What makes the iPhone 4S camera so much better?

Apple did it again with the iPhone 4S. It updated the specifications, made things faster, gave the camera a few more megapixels and, just like that, the entire world's tech media went mad. 

Last night's launch received so much coverage you could almost hear the term "iPhone 4S" being whispered on the wind. It felt like, yet again, the Cupertino tech giant had turned out another game changer, admittedly, not on the design front, but on the innards. A beefier dual-core chip was always inevitable, but what we didn't see was quite so much effort being put into the camera. Sure, we thought 1080p video was coming, but not quite all the other bells and whistles Apple has tacked on. 

So, what exactly does the new beefier camera mean and what sort of photographic treats does it have in store?

Mo' megapixels, mo' problems

The iPhone 4 was no slouch on the megapixel front when it was released, with five being more than enough to compete with other handsets at the time. Problem is, since then dual-core technology has taken off and cameras in handsets have experienced a rather significant leap, particularly when it comes to megapixels.

Just about everything, from the Samsung Galaxy S II to HTC Sensation, features at least 8-megapixels to play with. That means sharper images, as well as phone pictures that are entirely printable and worthy of competing with entry-level compact cameras. Therefore, the iPhone 4S brings Apple up to speed on the megapixel race with eight on the back and two on the front, the same as the Galaxy S II. 

Apple says that the iPhone 4S will produce pixel for pixel prints on images as big as 8 x 10. The company also points to the sensor being engineered to collect more light per pixel and thus produce sharper images, both of which will contribute to a better photographic experience on the iPhone 4S. 

A5 power

Having the A5 chip stuck inside means that the iPhone 4S has a lot more power to draw on when running the camera app. As well as making the app itself boot up faster, it also allows for things like an improved shutter response time. From the moment you tell the handset to take a photo, to the time it takes for the camera to store it, things should be quicker. 

Apple claims the image signal processor in the A5 is as good as one found in a DSLR. This is quite a serious claim and will mean major camera improvements and give the iPhone 4S the jump on other smartphone competition. Things like exposure, focus and dynamic range will all be improved by the processor as well as the re-written imaging algorithms found in iOS 5. 

An eye for optical theory

Processor and sensor combined aren't everything when it comes to photography, you need some decent glass slapped in front as well. Apple has put quite a bit of thought into the new iPhone's lens, which consists of five elements, a large amount for such a tiny piece of kit. These extra elements help bring extra sharpness to the image and should also help change the way images turn out in low light situations, smoothing out any point light sources.

On top of this there is now a faster f/2.4 aperture on the iPhone 4S. What exactly does this mean? Well, it allows more light to be let in through the lens, meaning the sensor has to do less work in darker situations. The result is a greatly improved low light response, with less noise and general digital nastiness.

Additionally, with a faster aperture setting, the new camera will also offer a better depth of field, in that close objects will seem sharp and in focus, while those further away will be soft, giving your shooting subject more prominence in a picture.

Apple has also incorporated a built-in IR filter to smooth out colours and provide better saturation and image balance.

Software rethink

Not entirely an iPhone 4S-only feature but more something new in iOS 5, the camera app and its peripheries have had quite a significant rethink. First up, you can now pinch to zoom, rather than use the slightly clunky scroll bar of previous versions. 

There is also in-camera face detection, which is definitely useful and well suited to the typical phone cam usage. It can handle up to ten faces at once, which means you get a balanced image in even the biggest of group photos. 

HDR is still there, creating both an original and a three shot balanced exposure. From our time with iOS 5, it appears to have been improved slightly, providing more balance and less of the slightly digital HDR trademark nastiness.

The biggest software bump by far, however, has to be the inclusion of iCloud and what it means for your photo collection. Now, every time you take a snap, shots are sent to your cloud-based photo stream, ready to be viewed across devices. Twitter is built into the camera app, so you can tweet a snap instantly without leaving the application. You need to sign yourself in the once via settings, but then the camera app will do the rest.

In-camera editing

With 8-megapixels to play with, you have quite a bit more resolution to take advantage of. This means you can crop things down and still have a totally printable pic. Problem is, until now you have had to exit the photo app and do things in a third party piece of software. But, Apple has gotten rid of this by building in basic photo editing in iOS 5. 

You can crop pics or rotate them, as well as get rid of red-eye and enhance colours. Photo organising has also been revamped, so you can drag and drop shots between albums and pick exactly where you want them to go, and you can create new albums from within the photos app too.

Proof is in the pudding (or picture)

Still not convinced? Apple has posted a whole series of demo pics on its website showing off the new camera's prowess. Sure, we have to take things with a relative pinch of salt as the company is likely to have chosen the best possible shooting conditions, but these unedited snaps look mighty impressive.

We're yet to be able to enjoy all the 1080p delights of shooting video on the iPhone 4S but, given how good the stills look, we doubt video will be any less impressive. 

Clearly, the new camera is one of the biggest selling points with the new iPhone 4S and, quite frankly, it had to be. The iPhone 4's snapper didn't have a scratch on some of the current gen Android handsets but now it looks like Apple might just have topped them.

What do you think? Does the iPhone 4S have a better camera than rival handsets? Or, are you not convinced? Let us know in the comments below...