Review of the Apple iPhone 4S Camera

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Apple is heavily promoting its new improved camera as a primary feature of the iPhone 4S. With a 60% increase in megapixels, a sharper and faster lens, and a newly engineered illumination sensor, the popular technology company is hoping consumers will now turn to the iPhone for their primary photography (and video) needs, as well as everything else.

At stake is an increased share of the multi-billion dollar consumer point-and-shoot market. Improved smartphone cameras like the iPhone 4S’ offer consumers the convenience of carrying one fewer device, plus the benefits of connectivity for immediate image sharing.

(PHOTOS: The iPhone 4S Camera: A Professional’s Take)

One of the most appealing features of previous iPhone cameras is the ability to apply filters to your photos with apps like Hipastamatic and Instagram. Many of these apps create the look of old antique film cameras, ironically, in a digital millisecond. For my first test with the 4S, I used the camera without any apps to best evaluate image quality and performance.

I tested it in low light situations at sunset and dusk, as well as under artificial light (see gallery). While many smartphones have adequate image quality in broad daylight, they preform poorly under the colored hues of lower light and especially artificial light.

The biggest improvement of the 4S camera over its predecessor is its excellent auto white balance performance. In my tests, it consistently produced accurate color under a variety of low and artificial light sources.

The iPhone 4S image files open up to an impressive 22.9 megabytes—about the size of many recent midrange point-and-shoot camera files. At this size, image corrections in software like Photoshop are still limited, so accurate exposure and color at the time the image is captured is important.

The phone’s new optics result in a noticeably sharper image with better tonal range. Shadow detail, and especially highlight definition, is significantly improved. The camera was able to record the hard lines and sharp edges of Washington’s monuments under low light, which most smart phone cameras would be challenged by.

(MORE: Apple iPhone 4S Review: It’s the iPhone 4, Only More So)

The new lens shoots fixed at f/2.4, a half stop brighter than the iPhone 4 camera, and adjusts the shutter speed and ISO to the existing light conditions. In my tests, the image quality did not noticeably degrade on screen, except at ISO’s above 400. As a result, I was able to frequently shoot at night and indoors without using the flash. It’s best to avoid any smartphone or pocket camera flashes when possible, as light quality is general very poor.

Heavy camera usage will drain the iPhone 4S’ battery quickly. I was able to shoot just over 200 photos in about two hours before losing power on a full charge. Actual numbers will vary depending on how often your screen is on, and what else is running on your phone.

Two new features improve camera operations. By touching the central subject area on the screen, like a face, you can lock both the exposure and focus until you take a picture, allowing you to recompose the frame. However, the lock is released after shooting the first photo, which is unfortunate, as many times you want to take more than one photo.

Apple has added additional shutter releases to the volume buttons on the side of the phone, which is frequently easier than touching the screen. You can still only shoot one exposure at a time, so hopefully Apple will add continuous shooting to future models.

(MORE: In the Future, We Will All Talk to Computers)

Unfortunately, the camera does not contain any other significant manual controls. It would be helpful have some options to adjust exposure manually, instead of having to poke around the screen to select an area that produces good exposure (but might not be where you want to focus). I would also like to see a slightly wider lens, especially for scenic and interior shots. The current lens is the equivalent of about 30mm on a 35mm DSLR.

Overall, the iPhone 4S produces images as good in quality as many low to midrange point-and-shoot cameras, in a simple, user-friendly, and fully automated interface. When you add in options for filters and post processing techniques with the growing library of apps, you have an appealing product not just for consumers, but also for professionals looking to shoot quickly and inconspicuously.

Click here to see a couple comparison shots between the iPhone 4 and 4S…

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