Why photography enthusiasts should wait for the iPhone 5S

By Swapnil Mathur | Published on 29 Jan 2013
Why photography enthusiasts should wait for the iPhone 5S

The iPhone 5 has been bested by the Lumia 920, and not just by a margin, but by a long shot. Samsung and HTC are also catching up, and so Apple really needs to revolutionize the game with the iPhone 5S.

If you’re big on cellphone photography, you are indeed living in good times! The iPhone began the cellphone camera revolution, bringing high quality photos to a form factor that had been stigmatized by poor quality. The iPhone 4 changed it all with its rather good camera (at the time) and built-in HDR mode, which was an instant hit. Going from the iPhone 4 to the 4S, it wasn’t just the increase from 5 to 8 megapixels that wooed the world, but also the fact that the sensor in the 4S was a BSI sensor made by Sony. It brought with it far better video than what the iPhone 4 was capable of (720p vs. 1080p). The iPhone 4S was a real beacon of amazing photos and videos, but when the iPhone 5 came out, the only real change the “Sapphire glass” front element. Real world test showed that the camera on the iPhone 5 wasn’t spectacularly better than that on the iPhone 4S and the sapphire crystal Apple boasted off with such confidence was actually causing severe purple casts in images.

Squaring Up Against the Competition
Today, we have the Nokia Lumia 920, which in our opinion is the current reigning champion of all cellphone cameras. It’s not the 8.7 megapixels that impress, but the fact that the BSI sensor combined with an f/2.0 optically stabilized lens allows the Lumia 920 to take stunning shots in almost any situation. Now bring in Nokia’s amazing imaging algorithms and we have low light shots that blow every single camera phone out of the water, the iPhone 5 included. The Optical Image Stabilization is a Lumia 920 only feature, so that gives it an unfair advantage, but when the Lumia 920 shoots videos, it makes the iPhone 5 footage look like something from the yesteryears. The camera has always been one of the few features Apple has greatly exploited to its advantage to sell its phones, but given that the Lumia 920 has it severely beat, the Cupertino outfit has its work cut out for itself.

Expecting the camera on the iPhone 5S to be a significant update isn’t a speculation, but a fact. Leave aside the fact that the jump from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S was significant, followed by a minor upgrade from the 4S to the latest iPhone5. The reason we know the iPhone 5S will house an amazing camera is because the Lumia 920 has knocked the iPhone 5 quite a ways back as far as camera performance goes and we all know Apple hates being second to anyone.

Lumia 920 and iPhone 5 camera comparison (1)

What to Expect from the iPhone 5S

Stabilization is the Name of the Game
So, what exactly can we expect in the next iPhone? Well, for starters, there’s the business of stabilization. Optical Image Stabilization is the hottest thing right now in the market, first made popular by Canon for their DSLR lenses, then by their introduction into point and shoot cameras, and now a third go at resurrection thanks to Nokia pushing the system to its limits by cramming it into the tiny optical lens array of a cell phone camera. Its popularization isn’t unwarranted though, as the technology is exceptional at performing the task of stabilizing a shaky hand, allowing the camera to spit out more useable shots than normally possible. Nokia’s version of OIS works beautifully, so we’re pretty sure Apple will also do something to match. Apple could also opt for using an optical solution for stabilization, or they could choose to use sensor-shift based stabilization.

Strong Video-Centric Approach
Another area of mobile imaging where Apple has always put a lot of emphasis is video recording. While every phone maker has chosen to go full HD with regards to video, it’s the bit rate of the video that’s always been the “conditions apply” disclaimer. It was only recently that the Samsung Galaxy S3 was discovered to support 25Mbps encoding at full HD, but that feature could be unlocked only by rooting the phone. We’re pretty sure the iPhone 5S will also bring with it an improved bitrate for video recording at Full HD resolution. They did an excellent job with the mics on the iPhone 5 to eliminate noise while recording, so a tweak on that technology is also expected. Video recording would get a serious boost in quality if it has a stabilization system in place to account for user hand-shake.

Some Love for the Sensor
There is also the possibility of a higher pixel count, given how all modern SoCs support images up to 13 megapixels, but we’re also inclined to feel that Apple might skip out on the pixel count in favour of bigger pixel pitch to juice out every bit of performance for photo and video. Also seeing how Apple loves to add features to the native camera app over time, can we also expect some basic Instagram-like filters? Beyond these essential upgrades, we could also talk about smaller changes like a better minimum focussing distance to enhance macro photography, an improved LED flash (maybe a dual LED flash).

Lumia 920 and iPhone 5 camera comparison (2)

While we have seen generational improvements in the iPhone family, with consensus being that the 'S' generation usually delivered slightly more revolutionary improvements, this time around, there can be no doubt that Apple will spare no efforts upgrading the iPhone camera with launch of the 5S.

Like we said, Apple doesn’t have the luxury of taking it easy when it comes to the camera on their phones. The iPhone 5 is already second rate when compared to the Lumia 920, and going forward, we can only expect Nokia to keep pushing out better imaging tech in their Lumia phones, maybe even a 41 megapixel PureView Lumia. If Apple needs to maintain its prowess as the maker of the best phone on the market, it needs to regain the faith lost in its imaging department. Keeping this in mind, we recommend steering clear of the iPhone 5 and instead waiting for the iPhone 5S.

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