iPhone 4s Cameras Are Good For Some Subjects

iPhone 4s Cameras Are Good For Some Subjects

Yes, I am one of those crazy, semi-hypocritical converts who is now touting the virtues of the iPhone as a usable camera. I didn’t start out this way (note the semi-hypocritical part). But after being gifted such a phone/camera/GPS/game console, I would be a fool not to see how much use I can get out of a camera that is with me at all time, it seems.

For the skeptics, don’t worry, you can keep being skeptical. The camera on this phone is not a super wonder and it has its limits. You can still dig on the fact that it stinks at night photos. But, in all fairness, there are a couple of areas the phone’s camera (camera’s phone?) works with great results, by my standard. I have owned my phone for about three months now and used it extensively on a 33 day trip to India, Oman and the UAE.

(Click on any photo to see a full size version. Some images were taken with different apps and the final size is not the full image.)

Wide Shots

The iPhone can handle wide shots in good light like a champ. Even in mediocre light, the camera performs well, I think. Building shots, gardens, the sea. While more apps that use the camera can zoom in, it is at this widest angle (the default setting) that the camera works best. It’s only a 8MP sensor, so don’t expect mind-blowing detail (have you seen the size of the lens?), but also don’t expect it to be a toy camera.

Amber Fort, Jaipur, India

Ghats at sunrise, Varanasi, India

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Wadi Dayqah Dam, Oman's largest

Close Shots

Another area I feel the camera works well is with close shots. Not zoomed in so much as physically close to the subject. I found these images to be sharp and acceptable. The camera/phone is also easy to manipulate up close to a subject, unlike a full sized DSLR, giving it a slight advantage.

Crab, Oman

Documenting Events

Should I bring up the “The best camera is the one you have with you,” line? I guess I just did. And it’s true, made even better by the camera’s increased ability to take decent photos. Whether it is finally breaking down and making a stop at McDonalds in India, getting some assistance from friendly Omanis when our car battery was dead or the joy from finding an actual toy surprise in a box of cereal while camping in Oman (and a Yoda lightsaber spoon at that!).

Don't Judge....it was just ok. Varanasi, India

Image shot with iPhone 4, not 4s. Getting a boost at the beach, Oman

A good start to the day, Jebal Shams, Oman

Passing over the North Pole, Earth

There are times when the camera, well, there are times when it stinks. Badly.

High Contrast

I don’t have stats on the actual dynamic range, in a matter of EV, of the sensor in the camera, but it is not that high. My non-scientific guess would be around 5-6 stops, as compared to my normal DSLR at 8 stops. Yes, there are HDR apps and yes, the sensor will improve. All good news. But out of the box….ouch.

Sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Under the dock, Clinton, Washington, USA

Low Light

Marginal light situations lead to less than marginal results with this camera. Just after sunset? Nope (depending on which way you face). Night shots? Below marginal.

The moon and the Burj Kalifa, Dubai, UAE

Long Exposure

I’ve used an app called Slow Shutter and while it lets the shutter stay ‘open’ longer, I’m not too impressed with straight up long exposure shots. I think it gets back to the general contrast problem.

Downtown Dubai after take off, UAE

Water show, Duabi, UAE

Zoom, Kinda

I give the zoom a thumbs down because it is just digital zoom and cropping.

Seagull, Washington, USA

Tiger and film crew, Ranthambhore National Park, India

This post was not meant to be in the vein of “iPhones are as good as any camera”. This post was meant to help readers understand the iPhone 4s camera has strengths and weaknesses, just like any camera. It won’t be replacing my DSLR any time soon, but it is a useful camera in the right conditions.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Marco Rosazza March 12, 2013 04:55 pm

    Seven years ago, the camera-phone hardly registered. Indeed, on 17 June 2003, some idiot wrote in the Guardian that the low take-up of those newfangled 3G phones with their built-in cameras, launched two months previously, could be ascribed to the fact that "it's not immediately clear what they're for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out". The writer all but argued that camera-phones were destined for the technological knacker's yard, like Sinclair C5s, the Securi-Gnome and NiteMates slippers with their built-in headlights (all real products). With the benefit of hindsight, let me admit what a bonehead I was to write that.'

    Most recently released posting on our web portal

  • Lia Leasor October 11, 2012 07:58 pm

    Today, camera phones offer very high resolution CMOS sensors, i really love modern day camera phones. '"`;;

    Current article straight from our own web page

  • Sam Kapoor October 9, 2012 10:57 pm

    Iphone 4s camera is actually great. Its picture quality is also awesome. I am personally using iPhone 4s and i am very happy with that but recently i got problem with iPhone camera. Sometimes when I open its camera, it hangs my iPhone device and showing me pure black screen. If you have same problem then you should look at http://howmobile.net/apple-iphone/2853-solution-camera-issues-iphone.html. Hope you would like the solution. As it’s very easy to understand & implement. Hope the solutions work for your Iphone 5 camera trouble.

