By: Gigaom
A photographer’s view of the iPhone 5
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.

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.

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