The iPhone 5S camera: What sets it apart

The iPhone 5S camera: What sets it apart

Summary: Apple's newest mobile phone carries an improved camera, demonstrating how important this consumer feature has become.

Photo courtesy Apple

I no longer carry a camera with me anymore, just a smartphone. That didn't use to be the case six years ago. Apple wasn't the first to include a camera in a phone, not by a long shot—that would be Sharp Corp., way back in 2000. But when the Cupertino, Calif.-based company introduced its all-display iPhone in 2007, it accelerated the imaging arms race in touchscreen mobile devices that continues today.

The first iPhone touted a fixed-focus, 2.0-megapixel camera. It couldn't zoom, it couldn't focus automatically, it carried no flash, it did not support video recording.

The new iPhone 5S, introduced today with much fanfare, demonstrates how far this feature has come. The company's latest model comes with a five-element lens rated at an aperture of f/2.2, signaling improved sensitivity in low light environments. Its active sensor area is 15 percent larger than the one installed in the iPhone 5. Its pixels are larger, sized to 1.5 microns, which means each pixel can absorb 50 percent more light than it could before, resulting in reduced image "noise." An improved dual-element (white and amber) flash allows for 1,000 different color temperatures, with software ensuring the proper one relative to the subject you're trying to photograph. The lens is shielded by sapphire crystal, said to be harder (and thus more scratch-resistant) than conventional options. All said and done, the camera is rated at 8 megapixels.

And that's just the hardware. On the software side, Apple's Camera application will automatically set the white balance and exposure, a dynamic local tone map will ensure more true-to-life color and autofocus matrix metering will better adjust exposure to the subject you're trying to photograph. Apple also claims that each photograph shot is actually the best from a handful actually imaged; the one presented to you is automatically determined to be the sharpest of the bunch. And finally, there's a 10-frames-per-second burst mode, 120-frames-per-second slow motion mode, and a 28-megapixel panorama mode that adjusts exposure as you move from one end to the other.

And we haven't even spoken about the front-facing camera.

Photo courtesy Apple

While I don't expect to ever affix actual lenses to my iPhone, it is clear that Apple—and its rivals, let's be fair—is making such great leaps in imaging technology for these devices that many consumers have more horsepower in their back pocket than they ever did with their dedicated digital cameras.

The two biggest concerns for the average smartphone buyer? Battery life and camera quality, according to anecdotal evidence I've collected over the years. That's why Nokia/Microsoft's Lumia 1020 carries a 41-megapixel camera, even though the chance that people will print out a snap they've taken to poster size is slim to none. That's why Sony recently announced a CyberShot camera meant to attach to smartphones. And that's why Apple keeps upping the ante, even though it is working in an area not considered a core competency. (Sony and OmniVision both supply the company with components.) In all of these cases, manufacturers are recognizing that people want to capture the world around them at every turn, and that an inability to do so may be a dealbreaker for a given handset.

There are natural limits to this strategy, of course; physics dictates that a dedicated camera with a larger image sensor will always trump a smartphone with a smaller one, for the same reason as pixel size: it improves the camera's ability to capture more light.

But so long as we are addicted to taking better photographs—and it doesn't take a photography expert to identify a blurry, poorly-lit interior shot of a dear friend—smartphone makers will continue to wring the most from this feature. Lucky us.

Topic: Apple

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • What sets it apart ?

    the BS, a big truckload of BS
  • 41 megapixels is about the ability to zoom, not overblown photos

    I'll wait to see the 5S camera in action, but nothing to be impressed with.
  • Printing pictures

    Plenty of people print pictures they take with their phone, even 2007 camera phones. That's the reason Walgreens has it as part of their app. I have plenty of collages made with pictures taken with my Nokia 925, around my office.
    Fuhrer D
  • The naysayers...

    Have already had a chance to compare photos, firsthand, between a Nokia phone and a new iPhone? Hmmmm, I thought the new iPhone didn't ship for a few weeks.

