iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S: Camera shootout

One of the anticipated features of the iPhone 5 was its new camera. Now, even though Apple didn't boast too much about how much better the camera is, they did say it has a new sensor with better HDR and low-light capabilities. They also managed to cram all of that glass into a body that's 18% thinner than the previous iPhone. Lenses like depth, so getting even the same quality out of a camera 18% thinner is an impressive feat of engineering. Despite all this, many people, myself included, were still expecting noticeable improvements to the iPhone 5's camera and in my review of the iPhone 5's camera, I repeatedly mentioned that the colors and vibrancy of the photos were a huge improvement over the iPhone 4S -- but was I right?

If you follow my iPhone photography column, you know I take a lot of photos with my iPhone. A lot. When I was performing my tests by taking identical photos with the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S, I was consistently wowed by the improvements of the iPhone 5 over the iPhone 4S. Occasionally, I'd take photos that didn't have much of a difference, but for the most part, the iPhone 5 blew the iPhone 4S out of the water. Then I started preparing this article.

Photo after photo proved me wrong. Sure, there are differences between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S photos, but very minor differences. Do the iPhone 5 photos have better color? Yes. Are the iPhone 5 photos more vibrant? Yes. Will the average untrained eye be able to tell the difference if shown the photos immediately after each other but not side-by-side? No. In fact, many people may not even be able to tell the difference between photos that are side-by-side.

This really bothered me. I was so convinced that the iPhone 5's camera was far superior to the iPhone 4S. Then I remembered this bit from Apple's website (opens in new tab) regarding the iPhone 5's display:

Colors get a boost, too, with color saturation that’s 44 percent greater than before. So with iPhone 5, the games you play, the words you read, the images you see, and the apps you love look and feel incredibly vivid and lifelike.

So it's not that the iPhone 5 takes much better photos, it's that the iPhone 5 has a much better display. Here's a photo that shows the iPhone 4S display on the left and the iPhone 5 display on the right.

Incredible! (The photo displayed on the screens was taken with an iPhone 4S.)

General photography: iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S

Now, let's finally take a look at some side-by-side comparisons of photos taken with the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 cameras. For each comparison, the photo on the left was taken with an iPhone 4S and the photo on the right was taken with an iPhone 5.

HDR photography: iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S

HDR was one of the areas that I was expecting some improvement since Apple claimed better HDR capability, but in the photos I took during my tests, like the one above, the differences were hardly noticeable.

Low light photography: iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S

Something that really stands out to me with these low-light photos is that the iPhone 4S photos are much warmer. I tend to prefer warmer tones, but not in this case. The iPhone 5 photos look more realistic to me, particularly with the candle. In the photo of the candle taken with the iPhone 4S, you can barely even tell that it's green, but the iPhone 5 shows that off very well. So it seems that the iPhone 5's camera does a better job at preserving colors in low-light scenarios.

Front-facing cameras: iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S

These next photos were taken with the front-facing cameras of the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

It may be hard to tell in the smaller versions displayed above, but the quality of the iPhone 5's front-facing camera is actually much better than the iPhone 4S. You can also see the difference in the colors produced by the two cameras in the ocean and sky.

Panorama photography: iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S

Now let's take a look at a couple panorama photos. This first one was taken with the iPhone 4S.

And here's the iPhone 5's version of the same pano.

Lastly, here's one more panorama comparison. The first one was taken with an iPhone 4S and the second one was taken with an iPhone 5.

In the photos above, you can see that the iPhone 4S camera did catch some lens flare, but I can't say for certain that the angle of the camera to the sun was exactly the same for each pano. So it's very possible that the flare is due to user error.

The bottom line

As you can see, there isn't that big of a difference between the cameras on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. There is improvements to the iPhone 5's camera, but if you were wondering if you should upgrade because of the camera, the answer is definitely no. However, if you want a thinner phone that still takes great photos, if you want a better screen that gives a more accurate representation of your photos, if you want the ability to take photos while shooting video, then taken together, the answer could very well change to yes. In fact, if taking and enjoying photos with your iPhone is one of your primary passions -- if you consider yourself an "iPhoneographer" -- the display alone is worth the upgrade to the iPhone 5.