  • Gretchen August 10, 2012 02:46 am

    I love my iPhone 4s camera! I've actually gotten some really good shots - lots of great up close shots, etc. I had the same 8MP point and shoot camera, and this is always with me. It was a major deciding factor in moving up to a DSLR so I can learn more about photography and take even better pictures. It's definitely been great to have to capture moments with my family, and I can tell my shots have gotten better than when I first started.

  • Boston Wedding Photographer June 21, 2012 04:39 am

    Some Wedding Photographers have actually used an iPhone to photograph a wedding. Believe it or not... i think it's a mistake not having different lenses, but that's just me.

  • Niki Jones June 13, 2012 06:49 pm

    I was also a skeptic like you but after finally getting an iPhone I just decided to embrace it. It will never replace my proper cameras but the range of apps alone make it an exciting enough prospect.
    Even if it does me the internet is awash with clumsily blurred and over filtered photographs.

  • Mark June 13, 2012 04:06 am

    I've used phone cameras for a long time for documenting events. The iPhone 4S is the best, as it should be being the latest, I've used. Oddly its been a good tool for learning how to use my bridge camera.

  • Jim Cai June 2, 2012 06:55 am

    iPhone 4s camera has its own limitations. However, it's a pretty good P&S camera. Its not crappy at all. All photos in my blog are taken by 4s photos.


  • Jim Cai June 2, 2012 04:20 am

    I saw some comments here complaint about usefulness of iPhone camera. I disagreed. iPhone like any camera with its own limitations. As long as you know the limitation, decent photos can be generated. See for yourselves in my iPhone photo blog. Http:\\CaiPhone.wordpress.com


  • Bharat Justa June 2, 2012 12:42 am

    Well, Nokia PureView 808 is the best cameraphone in the market and is capable of beating any point and shoot camera.
    It's predecessor Nokia N8 was already better than many Point and Shoot cameras in the market!

    This shot ----> http://www.photo-roll.com/2012/04/pink-beauty/
    was taken using a Nokia 5233 (2MP, f/2.8), and I think that it is good enough to qualify as a clean picture, but the resolution is very low :/

    A cameraphone cannot replace a DSLR, but it surely can replace a P&S.

  • Penelope May 31, 2012 02:45 pm

    I love my iPhone 4s camera! It's great in a pinch when no one has a camera or my camera has a prime lens on it and I need something else. Those are great shots!

  • Christina May 31, 2012 01:41 pm

    Ivy: even if you did not get caught in the Sistine Chapel, it is really dark in there, so your i-Phone would not work. I had a Sony Cybershot for all the pics I wanted to zoom in on, and my i-Phone for everything else... Came home extremely happy! :)

  • dennis May 30, 2012 05:27 pm

    the iPhone 4s' camera manufacturer is actually Sony. :) Not sure if they'll still be for the iP5 tho.

  • Benjamin May 30, 2012 10:19 am

    Eck. If one more person tries to tell me that their iphone takes great photos I am going to puke! Yes they are acceptable under certain perfect conditions and if you are going to only post to facebook then that's fine, but it is the stupidest thing I have ever heard when people tell me that their iphone compares even to the T2i. There is no control over how the light hits the sensor, there is no lens control, and through third party apps you might get some nicer features all I have to say is cram it. Good luck shooting your next wedding with an iphone,

  • Jerry May 26, 2012 12:06 pm

    One thing I've noticed about the 4s compared to the 4 is that Apple fixed the white balance. I have both phones and have done side by side comparisons and the 4s "auto white balance" (I'm assuming that what it is) is tremendously better than the 4. But it's still a phone camera....

  • David T (in NZ) May 25, 2012 07:47 am

    Nice report Peter. I would have liked to have seen more photos of Oman as I worked there in 1993-1996 and I feel that it is far more photogenic (and hospitable!) than Dubai. But the critical feedback from other readers on the qualities of the iphone 4s seem to miss your point: if you have one of these phones with you at the time you want to capture an image and it is all that you have, it can provide some very good, clear photo records. I have a digital SLR Nikon that the 4s could never compete with, analytically, but then I have captured some valued images on my iphone when I have not had the Nikon with me. I also have a very nice pocketable Sony digital with a 16x optical zoom that gives me a better choice when travelling; and that has superb quality on enlarged details. Your Bhutan and Nepal photos would look good here, too. Maybe someday you can add New Zealand to your itinerary!

