Digital compact camera sales are falling, while smartphone camera technology continues to improve. Take the iPhone 5: it’s already caused a chunk of the public to fall into near-hysteria upon its launch - with five million units sold in the first three days, it’s safe to say that it’s doing more than a little bit well - but can its updated camera match up to expectation?
Take me anywhere
The iPhone 5 is thinner than the iPhone 4S and lighter too. What’s not to like about that? There isn’t a consumer camera on the market that can boast about being as thin as the iPhone 5, so it will fit into the pocket of even the skinniest jeans.
In fact the iPhone 5 isn't even as thick as four SD cards stacked up on top of one another. Now that's thin.
There’s also no on switch - well, not really. The delay in switching on a compact camera and waiting for its pointless sparkly logo screen to flicker past those dead eyes before it’s ready to go is irksome. The iPhone 5 doesn’t even need unlocking: just a swipe against the camera symbol on the locked home screen and it’s ready to go. There is a slight pause while the virtual shutter blades open up, but this is now even faster on the iPhone 5 than it is on earlier generation iPhones running iOS 6.
Smartphone cameras are often hyped up as being as good as or better than equivalent compact cameras. But that hype isn’t just restricted to Apple or the iPhone 5, so let’s think about Nokia for a moment.
The Finnish company launched the 808 PureView but - let’s not beat around the bush here - it didn’t sell, did it? And this is the smartphone that was supposed to be the one - full-on Matrix style - in the camera department.
At the iPhone 5 announcement conference the camera part was fairly glossed over; there were some new features added but it wasn’t made out to be the key feature of Apple’s latest.
The crucial part, just how good are the iPhone 5’s images?
The 1/3.2-inch sensor is smaller than you’ll find in any given compact camera and that doesn’t bode so well, at least on paper, for image quality. But this Sony-made, back-side illuminated sensor is, in reality, really rather capable.
In the right light the iPhone 5’s images are just as good as those from many compact cameras. That’s easy to tell from how the images look on the device’s screen, but take the shots off the camera - something that’s probably not done as often as it ought to be - and various blemishes are clear to see.
But we’re not talking great globs of image processing artefacts or stacks of image noise. Nope, it’s really very well processed. Just look at this, ahem, corking snap of some wine corks. Inspect closer and detailed edges are a little “fuzzy”, but this is all normal stuff and exactly what most compact cameras would exhibit.
But, as we say, that’s in good light. The camera does otherwise “hide” in wide-aperture, low ISO, low shutter speed territory which, while fine for some conditions, will often render low-light or night pictures blurry through exposure means rather than on account of the sensor.
When eventually forced to up the sensitivity - even in a very dark club the 1/15th second exposure time and ISO 800 choice seemed conservative to the point of damaging - quality quickly drops off and lacks detail.
No manual control
Which brings us to the first hiccup. Where’s the manual control? It doesn’t need to be complicated amounts of it, just the usual aperture, shutter and ISO controls to help enable the camera to better suit different environments.
Imagine some on-screen “virtual lens ring” sliders to control those elements – that’d be great. In fact, it’d be above and beyond what most, if not all, entry level compact cameras offer.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said for point and shoot. We don’t want that to go away, but there’s a definite demand for greater picture-taking control direct from Apple’s own camera software.
Exposure and focus lock
It's been around for a couple of software versions now, but the AE/AF lock is an essential feature. Press and hold the point of focus and it’ll fix the focus position and exposure level wherever the camera is then moved. It’s not quite the full manual control that we’d like, but is something not to be ignored.
This isn’t restricted to the iPhone 5 though. Go download iOS 6 via iTunes and - apart from the unavoidable Apple Maps-gate issue that also comes bundled - you, too, can benefit from this feature without spending an extra penny, whichever iPhone you happen to be using.
Stabilisation? What stabilisation
Image stabilisation is likely to be the "next phase" in smartphone cameras. Nokia’s Lumia 920 technology sounds promising, but we’re yet to see how that truly performs, though a quick 4S vs 920 at the Nokia launch returned some interesting results.
With the iPhone 5 there is no image stabilisation. The mid-wide 33mm (equivalent) lens might not sound as if would need assistance from stabilisation, but thanks to Apple’s engineers resting on the low shutter speeds - as outlined above - image blur is a common issue in all kinds of light. Some of our comparison shots we had to take half a dozen times and the difference between each varied.
Why so wobbly? It’s the shape of the iPhone. It’s so thin, and the camera's lens is positioned so close to the corner that nimble fingers need to splay out to support this thin slice of phone, and that doesn’t happen with as much success as you may imagine.
