iPhone 4: Camera review

Is iPhone 4, with its flash and a 5-megapixel sensor, the first Apple phone to see photographers ditch their compact camera? We test its mettle

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read

The iPhone 4 brings with it a raft of new features, but you can keep your FaceTime and your multitasking: we're interested in the upgraded camera. The iPhone 4 sports a 5-megapixel sensor and is the first of Apple's smart phones to be a serious contender for leaving the compact camera at home.

The previous iPhone's 3-megapixel camera suffered from noticeable shutter lag and poor low-light performance, but the bump to 5 megapixels and the addition of a flash have brought the iPhone 4 level with its camera-phone contemporaries.

A small square on the screen shows where the camera is focusing, or you can tap on the screen to focus in a specific place. The autofocus is quick and lively, searching for new focus points and quickly reacting when you move the camera. Unless there's something too close to the lens, you won't have to worry about pictures being out of focus. In fact, macro shooting is one of the camera's strengths, giving rich, colourful close-up shots such as this. 

Flash forward

Tap the icon in the top left corner and you get the option of turning the LED flash on as a light, leaving it on automatic flash, or turning it off.

While the flash is a welcome addition, you'd better get used to using iPhoto's red-eye reduction. Red eye occurs when a flash is too close to a camera's lens, and eyes reflect the light directly back into the camera. Ideally, a flash should be as far away as possible from the lens, but that's tricky in a device this small. The iPhone's brisk flash is located slap bang next to the camera, and red eye is a problem. If you don't mind sullying your phone, you can diffuse the harshness of the flash by covering it with masking tape, or even your finger.

Face front

The iPhone 4 has a second camera for video calling, and you can choose to switch to this second camera to take self-portrait snaps. It's a much lower-resolution VGA camera. On an aesthetic note, as anyone who's used FaceTime can tell you, this camera isn't the most flattering in the world.

Hold steady

The size of a mobile phone can create some problems for photography -- they're often too small to hold still and steady. The iPhone is no better or worse than most to hold steady, and where pressing a physical button can cause a slight tremble in the phone, the iPhone benefits from the fact that you only need a light touch on the screen to fire a snap.

For best results with any camera phone when light is less than ideal, we recommend bracing the phone or your elbows against a fixed surface, or at least tucking your elbows into your body.

More importantly, the size of a mobile phone limits the size of the sensor inside. The surface area of the sensor determines how much light is captured, and in photography there's almost no such thing as too much light. We were impressed with the colour and detail the 1/3.2-inch sensor captures, however. There's relatively low noise from the rear-illuminated CMOS sensor, but as with all sensors of this size, lower light is a problem as the camera ramps up the ISO and noise creeps in.

Zoom zoom zoom

Tapping the screen calls up a slider that allows you to zoom in up to 5x. This is a digital zoom, so it simply enlarges the middle portion of the frame -- you'd achieve the same effect by cropping the edges off an unzoomed picture. Zooming in exaggerates the effects of camera shake too, so all round you're better off using nature's zoom and just walking closer to your subject.


Switching to high-definition 720p video involves sliding a switch on the bottom right of the screen. Tap focus, flash and switching cameras all work for video, but not zoom. Double-tapping the screen switches to widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.

Sound is the achilles heel, with no filtering of wind or other ambient interference. Sound alone ensures this is far from a cinematic experience, but the snappy focus and crisp detail gives bright, usable footage. It's certainly Web-friendly.

The verdict

Camera phones have their limitations, but the best of them can compete with compact cameras when it comes to point-and-shooting -- as long as point-and-shooting is accompanied by not-worrying-too-much about the results. The iPhone 4 may not be as good as a compact camera, but at least its problems are now the same as compact cameras: namely, low-light performance. The iPhone is all about being connected to the Web and your network, and the ease of shooting and sharing make up for the heinous red eye and low-light deterioration in quality.

It's faster and crisper than previous models, and we'd actually bother to whip it out when the moment presented itself, where with previous models we'd have kept our hands in our pockets and settled for committing the moment to memory.