iPhone 5 Camera Vs The Competition: What's The Best Smartphone Shooter?

For many of the people scooping up an iPhone 5, its 8-megapixel camera will be their go-to shooter. But how much of an improvement is it over the iPhone 4S? And how does it compare to the smartphone — and point and shoot — competition?

We tested the iPhone 5's camera against the iPhone 4S, the top Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One X and Nokia's preposterously high-resolution, 41MP PureView 808. And just to see if it can really holds its own with high-quality, pocketable point-and-shoots we put it up against the Canon S100.

Can the iPhone 5 keep up with (or outshoot) these cameras in everyday conditions? We tested two very common situations: a daytime cityscape, and a very low-light close-up in the darkest corner of the office. Below, we've collected a series of side-by-side comparisons. The area inside the loupe will be at 100-percent resolution if you click to expand each of the images. The cameras all have slightly different focal lengths and stock apertures, but we did our best match the field-of-view in each of the shots. Beyond image quality, we were also interested in the speed of each camera's performance.

Design And Performance

The main addition to the iPhone's camera arsenal in iOS 6 is panorama shooting. But otherwise the camera app's interface is the same as ever, which is to say crazy simple. Every other camera we used has way more customizability — from manual function controls to continuous shooting modes to additional scene settings. The iPhone just takes care of all of that for you — or expects apps like Instagram or Camera+ to provide filters and processing for tinkerers.

That makes the iPhone 5 an easy camera to use, but that simplicity turns out to be a major drawback when shooting in the dark. Every other camera in our test has a built-in low-light setting that use fancy tricks to improve image quality and reduce noise and distortion.

On the upside, the iPhone 5's A6 processor makes a huge difference compared to the A5 in the iPhone 4S. The camera's focus and shutter responds faster to touch and when you hammer on the volume button repeatedly to release the shutter, the iPhone responds like a blazing semi-automatic automatic weapon.

All that being said, what really matters is the final product. So how does the iPhone 5 snapper stack up?

Image Quality

iPhone 5 Vs iPhone 4S The iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4S have nearly identical 8-megapixel cameras, but as this image shows they take very different photos. The iPhone 4S tops out at a maximum sensitivity of ISO 800, which just isn't enough to get a properly exposed photo in a dark situation without flash. Apple's greatly improved the image processing on the iPhone 5 such that the camera can now shoot up to a sensitivity of ISO 3200 while still ending up with less noise. This is a sea change. If you like taking photos in dark bars and you're addicted to Apple's iOS ecosystem, this upgrade is essential.

iPhone 5 Vs Samsung Galaxy S III That said, when taking photos in the dark, the iPhone still falls short compared to most of the other cameras we tested. Here, the Samsung Galaxy S III's low-light setting does a really great job. It's sharper and less noisy in the dark than the iPhone 5. The S III also did a better job with colors; it captures a true white and the correct, more-purple-than-pink colour of the flower.

iPhone 5 Vs HTC One X Like the Galaxy S III, the HTC One X does a better job than the iPhone 5 with the colour of the flower, but the regular, spotted noise pattern is also much uglier. We prefer the blended swirl of the noise on the iPhone 5.

iPhone 5 Vs 808 Pureview Boy, does the 41-megapixel sensor on the Pureview deliver. In the camera's low-light setting, it doesn't shoot at full resolution, and instead uses the extra photodiodes on the sensor to help reduce noise. The result is this lovely sharp image. Hopefully we'll see this badass camera in a good domestic smartphone sometime soon.

iPhone 5 Vs Canon S100 The Canon S100's full-resolution low-light setting is fantastic and this image shows why mainstream phones like the iPhone 5 just aren't anywhere near taking over the world from smartphones — at least in terms of image quality. Compared to every other photo in this test it's virtually noise-free. The downside of course is that the camera smooths everything out so much that it loses sharpness and detail.

Video

As with photos the iPhone 5 takes much better than the iPhone 4S. And really, it does very well when compared to nearly everything else. In this test, it's a tossup between the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III. That's impressive.

Overall

The iPhone 5's camera is a significant improvement from the iPhone 4S both in terms of image and video quality. It holds its own compared to the Samsung Galaxy S III — the top camera on a smartphone people are actually going to buy. Still, there's a lot of room for improvement. Apple really needs to add additional settings for darker conditions. Yes, our low-light test was extreme, but Apple can and should do better. In short, the iPhone 5 camera is better, and as before, it's suitable for snapshots. But if you're serious about good-looking memories, you should keep a point-and-shoot around. We're dreaming someday Apple will adopt a camera as good as the 808 PureView or the Canon S100. Sigh, someday.

