iPhone 5s preview: iSight camera combines improved sensor, smarter image processor, makes everyone a better photographer

Everything you need to know about Apple's new f/2.2, 1.5 micron iPhone 5s iSight camera with improved A7 image signal processor and 120fps slo-mo video mode!

The iPhone 5s continues to showcase Apple's attention to their camera technology, iSight and FaceTime HD both. Once again hardware and software combine to create photos and video far better than the sum of their parts. That includes a bigger sensor with 1.5 micron pixels and an f/2.2 aperture. It's also includes an intelligent burst mode, a dual LED with white and amber elements, electronic image stabilization to reduce blur, and slow mo mode lets you record 720p video at a silky smooth 120fps. Here's how Apple (opens in new tab) describes it:

iPhone 5s features advanced technologies custom designed for the iSight camera’s hardware and software. So anyone anywhere can take an amazing photo at any time. It simply makes more sense to teach iPhone how to take a great picture rather than teach people how to be expert photographers. Here are just some of the capabilities of the new iSight camera.

The original iPhone camera wasn't great. It was 2 megapixels (2 million pixels), which was okay for normal, snap-shot sized photos, but like most camera phones at a time the overall quality was poor. It's only claim to fame was the interface and convenience that came from being built in. The iPhone 3G, which was more of a radio bump than a true next-generation device, kept the same camera. With the iPhone 3GS, however, Apple moved up to a 3mp sensor and added VGA video recording. VGA is 480p (640x480), a far cry from today's HD standards.

The iPhone 4 began Apple's shift away from megapixels and towards taking better pictures. Often times, to inflate megapixel counts, some cameras will simply chop the sensor into smaller and smaller pixels. That, however, causes each pixel to capture less light. What Apple did is increase the sensor to 5mp but keep the pixels the same size as the previous version, 1.75 microns. An f/2.8 aperture, they added a back-illuminated sensor (BIS), which moves wiring out of the way so it's even better at capturing light. A LED flash came along for the ride, for those situations where there simply wasn't enough natural light to get any usable picture, and high-dynamic range (HDR) was also added in a software update. That meant the iPhone could take three photos in rapid succession, one under exposed, one properly exposed, and one over exposed, and merge them together in software to reveal more detail in both dark and light areas than the camera could normally capture on its own. At the same time, Apple increased the video quality to 720p (1280x720), and introduced its first front-facing camera, albeit 0.3mp and VGA video.

The iPhone 4S went to to 8mp and 1080p. The pixel size dropped to 1.4 microns but the BIS was improved, the lens was widened, and the aperture was brought to f2.4 to improve low-light performance. Apple also added a fifth piece of glass for better sharpness, and an infrared (IR) filter for better color. They also started to focus on the image signal processor (ISP), a part of the new Apple A-series chipset dedicated to improving photography. It provided facial recognition, image stabilization, and better focusing and white balance.

The iPhone 5 took all of that and, amazingly, squeezed it down into a much thinner package. Arguably, Apple could have made a better camera by staying with the same depth as the iPhone 4S, but that wasn't the priority. Not only did they manage to keep the iPhone 5 camera every bit as as good, they managed to get in some improvements as well. A new dynamic low-light mode made it, theoretically, 2 f-stops better in certain situations. The 5 glass elements were more precisely aligned for even better sharpness, and the surface was switched to sapphire for increases strength and scratch-resistence. The front-facing camera also got a much bigger boost, to FaceTime HD 720p. Panorama mode came with the software, which allowed the iPhone to automatically stitch together a contiguous series of pictures into a single, combined, massive 23mp ultra-wide photo.

Photon collectors

The iPhone 5s is still 8mp but once again Apple has increased the sensor size, this time by 15 percent. It brings the pixel size to 1.5 microns, and the aperture to f/2.2. All of that is designed to, you guessed it, allow more light to be captured. It's not as extreme on either end of the spectrum as the 13mp, 1.12 micron, f/2.2 Samsung Galaxy S4 or the 4mp, 2 micron, f2.0 HTC One, and as compromises go, it's a good one.

