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iPhone 5 Camera Is a Rapid-Fire Wonder

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 15, 2012 5:00 AM PT

iPhone 5 Camera Is a Rapid-Fire Wonder

When I'm interested in serious, wall-hanging photos, I turn to a large digital SLR camera with a big lens. Smartphone cameras, no matter how many megapixels of information they can store, always have teeny tiny lenses that don't collect and record light as well as dedicated cameras. The smartphone, however -- like the iPhone 5 -- has one huge advantage: I almost always have it with me. I actually take far more photos with my iPhone camera than with any other, and this is a primary reason I was excited to upgrade to an iPhone 5.

My previous iPhone was an iPhone 4 (I skipped the iPhone 4S). My new iPhone is an iPhone 5. The question, then, is the iPhone 5 camera much better than previous generations?

Yes. Yes it is.

Rapid Fire

Compared to the iPhone 4, which had a 5 megapixel camera, the iPhone 5 has an 8 megapixel camera. More importantly, it's crazy fast. The camera app in on the iPhone 5 launches much faster, and when it does open up, the iPhone 5 is a rapid-fire wonder that lets you snap photos nearly as fast as an average guy can tap the screen or push a volume button to take the shot.

The iPhone 5 produces rich shots at a larger file size. It handles low-light situations amazingly well. It's such an improvement that for a moment any iPhone 4 upgrader will think Apple stole a little Canon magic and drizzled it inside the iPhone 5, which snaps shots so quickly you could follow the path of a flying bumblebee and freeze frames of the the little wings.

Of course, you can't do that, and eventually, despite your delight, you'll realize that you still have a smartphone camera in your hands. While motion blur is reduced, running children and ball-chasing dogs will sometimes show up with smudged hands or feet.

And compared to the iPhone 4S, which is also 8 megapixels and which was one of the most highly regarded smartphone cameras? The iPhone 5 is better, too, but mostly in shooting speed. Side-by-side photos in decent light seem to be so similar in quality that only real photographers will easily notice a difference. Compared to the 4S, the 5 has a broader ISO span than the 4S -- up to ISO 3200 vs ISO 1000. Essentially, ISO is a measurement of the image sensor's sensitivity to light -- or to the speed rating of old-school film -- and in the iPhone 5, the higher number means the built-in camera can automatically choose a broader range of settings when it attempts to deliver a good low-light photo for you.

Astounding Video

The video in my old iPhone 4 was pretty good, but the iPhone 5 video is far better. First, it's shot at 1080p (instead of 720p) which means your iPhone 5 is collecting and recording a lot more information. This is fantastic for creating higher-quality video, but it also comes at a price -- the videos come in larger file sizes, which means if you start shooting video like a home-based Hollywood director, you'll fill up your iPhone 5 pretty fast.

There's three improvements that I noticed right away: First, Apple says it improved video stabilization, and I believe them. Unless this feature is a placebo that makes me hold and pan the iPhone steadier, my off-the-cuff handheld iPhone 5 videos are brighter, crisper, and less wiggly.

Second, the low-light capabilities of the iPhone 5 are so much better than the iPhone 4 that it's silly. In the case of still photos, the flash goes off way less, and I'm quite happy just to turn it off altogether. In video, a buddy took some video of me one evening in dark twilight, and when I played the video back via AirPlay on my HDTV-connected Apple TV, the results were astounding -- my memory of that moment in time was one of near darkness, and yet the video images were so well exposed that I would have guessed the time of day as late afternoon pre-twilight.

Third, the iPhone 5 lets you snap still photos while you record video. You have to pay attention to the on-screen button to make this work, and I recommend that you practice a bit first so that when the chance comes to snap a still photo of say, a little green man from another galaxy, you don't miss it fumbling around on the screen trying to figure out how.

Apple also says that it has improved face detection so that up to 10 faces will be crisp as you record, but I haven't had a chance to really test this out. I do know that a handful of little soccer playing kids showed up surprisingly well, but they were all running around and falling down. And in a poorly lit bar, I recorded a marching band busting loose between the tables. From what I remember of that video, the iPhone 5 seemed to have no trouble staying in focus -- but then again, my iPhone wasn't the one drinking margaritas and bouncing to the beat of an energetic tuba player.

Panorama Mode

One of my favorite modes is the built-in Panorama mode, which lets you hold your iPhone 5 vertically and swing it in a 240-degree arc. The on-screen directions prompt you to slow down when you do this too quickly. There's also an arrow indicator that helps you keep the iPhone moving on the same horizontal plane -- so that at the end, the iPhone will be able to create a full-size rectangular panoramic photo. I haven't had the chance to record any stunning sunsets or mountain ranges yet, but in my tests around the house and neighborhood, it's cool.

Like previous generations, the iPhone 5 still has a front-facing camera lens, though the front isn't as good as the rear. Still, the front now records video in 720p, which seems plenty hi-res for self-held portrait or group video clips.

All-in-all, it's clear that the camera is a massive improvement over the iPhone 4 and a small improvement over the iPhone 4S. If you take a lot of photos or video, in my mind the camera alone is worth upgrading to the iPhone 5 -- just don't make the same mistake I did and buy the 16 GB version. Get the 32 GB one, and you'll have enough storage on the iPhone 5 to get you through a vacation without running out of space.

Oh, and that purple haze some users are reporting? I still haven't found a good reason to take a photo with a bright light just outside the frame. For most people, most of the time, it'll be an utter non-issue. For some people, some of the time, changing the angle of the shot or shielding the camera from the bright light source will deliver a photo without the haze. I'll likely take a photo sometime with the sun near the frame, but I'm not worried about missing a shot because of it.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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