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

  • Viewing this in Chrome om my iPad2, I noticed some subtle sharpness amd clarity improvements from the iPhone5 camera in several of the comparisons. Not focus related, just image quality. Also, in the macro of your breakfast, I did notice a definite improvement in sharpness and possibly depth of field.
  • Except for the macro of the breakfast shot is also taken from a different angle on the iphone 5 than on the 4S. What you see as improved depth of field could be down to shifting the angle to change the depth. Many (if not all) of the subtle improvements were due to the user. At most I can say that apple did tweak processing a bit, but the lense and sensor are a wash. As a sprint customer I am really considering the iPhone 5 as it's unlikely Sprint will carry the Lumia 920. However as a photography enthusiast the iPhone 5 fails to impress me.
  • This is a GREAT comparison! Thank you. :D glad u got ur keys back as well. Lol
  • Thanks for this review. I had been wondering about the real world difference between the iP4s & the iP5 cameras. Great article.
  • Thanks for another great review! I was wondering how big the difference truly is between the 4S and 5.
  • The front facing camera has the best improvement overall, now I won't feel as bad about using the pics since they won't look like a picture taken with a camera phone from 10 years ago.
  • That is all fine and well, but how about the iPhone 4 vs iPhone 5? To upgrade from 4s to 5 shouldn't be that big of a deal, but I suspect the difference to be much bigger from 4 to 5.
  • Great Post!
  • Great review Leanna. Looking forward to purchasing my 1st iPhone....was waiting for the bigger screen but it seems I'm getting a gem of a phone tried of my android.
  • I know from reading online that the iphone 5 can shoot at iso 3200, whereas the 4S only goes to iso 800. I've also seen some blown up to full resolution shots samples during the day. Day shots, the iphone 5 is sharper, and in a dark place can get shots the 4S couldn't. all your low light shots have bright lights that no doubt confused the sensor. (the candles flame, the lightbulb by the door, etc) check this sample out. Its a huge difference between the two with low light capabilities. http://www.cultofmac.com/191617/proof-that-the-iphone-5-is-better-at-low... As for your day shots, its hard to tell a difference unless you blow up the pictures to 100% size. Then the difference is noticeable.
  • So basically when it comes to the 4S vs 5, you don't really need to rush and get an upgrade. I will wait for the 5S or whatever it's going to be called and see how it shapes up. Very happy with the 4S.
  • Great follow up article. Also not a fan of the 4s colour temperature in low light. I would have to say that the lens probably has a wee bit more contrast.
  • There is a little difference between each camera. You can see some clarity with iPhone's 5 camera. But both cameras are great!!!! I still loving my iPhone 4s
  • Thank you, well done!
  • I got so hungry after the first pictures, I have to go eat.
  • the details in i5 pictures are very good!
    apple has worked very good on camera
  • To my old eyes the photo's taken by the iPhone 5 look sharper than those from the 4S. Other than that they look the same.
  • Great review Leanna, but I wonder what would be the results of a blind test. I bet even professional photographers would choose pics from both phones as best pics in different series.
  • A so so review. Here's a more in depth review by someone who's been in the game longer....
    just sayin'..... http://lifeinlofi.com/2012/09/23/the-iphone-5-an-iphoneographers-hands-o...
  • Nice review Leanna. Nice pictures too.
  • Great article, Leanna! Love the photos you took! By the way, I'm not native english, and I'm wondering if you pay attention on using words that are easier to understand as a not native speaker (reader).
  • Great article - I don't think I'll be buying one because that would be the main reason for an upgrade. Did you notice any difference in the reflectivity of the screen in sunlight. I read where it was supposed to be a bit easier to view.
  • What about on maximum zoom? That is pretty rubbish on iPhones
  • Got the iPhone5 on my BD 9-21! I noticed I have to use the flash in indoors & in low light, where as I never did on my 4s unless in almost total darkness? Very distracting to use flash in some situations & crowds? So far don't like that feature maybe just have to get used to it?
  • You can disable the flash.
  • This is a worthless review. "Here, lets compare these pictures side by side, but I'm only going to provide you with less than .5 MP versions of the original 8 MP images, and then I'm going to make them even smaller when embedding them in this page."
  • Regardless if anyone is using the iphone 4 or 4s, the iphone 5 is a signfiicant enough improvement that it warrants upgrading, whether or not your free upgrade is available from your carrier. If it isn't you could try selling your old phone for around $356.56 http://www.movaluate.com/apple/iphone-4s-16gb-att-black According to Movaluate's fair price appraisal, you should be able to easily sell your phone for that much, which could help pay for the $750~ y ou will need for teh iphone 5 off contract.
  • thanks for making this, really helpful