It's the ISP, stupid

Thanks to the Apple A6 ISP, the iPhone 5 at a year old still managed to take better "every day" photos than newer phones with cameras that looked much better on paper. Even cameras with optical image stabilization (OIS), which out-shoot the iPhone in low-light, low-motion settings, couldn't beat it at general purpose photography. It turns out the chipset and the software inside are just as important as the glass on the outside.

With the Apple A7, the ISP is getting a whole new range of functions. In addition to the auto white balance, auto exposure, and face detection features previously introduced, the A7 version now creates a dynamic local tone map to better balance highlights and shadows. It's not quite the same as HDR, but it does provide for images that are less likely to be swampy or blown out. The iPhone 5s camera also does autofocus matrix metering, which means it measures 15 focus zones to make sure it gets the best exposure possible. It'll also take bursts of multiple photos, analyze them in real-time, and present you with the sharpest one.

So, you get everything that was already fantastic about the iPhone 5 camera, but now with even better detail, focus, exposure, and sharpness. But wait, there's more.

Flash tones

Light isn't just light. There's sunlight and incandescent, tungsten and florescent, and combinations in between. Some are colder, with more of a blue or white cast to them. Some are warmer with more of a yellow or orange cast. A Standard LED flash can't match that range, so Apple has included two. In what Apple claims is a first, not just on phone cameras but any camera, True Tone has a white element for the cooler/blue end of the spectrum, and a yellow element, for the warmer/yellow end. When fired, they can intelligently adjust intensity and color temperature to any one of over a a thousand combinations in order to best match the scene being shot. That allows for better, more natural looking flash photos, especially where skin tone is involved. (See Apple's example above.)

Apple's dual LED True Tone flash isn't any brighter than the previous single LED. To go brighter, Apple would need to go to technology like Xenon. However, since mobile flash photography stinks no matter the quality of the tiny elements, and it shouldn't be used for anything other than capturing memories that can't be captured in natural light, getting better low-light capture is more important than getting a brighter flash.

When you do want to capture those memories, however, and you absolutely need a flash, True Tone should ensure you get the best result possible.

Auto not optical

The problem with low-light photography is that you want to keep the aperture open as long as possible to collect as much information as possible, but the longer the exposure time, the higher the chance your hands will shake or something in the scene will move, creating a blurry photo.

Optical image stabilization (OIS) is becoming more common thanks to phones like the HTC One and Lumia 920. It's a hardware solution that stabilizes the lens itself. OIS produces really good low light images with relatively little "noise", and does a good job minimizing the effects of your hands shaking, but is still subject to blur when something moves in the scene.

Apple is doing auto image stabilization (AIS) instead of OIS. It's a software solution that takes four photos with shorter exposures, selects the sharpest areas of each one, and then combines them into a single, final photo. In theory, this should accomplish pretty much the same thing as OIS, and could conceivably do a better job with slight motion in the scene. (See Apple's example above.)

I tend to like the idea of better capture up front. In a perfect world, we'd have both. We'll have to do a bunch of comparisons to find out how well AIS compares to OIS in the real world.

Action insurance

Apple's version of improving action photography is called Burst Mode, and it's so very typically Apple. With iOS 7 on the iPhone 5s with the Apple A7 chipset, you can hold your finger down on the virtual shutter button and take bursts of photographs at 10 frames per second (fps). So, holding your finger down for 2 seconds would take 20 photos. The ISP will then automatically, in real time, analyze all those photos and select the best shots. From there, the iOS 7 Camera Roll will present you with those selections, including major action moments if any, but also let you drill down into the entire series if you really want to.

So, to use Apple's example, wether you're trying to get that perfect shot of skate board acrobatics, or simply that one crisp moment amid the chaos of children, the odds are suddenly in your favor. You get the advantage of multiple shots, without any of the unmanageable overhead.

Slo Mo magic

Speaking of typically Apple features, the video camera also gets its share of integrated automagical-ness with the iPhone 5s. While the now-standard 1080p 30fps recording mode remains, there's a new 720p 120fps mode as well, called Slo Mo. As the name suggests, it allows for silky smooth, quarter-speed video capture.

