How to Know If the iPhone 5s Camera Upgrade is Right For You

I know. It’s an odd title. How will you know if the iPhone 5s camera upgrade is for you? It’s a simple answer: just read this article in its entirety. Contrary to many opinions you hear, the iSight camera and related software in the new iPhone 5s is NOT a trivial upgrade!

You know what they say: we all have them – opinions – and I have mine. But my opinions on this matter are based on years of experience in photography as a profession – both commercially and as an instructor. Over the past couple of years, I’ve even been working a great deal in educating others on the marvels of “iPhoneography.”

As of this writing, I am a week away from testing the iSight camera on my shiny new bauble – the iPhone 5s. Therefore, what I write today is based on the published specifications and statements made by Apple. Apple doesn't get caught up in hyperbole, and while I take everything with a grain of salt, I have no reason to dismiss their claims about the new camera.

Let’s get past the one thing that is guaranteed to produce controversy from those who should know better. The fact that the megapixel-count in the iPhone 5s camera sensor remains unchanged means absolutely nothing!

That’s right. Unless you want to print anywhere from poster-size to billboard-size images and beyond, eight megapixels is more than enough for stunning, award-winning photographic prints. When contemplating images destined for the web or email, concerns over megapixels shouldn't even enter the conversation.

In any event, really…who prints anymore?

I used to print. I’ve spent more money on printer inks than I have spent on all my iPhones, iPads and scores of photography apps. Take all of that and multiply by ten. My imagery is now all displayed electronically in one form or another. And so, my home and office are now free of photo printers.

Don’t get me wrong. There is indeed value in printing photos. If I want prints, I am very satisfied with the quality and service that online services like provide. I don’t see an end to gifting prints to family and friends or adorning walls with framed prints any time soon.

There are some Android-based smartphones that tout pixel-counts higher than our eight. One even boasts 41MP! That’s wrong on so many levels. Try asking their owners what issues they might have with their device. The top answer you are likely to hear is that of image storage limitations. That’s because higher pixel-count equates to larger image files and ultimately, higher storage requirements, not to mention longer data-transfer times and difficulties processing these images in photo editors on the device. Besides, let’s face it, it’s all wasted storage for the most part anyway.

So, lets forget the megapixel thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all marketing hype and has gone by way of the PC processor clock-speed wars of the ‘90s.

Let’s instead address those aspects of a smartphone camera that do matter, and why the camera in the iPhone 5s represents a substantial upgrade worthy of consideration.

Even on higher-end DSLR cameras, the features that diminish the importance of how many pixels an image sensor holds are listed here.

1. Processor performance; how fast and efficiently the hardware processor microchip operates the camera and processes and compresses images and video.

2. Imaging software enhancements; this applies to the photo-processing software built into the camera’s firmware. It works in close collaboration with the processor and operating system.

Closeup of the iPhone iSight camera.

The iSight camera on the iPhone packs plenty of power.

3. Camera lens quality; the quality that goes into the actual glass components of the lens is directly proportional to the overall quality of the image.

4. Photography application software; For DSLR cameras and the quickly disappearing point-and-shoot cameras, we’re talking mostly about processing images in photo-editing software that runs on personal computers.

On smartphones, it’s about the incredible photo apps available, that allow us to not only capture our images, but to also edit, process, organize and share them. A pocket-sized one-hour photo!

OK, it’s time to really get serious; time to zoom in and focus a bit closer on each of the above areas of enhancement as they apply to the iPhone 5s. Armed with knowledge along with the eventual post-debut reviews, you will be able to make a more informed purchase decision.

Phil Schiller presenting the new A7 processor.

Phil Schiller introduced the world to the new A7 processor found in the iPhone 5s.

The Processor

With the debut of the iPhone 5s, Apple introduced the A7 processor (the CPU chip). The new camera is built to take full advantage of the device’s enhanced processing capabilities.

Right now, Apple is claiming a doubling in CPU processing speed. The obvious advantage goes to apps like games, video and photography apps, all which place heavy demands on the processor.