This one’s a given. Smartphones don’t have optical zoom lenses, and if they did then they’d be bloomin’ huge.
The iPhone 5’s 33mm equivalent lens is a medium-wide-angle offering, and its "sapphire crystal" construction - don’t get too excited though, we’re just talking hard, scratch-resistant glass here - does attribute to better final quality than its predecessor.
The ability to digitally zoom using the classic two finger pinch can give the perception of a longer focal length, but that comes at the cost of final image quality, both in preview where jagged edges are unsightly and in the final image, which will be smaller than the iPhone 5’s fullest 8-megapixel resolution.
There are other, better solutions - such as the 808 PureView’s large, high-resolution sensor and complex processing - but, for now, the iPhone 5 isn’t a patch on a zoom-capable compact.
We love the idea of panorama - and check out our full iPhone 5 panorama tips here - but it’s got a whole lot of issues to fix up before it’ll be able to cut its teeth against the compact camera curve.
The panorama direction can only travel one way - in a horizontal direction while the iPhone 5 is held vertically. It’s down to the user to keep a guide arrow central to the rotation as, otherwise, you’ll “run out of sensor” and end up with black nothings poking into the edges of the image. Use the iPhone held horizontally and, in our tests, the vertical panoramas we tried to take went haywire.
Then there’s the stitching. It’s fast and, when it works, it looks good. But there are more than a couple of wibbles and wobbles - indeed, that’s our technical term for it right now - that make it obvious it’s a stitched panorama. Sometimes it looks as though the stitching algorithm has just panicked and thrown in a couple of road bumps just for a laugh, though it’s not the first time we’ve seen it - just take a look at Apple Maps and there are plenty of examples.
Introduce movement from subjects and all kinds of crazy things can also happen. It might be nice to turn your loved ones into Picasso pictures, but then again they might not appreciate it. Panoramas are best left to still, panoramic scenes really.
A small but great feature within this mode is a simple "Done" button. That level of user control - ie, the ability to stop the panorama when you have as much or as little as you want - is something dedicated compact cameras haven't quite figured out yet. This we like a lot.
In short: Good idea, good to see it in a phone, bad to see it not carried out as well as it should be.
A huge, huge advantage of any given camera phone is its connectivity. Here we've got 4G, 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth all built in - although Bluetooth can't be used to share images and there's still no NFC like the SGS3 - and built-in Photo Streams to auto-backup to the Cloud. There are even Shared Photo Streams.
Direct from the camera roll it's also possible to mail, message, tweet and Facebook an image direct from the phone, while other options such as assign to contact, print, copy and use as wallpaper integrate the camera side of things much more.
There's no SD or microSD, however, so saving images depends on having enough internal storage. With 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions that shouldn't be an issue, plus files tend to sit around the 2MB mark each. That's plenty of space to keep on snapping, even if other apps and music means the occasional off-load is necessary.
Just for fun: iPhone 5 vs Nikon D4
Yup, we went there. It’s not that we’d expect the iPhone 5 to be better than a full-frame DSLR by any means, but it didn’t do too bad a job.
There’s not the same shallow depth of field, dynamic range or level of detail but, at this consumer level, we doubt that’s going to be too much of a bother. Take a look for yourself at this 100 per cent crop (the D4 image has been reduced by half to fit against the iPhone 5 shot to scale).
It really is the good, the bad and the ugly, isn’t it? The iPhone 5 is the perfect take-anywhere camera and, in good light, it’s hard to tell the difference between its images and those from a compact camera.
But the lack of an optical zoom (impractical, granted), no image stabilisation, no manual control, often bizarre exposure settings and the fact that quality jumps off a virtual cliff at high ISO settings - not that these can be controlled - all make an argument for investing in a dedicated high-end compact.
Some new features such as panorama are fun, but more than a little rusty around the edges for the time being and streets behind the compact camera curve. But that’s easy to improve with software updates, and something that we expect will happen.
In a smartphone-only camera context, there are only a handful of contenders to consider, none of which has the current range of features on offer here. It’s in Nokia’s hands now to see what the Lumia 920 can pull off, as, for our money, the iPhone 5 is only bettered - at the time of writing - by the 808 PureView's clever tech and large sensor.
That makes the iPhone 5 a darn good second and, for most consumers, it’ll have the majority of what’s needed including all the back-up and sharing options right there and then. If a big zoom is essential then the iPhone 5 isn’t going to compare, but given the context of what it is - a phone before a camera - and it’s hard not to be impressed for the most part.
Thank you to Vodafone for lending us the iPhone 5 used in this camera test