What's more, Apple's existing Camera app editing feature has been updated and now lets you choose at which points in a clip you want to enter and exit slo mo. So, you can show off the big action moment as someone flips off a board or skates towards the check or begins a leap towards the stars, and then crank it right back to normal speed just in time for the splash, smash, or crash conclusion. Yes, it's the John Woo feature. Try not to go overboard on the hair tosses.

There's also a 3x live video zoom. It's digital, not optical, so I'd be incredibly reluctant to use it, but it's there.

Panoramic dynamics

Apple introduced Panorama mode with iOS 6, which stitched together multiple images to produce giant 28 megapixel photos. However, it wasn't exactly a speedy process, and you were stuck with the initial exposure. So, if your scene got significantly brighter or darker while you were capturing it, you lost detail or experience blow outs.

With the iPhone 5s, panorama capture is now twice as fast, a full 30fps, and what's more, dynamic auto exposure means the camera will adjust to changes in lighting continuously while it captures.

That means better, faster panos for everyone.

FaceTime HD-er

The iPhone 5s front-facing FaceTime HD camera has also gotten slightly better. The pixel size has been increased and the back illuminated sensor (BSI) has been improved. Here's how Apple (opens in new tab) describes it:

When you can’t be there in person, you can at least be there onscreen. Share some good news with your best friend or say “good night” to a traveling loved one with a FaceTime video call. The all-new FaceTime HD camera on iPhone 5s features larger pixels and an improved backside illumination sensor, so your smile lights up the room in almost any light. And because you can make audio-only FaceTime calls in iOS 7, your tête-à-tête doesn’t have to be face-to-face.

I couldn't find specifics on the improvements for the iPhone 5s, but Apple did list them for the iPhone 5c and my guess is they're identical. That means while the megapixel count stays at 1.2mp, the pixel size has gone up to 1.9 microns. Add that together with the new BSI, and everything from FaceTime video calls to selfies will get a big boost for low-light.

iOS 7 Camera app

iOS 7 preview: Camera

In addition to all the exclusives detailed above, the iPhone 5s also gets all the new Camera app features coming in iOS 7. That includes the same design makeover, as well as Square mode and Filters. The bigger news, however, is what was taken away, including the signature shutter animation and button treatments are gone.

iOS 7 Photos app

iOS 7: Photos automagically filters your life into collections, moments, and more

Just like its partner, the Camera app, the iOS 7 Photos app is newly redesigned, including not only all the new filters, but a newer, smarter way to organize all the photos that previously clogged up our Camera Roll - years, collections, and moments. Add to that a far more social version of Photo Stream, and things are fast approaching picture perfect.

Every day, every when

Apple's goal when it comes to mobile photography is apparent. They're not interested in the biggest glass or widest range of features. They want to help you take the best photographs you can, any time, and under any conditions you need to take them. If something magical happens, they don't ever want you to miss out on capturing it. They don't want you to have to fret with settings before hand and miss it, or be disappointed after the fact that it turned out too dark or too blurry, or too soon or too late.

That means they leave a considerable amount of technology on the table, but so far it's been difficult if not impossible to argue with the choices they've made. The iPhone 5s absolutely continues down that path. It makes very specific compromises, given the size, and more specifically the depth, of the device, and yet increases the scope of Apple's "everyday photos" mantra considerably.

Better balance, better exposure, better sharpness, better low-light, less color distortion, less motion blur, and less chance you miss your shot by mere moments.

More to come

If you're really into mobile photography and want to read more on the iPhone 5s camera, I'd recommend both of these pieces.

From Brian Klug, an optical engineer and mobile editor for Anandtech:

The end takeaway is better low light performance compared to the 5 at the same resolution, substantially better LED flashes when native light doesn't get you far enough, and of course those extra added features like burst mode and 120FPS video record.

