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1080p shootout: iPhone 4S vs. Canon 5D Mark II

How well does video from Apple's latest smartphone stack up against the belle of the video SLR ball? One side-by-side test lets you compare.

The iPhone 4 already offered standout image quality for a mobile phone, helping to further the general trend of using a phone camera rather than a dedicated camera. And with ever-better video, phone cameras will increasingly will be able to supplant videocameras, too.

Apple clearly hopes to stay ahead of the curve with the iPhone 4S: one of its selling points is a new 8-megapixel camera sensor that can record high-definition video at full 1080p resolution. It seems likely that it will outshoot most of its direct competition in the mobile phone market, but it's natural to wonder how well it stacks up against a high-end camera, too.

Apple's iPhone 4S
Apple's iPhone 4S Apple

Happily, Robino Films has something of an answer. The company posted a video comparing 1080p video from an iPhone 4S with that from Canon's $2,400 EOS 5D Mark II, the current SLR to beat when it comes to shooting video.

The two cameras shoot the same scenes, mounted side by side on a camera rig. Exposure was adjusted to be the same, and the video was shot at 30 frames per second.

Watch the video to see what you think about shadow and highlight detail and other matters. The field of view is a bit different, but it's still good enough for comparison purposes. You can pause it to look at individual frames in more detail since the videos are synchronized.

And when comparing, remember that the Canon has a huge 36x24mm image sensor compared to the tiny one, evidently built by Sony, in the iPhone 4S. Larger sensors can handle a greater spread of light and dark brightness. Remember also, though, that Canon's camera is three years old.

Canon's EOS 5D Mark II
Canon's EOS 5D Mark II Canon

Robino Films offered this view in the comments: "This test is really only to show that the 4S is coming close to the 5D but in NO WAY is it better. The iPhone is a great 1080p pocket camera and shows us where technology is heading. Give it two three years and we should see some interesting micro high performance cameras."

For mainstream consumers, the iPhone will win out over a video SLR that's geared and priced for very serious photographers. But in cinema circles, don't expect tiny cameras to take over.

For one thing, their small sensors aren't as good in low-light conditions, and that's a common circumstance for high-end video. (Indeed, the low-light shooting abilities of the Canon 5D Mark II can help cut the time and expense required for some sets' lighting arrangements.) For another thing, small sensors don't permit a shallow depth of field, something cinematographers cherish when they want to focus attention on one character but have the background blurred out.