significant upgrade and definitely worthy of its hype. Despite the version 1.0 bugs, the iPhone 4 is a game changer. The new camera will get shots that were difficult to capture before and expands the capabilities of iPhone photographers.