iPhone 5 Review – Part 1, The Larch (Camera)

Part 1 of my three-part iPhone 5 review is now up on the Sun-Times site. Give it a peep.

The camera deserved its own separate column. And not because the difference between it and the iPhone 4S camera is so dramatic. Just the opposite: it’s a subtle upgrade, with a lot of “and”s and “but”s. A few sentences and demo photos weren’t going to explain what I was seeing.

And as if 2000 words weren’t enough…I thought I’d supplement the column with a few sample shots that better illustrate some of the column’s conclusions. Click the photos to see full-size images on Flickr.

[Added – Yes, I’m being a cheapskate by using Flickr as a photo host, and some photos aren’t appearing until you click through to Flickr.com.]

Dark Heroes

1. The iPhone 5’s new dynamic low-light mode kicks butt.

I took a handful of statues and a handful of cameras into the laundry room to perform a rather extreme test of low-light performance. The lights were off and the basement door was open. What little light that entered the room snuck in under cover of darkness.

The photo tells the whole story. On the top left, you see the failure of the Samsung Galaxy S III to get a decent photo. On the top right, the failure of the iPhone 4S. On the bottom, you see a photo, taken by the iPhone 5. It’s not a great photo, but hey, compared to the other two? Remarkable!

Problematic

2. The same low-light mode sometimes kicks a photo’s ass.

On the left: a blurry photo taken by the iPhone 5. On the right: a perfectly good one, shot with the iPhone 4S.

The iPhone 5 frequently failed to capture a sharp image of a scene that every other phone and camera in my pocket shot perfectly. Curious, because I typically snap two or three shots each time, for safety. But nope! Blurry, blurry, and blurry. I’ve been shooting these test photos in these same locations for years and no phone had ever performed so erratically.

The problem persisted even with the iPhone 5 in a thick, easy-to-grip case. My current theory is that the iPhone 5 often uses the special low-light mode when it’s not actually necessary. It works its magic by combining the light data from four adjacent sensor pixels and then building an 8 megapixel image from what’s actually a quarter-resolution dataset. I hope to get an answer from Apple from this, yea or nay.

Either way, it was clear to me that the iPhone 5 often has a problem producing sharp images in low-light situations that other phones can handle without any trouble whatsoever. I shall continue to monitor this situation.

Subtle And Not

3. In situations of non-desperation, the iPhone 5’s improvement in low-light performance is usually subtle.

The image on the top right is clearly junk. Step forward and collect your kick in the pants, Samsung. But the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 images are pretty damned close to each other. Exposure and color are practically identical. The iPhone 5 (on the top) is a little sharper. It’s hardly a dramatic improvement and this sample is representative of what I’ve been seeing in my tests.

George By Four

4. The smart filter that smooths out skies is another subtle effect.

I shot a few different sky photos with my pocketful of cameras. The skies of the iPhone 5 photos were smoother, compared with the ones from the iPhone 4S…but not by a whole lot. And the skies in the Samsung Galaxy S III versions were even smoother.

Still, “better is better,” eh?

Four Flowers

5. The iPhone still has the best camera. But it’s no longer a blowout win.

The Samsung Galaxy S III takes just as good pictures as the iPhone 5, when the lighting is at least halfway decent. Look at this flower photo, for instance. The Samsung (far right) neatly avoided blowing out the highlights on the petals. It’s closer to the Panasonic GX1 photo (far left) than the iPhone 5 version (second from right).

The GS III still has a ways to go before it can match the iPhone’s photographic abilities. The signature difference between a cameraphone and a “real” camera is the ability to take great photos under a full range of conditions, not just the favorable ones. The Galaxy S III worked great in good lighting, and it continued to do well in Moody lighting. When you turn the knob on the dimmer switch down one more notch, however, the GS III stops being a “real” camera. Suddenly it turns into a damn cameraphone.