From Matthew Panzarino, a photographer and senior editor at TechCrunch:

Note that Apple says ‘teach people how to be expert photographers’. That’s key because everyone with a smartphone is now — whether they see themselves that way or not — a photographer. Apple just sees the value in taking the burden of having to be an expert off of their shoulders. And it has the software and hardware prowess to (maybe) pull it off.

The iPhone 5s, iSight and FaceTime cameras and all, ships on September 20. Until then, keep up with all the latest news, and get involved in all the best conversations:

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Are the lens and flash located in the same place as the iPhone 5?
    What I am really asking is - Will the cases that fit the iPhone 5 fit the 5s?
  • How would Rene know? He doesnt actually have first hand experience with the device, he just writes a story based on things everyone can see on the Apple website.
  • I actually had a question about this, why doesnt imore have any hands on with the new iphone? Seems like their producing more articles than anyone else about the device, but while others have actually had hands on experiences, they are not writing as much. Why exactly does imore not have hands on?
  • We weren't invited the iPhone event, so we didn't have access to the hands-on area. Conversely, it means I'm not under embargo, which has benefits all its own.
  • But this is an all apple product website !
  • O ok. But if you, or imore have no hands on experience with the device, what does not being under the embargo mean, or rather how does that help?
  • Everything I have read says yes, they will. Just make sure the cutout around the flash is wide enough to leave room for the slightly longer true tone flash...
  • Yes, the lens and flash are in the same place. However, the flash is a different shape. I'd guess most cases would fit, but there might - literally - be edge cases that are slightly less than ideal. We'll do a post on that asap.
  • Apple lists on their website that the position of the camera components are not identical to the 5 (ex. the dual flash). iPhone 5 cases will not fit the 5s...unless you don't mind 1/2 of your flash being covered.
  • Yawn. Still no OIS or higher quality microphones, or anything that makes a tangible difference in practice. Luckily, we have (or had) the likes of Nokia to push the mobile imaging experience forward. I would be unsurprised to not notice any difference between this new 1000$ phone's camera and my iP5's camera, in stills, video or the software experience.
  • If you like the Nokia, buy it, why are you here? I've reviewed your posts, all you do is push Nokia/Lumia.. is that your focus here? ROFL! Paid troller?
  • Yawn. More of the same comments from this pathetic fucboi.......how sad is your life that you actually come on this site & spew the same anti-Apple/pro-Nokia/WP7 b.s. every day?? C'mon b, it's sad bc as full of crap as your posts are you actually seem like a fairly intelligent dude, so here's a tip.---> Go out & get laid or something.....maybe it'll help rid you of this anti-apple agenda you wake up with every morning. There's more to life than trying to be some weird douchey troll/preacher hybrid on Apple sites, I promise. Don't reply.......I don't want to, nor will I read your corny response.
  • Amen!!
  • Arguably, Apple has done more for every day photographers thank to their emphasis on image signal processors (ISP) than Nokia or HTC have done with their focus on hardware. Some experts can no doubt take better photos under some specific circumstances with something like the Lumia 1020, but most people, most of the time will get better results with an iPhone 5, and even more so an iPhone 5s, than they will better glass on competing cameras. Since it's unlikely Nokia/Microsoft or HTC can invest in their own custom chipsets anytime soon, if the iPhone 6 gets serious about optics, it could make things even more challenging for competing devices.
  • Honest Question Rene; what exactly do you mean when you say "better glass"? I ask because, I've seen someplace else where you said something of the sort; "Apple has the best ISP and Nokia has the best glass'" (paraphrasing). And if I remember correctly, Nokia brings so much innovation/improvement to mobile imaging that reaches far beyond the 'glass' (which is innovative in and of itself) e.g. true OIS, Oversampling, post capture focus, Xenon Flash, superior camera interface, high quality Software Image Processing, and some more. A bit of background, I have nothing against Apple, infact, I used the Original iPhone, 3GS, and 4S (which is nothing to scuff at considering the part of the world that I live in and what sacrifices I had to make to get the Original iPhone within the first 3 weeks of its release) before jumping onto the Lumia 920 (my current), and my next will be the 1020. I love tech much more than I love any one tech company; I gravitate to