Camera

The iPhone 5s continues Apple’s tradition of sensible improvements to camera performance each generation. I was pleased to hear Phil Schiller deliver a line about how bigger pixels are a better route to improving image quality vs. throwing more at the problem. I remember hearing our own Brian Klug deliver almost that exact same message a year earlier when speaking to some engineers at another phone company.

The iPhone 5s increases sensor size compared to the iPhone 5. Last week Brian dug around and concluded that the 5s’ iSight camera sensor likely uses a format very similar to that of the HTC One. The difference here is while HTC opted for even larger pixels (arriving at 4MP), Apple chose a different balance of spatial resolution to light sensitivity with its 8MP sensor.

One thing ingrained in my mind from listening to Brian talk about optics is that there is no perfect solution, everything ultimately boils down to a selection of tradeoffs. Looking at Apple/HTC vs. the rest of the industry we see one set of tradeoffs, with Apple and HTC optimizing for low light performance while the rest of the industry chasing smaller pixel sizes. Even within Apple and HTC however there are differing tradeoffs. HTC went more extreme in pixel size while Apple opted for more spatial resolution.

iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5S Cameras
Property iPhone 4 iPhone 4S iPhone 5 iPhone 5S
CMOS Sensor OV5650 IMX145 IMX145-Derivative ?
Sensor Format 1/3.2"
(4.54x3.42 mm)
1/3.2"
(4.54x3.42 mm)
1/3.2" ~1/3.0"
(4.89x3.67 mm)
Optical Elements 4 Plastic 5 Plastic 5 Plastic 5 Plastic
Pixel Size 1.75 µm 1.4 µm 1.4 µm 1.5 µm
Focal Length 3.85 mm 4.28 mm 4.10 mm 4.12 mm
Aperture F/2.8 F/2.4 F/2.4 F/2.2
Image Capture Size 2592 x 1936
(5 MP)
3264 x 2448
(8 MP)
3264 x 2448
(8 MP)
3264 x 2448
(8 MP)
Average File Size ~2.03 MB (AVG) ~2.77 MB (AVG) ~2.3 MB (AVG) 2.5 MB (AVG)
From Brian's excellent iPhone 5s Camera Analysis post

Apple moved to 1.5µm pixels, up from 1.4µm in the iPhone 5. Remember that we’re measuring pixel size in a single dimension, so the overall increase in pixel size amounts to around 15%. Apple also moved to a faster aperture (F/2.2 vs. F/2.4 on the iPhone 5) to increase light throughput. The combination can result in significantly better photos than the outgoing 5 when taking photos in low light.

iPhone 5/5c Low Light

iPhone 5s Low Light

With the move to larger pixels, Apple has done away with its 2x2 binning mode in low light settings. The iPhone 5 would oversample each pixel after scene brightness dropped below a certain threshold to improve low light performance. The oversampled image would then be upscaled to the full 8MP, trading off spatial resolution for low light performance. The iPhone 5s doesn’t have to make this tradeoff. In practice I didn’t find any situations where the 5s’ low light performance suffered as a result. It always seemed to produce better shots than the iPhone 5.

iPhone 5/5c

iPhone 5s

Unlike some of the larger flagships we’ve reviewed lately, the iPhone 5s doesn’t ship with optical image stabilization (OIS). We’ve seen devices from HTC, LG and Nokia all ship with OIS, and have generally been pleased with the results. It’s not a surprise that the 5s doesn’t come with OIS as it’s largely the same physical platform as the outgoing 5. Still it would be great to see an Apple device ship with OIS. Perhaps on a larger iPhone.

As is always the case in space constrained camera systems, what Apple could not achieve in the physical space it hopes to make up for computationally. The 5s leverages electronic image stabilization as well as automatic combination of multiple frames from the capture buffer in order to deliver the sharpest shots each time.

Apple’s cameras have traditionally been quite good, not just based on sensor selection but looking at the entire stack from its own custom ISP (Image Signal Processor) and software. With the A7 Apple introduces a brand new ISP. Although we know very little about the new ISP, you can find references to Apple’s H6 ISP if you dig around.

Apple continues to ship one of the better auto modes among smartphone cameras I've used. I still want the option of full manual controls, but for most users Apple's default experience should be a very good one.

Capturing shots under iOS 7 is incredibly quick. Shot to shot latency is basically instantaneous now, thanks to a very fast ISP and the A7’s ability to quickly move data in and out of main memory. It’s impossible to write shots to NAND this quickly so Apple is likely buffering shots to DRAM before bursting them out to non-volatile storage.

 

The new ISP enables a burst capture mode of up to 10 fps. To active burst mode simply hold down the shutter button and fire away. The iPhone 5s will maintain a 10 fps capture rate until the burst counter hits 999 images (which was most definitely tested). Although it took a while to write all 999 images, all of them were eventually committed to NAND.

Photos captured in burst mode are intelligently combined as to not clutter your photo gallery. The camera app will automatically flag what it thinks are important photos, but you’re free to choose as many (or as few) as you’d like to include in your normal browsing view. Since all of the photos captured in burst mode are physically saved, regardless of whether or not you select them to appear among your photos, you can always just pull them off the 5s via USB.

The rear facing camera is paired with a new dual-LED True Tone flash. Rather than featuring a single white LED to act as a flash, Apple equips the iPhone 5s with two LEDs with different color tones (one with a cool tone and one with a warm tone). When set to fire, the 5s’ ISP and camera system will evaluate the color temperature of the scene, pre-fire the flash and determine the right combination of the two LEDs to produce the most natural illumination of the subject.

