Life With the iPhone 4S

A New Camera (phone)

I’ve only had it for about a week now, but I’m already getting a lot of use out of my 4S camera, just using it around Kashiwa. I haven’t really had much chance to compare the picture quality to my old 4 properly, but I do notice cleaner results at higher ISO and a sharper image overall. The main improvements, though, seem to be in the speed of use.

Ice Cream Colours

The main improvements, though, seem to be in the speed of use.

I’m prepared to take the experts’ word for it that it is indeed a better lens, with the additional elements, filters and more megapixels of detail from the 8mp camera. I think I also prefer the 35mm field of view over the 28mm of the ‘4’, at least for street shooting, an angle I liked on my original 3G phone. Really though, this is a wash, as I was getting quite used to the wider 4 and with a widish prime, a few mm aren’t all that different. I do find the camera itself works a lot better in low light, finding its focus and giving you a brighter picture. Seeing as most hours of the day have less than perfect light, this really is a bit of a Godsend.

Kashiwa Crossing

What makes it for me most of all, though, is the massive bump in speed. The camera opens and takes the shot a lot faster than before, ‘shutter lag’ being much lower. If you include opening the camera app itself, it’s still too slow for many uses, but once started, the shot to shot speed is actually very good, much better than a lot of compacts I’ve used. Along with this is the bump in processing speed. My apps, such as Hipstamatic or Instagram, open a lot faster and compute the result more quickly as well, despite having to deal with more data. Unfortunately, I think the battery is worse and though I’ve never failed to make it to the end of the day yet, I think I’ll be bringing a long a booster, as when it starts to drop it really tends to plummet.

One of the great things about using a smart-phone (I include Android and Nokia phones in this, as they are on the same level, or even more advanced), are the rich processing options and connectivity letting you post a photo as you take it. Not only that, but the reality of social networking means you can get a response a few minutes later: Now that’s communication! As a photographer, I actually like the lack of a zoom. You simply have to compose carefully and move around your subject, ‘zooming with your feet’. This alone could lead to much more interesting photos than many compacts would give you, working with limitations bringing out the best in people.

The Big Winner

Time to Say Goodbye to Your Compact?

The big question today is whether a mobile phone can compare with, or even replace a compact. As said, with no zoom, you have only the initial focal length, which makes the Ricoh GR-IV currently about the only similar model as sadly the high-end compact market has become a world of zooms. Even so, the iPhone certainly makes a convincing case. It’s fast, has good AF, a beautiful LCD (far better than any other digital camera, by the way) and fits in your pocket.

I see it more as a compliment than a replacement to a good compact. Without a means of changing lenses,I can’t get a wide landscape or close-in portrait with this and at 35mm, it seems best for ‘environmental shots’, (whilst the 28mm-equivilant 4 was more suited to landscapes/cityscapes). Also, the AF is pretty slow. Touch to focus works very nicely and it’s faster than before, yet still takes it’s time. As before, focusing changes the exposure settings too, although apps like ‘ProCamera’ fix this by letting you set them separately and also lock the white balance, so when I get more serious, I break that out.

The small sensor has its own limitations for high ISO and varying depth of field. The latter can be fixed a bit with some of the apps out there, but nothing can improve the loss in detail from noise reduction. Well, we could if Raw was available, but perhaps we’ll have to wait until the next iPhone for that. In fact, the lack of Raw is perhaps the biggest limitation, as with that we could fix white balance, noise reduce to taste and fix exposure to a degree. Personally, most compacts I’ve bought have Raw and I always find situations in which I need it. For a quick shot, though, these are limitations but not deal-breakers.

So for me it is a great and wonderful take-anywhere camera. It makes little sense to see it as a replacement for a high-end compact, but quite a lot instead of an entry-level model. I can see the compact manufacturers having a difficult time with this, as their image quality is in many cases not much better (or even worse) and the inconvenience of carrying a second device is too much for many of their potential customers. In fact, I have  friends for whom an iPhone is their main take around camera and they are very happy with the results. Whilst with old-school mobile phone-cams I’d  say they could do better, at this point I’m not so sure.

Shrine in Kashiwa

With compacts iterating so frequently they are also quite scary to buy now, as whatever you get today may well be obsolete in 6 months time. It also seems that image quality is actually getting worse as more mega-pixels and zoom range gets crammed on to compete. After using a Panasonic TZ-7 travel zoom (which is well-respected in its class), I could see that despite the great 24-300mm zoom range, the picture gets very soft when you zoom in and the image stabilisation couldn’t cope very well, needing an ISO 400 washed out by heavy noise reduction to get something sharp. It’s true, I got the shot, but the mushy image isn’t much good for anything, as detail lost can never be recovered. I did get good shots in better light, but they always needed a lot of post-processing as the lens lacks contrast and with all this, the TZ-7 is a camera people still try to find as newer models do much worse! If this is typical, I can see the iPhone 4S and the like killing entry-level compacts, despite their advantages, at least until they get their image quality up again and get networked to catch up, a process that may well take generations.

Conclusion

I can honestly say that after just a few days of use, I am very happy with the 4s and it is already one of my favourite cameras ever. It’s always there and gets great results out of the box. I’d like to have Raw, but I can always bring something else along with me for that, as we ultimately appreciate our tools for what they can do and do well and overlook what they lack. I can see myself using it more than the LX5 and it may well keep me happy until I get a mirrorless camera  (probably the V1). It’s complete, neat, fast, fun and just feels good. It came just I was getting into app-based iPhoneography and speeds this up considerably, meaning less wait between shots and seeing results in a flash. And sharing them.

It’s complete, neat, fast, fun and just feels good.

Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t replace a high-end compact, or even in many cases an entry-level one. No zoom, no Raw and few controls limit it’s usefulness. Yet in its category, it is a supreme example of good design and forward-looking functionality. Combined with the right apps, I’m sure it will be capable of prize-winning, very much printable photos. Just a few years from the iPhone 3G, on which the camera was the worst feature, to this being it’s killer app, this is quite an achievement and goes to show that mobile phone cameras (or as I sometimes think of it, cameras with a mobile phone) have an incredible potential that I’m pretty sure will one day even catch up with the IQ of today’s DSLRs. Never underestimate the power of miniaturisation to give us portable abilities we’d never have dreamed of before.

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Patterns of Leaves

Never underestimate the power of miniaturisation to give us portable abilities we’d never have dreamed of before.

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