Points in Focus Photography

Musings on the iPhone 4’s Camera and Camera App


In the 6 months between its launch and my acquisition of one, I watched respected photographers like Chase Jarvis and Joe McNally rave about how good the camera on the iPhone 4 was.

I have one now and simply put, I am not impressed.

Let’s get one thing straight, the iPhone 4’s camera is one of, if not, the best camera in a phone. I say that as if it was a worthwhile achievement. I’m sure that for some people it probably means they can replace their $100 point-and-shoot with their iPhone and be perfectly happy. Of course, they were probably happy with the 1 mega pixel camera in their previous phone too.

However, I’m not a fan of qualified statements, good for a camera phone, to me, doesn’t carry a lot of weight. While the iPhone 4’s camera may be good for a phone’s it’s not nearly that good of a camera in general.

Actually, let me clarify that. The hardware is almost passable as a general purpose camera, it’s certainly on par with some low end point and shoots. What makes the iPhone 4 problematic as a camera, is the software behind the hardware.

Some say Apple is the king of beautiful, simple, and useable user interfaces. Minimalism reigns, scary warnings and messages are hidden behind cute facades to protect the user. Minimal simplistic UIs may be great for not scaring people away from your product, but they often prove to be utter garbage when you actually need to know something or fix something.

One of those something I need to know is with respect to camera shake. Camera shake, to me, is one of the worst ways to ruin a photograph. There is a plethora of ways to reduce or stop it completely, from tripods, to image stabilizer, to simply using enough shutter speed. To me, when your images end up ruined by camera shake, it just says you failed as a photographer big time.

Auto Exposure is the one true way and it Allows Shutter Speeds to Drop too low…

It should be obvious to anybody who’s ever used the built in camera app, it’s designed to be simple. I’m not sure simple is bad either. There’s no manual mode. There’s no manual control of ISOs. In fact there are 4 controls: Flash (on, off & auto), HDR (on & off), still/video mode and the shutter release.

That’s it.

Now you’d think, since everything is going to be controlled automatically Apple would design the camera app in such a way that it would at least attempt to not drop into shutter speeds that would be hugely problematic.

This is one place the iPhone really shines in a somewhat unqualified way. Even at ridiculously high ISOs, like ISO 1000, the camera produces relatively clean images for as small of a sensor as it is. Further, the noise that is there is mostly the less intrusive luminance noise, and cleans up rather nicely with simple noise reduction software.

Why then is a camera that can go as high as ISO 1000, shooting images at 1/15th—well below the minimum of 1/30th needed to stop camera shake—at ISO 100, instead of pushing the ISO a stop?

You got me.

There’s No Exposure Info, or really any info at all…

If the auto exposure won’t keep me safe, I’ll to do it myself.

Oh wait, I can’t.

The camera app’s UI is so simplified, and offers no option for more advanced information that I can’t tell what my actual exposure settings are, or at least what the shutter speed is.

Without exposure info or an auto exposure system that tries to insure shake free images, at least they could have an interface element to clue the user in that they might need to find something to rest the camera on. Even a 10 year old point and shoot had a LED that lit up when the shutter speeds were low enough that you might have a problem with camera shake.

Nope, no dice there either. I’m sure putting little shaky waves around the camera icon in the capture button would totally terrify potential users. Never mind the phone has at least as many gyros and accelerometers as a Canon IS lens, if not more, that it could actually only display that when you really were in danger of shaking your images to blurriness.

There’s more…

I’m not even going to get into the failure for not having a way to adjust the exposure manually (i.e. exposure compensation) and how that throws a major wrench into shooting predominately dark or light scenes. Or the fact that a high intensity LED isn’t really a flash and can’t be treated like one photographically. Or even noting that the way you have to hold the phone to work the camera make an already unstable posture, worse.

I was going to say something conciliatory like, “it’s not really that bad I’m just trying to use the phone’s excellent camera in a way that wasn’t intended.” But I’m not. I’m not using the iPhone’s camera in any way I wouldn’t use any other camera. In fact, it’s because of the reputation the iPhone 4’s camera has with regard to image quality I don’t want to treat it like a POS phone camera. And maybe that’s my mistake.

The frustrating bit for me, is that it really is that bad. I’ve thrown out more than 90% of the images I’ve shot with the iPhone 4 because they weren’t sharp due to camera shake. Worse I’ve tossed images that have have me kicking myself for not having my SLR, let alone a tripod.

I want to like the iPhone 4’s camera, I really do. From a noise perspective, even in sub-optimal conditions it can manage to turn out a usable image. What it can’t seem to hack, and what constantly bites me, is a shake free image, because it can’t seem to trade ISO intelligently to keep shake free shutter speeds in a consistent way. As a result, I can’t count on it producing a sharp image unless it’s mid-day bright out, get into the edges of the day, and forget about it.

Maybe we’ll get image stabilization in the iPhone 5. After all there’s already more gyros and accelerometers in the phone than an image stabilized lens.

Is there an app for that?

The App ecosystem is arguably the strongest part of the whole iPhone experience. It seems reasonable, or at least possible, that there could be an app out there that will at least alert me to when I could be susceptible to camera shake. So far, however, all I’ve found are apps to add nifty effect filters.

Is there one?

If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.



I also found the shake problem frustrating but there are many camera apps for free that incorporate image stabilization that work very well. ProCamera and Gorillacam are two of my favorites. each have up to three levels of shake reduction active shake reduction. Incidentally on a recent trip to Yosemite, a couple of my IPhone snaps are among my favorite pics. Even more pleasing than many of the shots taking with my 5D. It actually had me wondering for the first time, what is it about the hardware in this thing that makes it a better camera phone. A friend had Droid Incredible, and the pictures, video and sound don’t compare, despite superior specs.

    V. J. Franke  | admin

    A friend had Droid Incredible, and the pictures, video and sound don’t compare, despite superior specs.

    There’s certainly a point where more doesn’t mean better. I think Canon found this out with their PowerShot G series cameras with the G11, when the dropped it from the 14MP in the G10 to 10 MP in the G11 to improve image quality. Given the size of the sensor in a camera phone, I don’t think I’d want much more resolution than the iPhone’s 5MP.

    Like I said, I’ve been fairly impressed by the quality of the hardware, the problem has been something of an issue with the software.

    I’ll have to check out those Apps. I’ve been playing with Camera+, which has a “stabilized” mode as well.

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