Saturday, November 12, 2011

Apple iPhone 4s Versus Feature Phone, Panasonic LX-5 and Nikon D7000

You might have heard that the camera in the Apple iPhone 4s is better than the one used in its predecessor. How about comparing it to a dSLR? This one isn't even close in terms of comparability. You already know how this will turn out, don't you...? For this post, we won't be delving into 100% crops or EXIF data. The typical phone camera user isn't that concerned, and must people don't need to pixel-peep to know that the D7000 will win this on an objective basis. However, each tool has it's use, and it's interesting to see how each of this handles a similar situation. Click after the jump to see how four different photographic tools pan out.

The following is a what I would consider a moderately challenging scene. There's just enough light so that the camera phones won't struggle, an overcast sky to backlight the orchid and give each camera's exposure meter something to think about, and plenty of low contrast detail in the petals for each device to try to draw detail out of. I shot all of these at roughly 35mm FX equivalent with roughly f/2.8. That's a fair guess since the light is limited and that's around how much both camera phones would open up to.

LGKF750 Secret
The LG Secret was a pretty good feature phone for it's time, however, it sort of exemplifies that old saw about how the last manufacturer of horse buggy whips made the best there ever was. I used it to make this stitch: LG Secret Pano-Stitch. The output is 5MP from a CMOS sensor. To be fair, it was a fairly good camera sensor for it's time, and takes OK video output as well, provided you don't induce the dreaded CMOS video-jiggle. Of the four shots posted here, the exposure for the LG is actually the closest to how the scene look liked in real life, albeit it is a bit de-saturated.  This shot easily has the least amount of detail, but the nice thing about it is that for a camera phone, it's a decent balance of detail, colour and exposure.  This is still good cameraphone output by any means, and still miles better than what you would get from a smartphone camera using a so-called extended depth of field lens.

Apple iPhone 4s
Detail-wide, this is pretty astounding for a camera phone. The difference between this and the LG is that the iPhone uses Sony backside illuminated CMOS sensor, which has deeper light wells... better noise, more dynamic range. (Just a word about the virtues of backlit CMOS... for the same sensor size, backlit CMOS is roughly equivalent to conventional CCD in performance. Camera phones don't use CCD chips because they are more expensive to produce and they consume more power.)

On a per-pixel basis, the results are crisper than the LG phone, and have more local micro-contrast. Basically, the pixel wells on the iPhone are doing more work than on the LG. However, the exposure is darker than what the scene called for, and the purples are over-saturated. Whoever set the default contrast curve within the camera was trying too hard, but these settings will appeal to the typical iPhone/point-and-shoot user. I would place the focal length of the new camera to be somewhere between 30 to 35mm FX equivalent.

Panasonic LX-5
We move up in cameras and along with that, you can see the difference that a larger sensor makes. The background is a little more thrown out of focus because of the larger sensor/lightpath and you can make out more fine details in the petals of the orchid. The exposure is a bit under compared to real life, and as in many cases with the LX-5, the colour balance is on the cool side in lesser lit situations. Just to make a point... this is not the shot that I would take if I were using the LX-5, I just picked it up and used it in the same way that I did with the camera phones. Had I been serious about it, I would have adjusted the manual controls until the picture came out to my liking.

Nikon D7000 with Tamron 17-50
What a difference this makes! The sensor in the D7000 is many, many times bigger than any of the three previous cameras, and until the Sony NEX-7 came out, it was pretty much state-of-the-art for serious enthusiasts. Because we are shooting at short distances with a much larger sensor, the background is almost completely thrown out of focus, but in the one flower that is in focus, you came make out much more fine and low-contrast detail than what you could in any of the the three previous shot. Add it all up, and the shot from the dSLR is the most three-dimensional looking of all four devices, yet is also the most 'interpreted' in terms of rendering the scene. The other devices are recording a picture of flowers. With the dSLR, it's recording a picture about them instead.

This was shot using matrix meter. You would be tempted to say that it is a bit over-exposed, but that is not what is really happening. The default tone curve of the D7000 bumps midtones a bit, depending on what colour and exposure it sees. If you've only ever used a small-sensor camera, you would be used to the steeper tone curves that they produce. Such cameras are set that way because it gives the impression of apparent detail, as the steeper tone curve increases contrast. However, they are also set that way to de-emphasize noise in the shadows as well. With a dSLR, you have more room to play with. The end result here is brighter looking than reality, but I'm happy interpreting the scene this way.


Like many things about the new Apple iPhone 4s, it's camera does what it does very well. It's still not a camera that I personally would use for intentional keeper situations. Just as a reminder, these shots were produced at sort macro-esque distances. If you are shooting at subjects further away, the differences in detail resolving become more pronounced. For travel and vacation, I would still prefer to take the LX-5, as it produces better output. I think that the iPhone narrows the give you an example, my biggest regret about meeting Penn & Teller a few years ago was that the LG Secret was the only camera that I had with me, and it was wholly unsuited for shooting indoors. (I highly recommend seeing them live, the duo stays after each show to sign autographs for as long as the crowd wishes. Penn is a bit of a libertarian blow-hard, but Teller is one of the nicest guys I've ever met.) If I had the 4s in the same situation, I think I would still have the same regret about not having a proper camera, only the pictures would be better.


You might have heard about the infamous 4s battery drain issue. I downloaded the iOS5.0.1 update last night. If you haven't done so, do yourself a favour and grab it. I'm really conservative about battery life usage, but even with my stingy settings, I've noticed a welcome improvement.

P.P.S. (December 10, 2011) 

Word on the web is that many users are still experiencing poor battery life despite the OS upgrade. Until there is a definitive solution, I'm being very careful with battery usage for now. The update was a big improvement, but it seems like there could be more... it's very hard to tell just by going off of real life usage... that and because this is my first smartphone, I have nothing to compare it against.


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