iPhone 4 Review Part Four: Camera

The iPhone 4 is a wildly popular upgrade from Apple with more than 3 million already sold. But is it worth the hype?

In this series of posts, I am examining the various uses of the Apple iPhone 4 rating them on a scale of 1 to 5 using the most well-known feature of the iPhone as a means to rate it the bars as in the ones that decrease if you hold the phone the wrong way.

The first part of the review covered iPhone’s calling features. The second part dealt with the productivity features. The third part was about using the iPhone 4 for entertainment and gaming. Now we look at the iPhone 4 as a camera.

iPhone 4 Still Camera

The photographer’s adage says the best camera is the one you have with you. The majority of us carry our phones around all the time. So it is potentially very useful if that camera takes great pictures and video. Fortunately, for iPhone 4 users, the camera does just that.

The built-in camera app looks very much like the previous versions. However, there are a few differences. First, in the upper left corner there is a new icon controlling a useful new hardware feature, the LED flash. The iPhone 4 adds a very bright LED flash with which a user can take pictures in low light. The icon in the upper left corner gives users control over the flash with three modes Auto, On, and Off. The Auto function will let the phone control when the flash is used, while On and Off turn it On all the time or Off all the time.009

The other new icon in the upper right corner controls which camera to use when taking pictures or video. With the iPhone 4 there is now a front facing camera, although it does not pictures at as high a resolution as the primary camera on the back of the phone. The rear facing camera, which most users will use to take their snapshots, has a 5MP camera. It also incorporates a 5x Digital Zoom feature, something I personally don’t usually recommend using. Digital Zoom doesn’t really zoom in on the object, it just blows up the pixels. The images will not usually look as sharp. Here are two images taken, one without Digital Zoom (left) and the other with it (right).


Notice that the two pictures look about the same, as for quality. So the Digital Zoom, while still not great, is decent and can help get a closer image without damaging the quality of the photo too much. It is best not to rely on it for really important pictures, however.

The front facing camera will take pictures at a resolution of 640×480 (1MP). It is possible to take still shots with it, but not advisable if you want a good picture. I wouldn’t use it for anything more than a quick self-portrait to use with your Twitter avatar or something like that. Notice below, the image is acceptable, but not great.

Like before the Camera app gives you access to your Photo Library with the icon in the lower left corner. It also can change from video to still using the slider switch in the bottom right. But another addition to the camera is the ability to select the focus point by tapping the screen. This is a useful tool and something I would love to see in regular point  and shoot cameras that have touch screens. The reason this is helpful is you can compose your shot with the main subject off centered slightly. The rule of thirds” tell us to imagine a grid of two horizontal and two vertical lines on the screen. Where the horizontal and vertical lines cross one another is the best place to put the primary focus point of your image. So the eyes of your subject in a portrait might be in the upper right cross hair (see the screen shot of the Camera+ app below).


In the image above I’ve lowered the brightness and jacked up the contrast so that you can see the lines on the figurine’s face. The picture would probably be better composed on the upper left cross instead. Instead of the center of the image at the figurine’s shoulder, you can tap the face and it will focus there to offer a better picture.

These new features (touch to focus, flash, digital zoom, and front facing camera) make the iPhone 4 a big upgrade as a camera. If a digital still camera in your pocket all the time is an important thing to you, then you will want to upgrade.

The camera is not perfect, however. It seems that the images taken with the camera are slightly over exposed and a little grainy. But they can be fixed with great apps like Camera+ ($1.99, see above screen shot) or Photogene ($1.99, a nice photo editing app). Other than that the colors seem to be very faithful and the image quality is otherwise very good.


The above was taken at a local college. From a distance it looks very good. Zoom in and you can see that it is not as sharp as it could be.


The above image was taken at a local car dealer. This was a fun picture of my son in the vintage Honda Accord. But it demonstrates one problem with the iPhone 4 Camera. I find it hard to hold steady enough to get a sharp picture at times. Notice the blur that came from me holding the phone with one hand.

iPhone 4 Video Camera

Where the iPhone 4 camera really excels is the 720p HD video. That is a big upgrade over the previous models. Video is very good but a little hard to deal with once you have taken the shots. The potential as an HD video camera was demonstrated by the video one team shot and edited entirely on the iPhone 4. See below the video entitled Apple of My Eye.

To take video you open the Camera app and make sure the slider at the lower right is pushed to the right. Then simply tap the camera button. When finished tap it again.

Once you have taken video, the only simple way to get HD video out of the camera is connect to your computer and export it. You cannot simply upload HD video to YouTube or send it via email or MMS. You can upload to video, but the phone automatically compresses it. We have previously shown you how to do this using an app like PixelPipe.

Once you have taken some video, you will want to do something with it. You can share it via the Share button. It gives a popup with options for emailing, sending via MMS, or uploading to YouTube. As I said before, the results will not be in HD. Again, the other option is to download via USB cable connecting the iPhone to your Mac or PC. After that, users can edit the video using any video editing program. Another way is to use one of the great video editing apps available for the iPhone 4.

I previously reviewed iMovie. The video below was shot on my iPhone 4 and edited with iMovie.

Video shot on iPhone 4 and edited in iMovie

Because I edited it on the iPhone and then uploaded it directly from my iPhone, it is not in HD. But you can see what the resulting video can look like when using iMovie.

Another iPhone video editing app is ReelDirector. I am working with it and it seems like a very good app with a lot of great features. Check back for a review at a later time. Below is an HD video shot by a ReelDirector user on an iPhone 4 and edited using ReelDirector.

Video shot on an iPhone 4 and edited in ReelDirector

The results beat the pants off anything iMovie can do.

Whether you use iMovie or ReelDirector, editing video on the iPhone is doable, but not very easy. One possible solution is to export your video to the iPad using the iPad Camera Connection Kit. Connect the USB cable from your iPhone 4 to the iPad Dock to USB adapter and it will open the Photos app on the iPad. Select the videos and tap Import. Then open those in ReelDirector for the iPad.


The iPhone 4 as a camera is a big upgrade over the previous 3GS and 3G iPhones. If you are a heavy camera user, this alone might make the iPhone 4 worth the upgrade. While not perfect, it is an excellent cell phone camera. I would not totally replace my Canon point-and-shoot camera all the time. But when I don’t have my Canon around, the iPhone 4 does a nice job in a pinch. For that reason, I would give the iPhone 4 camera 4 bars.


  • Higher resolution for both video and stills
  • Good color
  • Extra front facing camera
  • Decent LED Flash
  • Tap to focus is a big plus
  • Excellent video and photo editing apps available


  • Some picture are grainy
  • Some pictures are over exposed
  • Cannot export video in HD without connecting to a computer or using a third-party app
  • Hard to hold steady for sharp pictures

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