Apple's latest smartphone will sport an upgraded camera when it ships on September 21, as is customary with just about every new iPhone. For people who care about mobile photography, though, the new camera is a disappointment. Apple passed up a chance to bring phonecam quality closer to that of point-and-shoots.
To be fair, the iPhone 5 camera is among the best in any smartphone. Yet at 8 megapixels (3,264 x 2,448) and with an aperture of 2.4mm, it's not a leap forward from the 4S, which has the same specs. The iPhone 4S jumped from 5 to 8 megapixels. That improvement was a big win for photography, and the overall quality of mobile-shot photos is better because of it. Sadly, we'll have to wait for another iPhone - or another manufacturer - to make the next leap in smartphone cameras.
Why This Camera Upgrade Wasn't Bigger
Why did Apple choose to tread water with the iPhone 5's camera? For one, the company had to fit it into a thinner device amid a host of new parts. As Phil Schiller acknowledged on Wednesday, "making something thinner is about the worst thing you can do" if you're looking to include a more powerful camera on the inside. The engineers managed to pack several improvements into the device. They just couldn't squeeze in everything.
Some photo buffs argue that megapixels matter only up to a point. There's some truth to that, especially when images are destined for the Web and mobile apps like Instagram. In some technical scenarios, jamming extra pixels onto a tiny sensor won't necessarily help image quality all that much anyway. But there's a reason point-and-shoot cameras capture images at much higher resolution. The quality tends to be better, especially when the photos are printed on paper.
Form Factor Over Functionality
If Apple hadn't put the form factor ahead of functionality, it could have helped bring mobile photography closer to the quality available from stand-alone cameras. Nikon's new Android-powered CoolPix point-and-shoot, for instance, captures 12 megapixels and works in much lower light, thanks to its higher ISO options. It also sports a real zoom lens (something that may not be practical to include on a smartphone just yet). Apple didn't say much about the flash on the iPhone 5, but if previous models are any indication, it probably doesn't produce the most flattering results in many lighting conditions. If Android-powered point-and-shoots take off, you're going to see an uptick in the quality of mobile photos, especially in apps like Instagram.
Of the camera improvements the iPhone 5 does have, a few shouldn't be overlooked. As anybody who has tried using their phone to quickly photograph a moment as it unfolds, speed is everything. The new iPhone camera is engineered to take pictures faster. Combined with the device's faster processor, that should lead to fewer missed photo opportunities. And while plenty of third party apps produce similar results, the iPhone's new native panorama feature is pretty nice.
Apple had quite a bit to pack into an iPhone that's thinner than ever. It's a worthwhile upgrade. When it comes to snapping high-quality images, though, the iPhone 5 is a missed opportunity.