iPhone camera observations.

I’m not much into photos from a cell phone. Since most cell phone cameras suck, I generally used it only in very limited situations. (The camera in the Nokia N95 is an exception, but at $750 the N95 is expensive even by iPhone standards, its email and web browsing are unspectacular, and it’s certainly no iPod.)

The buzz on the iPhone camera is that it’s bad — even though it’s 2MP when many are still 1.3 — so I thought I’d take some evening shots. The top photo is one of a ball game tonight, the middle is a self-portrait, and the bottom is a corner of my office.

The first thing clear is that the camera would benefit greatly from image stabilization. Colors aren’t bad on the first, and it had no problem with the stadium lighting. It would also benefit from higher light sensitivity. The hallway light is very soft in the shot of me, and it shows even more in the office photo, where the light source is a low-energy ‘125 watt equivalent’ bulb near the opposite corner from the picture. The white walls lean more to yellow, and the red stripe is especially noisy. Some noise reduction would be helpful.

Apple could add IS and noise reduction in software, and could process the file with a brightness boost in software as well. I’d highly recommend they do the first two, which address the camera’s biggest weaknesses, and would like to see the third.

So what’s my verdict? I prefer my Canon. 🙂

Seriously, I took these on a flash-less camera at night with no extra lighting because I wanted to show the worst-case scenarios. These are as bad as it gets (unless you don’t hold the camera steady). Yet the pictures are much better than from my previous cell, even though that phone had a flash, white balance settings, and brightness. But none of that could make up for the horrid optics. The iPhone’s optics may be nothing to write home about, but these pictures are 85% as good as from my first digital camera from a few years back.

For a device I’ll have everywhere I go, it’s something I can live with when I don’t have my regular camera handy. I passed on almost every picture opportunity with my last phone, but I’ll definitely take more with this one. If Apple enhances it with software it will be even better.

8 thoughts on “iPhone camera observations.

  1. For what the iPhone’s pictures are likely to be used — blog posts, for example — they look GREAT. I’m surprised, really.

    I’ve told other people that you just can’t fool physics. Tiny lenses and tiny imaging chips won’t match proper full-sized cameras. Flares and edge bleeding have been unavoidable side effects of mega-mega-megapixel point & shoot cameras and cell phone “cameras”. Want a photo that you can use for a mural? Get a big camera.

    So, anyway, what’s left with cell phones and other small cameras is image processing. Apple could’ve used a “slower ISO” for finer detail and less noise, but such speeds are pretty rotten for casual shots, which is the main purpose of a phone camera.

    No digital zoom (messy anyway), no digital image stabilization (eh…), no flash (so what; phone flashes are junk anyway)… so, now, the big thing is color balance. And, IMO, it looks really, really good. Much better than what my Pearl can manage.

    – Leland

  2. I agree … for a 2MP camera it’s the best on any cell I’ve had (although I know samsung has 5MP cam/cells)

    Image stabilization would be a bonus.

    I suppose the biggest plus for the iPhone is the screen/viewfinder – you get to see the actual colors of the picture you are taking. Most cell phones have weak screen resolution.

  3. Ken,

    I think very few cells have IS, but I’m not sure that should preclude Apple from adding it. Software IS is not “crap” compared to optical. Different approaches, but both are workable.

    I agree that noise reduction is a really fine line. No amount is going to “rescue” the office photo, for example. But a light touch would help, and this is all software-based anyway so it could be supplied at any time by Apple.

    For brightness, I was referring to an overall increase somewhat akin to what Photoshp’s Lightness does. The whole image is brought up the same amount, so the noise would be no more prevalant then before, relatively speaking. It would just make the picture appear less like it was taken in candlelight.

    I wasn’t really comparing it to my Canon (I did put a smiley on the end of my Canon comment). I agree with you that a bona-fide camera should not be the target comparison. I *did* in fact compare it to my last cell phone and said it ws much better *despite* the flash, etc. my last phone possessed.

    I presented images as worst-case scenarios to show the camera as its weakest, and made it clear that not only will I take pictures with it where I would not have with my other cell, but also that it’s 85% of my first digicam from a few years back. Maybe that wasn’t a *ringing* endorsement, but it was certainly meant to imply I’m happy with the iPhone’s pictures and think those who slam the camera are incorrect.

  4. Do other cells have IS? And I thought digital IS was crap compared to optical IS, and there’s no way optical IS is gonna fit into that formfactor.

    As for more noise reduction, it’s just gonna munge all the fine detail into uselessness.

    And, amping the brightness is just gonna blow up the noise in the image, right?

    Why are you comparing the iPhone’s camera to your Canon? Shouldn’t a fair comparison be to other smartphone cameras?

    What surprised me about the iPhone’s images is that for a 2MP image, it’s surprisingly good. That’s probably due to the minimal compression that they use, about 5:1 or 8:1. Most cellphones over compress due to small memory capacity built-in. Seeing as the iPhone has 4GB or 8GB of built-in capacity, Apple went with the minimal compression, which gave them the ability to get the most out of a little chip.

    What I would like, which is easily doable in software is a white balance recalibration. It’s too cyan

  5. It doesn’t have a self-timer, I’m just really fast. Cat reflexes, you know.

  6. Tom,

    I like the Ball game photo as I would never have guessed that it was taken with the iPhone. Also I didn’t know that it had a self timer !!

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