iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

We spent the morning and afternoon testing out the redesigned iPhone 5S camera to get a sense of how it compares to its predecessor, as well as to the cameras on its biggest competitors. Without a doubt, it's a solid shooter that incorporates some improvements, but mostly, we're just damned impressed at how far smartphone cameras have come across the board.

Last year when we tested the iPhone 5 camera (the same one found in the iPhone 5C) it was immediately clear that it was serious upgrade over the iPhone 4S. At the time, it took the best photos of any smartphone you would actually buy. (Nokia's excellent 41-megapixel 808 PureView camera was better, but it wasn't a serious product because it ran the now-defunct Symbian OS). Since then, it's been eclipsed by a number of smartphones that feature not just great lenses, but innovative features that help mitigate the problems inherent in shooting on the go.

The HTC One and Nokia Lumia 1020 in particular are excellent. The former's UltraPixel camera opted for a 4MP camera with extra-large photodiodes, instead of the 8-12MP standard. And the results were great. Nokia, on the other hand, went the opposite route, employing sophisticated image processing on the 1020's 41-megapixel images to assemble better—and more zoomable—images.

Now, Apple claims to have made significant improvements to its own tech since the iPhone 5, including a new two-tone flash, ever-so-slightly larger (.1 micrometer larger to be exact) diodes on its sensor, and an f/2.2 lens that's a smidgen wider than its predecessor. The changes definitely make a difference, but not always in the ways that we'd hoped.

Daylight

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

Here's a photo snapped off the roof of GawkerHQ. We scaled the content in the images to the same size regardless of each image's actual resolution. Here's what identically-sized slices from each camera look like just to give you an idea about how resolution varies on the handsets:

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

This is a relatively easy photo, and all of the cameras perform admirably, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 trailing the pack. It's pretty tough to tell the difference between iPhone 5 and 5S, though, the newer shooter appears to have slightly better dynamic range from this vantage. In this particular situation, we prefer the iPhone 5S to the usually excellent Lumia 1020 because the photo's sharpness. The HTC One is out because of some noticeable artifacts—that's the downside with cropping from a relatively low-resolution image.

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

A closer look reveals that in automatic modes the iPhones meter slightly differently, but even so, the iPhone 5 captures a lot more detailed information. It's simply and inexplicably sharper. What a bummer.

Winner: iPhone 5

Low-light

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

The iPhone 5S shines in the dark without flash. The only camera that comes close is the HTC One, but the 5S is a lot sharper. And it's really nice. The iPhone 5 is a grainy mess by comparison.

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

The photo above reveals that the iPhone 5S is likely better because of a processing improvement after the sensor. The larger pixels and larger aperture add up to only a fraction of a stop of additional light captured, which doesn't account for how much better the iPhone 5S performs in the dark.

It appears Apple abandoned the iPhone 5's automatic low-light mode that oversamples for better images, using photos assembled from multiple exposures to reduce noise when shooting at high ISO. The much better iPhone 5S photo above is shot at a half-stop lower ISO, which would explain away the faster lens and better sensor—but only if the images looked the same. The noise profile on the newer image is way cleaner, which means Apple's image processor definitely got a substantial overhaul. (Other improvements like AF speed and super-fast continuous drive suggest this is true as well.)

Winner: iPhone 5S


Flash

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

Probably the most visible new hardware feature on the iPhone 5S is the two-tone flash that uses the blended light from dual LCDs—one cool, one warm—to illuminate a scene with a slightly different blast of light depending on the color temperature of a situation. Flash tailored to a scene sounds like the kind of improvement that could make a big difference. The results of a side-by-side between the 5 and 5S show that there's definitely an change. We're just not sure which we prefer.

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

The iPhone 5S's color rendition is tinged with a warm glow, which is definitely Apple's intentional reaction to the lifeless illumination you usually get from LED flash. But the effect is artificial, a bit like Apple decided that the solution to the shortcomings of LED flash is to put an Instagram filter on everything. In the photo on the left, our buddy Will's face looks more like he's a human being with blood in his body than the mannequin-like figure on the right, but it's not exactly an accurate photo.

The weakness of the new approach is obvious in our action figure image. The porcelain should be white, and Batman's cape should be black. Instead, both like they've been sprayed with a poopy mist.

iPhone 5S Camera Battle: A Stand-Up Camera That Doesn't Stand Out

Consider this comparison between the iPhone 5S and the Nokia Lumia 1020. Nokia is the only smartphone manufacturer that has switched from LED flash to xenon-based flash—xenon is what's traditionally used for flash in standalone cameras. And now, we've got a lovely photo. Nokia made Will look like a human being without ruining the color of the image.

Winner: Nokia Lumia 1020


Bottom line: Every platform has a great camera.

If we had to choose a phone for the camera alone, we would probably still go with the Lumia 1020, based solely on the very convincing results of our tests so far. That said, both the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s are superior handsets. The differences between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S are subtle, but given that we never used the iPhone's flash to begin with, we'd probably go with the 5S for its better low-light performance. This also means, though, that you're not sacrificing too much camera-wise if you opt for the cheaper iPhone 5C.

And really, the HTC One is still a solid option that's better in some situations as well. That's not a clear cut answer, I know, but the point is that cameras on phones have progressed to the point that there's more than one good option. Even if you're really into smartphone photography, you're better off choosing among Android, Windows Phone, and iOS first, and then picking the best camera option within that category.