We'll still take a dedicated camera over a cell phone camera any time, but the difference isn't what it once was
The day before the iPhone 4 announcement, we ran a little poll on our Facebook page, asking people what they wanted to see in the new iPhone's camera. The answers ranged from the realistic ("How about a Panorama feature?) to extremely unlikely ("Interchangeable lenses maybe.").
Then, yesterday, Apple got up and presented the iPhone 4S, complete with quite a few camera upgrades. In fact, the imaging aspect is one of the few that hasn't caused great disappointment in light of the misguided iPhone 5 hype-fest. But, while Flickr's most popular camera has gotten better, it still doesn't quite measure up with a dedicated compact camera on several points of comparison. What does Apple have to do in order to make true photo nuts happy? What can other manufacturers do to try and beat Apple in the imaging game? Here's a short list to get the real debate going.
An unretouched sample image taken with the iPhone 4S camera (provided by Apple)
A Bigger Sensor
One of the big upgrades for the iPhone 4S is the sensor. It gets 60% more resolution than the old iPhone 4, bringing the total from 5 up to 8 megapixels. Rising pixel count is fine, but actual chip growth would've been preferable. Now, I should first say that I understand just how little space there is inside of the iPhone. The electronic bits are packed in there tighter than Black Friday bargain hunters at a big box electronics store. But, if Apple really wants to separate their camera from the rest of the pack, bigger would likely mean better.
For a little reference, consider the fact that the sensor inside the iPhone is a 1/4-inch CMOS chip [NOTE: Apple hasn't 100% confirmed the hard specs on their new chip, but because the design of the phone hasn't changed, we're confident in saying that the 4S uses the same sized CMOS as the iPhone 4]. Now, because of the wacky way small sensors are measured, that might be hard to visualize. But, consider the fact that 1/4-inch CMOS sensors are used in other things like rear view cameras on cars and tiny security cameras meant to spy on nannies, as well as other cell phones. Not the best company. The 1/4-inch size didn't even make it onto our sensor size chart because it's just too small.
Of course, that's standard for cell phone cameras. It's a big part of why they often produce junky results in anything but bright sunlight. Apple, though, is clearly doing all it can to fight that without any physical chip growth. They made the sensor back-illuminated (starting with the original iPhone 4) and are using more power from the new A5 processor to press down the noise. They even increased the well capacity for each pixel to help prevent electron spill-over, which helps cut down on ugly image effects like blooming. But the fact remains that eight million pixels on a sensor that small makes things rather crowded.
It also limits the effect of shallow depth of field. With a sensor this small, it's tough to get decent bokeh. Even with the wide maximum aperture, you'll still need ideal conditions -- like those used in the sample image gallery -- to get those backgrounds out of focus.
Another unretouched sample photo. A blurry background isn't impossible, but it's still tough. this image was shot at ISO 64 at the widest aperture, F/2.4
Real Image Stabilization
It's true, the iPhone 4S does have image stabilization. But, it's not what you'd expect to find in a DSLR or even a compact camera. The iPhone's IS system works only in video mode. That's because the 1080p resolution doesn't require the whole sensor, so the camera shifts around the pixels its using for capture to give the illusion that the camera is steady. The effect in the resulting video can be a bit odd. It's also notorious for dropping image quality in anything but optimal lighting situations.
True IS needs to come from either the lens or the sensor itself actually moving around. The sensor shift is probably the most likely solution, since it would require less fattening up of the phone. But, with the iPhone 4S carrying around a five element lens, it's not out of the question that we'll eventually see some of those elements shifting around to provide true, optical IS. Yes, it's probably a long way off off, but it would make for a huge jump in overall performance.
The technology is real, using things like liquid lenses, which are often used in industrial or medical research. The trick is getting rid of the shake while maintaining sharpness and fighting distortion.
This issue comes back to the sensor. If you've seen the sample images on the iPhone 4S site, you've probably noticed that they look pretty good. Well, that's has a lot to do with the number-crunching power of the A5 chip driving the imaging process. While the photos aren't being touched with post-processing software, the iPhone is doing some noise-compression and color-correction wizardry as soon as you press the capture button. It goes a long way in trying to correct the issues caused by the tiny sensor.
But, even if the RAW files come out relatively messy, we'd still like to work with the original data and apply the corrections on our own. Apple promises that the A5 processor is 26% more accurate when it comes to white balance, but having the ability to tweak it after the fact would be even better. Plus, with eight megapixels of resolution, you could actually make a pretty big file out of these photos. Might as well squeeze as much information as possible out of them.
More Accessible Color Management Tools
OK, so this isn't a camera feature, per se, but it is critical if the iPhone and the iPad are going to continue making their way into photographic workflows. Simply put, any photo processing is best done on a display that has been calibrated to show colors in a uniform way. Without that, you're pretty much guessing. And while there are third party solutions, they are limited in scope, so having it built in from the start would likely be a significant improvement.
More Manual Control
Just as we want to be able to access the RAW image data, we'd like a little more say in exactly what the camera does when the shutter is triggered. That new F/2.4 maximum aperture is nice, but it would be even handier if we could call on it whenever we want. There are third party apps like Magic Shutter that do this, but again, native support would be the most reliable way to go about it. There are phones out there that already offer this, like the EVO 4G, so it's likely more a design choice by Apple not to include it rather than an actual technical limitation. iOS 5 does a little to this effect, adding touch focus and exposure lock features, but we want real controls.
A Little More Lens Protection
This actually goes for just about all cell phones. If you've ever taken a well-composed cell phone photo only to have it come out with an odd fog, then you've been the victim of a lens covered in junk from your fingers and your pocket. The idea of a moving cover might not work with Apple's minimalist design aesthetic, but maybe it could be something they integrate into an photo-specific case. It could even have a grip so you could hold the camera like you would any other compact. Plus, they could make it in pink and green and white and black….
A Real Lighting Solution
One thing that didn't get any mention at yesterday's event was the iPhone's flash/LED light. It seems that Apple is hoping the flash will actually get less use thanks to the new wider aperture and more sensitive sensor, but with the way cell phone cameras tend to struggle in low light, a more robust light would be a welcome addition.
So…basically turn it into a compact camera? Yeah, pretty much.
Look around the web today and you'll see a whole pile of articles telling compact camera makers how worried they should be about the imaging capabilities of the new iPhone 4S. To an extent, it's true. The iPhone camera has already showed how powerful it is when it comes to sheer volume of images created with it. Now it's time for it to start catching up in quality. We'll still take a dedicated camera over a cell phone camera every time. But, the difference isn't what it once was.
We likely won't see a lot of these things implemented for some time, but we do hope to see them in the future. It really seems that Apple sees potential in the iPhone to be a device capable of content creation. While apps can add a lot to that capability, the hardware is still an essential part. Sure, it might mean the phone has to get a little fatter, but we're OK with that. We feel a lot of other people would be, too, if it was to become a true hybrid device.