Video by Michael Hession, additional photography by Nick Stango, and thanks to Wagner


Comments

    If you buy a phone because of camera quality....then I guess you should just buy a camera.

      Or, a phone with a better camera - like the Nokia Lumia 920.

        Sounds awesome. I can pick one of those up at my local Telstra store this afternoon?

          No sir, you wait like the rest of us. I'm going phoneless until this comes out, I smashed my iPhone up almost a fortnight ago now, it was hard at first, similar feeling to giving up smoking. You keep going to reach for your phone, but now I'm quite happy being phoneless until the 920 comes out.

        I can't wait. One thing I can't decide though is what sort of case I'm going to get for the DSLR, professional photographer, stabilising rig and lighting setup that will come with the 920- a flip case or something less obtrusive?

      I'm sure like me many people still want to know what the camera will be like for times when you don't have your dedicated camera on you. It's not the deciding factor but certainly one of the features people are interested in.

        Right, because waiting one month for a better product is going to be the end of the world, isn't it?

          I'm not sure how that's relevant to my comment? You could wait the rest of your life for a better product, always something better coming out.

        HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH - lol.

        cant do that with n iphone 5 either...

          that was for lol

      you ALWAYS have your phone on you though and for those times when you don't have your camera it's nice to have a decent substitute handy...

    I have never been impressed with a phone as a camera but I only ever used the iphone 4.
    For the camera I take with me, I settled on the Fuji X100. I'll check out the iPhone 5 when it arrives in three weeks or so.
    I remember the Get Smart episode where Max and 99 are issued with a camera disguised as a radio and a radio disguised as a camera.

      On the Get Smart episode I watched a couple of days ago he was watching TV on the inside of an opened suitcase, just like a laptop. The series ran from 1965 - 1970!

        On a similarly unrelated topic, I am current reading a Bob Shaw SF novel from 1970 in which he describes a device in a car that calculates a route to an address you "punch in", then speaks driving directions aloud to you as you drive.

      Horses for courses. I have never in my life owned a camera and could never justify doing so, given that even the 2mp sensor in my feature phone from 6 years ago was more than adequate for the infrequent use I have for a camera. Mostly I use one for taking photos of things I want to sell on-line. I take photos of other things but mostly they just sit in memory for a few months, then I delete them. I've never understood the attraction of cameras.

        Your life must truly be dull (not taking a troll shot, just an observation), and very boring if you've never bothered to share photos from vacations etc with family and friends.

        Life is more than a computer screen

          When I go on holidays I enjoy spending the time holidaying. I'm not a photographer, if I want to reminisce what Bora Bora looks like at sunset, I'll google "Bora Bora sunset", not look back at the shitty, blurry, out of context photo's which I take.... However, I do find a camera on my phone important, for those moments where it comes in handy, such as taking a photo of a car accident for insurance, or UFOs n stuff... You know... Important photos.

            I never needed a camera more than the camera on the iPhone 4, and now by HTC One X. .... until 10 weeks ago my wife had a baby. Turns out you get camera OCD when you have a kid and we're looking for a good DSLR! :D

        Yet here you are writing your life story on a thread about cameras...

    Why isn't there a comparison of the daylight shots? Also, for an accurate comparison of the lowlight noise filters, you should include a subject with a fine texture in order to test how much detail is lost.

    I can't believe how much I rely on my phone camera as much as I do. The amount of times I need to take a photo the 4S is quite adequate. Eve my HtC desire HD before it was really good too.

    Soon they will be all in one and as food as any standalone device.

    How about if you aren't using a tripod?

    The 920 will be the photo king:-

    http://mynokiablog.com/2012/09/23/nokia-lumia-920-trumps-new-iphone-5-in-low-light-photos-too/comment-page-1/#comment-666147

    Yeah, I'll be waiting for the Lumia 920. Everything points to the 920 having the most superior camera available, and with plenty of extra innovation included in the handset. A true next generation device.

      Those photos Nokia faked are truly next–generation.

        I'm talking about photos actually taken by the device. Feel free to believe what you want, however.

    Looks like the iPhone 5 white balance is all wrong.

    Surely it can't be long before Canon start making sensors and lens technology for one of the big phone manufacturers. I am surprised it's taken this long. Maybe they think it will cannibalise their point and shoot market.

    Video
    As with photos the iPhone 5 takes much better *video* than the iPhone 4S.

    Anyone know where i can get that tripod in the pic?

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now