Additionally, the surprising revelation that it supports processing in 64-bit mode will mean processing performance five times that of the iPhone 5. Eventually, this will translate into apps that provide capabilities much beyond what we have today. This will be very important for any kind of image and video processing.

Until then, the iPhone 5s enjoys a substantial advantage in processing power, making things happen that we will never see on an iPhone 5c or any of the previous iPhone models. You’ll understand this better when we look at the built-in imaging capabilities resident in on-board software.

By the way, for the first time iPhone will have an additional specialized processor on-board: the new M7 motion coprocessor. According to Apple, the M7 will detect input from various motion sensors for added functionality and lower power consumption. Will this enhance photography on our 5s? Perhaps. Clever iOS developers are likely to figure out a way, eventually. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Software Enhancements

We’re not talking about individual apps yet. Rather, let’s consider the camera and image processing software that resides within the iPhone’s circuitry – what is loosely referred to as firmware. To us users, this manifests itself in the form of the Camera app and the Photos app.

There is a considerable amount of software engineering that goes into the development of this software. Enhancements we now see are within our reach, thanks to the nimble A7 processor along with numerous under-the-hood improvements found in iOS 7, including OpenGL 3.0, the new graphics rendering engine.

Consider the following new features built into the software; none of them possible without the aforementioned processor, operating system and on-board image processing advancements:

Tone mapping and dynamic range: Even before the image is captured, the iPhone 5s camera automatically adjusts white-balance (think color-cast correction) and exposure (lightness) to create a wider range of image tonalities resulting in more highlight and shadow details.

Auto-focus: This feature is now augmented with a focus “matrix.” What this means to us is faster, smarter automatic focusing as the shot is being composed. Our chances of getting sharpness where we want sharpness are… well, sharply increased.

When we take the photo, the camera in the iPhone 5s actually captures multiple images, analyzes them in real time, and then displays what it thinks is the best one.

All of this, along with the fact that there is a new, faster processor to handle the camera functions, means that the overall auto – focus speed is about twice as fast as on the iPhone 5. As a bonus, this corresponds to a reduction of the dreaded and annoying “shutter lag.”

Apple’s demonstration of Burst mode.

Burst mode captures 10 images per second.

Burst mode: This feature is actually included currently in several third-party apps. Now, Apple builds it into the camera software, allowing the captures of unlimited images at ten frames per second – and in full resolution – for as long as the shutter release is depressed. Optionally, the iPhone 5s will automatically cull out what it deems to be the “bad” shots and display only the “best” ones. Burst mode, along with faster focusing and other features, are made possible by another aspect of the A7 chip – a new image signal processor (ISP).

Apple’s examples show image stabilization.

Image stabilization can help reduce the effects of motion blur and camera shake.

Image stabilization in software: Low lighting is the bane of every digital camera’s existence. In such situations, where one might normally end up with blurry photos, the iPhone 5s will record multiple images with a single press of the shutter. The camera software then blends them together resulting in a single, sharp image combining the best parts of those images with as little noise, subject motion, and camera-shake as possible. My understanding is that this feature is not gimmicked by capturing less-than-full resolution images. I look forward to trying out this aspect of the new iPhone 5s.

An iPhone 5 panorama of the Italian/French Alps.

A panorama of the Italian Alps seen from the town of Saint-Pierre just south of the French border. Shot with an iPhone 5 in panorama mode.

Panorama mode: I love this feature in the iPhone 5, and certainly took advantage of it during a recent trip to Italy. I can’t wait for the new version on the 5s. Now, when shooting a scene in variable light – which is more likely when shooting a pano to begin with – the iPhone 5s will automatically adjust the exposure for highlights and shadows while panning. And, thanks to the faster processor, the scene is also captured at an impressive 30 frames per second – 50 percent faster than with the iPhone 5.

Slow-motion video: This fascinating new feature lets us shoot video at 120 frames per second at 720p resolution. We can then play back any section at quarter speed resulting in some pretty dramatic effects.

Details showing the five-element iPhone camera lens.

The iPhone 5s camera’s five-element lens assembly.

