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iPhone 4 Review: 3 - Camera Photos & Videos

Apple's fourth generation iPhone is also the company's best mobile camera, whether shooting pictures, capturing video, or enabling video calls with FaceTime. Here's how it compares to the previous iPhone 3GS and other popular camera phones.

In this series
iPhone 4 Review: 1 - Hardware Fit & Finish
iPhone 4 Review: 2 - the Phone & FaceTime
iPhone 4 Review: 3 - Camera Photos & Videos

Two cameras, one device

iPhone 4 may do a lot to help erase the market for both standalone point-and-shoot cameras and dedicated Flip-style camcorders. That's a bold statement until you see what kind of photos it can now take. It's not just photo quality either; it's ease of use, convenience, and speed. Taking pictures with iPhone 4 is really fast, with no lag between when you take the picture and when its captured.

The new LED flash helps fill in shots in low light (a feature Apple was lagging behind everyone in) and the cameras automatically geotag your photos, with the location now (in iOS 4) presented graphically right on the phone under Photo's Places tab.

The new phone even looks and feels like a camera, with flat edges that enable you stand it on its side or on end (if you dare) on a level surface. The built in camera app has no shutter delay timer, but you can set it up to record video, jump in the shot, and then trim out the initial part. You can now tap to focus for both still shots and while recording video.

There's very little to figure out in the ultra simple Camera app: just one button to set the flash and one to switch between the front and rear facing cameras (you can only switch before you start taking video or during a FaceTime chat; you can't go back and forth between the two cameras within the same recording).

New APIs in iOS 4 allow developers to access the raw data captured by the cameras, allowing third party apps to offer more options and additional (or less) imaging processing, meaning that Apple's simple and easy to use Camera app should get more complex alternatives offering additional features for those that want them.

From last place to first

Three years ago, Apple's first iPhone included a very rudimentarily camera that took only fair shots, useable for illustrating your contact list or snapping a shot of a funny sign. iPhone 3GS debuted a video camera with a touch to focus camera that took decent quality photos and acceptable videos, although our testing of the iPod nano suggested Apple had already improved upon its video capturing skills before that phone was even half a year old. In its fourth generation, Apple's iPhone 4 really shines as a camera.

iPhone 4 presents Apple's first front facing camera. It sports a "VGA resolution," which is 0.3 megapixels (640x480). That sounds like nothing at all in the megapixel arms race, but it's the same effective resolution of iChat and Photo Booth on the Mac, despite the fact that modern iSight cameras can capture 1.3 megapixels; a number of cameras take photos (and particularly videos) at lower resolutions than the hardware is capable of capturing.

The front facing camera takes plain pictures that are nothing special; it's there to capture video efficiently while you watch the other caller via FaceTime. If you want a good picture of yourself, click the camera-flip button and turn the unit around. You won't see a live view of your own photo, but the new highly reflective glass back of the iPhone 4 should give you an idea of what you're capturing, and make it easier to include friends in a self-held group shot (once you wipe the inevitable fingerprints of its back).

That rear camera captures very good pics with its 5 megapixel sensor, which sports both larger pixel size and a new "backside illumination" design that allows more light to hit the sensor. While the Retina Display's tightly packed, tiny pixels are a feature, as Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs explained in introducing the new phone, tiny pixels crammed into a camera sensor do not necessarily result in better pictures. Or in other words, more megapixels aren't automatically better if your sensor size isn't getting bigger as well.

Can it get better than this?

Rival phones with cameras capturing "more megapixel resolution" are often not capable of taking as good of pictures as iPhone 4, every review so far has indicated. What they do provide is a much larger picture size. The more megapixels you have capturing bits, the more megabytes your photo consumes. iPhone 4 pictures (2592x1936, 5 megapixel) are usually around 2-2.5MB, while iPhone 3GS photos (2048x1536, 3 megapixel) are usually closer to 1-1.5MB. In both cases, the raw data is JPEG compressed by the Camera app.

Without increasing the size of the sensor, packing more pixels into the tiny chip primarily gives you photos that are simply bigger. The iPhone 4 camera could certainly get better; a better lens with an actual optical zoom would be nice. The digital zoom of iOS 4 works by blowing up a section of the chip's sensor rather than using all of its pixels (as an optical zoom does).

You'll notice a big increase in pixelation when you zoom in, but iPhone 4 has enough resolution to make this at least somewhat useful; my test shot (below) taken while chasing pigeons in the park show the iPhone 4's maxed digital zoom compared to the iPhone 3GS.

iPhone 4 digital zoom

One downside related to iOS 4 is that there's no longer an option to double click the Home button to activate the Camera app. That button sequence is now hardwired to the multitasking tray, so you have to manually hunt down the Camera app by icon.

If you're scrambling to capture something spontaneously, any delay spent navigating the device's touch screen is a potential shot killer. It's too bad iPhone 4's substantial new volume control buttons can't be programmed to pull up the camera (as in, up,down = launch Camera app). It would be nice to see this feature added in a software update.

On page 2 of 3: iPhone 4 vs iPhone 3GS, other Android phones: photos.