Ten Things to Know About the iPhone 4 Camera

Among the collection of new features included with the iPhone 4, the ones I had most eagerly anticipated revolved around the much improved camera. The iPhone 4 camera sports a 5 megapixel resolution, bumping up from the 3GS’s 3 megapixels. It also includes an enlarged sensor and a flash, allowing the iPhone 4 perform significantly better in low-light situations. Plus, there’s a 5X digital zoom. For video, the iPhone 4 camera can now record in 720p HD quality. It also supports the tap-to-focus option previously available only for still photos. With the new iMovie for iPhone 4 app, you can create a movie from your video with a polish never before possible on any smartphone.

As a final bonus, the iPhone 4 adds a front-facing camera.

How would all of these features hold up in real-world testing? To find out, I took my iPhone 4 out for a spin over the past weekend. While I experimented with a variety of still shots, I was most interested in evaluating the video features. Here’s what I learned:

1. The quality of the still camera is really better. In the past, I often wouldn’t bother with my iPhone’s camera, knowing how inferior the results would be. With the iPhone 4, this is no longer the case. I’ve compared several shots taken both with my iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4. The improved sharpness and detail in the iPhone 4’s photos are instantly apparent. Although I’ll still want my Canon digital camera for occasions where getting the best photo quality is critical, the iPhone 4 will be a more-than-adequate alternative for most less-critical occasions.

With the iPhone 4’s flash, low-light shots that were impossible with the iPhone 3GS are now easily achieved.

2. Digital zoom is basically a waste. The iPhone 4 comes equipped with a 5X digital zoom. While this may sound impressive, don’t expect to get much use from this option. Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom results in a loss of picture quality (as explained more here). Essentially, digital zoom is not much different than enlarging and cropping a photo in iPhoto. Based on my experience, photos taken at the 5X zoom level were so grainy as to be almost unusable.

3. The front camera is not just for FaceTime. You can use the iPhone 4’s front-facing camera anytime you want a picture of yourself. You can even use it to take video of yourself — although it does not support the rear-facing camera’s HD quality.

4. The HD video is a knock-out. The iPhone 4’s HD-quality video is spectacular. Even if I didn’t make allowances for the fact that the video is recorded on a smartphone, I would still be impressed. For the past few years, I have used the video option of my point-and-shoot Canon digital camera for taking video. Given my modest goals, I haven’t felt the need for a dedicated camcorder — certainly not an expensive AVCHD 1080p device. Overall, this has worked well for me. I now plan to shift almost all my video camera recording to the iPhone. Despite its inferior optics, the iPhone can produce video that looks superior to the (non-HD) video I get from my Canon.

5. It’s worth getting the iMovie app. My initial reaction to the iMovie app for iPhone 4 was “Why bother?” The iMovie app does much less than I can do with iMovie on my Mac and does it more awkwardly on a smaller screen. Compared to iMovie on my Mac, the iPhone’s options for themes, transitions, splitting clips, and adjusting audio are distinctly inferior. Given all of this, why would I ever want to do video editing on my iPhone?

In truth, I will probably will do most of my video editing on my Mac. Still, before entirely dismissing iMovie for the iPhone, I decided to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be so easy to create a sophisticated-looking finished project, that I will certainly find a use for iMovie.

When exactly will I use it? Whenever I want to share a video before I have the opportunity to transfer my video to the Mac. Or whenever the simplicity of working directly from the iPhone outweighs the superior results and larger workspace I’d get from working on my Mac.

If you are the type of person not satisfied with anything less than Final Cut, none of what I have said here applies to you. But if you are more like me, get the iMovie app. At only $5, it’s hard to go wrong.

6. For using iMovie on the iPhone, plan ahead. One of the significant limitations of the iMovie app is that you can’t split a clip. A potential work-around is to copy the clip twice, trimming each one at opposite ends so as to simulate a split. Still, this is something you won’t want to do on a regular basis. My solution has been to record much shorter clips than I have typically
done. It’s much easier to create a movie on the iPhone from a series of brief clips than from one long clip that needs to be trimmed or split multiple times. I copy all the potential clips from Photos’ Camera Roll to my iMovie project and work with the clips — including later deleting any as desired — entirely from iMovie.