The Camera Lens

The iPhone 5s sports a new five-element lens designed specifically for it. The optics are always an important factor in determining image quality on any camera. Apple doesn’t sit still, and rather than toss in the cheap and useless gimmicks we see in other smartphones, it’s this kind of behind-the-scenes enhancement we really do want to see.

The new camera now has a wider f/2.2 aperture – the opening in the lens assembly that allows light in and onto the imaging sensor. A smaller f-number signifies a wider aperture; in turn, this means that more light is able to access the sensor.

All of this points to the fact that the iPhone 5s can more easily capture an image in low light. But, guess what? The benefit of a larger aperture is not just for low light. It also means that capturing successful images in situations that require fast shutter speeds are easier to obtain.

Finally, a wider aperture allows those of us who care about selective focus and “bokeh” a tiny bit more control, given that the minute size of the sensor prevents full exploitation of this interesting aspect of photography.

Speaking of the camera’s sensor, it is 15 percent larger in the iPhone 5s. Since the number of actual photo-sites (which ultimately equate to what we call pixels) is the same 8 million we’ve enjoyed in the iPhone 5, this means the actual pixels are larger now. That’s a good thing.

Generally, the larger the sensor pixel, the more light photons it can collect. This results in images with less “noise” – the unwanted color artifacts that commonly occur in low-light scenes captured by digital cameras. Noise tends to be present in low-light or high ISO images due to heat buildup on the image sensor that results from the need to amplify the image. Larger photo sites produce less heat, therefore less noise. A photo with less noise is considered higher quality, as more detail can be perceived by the viewer.

Taking everything discussed so far into consideration, the new iPhone 5s provides about 33 percent more light sensitivity than the previous generation.

The iOS 7 icons for the Camera app and the Photos app.

The new iOS 7-look of the Camera app and Photos app.

The Photo Editing Apps

Certainly, the default iPhone 5s apps that have already been mentioned in passing – the Camera app and the Photos app – lay claim to considerable enhancements and new features of their own. Fortunately, third-party app developers are provided all the tools necessary from Apple in the form of APIs (Application Programming Interface) and SDKs (Software Development Kit). My guess is that they are going to quickly find novel ways to incorporate into their app updates, all of the enhancements and features we’ve examined in this article.

Details showing the iPhone 5s camera lens and True Tone flash.

The new dual-LED True Tone flash on the iPhone 5s.

The 800-Pound Gorilla In the Room

Perhaps by now, you’ve noticed that I’ve left out one feature covered at some length by other writers: the “new and improved True Tone flash” on the iPhone 5s. The sporty look is provided by two high-intensity LED lamps used for flash photography – one white and the other amber. Apple claims that shooting in the user-adjustable combined-light mode, with up to 1000 combinations available, optimizes the overall color temperature of the light. This results in a more natural-looking effect in tricky lighting situations.

It doesn’t matter.

I purposely avoided talking about this until now. That’s because I loathe any kind of direct flash near the lens.
This type of flash, by its very nature, still produces harsh results, no matter what color temperature correction it provides. Let’s also not forget its limited range.

Of course, in a pinch, on-board flash has its uses, and I do use it, but on very rare occasions, mostly to get crisp shots of documents. However, if you want truly amazing people-shots, it’s always best to seek out more favorable lighting solutions through the use of diffusers, reflectors, indirect lighting, window lighting, and other techniques

Why not work at making the best and most flattering portraits and group shots you can? The iPhone camera is certainly capable of doing so, especially with that flash kept in the off state until really needed.

In conclusion, the iPhone 5s should prove to be an amazing ground-breaking photographic device as the hardware architecture and operating system receive a major overhaul. Their collaboration will affect the performance not only of the on-board games, communications and productivity apps, but more importantly of the camera functions and image processing capabilities.

Even if needing to pay an early-termination fee on a two-year contract to switch from the iPhone 5 to the new 5s, consider the upgrade a serious possibility. I believe it’s worth it! Hopefully, I’ll be relieved to know in a week or two that I gave you the correct advice.