I’m not a huge fan of flashes, but I have to say that in a pinch the True Tone flash is appreciably better than the single LED unit on the iPhone 5. Taking photos of people with the new True Tone flash enabled produces much warmer and more natural looking results:

True Tone Flash Enabled

Even if your subject happens to be something other than a person I’ve seen really good results from Apple’s True Tone flash.

I still believe the best option is to grab your photo using natural/available light, but with a smartphone being as portable as it is that’s not always going to be an option.

I have to say I appreciate the vector along which Apple improved the camera experience with the iPhone 5s. Improving low light performance (and quality in low light situations where you’re forced to use a flash) is a great message to carry forward.

Front Facing Camera

The iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c share the same upgraded front-facing FaceTime HD camera. The front facing camera gets a sensor upgrade, also with a move to larger pixels (1.9µm up from 1.75µm) while resolution and aperture remain the same at 720p and F/2.4. The larger sensor size once again improves low light performance of the FaceTime HD camera (iPhone 5 left vs. iPhone 5s right):

Battery Life Video
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  • CyberAngel - Thursday, September 19, 2013 - link

    Hurray! Reply
  • name99 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    I imagine he would say "I heard exactly the same shit about the A6 and how it couldn't possibly be as good as I claimed. Come back when you have NUMBERS to back up your complaints." Reply
  • monaarts - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    You are mistaking a more natural transition to a 64-bit mobile world with a "PR stunt." Yes, Android will probably make a huge jump and switch to 64-bit and include 8GB of memory, or something crazy like that, but will only add to fragmentation they are already burdened with. However, Apple is trying to avoid that by building steps that lead to where they eventually want the iPhone to go. Reply
  • ddriver - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    The PC market is fragmented as well, but is still goes, doesn't it? Surely, as a bigger ecosystem, android will be slower to adopt changes. But HPC doesn't really make sense in a phone, that is why most ARM chip vendors are focusing on server v8 chips and infrastructure, which will be more lucrative than consumer electronics. v8 is the future, no doubt about it, but apple has no other winning hand besides offering v8 a little too early, knowing they can make up for the cost of the premature transition with profit margins other manufacturers cannot dream of asking for the same hardware. Surely, other brands have their fanboys too, but nowhere nearly as fanatically devoted and eager to "just take my money". Reply
  • tbrizzlevb - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    I've never had any problem with this "fragmentation" that you cut and pasted from somewhere. How exactly has that kept you from buying Android? Do you normally keep your phone for 5 years or more? I'd be willing to bet you aren't using an iPhone 3 right now.. If you upgrade your phone every few years anyways, what do you care if the first generation Droid doesn't run the latest OS update? Reply
  • AaronJ68 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    The fact that there was never an iPhone 3 might have something to do with that. Reply
  • CyberAngel - Thursday, September 19, 2013 - link

    As a programmer I say there is a HUGE fragmentation problem with all the Androids.
    I code for Jelly Beans only and I do have an "old" 4.0 mono CPU device for testing the lag.
    Reply
  • Focher - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    You lost me when you used the phrase "apple fanboys" and "declining sales". You don't seem to understand the difference between market share versus unit sales. Reply
  • ddriver - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    So you must have taken "apple fanboys" personally, and understandably "declining sales" in a context regarding apples conflicts you. Like all other vendors, apple sales drop, thus the periodic refreshes, which do need their selling points, this time around it is v8. In the past, apple resorted to similar strategies, like making exclusive deals, purchasing the entire initial batches of new generation parts, and again making up for the cost of this "innovation" with their profit margins.

    I don't recall any other brand which pushed kids to selling their organs, do you? If that is not fanatical fanboyism, I don't know what it is...
    Reply
  • akdj - Thursday, September 19, 2013 - link

    Weird---seems to me EVERY time an iPhone is released, it sells MORE than the previous version FASTER! In fact, it's never been surpassed by another electronic item in history...and it's sales continue to climb. News Flash! Android (High end; S4/Note/HTC 1/XPeria) also sell @ a premium and almost @ the exact price of Apple's handsets. The rest of your post is nonsense. It's not just Anand's site and review praising the performance of the A7---it's ubiquitous. Is Apple paying Ars? TechCrunch? MacRumors? WSJ? Engadget? CNet?
    Dude---this is one HELL of an SoC. It's so much MORE than a 64bit chess match. A company licensing and building from the ground up a CPU/GPU/IPU that matches their OS and allows the tools to developers (For Free!) in XCode so the transition is seamless! The speed of this chip is awesome. Setting themselves up early is smart---the iPad release is imminent and has competition from both sides...Microsoft and Android. With a significantly larger 'body' and area to allow for more RAM...and future releases of other ARM based products, Apple is making in-roads within the mobile sector that ONLY bozos that cherish other brands, OEMs, or otherwise have some weird bone to pick with Apple can't realize. Mind blowing. I'm brand agnostic---use OSx, Windows and even own a couple of Android devices....but to me as dismissive as you are about the A7s build and putting it in a product the size of a pack of smokes is about as silly and should I say 'ignorant' a stance as I've seen in a long LONG time.
    This move by Apple is HUGE. Moore's law now attributed to mobile. Still a dual core. Still 1GB of RAM (albeit DDR3 vs DDR2)---yet doubling, tripling, sometimes quadrupling performance of the other 'off the shelf' SoCs on the market that other OEMs are using. It's no secret---Apple has been hiring and head hunting chip designers from Intel and AMD for some time now. These guys and gals are some of the brightest minds on earth....but you've got it all figured out and somehow Anand's been blinded by the conspiracy---as has EVERY other reviewer on the 'net.
    Un-Believable.
    J
    Reply

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