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Smartphones, and particularly late model iPhones, are remarkable little devices. They play our music, enable us to surf the net from virtually anywhere, we can watch feature length movies, Facebook, Twitter, emails, heck, I’m even typing this article on my iPhone 5 using an Apple BlueTooth keyboard. And while PCs and even notebook computers are frequently getting replaced by smaller, smarter, thinner iPhones and iPads, there’s another product category that is suffering terribly under the burden of smartphone popularity: compact cameras.

There’s been quite a few online and news articles about this phenomenon, one of the more recent ones I’ve read appeared in the Courier Mail technology section just last week (you can read the article here: Smartphones killing digital cameras) that revealed some pretty interesting statistics. It talks about smartphones doing to compact cameras what digital cameras originally did to film. The article states that global shipments of digital cameras from Japanese firms fell 42 per cent in September compared to a year ago, with compact cameras alone falling nearly 50 per cent. Higher end cameras without fixed lenses only dropped 7.4 per cent in that same time.

And though there are always many factors that can lead to a decline like that, one of the biggest threats to compact camera sales is on-board cameras on smartphones that people already own or have on a telco contract. And I can see why. I’ve used the odd ‘compact camera’ when at parties or if someone wants me to take a picture, and I have to say I’ve never been a fan. The quality of both lens and image sensor just isn’t there in many cases and the photos just end up looking a little bit crap.

For me if I wanted to take decent photos, I’d always reach for the SLR, or at the very minimum our high-end compact camera that we bought to take overseas. And if I didn’t really care that much or if I was out and about, the iPhone 3G/4 was a handy alternative to record memories or moments, but you’d never print any of the photos. They just weren’t much good.

Enter the iPhone 5. I know the 4S had a similar camera (but holding out for two years I never upgraded), though from all the reports I’ve read it would seem the 5 has had some significant improvements, particularly the lens elements, processing power and software upgrades. It’s so good that I’ve starting to wonder in my own mind: ‘could the iPhone 5 camera actually be as good as a point-and-shoot?’

Well the short answer when comparing to the lower end of the compact camera market it: yes, easily. But I wanted to push the iPhone 5 camera a bit further and see if the new 5 could actually be a replacement for ANY compact camera, including high-end models from the likes of Nikon, Canon and Sony? So began a series of tests between my iPhone 5, our Nikon P7000 high-end compact, our Nikon D90 digital SLR (just for quality reference), and finally I threw the iPhone 4 in there too just to see how much the camera has improved in two generations.

The first thing I looked at is image size, and rather than quote pixels and confuse everyone, the simplest way to show the various sizes is with the image below:

As you can see the D90 (12.3MP 18-105mm F/3.5-5.6) has a slightly wider size ratio than the other three, but realistically the P7000 (10MP F/2.8-5.6) isn’t that much smaller (minus the additional width) than the SLR. Compared to the P7000, the iPhone 5 (8MP F/2.4) is not that much smaller again. At that size I’d be pretty comfortable using images from the 5 for printing or for using in printing such as brochures. The iPhone 4 (5MP F/2.8) is quite a step down from that, getting close to being a quarter of the size of the D90, making it not that useful for anything other than viewing on-screen.

The next test was just a general afternoon shot of the view from our deck:

You can click on all the images throughout this article to view a larger image in a new window/tab

And straight away I was a bit surprised with the results from the 5. Compared to the compact P7000, the image looks brighter and there is more detail in the shadow areas, particularly in the underside area of the clumpy tree in the centre of the photo. The 4 predictably isn’t as sharp, bright or colourful, with details in the shadows being almost entirely lost. The SLR produced by far the most detail throughout the image, and although not a big issue the sky does have a little less contrast than in the top two images. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the 5, P7000 and D90, with the iPhone 5 image being at 100 per cent resolution:

Next a close up shot of the dog:

Okay, the first miracle was the dog stayed still (mostly) while I shot her photo four times with four different cameras. The second miracle was that iPhone 4 aside, if these images didn’t have labels on them, I’d have a pretty hard time trying to pick which is which. And to be honest that is nothing less than astonishing! While it’s pretty obvious that the 4 has blown out the light areas and is lacking in detail, I needed to take a closer look at the other three to see if there was any difference at all:

The difference between the 5 and the P7000 is slight, with the 5 looking sharper but not quite as natural as the Nikon. The Nikon has also produces a shallower depth of field meaning the background is slightly out of focus. The D90 has the best quality, resolving the detail in the fur and whiskers with the most accuracy. Interesting the SLR was the only one that coloured the photo as it was (in the setting sun), whereas the other two have produced remarkably neutral tones considering the light they were in.

