iPhone 4S Camera Review: "Good Enough" Tech Gets Better
by Allison Johnson -  12/8/2011

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.

Those who are used to handling a point-and-shoot camera will find the ergonomics of the iPhone camera slightly frustrating, but aside from that camera performance is quick.

Shooting Performance
The camera app loads in around three seconds, and as soon as it's active the camera begins to continually auto focus. A blinking white box appears as the camera locks in on its target. Face detection will present a green box when a face is detected and used as a focus target. I found face detection reliable, and it wasn't overly aggressive in hunting for faces where they aren't.

Shutter lag is as good as any current point-and-shoot - a negligible 0.01 seconds. AF acquisition is in the middle range for point-and-shoots that we test. It's hard to nail down an exact figure since the 4S is always searching for focus, but it clocks in consistently around 0.30 seconds. There is no continuous shooting mode on the iPhone 4S, but shot-to-shot times are very quick. As soon as an image is recorded, the iPhone is basically ready to shoot the next one when you are.

The iPhone's tiny LED flash is quite powerful for its size. It will do a fine job of illuminating a subject when no other light source is available, but in low light it often overpowered close subjects and washed out skin tones. Unless there's no other option, it's best to leave the flash off and use in or out of camera editing options.

Battery life is another drawback to the phone/camera combo. If you spend all day on email, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, you'll find at the end of the day there's no battery power left for that spontaneous Polaroid moment. When the phone dies, your camera dies, and the iPhone 4S isn't exactly a battery-efficient machine. The good news is - at least the iPhone 4S that I've been testing - has stronger battery life than smartphones of the past year or two. Still, there's no way to carry an extra battery the way you can with a dedicated camera. Once it's done, it's done.

Lens Performance
Sharpness is good, though some of it appears to be created by the image processor. In dim light, sharpness is somewhat compromised as noise suppression kicks in.

iPhone 4S Camera

Distortion is well controlled and there's very little evidence of any in the photo below. Moire popped up every once in a while when photographing a screen or wallpaper with a fine grid pattern.

Digital zoom isn't particularly helpful. It's nice to have in a pinch when there's no way to get closer to your subject, but even in fair lighting conditions digital zoom will make the noise in your photos much more noticeable. It's also a difficult proposition keeping the camera steady with the camera digitally zoomed in on a subject.

iPhone 4S Sample Image
Full digital zoom

There's no way to get around it - the iPhone lens is perfectly functionally until you want to zoom in on a subject. A little digital zoom won't do too much harm, but for any real magnification this lens just doesn't cut it. This is still point-and-shoot, ultrazoom and DSLR territory.

Video Quality
Video quality looks closer to point-and-shoot quality than it does to phone-quality. The sample video below was originally published in our sister site Brighthand's iPhone 4S Review, and we've repurposed here to show the fluidity and sharpness of the clip.


Naturally there's quite a bit more noise in low light video, but not an overwhelming amount. Again, the ergonomics of the iPhone work against the user when shooting video. Keeping the phone stabilized in the hand is a tricky proposition. Many low-end point-and-shoots have better video ergonomics and optical image stabilization to keep video fairly steady - the iPhone 4S shoots very nice video, but it's hard to imagine it being used primarily as a video device. Its natural advantage is the ease with which it can send videos to sharing sites - just a few screen taps and you can upload your clips straight to YouTube, and there's no point-and-shoot (yet) capable of that.

Image Quality
To my eye, sharpness and contrast are a bit hard. The details on the purple house below are good examples. That same photo viewed at 100% will show some loss of detail and noise in the corners, especially in the tree branches. Some highlights are lost in this high contrast scene and some color noise is visible in the blues of the sky.

Then again, this is a photo taken with a device that is engineered to make calls and receive e-mail. That's the thing about the iPhone 4S camera - it's so easy to forget that it's not one. No doubt a high quality point-and-shoot would handle this scene better, but for a quick-and-easy phone picture it's pretty impressive.

The iPhone 4S seemed to handle color reproduction very well in good to moderately poor lighting conditions. The purple façade of the house above is accurately reproduced. In very low light, colors are flat and details are smudged due to noise suppression. Holding the phone steady for a clear image becomes a tricky proposition in low light, and photos that appear to be in focus on the phone screen may actually be blurred due to shake. Case in point, curry.

Most other low light images suffered the same fate. If they weren't actually blurry, then details were too smudged for printing of any significant size. They're acceptable for tweets and Facebook updates of course, but even viewed at 50 and 25% on a computer screen noise is evident and loss of color depth is obvious.

iPhone 4S Sample Image

There's just one shot from our studio in this review, since there's really only one ISO and white balance setting on the iPhone 4S - automatic. The processor handles our 5500k studio fluorescents very well.

There's a faint suggestion of grain in the shadow areas but outside of that it's a very good reproduction of our studio still life. Again, it appears somewhat oversharp to me, but most iPhone photos will only ever be viewed on small screens and a little sharpening helps details pop.

We used the Gary Fong tripod adaptor for iPhone for our studio shots with great success.

Additional Sample Images
iPhone 4S Sample Image iPhone 4S Sample Image

As more apps are introduced, the possibilities for the iPhone camera are always expanding. What your iPhone camera can do today may change tomorrow. The traditional point-and-shoot can't even dream of this kind of flexibility right now.

But let's not get too carried away. Point-and-shoot cameras can zoom, they offer adjustment to white balance, flexibility in exposure settings and better overall ergonomics for photo taking. Moments like children's sporting events and recitals are still best capture with a camera that has zoom and optical image stabilization capabilities.

The iPhone 4S is designed for simplicity in operation, and by nature removes many manual control options. For many, this will be good enough. The sharing applications, the filters, the speed and availability of the camera will be more than enough for a lot of people. For those who demand a little more from a camera and don't find carrying an extra device to be a burden, we will still need point-and-shoot cameras. At least for now.