iPhone 4 photography: how does it perform as a camera?

By Xeni Jardin


(Complete hands-on review here, and click here to watch video shot with iPhone 4)

As a camera, the iPhone 4 is really sweet. I hopped on my bike and took the device down to the Venice Skate Park, then out to the ocean pier, then rode back to the office and tested the device out in a variety of lighting conditions with less animated subjects. The images I took in this post (other than the ones I'm in) were snapped on the fourth-generation iPhone with and without built-in flash, and have not been altered in any way other then cropping, resizing, and considerable JPEG compression to keep web file size down for this blog post. No Photoshop, no Hipstamatic, no sweetening or sharpening the image content.


For technically-minded readers who would like to examine the pixels in their native state, with no resizing, click here for one of my images at original size after some JPEG compression (file size: 668K, image dimensions: 2592 x 1936 pixels).




stand-bowl-1c.jpg orchid.jpg


above: waves hitting rocks, no zoom.

above: iPhone held in same position as previous shot, zoom slider pushed 50%.

above: iPhone held in same position as previous shot, zoom slider pushed 100% to the right, maximum zoom.




calavera.jpg Above: The reclining figure and Mexican skull were on a shelf in the gloomiest corner of my studio I could find, with low light.



(All iPhone 4 snapshots in this post by Xeni Jardin. Photographs below and at the top of this blog post with Xeni, the iPhone 4, and our new skater pals Kiko and Drew at Venice Skate Park were not taken with the iPhone, but were shot by Julian Bleecker, who has more terrific skate park photos here)



Published 5:52 pm Tue, Jun 22, 2010


About the Author

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.

53 Responses to “iPhone 4 photography: how does it perform as a camera?”

  1. Chartreuse says:

    These pics are incredible, pity I just got a Blackberry Storm.. It takes very high quality photos as well, but requires two screen clicks to actually trigger the shutter, and the whole process is dreadfully slow

  2. Itsumishi says:

    I must say I’m impressed. Yet to get an iPhone and I’ve been debating to snap up one of the 3Gs 32GB while they’re all cheap here before the iPhone 4 comes out or to wait it out and spend a bit extra.

    I think you’ve just sold me on the later more expensive option.

  3. Loafer says:

    Is it even possible to take a bad picture in California with any camera ?

  4. BurntHombre says:

    Thanks for these photos and for the review, Xeni! Great info.

  5. theawesomerobot says:

    Protip: don’t use digital zoom.

  6. benchscientist says:

    so jealous, both of phone and locale

  7. Anonymous says:

    Amazing! I can’t wait to get my iPhone 4!

  8. ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive says:

    Isn’t wordpress resizing the images to 545 pixels wide? Could you upload a raw image file to your server and hypertext link to it, rather than embedding it in the page? I’d like to pixelpeep! Thanks.

  9. moniker42 says:

    That would be Xeni there with the cute.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Not bad. They are still lagging behind nokia in the camera dept (arguably the only area) but are catching up.

    Sample galleries
    flicker set

    • Anonymous says:

      Based on thos Nokia samples the iPhone 4 camera is better or is the huge JPG -mess caused by the webpage author? iPhone is sharper and has a nice pattern used by the camera raw to jpg converter.

  11. Anonymous says:

    DFO not bad in that last shot, but there is a lot of noise in most of those shots.

  12. ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive says:

    Nice! The focus point is spot on. Sharp as a tack. Thanks.

    • Xeni Jardin says:

      Yes, I was really surprised at how well the iPhone 4 performs on macro shots. This is a big difference from 3GS. No problem at all with extreme tight close-ups.

      The digital zoom isn’t bad, I suppose, as digital zoom goes. But I never ever ever use digital zoom. I guess a lot of consumers demand it, though. “Consumers,” not photographers…

  13. Wordguy says:

    OK, but I bet it would be _really hard_ to take a bad picture of Kiko or Drew!

    Great stuff. It’s amazing how far phone cameras have come.

  14. Anonymous says:

    How can you keep the lens of an iPhone safe from pocket lint and grit? I can’t find a cover that protects the lens.

  15. InsertFingerHere says:

    How is the lens for wide angle ? Some shots look like there’s a fisheye on it.. others seem fine. Some shots of straight lines , like a sidewalk and building would be nice. Is the focus fixed? Pretty impressive.

    Xeni, did you actually do some skating, or is that helmet for show?

    • spcfgt says:

      It’s not a fish eye lens, I think you’re not making the distinction between iPhone and photos of the author using the iPhone camera.