7. HD movies do not upload to Web sites in HD. The iPhone 4 can record video in 720p HD. You can similarly export a video created in iMovie in either 720p HD or one of two lesser resolutions. After exporting a video, you can upload it to MobileMe or YouTube. But don’t expect an HD video to upload at HD quality from your iPhone. If you try, you’ll note that the video is compressed before it is sent to these websites. I have found no way to bypass this enforced compression. Actually, you may not want to bypass the compression. In most cases, the size of an HD video file can be 10X or more the size of the compressed version of the same video. The downside of the compressed version is that its quality is inferior. Transitions in particular are not as smooth. You may get better non-HD results by exporting the movie from iMovie at a lower resolution and creating the upload from the lower resolution version.

If you inisist on uploading a video at HD quality, transfer the video to your Mac and upload the video from there.

8. You can select albums when uploading to MobileMe. New in iOS 4, when you select “Send to MobileMe” for an item in the Photos app, the keyboard automatically pops up. This allows you to enter an optional title and description for your upload. Unfortunately, the keyboard prevents you from seeing the list of Gallery albums that are hiding underneath. At first, because the album list appeared to be missing, I thought that iOS 4 no longer permitted making an album selection. Not so. Accessing the album list is as simple as swiping with your finger, causing the keyboard to vanish.

You still can’t create a new Gallery album from the iPhone (a limitation that I describe in more detail in another article).

9. iMovie for iPhone video may not play from YouTube app. For some reason, after creating a movie with iMovie on the iPhone and uploading it to YouTube via the Photos app, I was unable to play the movie from the YouTube app on the iPhone. Instead, I kept getting an error message stating that the video “does not currently support iPhone.” The same video played fine when I accessed YouTube from Safari on my Mac.

If I instead uploaded a basic video clip that had not been edited in iMovie, the clip did play in the YouTube app. However, I had to wait awhile after completing the upload before I could view it. If I tried to play the video on the YouTube app immediately after uploading it, I would get a message stating “…processing the video. Try again later.” This message showed up on the iPhone even though I could already play the video on my Mac. After about an hour wait, the extra processing completed and the video successfully played from the YouTube app.

10. The iPhone is more than a camera. In summary, the camera in the iPhone 4 is really good — much better than the one in the iPhone 3GS. It also offers several camera-related benefits that go beyond the camera itself:

• You can view your photos and video on a “big” 3.5 inch screen.

• You can share your photos and video directly from an iPhone 4 — sending your results as an email attachment or an MMS. For more general sharing, you can upload your video to MobileMe or YouTube.

• You can easily edit your video on the iPhone — either via the basic Trim tool included in the Photos app or the more full-featured iMovie app. 

No other camera device combines all of these features into one package. A few smartphones, such as the Droid, come close. But nothing is the iPhone’s equal.

Compared to a dedicated camera, the iPhone has the further advantage of all the non-camera-related tasks you can do with it — from making phone calls to surfing the Web to playing games — saving you the need to carry around multiple devices.

The main drawback of the iPhone as a camera is that buying one requires a two-year phone contract. Should Apple decide to give the next-generation iPod touch the same camera(s) that are now in the iPhone, I predict that the future of the entry-level video devices (such as the Flip camera) will be very grim.

Watch my movie. Want to see my first effort at creating a movie completely on the iPhone? You can view the HD version (uploaded to the MobileMe Gallery from my Mac) or the SD version (uploaded from my iPhone). Warning: The HD version may take a long time to load, as it is 98 MB, as opposed to the 7 MB of the standard version. In fact, it may choke and fail to load completely.

The final still frame in the movie is grainy, especially in the HD version. This is because the photo was taken at the 5X digital zoom.

The video was taken at the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. All the video was shot on the iPhone. It was then edited, including adding the audio track, in iMovie on the iPhone. From start to finish, it took only a couple of hours.