The next test was shooting into sunlight:

Once again the iPhone 5 has surprised me producing a nicer lens flare and better foreground detail than the P7000. I still can’t get over the fact this was a smartphone shooting directly into the sun. Incredible! The iPhone 4 is a disaster, so let’s move onto the D90 which has by far the most exquisite lens flare and the best colour in the sky. It does however have less foreground detail than the 5 which again is a bit odd.

The next test was a sunset shot:

These all came out very similar, with the exceptions being the 4 is a bit grainy and the D90 has more detail in the foreground and on the hill below the sunset.

The next test isn’t really a fair test as the iPhones only have a fixed lens with digital zoom, but the question of ‘can an iPhone camera replace a compact camera’, this is one of the things to be considered:

And the results pretty much speak for themselves, with both iPhones looking more like an oil painting than a photograph. It’s worth noting that the 5 at full digital zoom is a vast improvement over the 4 which is just nasty. But even the 5 can’t come close to the razor-sharp images of the two Nikons.

The next thing I looked at was close-ups or ‘macro’ photographs:

All cameras were brought close to the subject and then moved away until each one finally locked into focus. The two Nikons were put into ‘macro’ mode, however the SLR didn’t have a dedicated macro lens fitted for the test. Both iPhones focused at about the same distance and both took a pretty decent close-up photo of the watch. The P7000 with it’s multi-purpose lens and macro mode blitzed all the others with an image taken so close the lens was almost touching the watch face. The SLR did the worst in this test being quite some distance before it would lock on focus, however a macro lens would change this result dramatically.

The next thing to test, and the thing that normally upsets most lower-end compact cameras, is a low light test. I decided to take it a step further and add the additional challenge of capturing a lit dashboard without messing up:

And my suspicions were pretty much spot on with the 4 being dark and unusable, and the 5 adding an unacceptable amount of noise and blur into the image compared to the compact P7000. The SLR by far did the best job here with nice tones throughout the interior and the LEDs and screens being the most accurately reproduced. Having said that, the P7000 did a pretty good job, especially considering it was all hand-held without tripod. An actual size reproduction of the 5 with scaled images from the Nikons below really shows the difference in this test:

The final test was a series of dusk to twilight shots and finally a full darkness night shot:

Each camera was shot four times as the sun was setting. The first row of shots all camera copped okay, thought the 4 was quite dark in the foreground. The next row showed both iPhones starting to struggle a bit, with the 5 becoming a bit blotchy and the 4 becoming quite grainy. The next row down the 4 becomes black and grainy, and even the 5 now has a lot of grain that makes the photo look pretty yucky. Both Nikons are still pretty much on par with each other, though getting a non-blurry shot hand-held with the compact was much harder than with the SLR. And finally the last shot both iPhones are basically useless at these light levels, but is this really a surprise to anyone? However, in the interests of a thorough test I did it anyway. The two Nikons produced similar results after a lengthy time exposure with the camera resting on the edge of the deck. The D90 has slightly more detail in the houses and trees, but you can hardly see it unless you zoom right in on the full sized images.

So what’s the conclusion? Well to be honest I thought the 5 would do pretty well in most of the shots with adequate lighting, fail miserably in low light, and the two Nikons would still show it up in terms of image quality. So I was quite surprised at how close the 5’s quality was to the P7000 in the daytime shots, and even more surprised that it actually exceeded the quality of the little Nikon in the direct sunlight test! The low light situations is where the iPhone was most likely to fail, and it pretty much did in nearly all the low light tests. This does have a lot to do with lens size and the fact that you just can’t get enough light into that tiny lens on the back of the phone.

So in summing up, if you’re debating whether to get a cheap digital camera, you might actually find your iPhone 5 does a better job, especially during the day. However if you are looking at the higher end of the compact market, they are still worth looking at for low light, twilight and nighttime time exposure photography … and of course having a zoom lens is essential for taking decent photos. But if I’m just heading out during the day … well I must admit I’ll be a lot less likely to take a separate camera knowing I’ll have my 5 with me. I can only imagine what magic the iPhone 6 camera will produce. Exciting times ahead.

Ben Johnston

Ben has over fifteen years’ experience in all things creative—plus an honours degree in design majoring in branding identity and logo design. His commercial experience includes working in boutique design agencies, a major advertising agency, plus various in-house design and marketing roles.  

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