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iPhone camera side-by-side shows iPhone 4S' leap in quality

updated 07:50 pm EDT, Mon October 24, 2011

iPhone 4S compared against its ancestors

A side-by-side comparison of iPhone camera quality by the co-developer of Camera+ (99 cents, App Store), Lisa Bettany, has shown the sheer improvement in the iPhone 4S camera quality compared to earlier models, dating back to 2007. The shots also show just how closely they compare against two frequent benchmarks for compact and DSLR cameras, the Canon S95 and EOS-5D Mark II.

The original and the iPhone 3G are visibly poorer in both a macro shot and an urban landscape as they both lack autofocus and have their focus and exposure locked together. Image quality sees the biggest leap in the iPhone 3GS, where autofocus starts working, but is still set back by low detail. The iPhone 4 brings in that detail and allows exposure and focus to work more separately, but also adds a bluish color cast for the macro shot and has issues with dark highlights.

The iPhone 4S is very close to the quality of the dedicated cameras, Bettany found. Although it's not as accurate as the 5D Mark II, it's much more comparable to the S95 and produces a more vivid but still balanced shot. Both shots carry a slightly yellow cast where the dedicated cameras are more neutral.

Similar leaps can be found in the histories of other companies where camera phones have grown in importance, such Samsung's attention to the Galaxy S II or to Sony Ericsson's Xperia arc and Xperia neo, both of which use the same Sony sensor as Apple. The contrast still shows the shift in technology and how much Apple's priority has shifted towards photography in four years. The iPhone 4S achieves its results through a back-illuminated CMOS sensor and a wider f2.4 aperture that together let in more light, a fifth lens element, and support for features such as autofocus lock and autoexposure lock, the last two of which are usually only present in pro or semi-pro cameras.

Apple once considered the camera a secondary feature and was well behind phones like the Nokia N95 but gradually began taking it seriously, most of all once it could start recording video and gained third-party app support. The iPhone 4 is now Flickr's most popular camera of any kind and is now thought to be beating most smartphones and some regular compact cameras.

Top: 2007 iPhone. Bottom: 2011 iPhone 4S

Top: 2007 iPhone. Bottom: 2011 iPhone 4S

by MacNN Staff



  1. chas_m



    Wow! I am just blown away by the idea that a camera phone can compete with a high-quality compact camera like the S95. Amazing craftsmanship and engineering in the iPhone 4S.

  1. bobolicious

    Joined: Dec 1969


    look carefully

    The first two pictures appear to be a matter of 'macro' focus (the wall is in focus in the early iphone) which in traditional cameras was a specialty feature with specific lenses - perhaps a feature rather than quality comparison?

    The second compares what seems a wider lens (intrinsically sharper & better depth of field) in potentially different (clouds) lighting conditions...?

    Presumably the new camera is better, however comparisons may need careful scrutiny...

    Comment buried. Show
  1. facebook_Brandon

    Via Facebook

    Joined: Oct 2011



    Anyone notice how the clouds are not in the same place? I know the camera is better but this is a bogus test.

  1. ggirton

    Joined: Dec 1969


    let us examine

    let us examine the camera you can afford by not having an iPhone 4S for two years.(Arrgh!). First, $399. You will obtain a macro lens. Second, the camera. Since I cannot buy a 4S today, let us compare with a camera which I also cannot buy, the Sony NEX7N at $1199. The readout is about the same pixellation as the retina display, but is OLED. At 24 megapixels I think we can safely say you are going to get better enlargements with the camera than with the phone. On the other side of the ledger, you cannot make calls with the camera .... yet! Decisions decisions.

  1. SwissMac

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Iffy pictures

    The jewellery pictures are not a fair comparison since the major difference is one of focus, not sharpness as bobolicious pointed out. This has occurred because the iPhone was tilted more towards the ceiling in the first picture, while the second with the 4S has the table edge running exactly through the middle of the pic, thus giving the autofocus a better chance of taking an in-focus pic.

    The cityscape shots are a better comparison because it is likely that the lens would be focussed at infinity for both pictures and what we are seeing is a real comparison of lens sharpness. Lens quality is more important than the number of megapixels. Plus, the sensor size is also far more important than number of megapixels. I understand both the lens and the sensor size improved with the new camera, but clearly won't be very big in a phone cam: I'll take my 6 Mp Nikon D40 SLR over the 8 Mp iPhone 4S every time for image quality due to the much larger sensor. Any claims or headlines about the iPhone camera taking on proper SLR cameras is just sales hype. Being better than other phone cams probably isn't though.

  1. prl99

    Joined: Dec 1969


    macro shot, that's her point

    The point of the macro shot was to show how much better the camera is at taking this type of photograph. It is a very good close-up shot, something I have a hard time doing with any camera I own. I don't see the photos the same way SwissMac does, the out of focus shot should have been able to focus on the top edge if it could but it couldn't so it focused on what it could. If Lisa moved the iPhone back a bit until it finally focused, we could see how close the older iPhone could get, which I still believe is much further away from the subject than the new iPhone.

  1. elroth

    Joined: Dec 1969


    not quite

    The top photo (in each set) was shot with a 2007 iPhone - that iPhone doesn't have auto-focus at all. It has nothing to do with the angle of the shot.

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