  • Rhonda May 25, 2012 06:31 am

    That is one of the most beautiful shots of the Taj Mahal I have ever seen! Indeed, having traveled overseas you can get yourself noticed too much with a big slr. Some think you are up to something other than just travel photography and I am pretty laid back and discreet. I chuckled at the McDonalds & Coco Pops shots. I think it is a great part of documenting travel which I always do. It isn't all about landscapes and buildings. An iphone would make this easy. I think I NEED an I phone now. I am not attached at the hip with my heavy slrs and a small available camera would be a good idea. In fact I'm envious when one clicks a picture and sends it right then and there and I can't. There is a time and place for both types of cameras. Thanks for the info. Very helpful.

  • Vinay P. Desai May 25, 2012 01:07 am

    I agree with you it gives good pictures in day light I am unable to post pictures as I dont have Website.

  • akkers May 24, 2012 07:43 pm

    I used my iPhone4 recently on my trip to the Dubai. It was brilliant in bright light, especially in late afternoon. However, it was very very poor at night. In fact the shots with the flash light were worse. Also the shots we too with the front camera appear to be of poor quality. But overall it is a good as day-time carry-around.

  • Dkfotog May 22, 2012 10:26 am

    I shot this with my iPhone4s at the lake last weekend. Didn't want to take the DSLRs. Didn't miss them much.

  • bethany ogdon May 22, 2012 02:46 am

    Just want to weigh in and say that patcam is not off the mark in my opinion. I love my iphone 4s camera and all the phone apps I use to "fix" photos after the fact. I've gotten great snaps with that thing. However, there is no way in the world I would travel abroad and only take an iphone. The lack of definition in the photos would make me want to cry when I got home.

  • Lea May 21, 2012 11:06 pm

    Thanks! This was very helpful! I just got an iPhone 4s a few months ago and have shied away from using the camera much but it's nice to know it performs well in good lighting.

  • Chris / Interealtime May 21, 2012 09:59 pm

    Peter, there's a lot more mileage to be had in low light - don't give up on that side just yet! Slow Shutter Camera is unfortunately a bit misleading, because it doesn't do long exposure *at all*. What it does is take a low-res video, and blend lots of frames together before upscaling it. End result is that you get motion blur, but no extra light gathering (shutter speed is still 1/15s or worse), and you get a very low detail shot at the end.

    Try NightCap instead, that's a standard camera but it supports true long exposure (up to 1s). You'll get much better results in low light. I'm the developer behind that, so if you want to try it send me an email (chris (at) interealtime.com) and I'll send you a free download code.

  • Peter West Carey May 21, 2012 06:00 pm


    I can claim it is a valid photographic instrument because it is. Not every image needs to be taken with Hasselblad to be considered worthy. Guess where the vast majority of images shot with digital cameras end up? On the web and it works well for shots like that. You can't detect any noise in the Taj Mahal image at top in that use, nor smears, and that alone validates the use of the camera as a photographic instrument.

    I understand you have your opinion and really like your 10 year old P&S. Apple's advertising had nothing to do with me liking the images that come out of the camera.

  • patcam May 21, 2012 10:42 am

    I don't know how you could claim the 4S or any other camera phone is a valid photographic instrument. From your own examples it's easy to see the horrendous noise and smearing of detail in every photo, even the ones shot in bright sunlight. The 4S, like my Galaxy Nexus and similar products is useful only if you have no other camera with you and need to document a particular moment or event. The results certainly don't stand up to even the slightest scrutiny viewed at sizes 4x6 or larger. I know the folks at Apple are counting their lucky stars [and multi-millions of dollars] at the effectiveness of their advertising. My 2 MP 10 year old Canon P&S delivers far better quality and still fits in a pocket.

  • ivy May 21, 2012 04:29 am

    Thanks for this post. I'm going on a 2 week vacation to France/Italy soon and have been debating on what type of camera to take. I have an iPhone 4S and agree with your findings on this post, I also have a small DSLR (Canon Rebel XS), and have an option to take a Canon point and shoot (12mp). I don't know if you'll see/respond to this post, but if you can, I would appreciate your take on my situation. I know a lot of places (Sistine Chapel, Basilicas, etc), don't allow cameras, so I could technically sneak in my iPhone, which is an advantage. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Alexx May 21, 2012 03:21 am

    Awesome post! I wrote a post on my blog about iPhonetography a while back.

    I use my iPhone for whenever I don't want to bring my big luggy DSLR. It's basically my pocket cam (literally). Just don't drop it and break the screen. I did and it cost my 100$ and 3 days without my phone to repair.

    You can read my article here. It covers iPhonetography and the increasing camera technology.


  • raghavendra May 21, 2012 02:36 am

    Yes, nowadays mobile camera have a decent camera that takes decent shots.
    i have taken a lot of pictures from my mobile


  • Jean-Pierre May 21, 2012 01:40 am

    You're so right, it's useful for almost everything! I do like that you can both get close and also wide enough to get an entire scene. I have an HTC Thunderbolt, and like it for documenting as well.

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