Apple iPhone 5S camera promises bigger pixels, slow-mo, better image processing

What's new in Apple's iPhone 5 replacements, the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
3 min read
Watch this: Apple's 5S camera is packed with features -- burst mode, slow-mo, and more

We didn't expect much in the way of significant updates to the iPhone 5's camera, but we got some nice surprises with the iPhone 5S.

Here's what's new:

  • 1.5-micron pixels on sensor, still 8 megapixels, sensor 15 percent larger than iPhone 5's
  • 5-element lens with f2.2 maximum aperture, increased from f2.4
  • 10fps burst mode
  • 120fps slo-mo
  • Best shot selector for multishot and burst
  • True Tone flash which white balances the color temperature of the the flash light during the shot, not the image in post-processing
  • Image stabilization for stills
  • Dynamic tone mapping, which automatically analyzes the scene and does local adjustments

These are all really nice features to have, and I'm guessing most of them are made possible by the 64-bit A7 chip, which provides power for photo processing. The increased maximum aperture isn't as good as the f2 rumors, and with a sensor that small doesn't really make a huge difference; still, it's better. Sort of. The problem with a larger aperture on phone cameras is that they tend to be fixed, not variable. In other words, everything gets shot at that aperture. With a wider aperture, though, more of the shot ends up in the defocus range. In photos taken with small sensors, the defocus area tends to look very grainy and the colors start to contour. Welcome to trade-off world. The HTC One still has larger pixels at 1.1 microns, and the Nokia phones bin their small pixels into larger superpixels for an indeterminate, but large, pixel size. So really, you can't tell from the specs how good the camera will be.

See photos taken with iPhone 5S camera (pictures)

See all photos

Still, looking at the sample photos provided by Apple, I think a lot of people will be happy with the camera, and they do look better than those of the iPhone 5. dSLR quality? No, at least not from a dSLR released in the past five years.

These two 100 percent crops show you why the iPhone 5S is good, but hardly dSLR-quality. This is what a dSLR might look like at ISO 800 -- low-light shooting -- not ISO 32. Apple

Most of the software features listed above are incorporations of features commonly found in point-and-shoot cameras. These include the multishot modes, which take bursts of stills then automatically select the best one as well as the 10fps burst, from which it automatically offers up the sharpest one(s), and the exposure adjustment based on image segmentation and analysis. The flash white balance, which takes into account both the flash light color as well as the ambient light is big, since LEDs generally make horrible flashes. According to Apple, it actually changes the flash color temperature rather than post-processing to correct. It does it using two LEDs, "cool" (blue) and amber.

The iPhone 5C gets an ostensibly updated BSI sensor over the iPhone 5, still 8 megapixels. The front-facing camera now has 1.9-micron pixels for better low-light performance, though, and it now supports HD.

You will get free versions of iPhoto and iMovie (actually all the iWork apps) with any new iOS device.

To recap the iOS 7-added camera capabilities that were announced at WWDC, you can now more quickly swipe through your choices to shoot stills, video, or panoramas. Also, there's a new Instagram-ready square (1:1) format.

You'll also be able to swipe through a list of new filters -- before you shoot -- so you can see what your final result will look like before you shoot. You'll also be able to apply filters after the fact as well as remove those you shot with to view the original, untouched photo.

In Photos, Apple now supports AirDrop and iPhoto-like groupings by media type, along with organization by time and place with Collections, Moments, and Years. Each Year holds a Collection and each Collection is broken down into separate Moments.

For iCloud users, Apple updates shared photo streams, allowing friends and family to contribute their photos to your stream. Everyone involved can comment on what is shared, and everything is automatically updated on everyone's iOS devices. Other updates to shared streams include video support and a new Activity view for notifications about the latest updates from all your shared streams.