iPhone 4S Camera Review: “Good Enough” Tech Gets Better

by Reads (10,050)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 7
    • Features
    • 7
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 8
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 7.25
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10


  • Pros

    • Best-yet image quality
    • Fast AF, shot-to-shot time
    • Size and portability
  • Cons

    • Very limited controls
    • No optical zoom
    • Average to poor low light performance

Quick Take

The iPhone 4S has the best camera we've seen in a phone to date. For many, it will be good enough tech. For those wanting optical zoom and more than basic controls, it's still no point-and-shoot replacer.

The iPhone needs no introduction. You don’t need to be told that it’s much, much more than just a phone, or that it has revolutionized the capturing and sharing of photos in the past few years. Each generation has offered a higher-quality camera, bringing us up to date with the iPhone 4S. If you told anyone five years ago that by 2012 we’d be wielding phones with 8 megapixel sensors and f/2.4 lenses, you’d have been called a liar. The iPhone 4S makes it a reality, with 1080 HD video recording to boot.

iPhone 4S Camera

Apple hasn’t been shy about heralding it as the best camera on a phone to date. With re-designed optics, a new image processor and HD video, they certainly have some room to boast. So how does this I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-camera camera hold up in a full DCR review? We spent a lot of time in the field shooting with the iPhone 4S in all kinds of lighting conditions – good, bad and ugly. We even brought it into the studio to test it on our standard still life. See if this is the camera phone that will put your point-and-shoot into retirement.

You can find a full review of the iPhone 4S as a mobile device on our sister site, Brighthand. For our purposes, we’re reviewing it as a camera that happens to be a phone.


The iPhone 4S adheres to the dead simple operation standards of many familiar Apple products. One button and a fluid touch screen are the only means of operation. This standard is extended to camera operation – few settings are available for tweaking, and operation is about as hands-off as you can get.

iPhone 4S Camera

Ergonomics and Controls
Controls are extremely basic. Tapping the lens icon will bring up the camera. Startup time is about a second and a half. Once it’s on, a focus icon appears and you’re ready to shoot. Frame your shot, let the AF do the work and tap the shutter button on the bottom of the screen. The + volume button will also trigger the shutter, allowing the user to keep both hands on the camera while shooting – a major help in keeping the camera steady.

Focus and exposure can be shifted by touching the screen. This is particularly helpful for adjusting lighting and focus to a backlit object. White balance is handled by the new A5 processor, and auto is your only option.

Ergonomics are expectedly not perfect. The iPhone, first and foremost, is a phone and messaging device. Holding the camera still and keeping your fingers clear of the lens is a tricky proposition. I highly recommend a case for the phone. Among other reasons, the case will keep your phone relatively safe if you happen to drop it while trying to hold it in an awkward position for a photo.

What it lacks in photo-friendly ergonomics, it makes up for in size and portability. It’s smaller than any point-and-shoot camera, mostly thanks to a lack of zoom lens. It will fit in the back pocket of your jeans, but that’s probably not recommended.

iPhone 4S Camera

Menus and Modes
Flash control, shooting options and front-facing camera toggle are the only controls available on the camera screen aside from a video/still toggle and shutter button. Pressing the options button brings up just two settings – HDR on/off and grid overlay on/off. There’s no separate menu screen (and with just two options, no real need for one) and the selections are made over the live shooting screen.

Digital zoom is controlled by Apple’s familiar “pinch” gesture. On the main shooting screen, touching the screen with two fingers and spreading them apart will effectively zoom in to the center of an image. A sliding zoom control bar appears on screen. Continue to zoom in and out using touch screen gestures, or slide the zoom control bar left and right.

The much-heralded “retina” display on the iPhone 4S is one of the best I’ve ever used. Not only is the 3.5-inch touch display fairly usable in bright outdoor conditions, photos and videos played back on the screen will look vibrant and rich with great color depth and contrast.

iPhone 4S Camera

Those who don’t mind a touch screen will find the iPhone 4S touch display intuitive and easy to use. Keyboard and autocorrect blunders aside, the touch display is simple to use for camera operation. Tapping the screen to adjust focus and exposure is easily done, and photo review is seamless with flicking motions used to navigate between photos. The screen does collect fingerprints and smudges, but they’re not obvious when the phone is in use. A basic wipe clean with the right cloth will keep the screen clear and usable.

With the camera app in operation and the shooting screen live, a small icon at the corner of the screen is your shortcut to previously captured images. This “camera roll” can be viewed as thumbnails, or as full-screen images, and the iPhone can generate a slideshow complete with music from the device’s iTunes library for the user in mere seconds.

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