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Photography

Apple iPhone 5s camera in more detail

With many features borrowed from point-and-shoot cameras, the iPhone 5s brings mobile photography much closer to overtaking the poor old compact. We take a closer look at the spec sheet.

With many features borrowed from point-and-shoot cameras, the iPhone 5s brings mobile photography much closer to overtaking the poor old compact. We take a closer look at the spec sheet.

(Credit: Apple)

A cursory glance at the feature list of any smartphone released over the past year shows that the era of the mobile camera is here to stay.

While photography purists may be cringing at the thought, the smartphone has paved the way for terms like high dynamic range (HDR) and aperture to enter the vocabulary of everyone from technology writers to a whole lot of consumers, too.

Taking pride of place alongside processor and screen details, Apple made no secret of the technology behind the iPhone 5s camera at the handset launch. As a quick recap, here are the main features for detail aficionados:

  • 8-megapixel BSI sensor, 15 per cent larger than the sensor on the iPhone 5

  • 1.5-micron pixel size

  • Apple-designed f/2.2 fixed aperture lens with five elements

  • Best shot selector

  • 120fps slow-motion mode

  • True Tone flash for more accurate skin tone

  • Image stabilisation (stills only).

As we've determined from plenty of phone launches previously, the specification list hardly tells the full story, especially when it comes to metrics around pixel sizes. In theory, a larger pixel size presents more opportunity for gathering light than smaller pixels living on a similar sensor. Therefore, photos should display less noise, and the sensor can possibly produce better results in low light.

As seen with the HTC One, however, the real-world results in low-light conditions told another story — even though the ultrapixel technology looked great on paper. It's also worth noting here that the pixel size on the HTC One is actually 1.1 micron, bigger than that measurement on the iPhone 5s, and the HTC has a faster lens to boot, at f/2.0.

The sample photos provided by Apple certainly look promising, even if they are taken in ideal situations. Still, there is plenty of image noise present when you go pixel peeping, showing that this camera isn't quite ready to replace your SLR just yet. But it's just about time to wave goodbye to the point-and-shoot.

The full-resolution versions of the iPhone 5s photos look promising, but the noise and detail smudging means it's not time to throw out your SLR. (Credit: Apple)

Low-light photography with flash is a very significant part of the smartphone shooting experience. To help combat the ghost faces from unflattering LED flashes, Apple has implemented what is called a True Tone system that measures the colour temperature and fires two LEDs, one white and one amber, to deliver a more correct flash result in the final photo.

Dynamic tone mapping, another feature being touted on the 5s, is just another way of describing a form of HDR. Instead of applying the effect to the whole scene, though, this method performs local adjustments on the photo based on analysis of the scene.

The iPhone 5s certainly borrows features we've seen on regular cameras before. In burst mode, the camera fires off 10 frames and presents the best photos for selection. We've seen this in the aptly titled "Best Shot Selector" mode on some Nikon cameras, and on mobile devices, the Samsung Galaxy S4 also boasts a similar effect. Image stabilisation is unfortunately not performed optically, as is the case with some Nokia handsets, but through software that takes four consecutive images and combines them for an optimal image.

Overall, the most interesting development from the iPhone 5s announcement is not any specific feature. It was quietly added that the lens was "Apple designed", showing that the company is working towards developing optics in-house rather than outsourcing the process.

With a captive audience of smartphone photographers, particularly on Flickr, where the iPhone has been the most popular camera for several years running, Apple is slowly integrating new parts of the photography process into its ecosystem.

The distance between compact cameras and smartphones continues to erode, with the iPhone 5s being the next cab off the rank to close the gap even further.