the sleekest tech at every point. From 2004 till 2012, Apple did it for me - the iPod classic introduce me to Apple in 2004 and I've had several iPods, iPhones, iPads, and a Mac Air since. However, right now, I find what Microsoft has been doing since 2010 to be a little more exciting (which is funny because I was a severe Microsoft critic for most of the last decade till they turned a new leaf in 2010 with Windows Phone. I'm an avid reader of this site (moreso than windowsphonecentral and talkMobile) but I usually stay away from commenting - this is my first. But this time, Rene, I couldn't resist. There is a pattern with you, Rene, which I've come to recognize; first you come up with a conjecture, and then without providing any evidence to move it into the realm of theory, you restate it some many times (I think you even start to believe it yourself) that more naive readers of your pieces then come to accept it as fact. Case in point: I remember the first article in which you made the claim that Android and Windows Phone went 'flat' because of GPU constraints on their hardware (this opinion of yours was formed after a talk show you hosted with some dude - don't recall his name - who tried to explain that iOS could afford to be skeuomorphic because the iPhone's GPU could handle the depths and shades). You then went on to repeat that notion on so many other write-ups like it was a proven statement of fact. And this is exactly what you're now doing with the "Apple has the best ISP and Nokia has the best glass" notion. ...just my two cents.
  • Rene you've simply outdone yourself. This is bar mine the most comprehensive, yet fluid coverage to date. My hats off to u sir!
  • Thanks Rene for making sense of all the numbers. It is also interesting to have the camera specs of previous models and your analysis. Great article. Sent from the iMore App
  • Rene keep on keepin on. Love the article.
  • Yes gj Rene
  • Thanks Rene, love the overview!
  • What about letting you erase people or objects in the background like Nokia's?
  • I'd love that feature, also the time shift BlackBerry licensed from them. We'll see if any developers can do that with standalone apps.
  • Burst mode and slo-mo video.That's samsung last year technology
  • Yes and no. Samsung and HTC have added more features faster, but in my experience with their software, they're nowhere nearly as easy to discover or use, and certainly not as coherent. Less is more isn't everyone's way, but it is Apple's. I love that Samsung will try everything, but it also means not everything will succeed immediately. There's room for both approaches.
  • I just have one question really..my biggest gripe lately with my iPhone 5 camera is that when I take a picture with people not that far away...the people seem really far away..and I don't really understand photography specs all that much..but when I have to use the zoom (and I often do) it degrades the quality for things not even 20 feet away really bad...(I realize bad lighting may not help) but my question is...does the 5S camera help this my situation any?? I mean...my cousins Evo 4G (Which is a 2010 phone) seem to take pictures that seemed MUCH closer..granted they were of less quality...
  • The iPhone has a quasi wide angle lens so you can fit more into a picture than you otherwise might. Its great for group shots, rooms, and landscape, for example. I'd avoid using digital zoom completely. Instead, walk closer. Sneaker zoom! Then, if you have to, crop to get the framing you want.
  • Yup, while Apple can replace a lot of the "expert" burden off the user, some basics are still required for good composition. I'm guessing you want to take a standard tourist photo (people standing in front of a big memorable background). In most cases, the people are too close to the background. Have them move away from it (closer to you). That way, you can capture the big background, but still have the people be big in your photo. You can always have them stand still and you move closer, but then you won't capture as much background. Try having fun with your camera, a subject, and a background, varying the distances between each other to see how the photos turn out. Don't hesitate to get really close.
  • After using a 4S for a while, I switched to a Nexus 4 6 months ago. While I love most things about the phone, the camera has been a big disappointment, and frankly this is squarely Google's failing given that it runs stock Android. I'd go as far as to say that the iPhone 4 takes better pictures than the N4. On that basis (+ the other improvements) I'm very much tempted to switch back to an iPhone. Now if only Apple would just copy Androids rich, actionable notifications, it would seal then deal.
  • Yup, Apple and Nokia seem to be the only two tech companies that actually put thought into the quality of their cameras, everyone else competes on megapixels alone/