    That's right, they see some advertising from nokiacextolling it's phone and fall for it like its gospel. The same thing they accuse apple fans of doing.

    Number of megapixels do not make for the best photo. But you already know that, you just hate Apple, once again, leapfrogging its competitors in technology. Understandable when you've put your money on the losing horse(s), Microsoft and Nokia. Two bricks tied together never foat to the top.
    • Apple starting to catch up...

      Apple is starting to catch up in camera tech. However, their technology tries to leapfrog competitors but falls flat. Nothing really new in their camera tech.
      5-element lens is old news, so is BSI, burst bode, panorama, dual LED flash, etc.
    • Actually, no.

      This time, the supposed "new-tech" from Apple are already in Nokia's Lumia lines and some of Samsung's Galaxies. They didn't leap frog anyone.

      I also find it funny that they spent time talking about color adjustment after using flashlight when the Lumia 920 and above takes photo with better quality in low light without even using the flash.

      Spend a bit time learning about the camera technologies involved in Nokia cameras, you'd be embarrassed about your comment here.
    • You seem to have a bit of selective viewing.

      While you are quick to condemn anyone making critical remarks of the iPhones new camera, you turn that same critical eye away from the author of the article for praising the camera in the phone.... again, one he has not used either.

      Sorry, but this article is about what separates the iPhone camera from the crowd, but there are already cameras with 5 elements (and more) as well as better apature for low light conditions.

      I'm waiting to see the camera in action, but so far nothing about the new camera for the iPhone is revolutionary or suggests it will be better than what is already available.

      The CPU on the other hand looks pretty nice.
  • So once again, apple brings up the rear

    2010 called, they want their camera technology back.
    • Apple has 8x the market share of MS

      and so it is not hard to determine which OS and series of phones is really at the rear.
      • That should have been 5x, not 8x.

      • Okay, if this is what "counts"

        It isn't hard to determine that Windows is the OS that is the best and that osx is the OS that is really at the rear.
        • Fine, you can have the past glories.

          We'll take the future.
          • What future?

            You mean the iphone future? Hmmm just wondering what will happen to them if these trends of so called new iPhones continues...
          • Ooops...

            The trend is more iPhones are sold quicker at launch than the previous year.
            And, the last time I checked, the trend is that MS is paying people to trade their iPads for Surfaces, that's after a massive price cut.

            Brock Leham
      • How about some reality and perspective?

        The iPhone with iOS has been around for more than 6 years. The WP8 smartphones have been around for less than a year.

        If WP8 smartphones had been introduced at the same times as the iPhones, chances are that WP8 smartphones would have 10 times the sales as iPhones. Being first to market with a new idea, or an improved idea, has its advantages. But, the WP8 is still the superior OS, even coming in as late as it did. iOS 7 is an attempt to look like WP8. Furthermore, the technology in the new iPhones is no better than what can already be found in Samsung and HTC and Nokia smartphones, so, even with their head-start, iPHones are technologically inferior products. WP8 and it's hardware companions will continue building momentum, and in about 2 years, WP8 smartphones will have surpassed iPHones in total sales.
        • iOS 7 is a lot younger than windows phone 8

          Let's see how long it will take to overtake windows phones in sales (we can count just the new 5S iPhones).
          • Very true

            Its a waiting and counting game from here on end..interesting tomorrows ...;-)
  • king

    my Aunty Taylor recently got Honda Ridgeline Crew Cab just by working online with a macbook... you can try these out.........
  • Hmmm

    My Lumia 822 took awesome photos that put my wife's iPhone 4s to shame. I would love to get the two new phones (Lumia 1020 v. iPhone 5s) and do another good real world comparison. My guess is that the Lumia will destroy the iPhone yet again. The Ziess lenses in the Nokia are incredible.
    • Do the test first..

      And see before making premature judgement;-)