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iPhone 4: Work It, Work It, the Camera Loves You, Baby!

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

If there's one set of features about iPhone 4 that I found most worthy of upgrading, it's the camera system -- and it turns out, Apple delivered. Where the older cameras in the iPhone were slow and megapixel-challenged, the new lenses and the hidden software that uses them turn the iPhone 4 into a useful snapshot and video-recording tool.

iPhone 4: Work It, Work It, the Camera Loves You, Baby!

Because I pack my iPhone 4 most everywhere I go, I now have a decent camera and video recorder with me at all times. Sure, it won't replace my big digital SLR, but at least I now have the hope of capturing some workable images when I'm out and about. Let's take a closer look.

The New Camera

The new still camera is now 5 megapixels, and while other smartphones have more megapixels, there's more to quality photos than megapixels -- which may or may have the brains behind them to capture light and turn it into clear and accurate photos. Basically, at 5 megapixels, the iPhone 4 can deliver decent photos that you can print or publish online or on your Apple TV. Overall, the software behind the lens is snappy and fast, usually focuses fast, does a better job of capturing subjects with less blur in a wider variety of lighting conditions. If you're snapping shots outside in the natural sunlight, you might be amazed. But great natural light sets a pretty low bar, really. Most cameras do well in natural light. Inside or with fading light, the camera has a harder time, but still produces surprisingly good shots in situations where my old iPhone 3G would given me a fuzzy gray mess.

The interface is also intuitive, with some cool features like tap to focus. Say, for example, you're sneaking up on a zoo animal and the iPhone 4 tries to focus on the steel bars between you and your subject. Simply tap the subject -- say, a tiger -- and the iPhone will focus on the tiger, not the bars. Not only can this feature give you some excellent perspective results, it's fun to play with, too.

Tapping the screen will also give you a slider bar that will let you zoom in. Unfortunately, it's a 5x digital zoom, so your results will vary, and usually by "vary" I mean they'll result in blurry or grainy photographs -- sorry, it's the nature of digital zoom. In contrast to digital, optical zoom is based on physical changes in the lens, so it's much more accurate than digital extrapolations. I guess in some situations, users will think that zooming in with less quality is better than good quality that seems far away.

At the bottom left, users will find a little 'lightning' icon; tap it, and it'll give you options for the built-in LED flash. You can set it to auto, off, or on. Auto turns the flash on less often than I might expect, but it turns out, this is an attribute of the iPhone 4's ability to handle low-light. When a flash is needed, the iPhone 4 turns on the flash, seems to make some sort of adjustment based on what it sees, then takes the actual photo. This process increases the time it takes to take a picture from the moment you tap the photo button to the moment the photo is taken -- it's fast without the flash and slower with the flash (though certainly not annoyingly slow).

I'm not sure what the supposed effective distance of the LED flash is supposed to be, but in my experience, it's only good for a few feet. If you're shooting some friends from across a room, don't expect wonders from the tiny little light.

If you're into self-portraits ... or have a new girlfriend and you need to take a photo of yourselves, cheek-to-cheek at the park, you don't have to hand over your precious iPhone 4 to a stranger. Simply tap the upper left camera switcher icon, and the front-side camera will be the working lens. You can hold the iPhone 4 at arms length, get yourself frame correctly, and take the shot. It's handy, particularly if you're recording a video message, but the front-side lens produces VGA-quality photos (which is a nice way of saying you should keep your quality expectations low).

The Video Camera

Oh baby, the video camera has made some excellent leaps forward. You can now do 720p video recording up to 30 frames per second with audio. Not only is the video quality surprising, but the audio is decent too. Of course, don't get me wrong: This isn't on par with bigger video cameras that use bigger lenses and nice external, stereo microphones. But compared to small, dedicated video recorders, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the manufacturer of these one-trick-pony devices in the burgeoning age of smartphones.

To record video, you simply tap a toggle switch between a camera icon and a video camera icon. When you're on the video selection, the camera button you use to take photos changes to show a red button that glows when you tap it and start recording. While you can record in portrait mode, you end up with tall skinny recording, so recording video in landscape is the way to go.

Like the camera, you can tap the screen while recording to show the iPhone 4 where to focus -- this is pretty awesome, but you do have to tap gently or you'll wiggle the camera. And what about that LED flash? You can set it to auto for video recording, and if it's needed, it'll come on to illuminate your scene. You can also turn it on manually and force it to shine. Works great, but remember, it's pretty much only good for illuminating scenes within several feet of the lens.

Video Editing

In addition to recording video, Apple also lets you create snips from the video file. So if the action you want doesn't start for 10 seconds and the ending sort of tapers off into a boring video of non-action, you can select a new start and end point simply by touching and dragging a slider box. This also makes your video potentially smaller so that you can more easily email or send it as an MMS message, or even post it to your MobileMe account. Very nice.

Overall, the new camera system in the iPhone 4 represents a massive improvement over previous iPhones -- and is no longer an embarrassment. Plus, it's now good enough to use in those everyday moments when you'd like to capture the action of your life.

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