  • The double-flash was actually an idea that made a few DSLR people go "why didn't somebody think of that sooner?" The problem is that most causal people refuse to use the flash because they think it makes the picture look worse, but in actually fact, what's happening is that it merely looks "different". Having mixed colour temperatures for a flash is actually quite innovative. There's not enough room for a true OIS system. The hardware to shift the sensor or to tilt a lens group would make the camera and the phone thicker. It looks like what apple is talking about with their IS is that it it's taking 4 underexposed shots and mapping the luminence data, and then stacking the exposures to bring the exposure/colour back up. It's.... a good idea. Wait and see. Just no way that it's as good as an optical system, which would give you at least 4x slower available shutter speed, and often 8. On paper, the Apple system could give you defined edges with colour smearing if you try to push the system to hard. No mention on the focal length of the optical system, but they seem to omit this every launch. If the sensor is 15% larger but the depth is still the same (7.6mm), then by implication, the 5s has a wider field of view than the 5, unless they managed to change the optical formula. Apple's promo video *implies* that the sensor is 15% larger, but the wording could also mean that the chip is more efficient and that the light gathering area of each photodiode is 15% larger... in which case, the field of view is the same. It makes sense to keep the sensor the same size and go for efficiency rather than outright sensor area, as that means that you don't have to redesign the lens system as well. Bit of of a disappointment that they didn't touch on the purple haze from the 5. One images that they worked harder on the anti-reflective coatings on the camera glass, but in terms of overall image quality, the 4s was better than the 5... the noise suppression wasn't as aggressive and it was more robust shooting into bright light sources. Basically, the iPhone launch is now as important a camera launch as anything that Nikon or Canon put out. At least on specs, this year wasn't a disappointment.
  • Once again thank you again for a great article on the information i think in parts everyone needs so they can make better and more informed decisions on not only what they want to buy and why.
    It gives me in parts as I mentioned so i don't have to read an entire article on everything and be bored - That is not what I want so once again thank you for the article and with this new camera how can you do anything but point, tap the button and take a great shot.
  • Very nice summary
  • What features will carry through to the iPhone 5 (included as part of ios7?? I understand the 720p 120fps won't carry through since its a hardware update but what about 60fps perhaps?
    Dynamic auto exposure?? Some of these features doesn't seem to be related too much to the hardware changes but rather software.....
  • Don't believe so, Apple has the tendency to, despite the hardware being perfectly capable, leave some features off older devices so as to push and advertise newer ones. It's the Apple version of fragmentation.
  • Not a particularly big fan of iPhone or iOS, but Apple seems to be the only major tech company besides Nokia who actually cares about smartphone photography and really pushing the bounds and limits of what a smartphone camera can do. While I'd never buy one, I'm actually very eager to see the shots the iPhone 5S produces, and how they compare to devices like the Lumia 1020.
  • One more time thank you guys....
  • For this good info...
  • ? Why did one of my comments get deleted...? I didnt say anything bad?
  • If they were in response to a spam post replies to them get deleted as well.
  • Rene, you know I love you (well, no, you don't, but I do. I really do.), and I know everyone is sick of the whole pedantic photographer schtick, but I gotta say it once again: iSight camera combines improved sensor, smarter image processor, but does not makes everyone a better photographer. It gives people better tools, it makes the resultant images sharper/squarer/better lit, but someone who took crappy images with the 4s is still going to take crappy images with this; they'll just be sharper/squarer/better lit. True, the camera is going to compensate for some of that, meaning that the resulting photograph might be better, but that doesn't mean that they're a better photographer. In fact, one could argue that makes them worse/lazier photographers because the camera is compensating for their lack of skill. The fact that I can create something in Garageband that sounds pretty cool using pre-packaged clips does not make me a better musician. I might make better music, but I have not someone learned anything about musical theory, just that this and this sound cool together. I know, Apple said it first. But that was marketing hype. Don't believe it. Better yet, please don't repeat it. Thanks.