      It’s quite misleading sticking a fisheye photo first, though. It’s noted that they’re all iPhone pics “except the ones [the author] is in” – Hell if I know what the author looks like, though :P

      Exif data will tell you that the first and last two photos were taken by a Nikon DSLR.

    • Xeni Jardin says:

      I didn’t skate, but I rode my bike quite a few miles — with the iPhone strapped on to my left hand with rubber bands, to shoot the bike ride in motion. I call it the Rubber Band Steadicam.

  16. jwb says:

    I’m seeing a lot of veiling flare which is going to annoy people when the sun is a bit higher in the sky, but that’s endemic to phone camera with their teensy optics. Aside from that, these pics are exemplary.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Ha, I wondered the same thing (possibly less-cynically); the light in the skatepark shots is just beautiful!

  18. Jack says:

    Wow! Nice shots. Really tempting me, but there are two questions in my mind:
    1) Does anyone know if battery replacement on this 4G model is any better than previous?
    2) iPod Touch… So when does that get an upgrade to be in line with the iPhone? I really do not want an AT&T contract but I want a device like this.

    • Jon Ault says:

      The last few years, new iPods have been released in September (with one or two exceptions), so I’d look for an upgrade then.

      • Jon Ault says:

        Although, now that I think about it, I wonder if the iPod Touch will get a camera this year. Last year, the Shuffle got a camera but the Touch did not, even though there seemed to be a space in the Touch where a camera could have been.

        • Jack says:

          Actually those prototype iPod Touch videos that show a model with a camera have been discovered to be prototypes of an iPod Touch that would have been released with the 3G model (or 3GS?) Why Apple didn’t do that? Who knows. Maybe to push iPhone sales by consciously crippling hardware?

          But personally if there is a new iPod Touch that has only the user facing camera, I’d snag that. Makes the most sense since “Facetime” is WiFi only and the iPod Touch is WiFi only. Excluding the HD camera on the backside would make sense as a way if market crippling to direct users from one place to another.

  19. caipirina says:

    Sweet pics … how does it handle as a camera? once you are in the cam app, stiil only the on screen shutter button? or has any HW button be assigned to that function?

    Can’t wait to hear when they will release it in Italy (i know, ‘July’, but no info here on the webpages of the providers.

    This time I am switching from pre-paid to contract to have full use of the data functions … and yeah, we have no AT&T here :)

  20. soubriquet says:

    Now go take a set with a Sony/Ericsson phone and see how good they could be.

  21. Pantograph says:

    I’m eagerly awaiting your feature iPhone4 sports: How does it perform as a hockey puck?

  22. MsLau says:

    I know everyone slated the first iPhone camera, but I’ve always thought it took photos with a really lovely ‘quality’ to them, even if they weren’t huge in pixel size or technically amazing.

    What I think comes across from Xeni’s photos (and ones I’ve taken with my 3GS) is that they’ve kept that great feel to them but improved the technical specs.

    Which is nice.

  23. Sork says:

    The colors are smudged and the levels staircased, the ccd-noise is killing the sharpness, and there is a yellow tint on every photo even indoors.

  24. alxr says:

    Those’re some lovely colours on those photos. If there’s one thing that Apple seems to manage with its phones, it’s achieving better results with technically-inferior optics to other manufacturers — I think they put a lot of effort into their post-processing, and it shows.

    Thanks for sharing, Xeni. Love it when BoingBoing Gadgets shows these little spasms of life. (I miss BBG!)

  25. Anonymous says:

    Really soft focus and lack of sharpness even on downsized pictures. Beats my 3GS for sure but camera still generation or even two behind state of the art phones.

  26. thequickbrownfox says:

    Why is it than whenever I go to the beach to photograph children that someone calls the police?

    Is it my raincoat?

  27. Dwokoneseus says:

    Does anyone know if it’s possible to alter the recording volume in video mode? The 3gs was a real disappointment at concerts as a result of not being able to alter the volume. I’d get pretty good video and horrifically distorted audio along with it.

  28. Matthew Miller says:

    A mild amount of digital zoom (up to 2x, say) actually makes some sense. Digital zoom, is, of course, cropping the center of the image and scaling it up. In general, that doesn’t buy you anything over doing the same thing after the fact, but when you’re talking about JPEG output, the camera has a key advantage: it can do this upscaling as part of the internal RAW conversion.

    This gives two benefits. First, the scaling algorithm could be integrated into the bayer demosaicing, potentially providing more pleasing results. Second, JPEG artifacts at the 8×8 block level are made relatively less important — if you convert to JPEG and *then* scale up (or print at an equivalent resolution), you’re scaling up the artifacts as well.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Guys, before jumping all over how “great” this camera is, keep in mind almost none of the above shots were taken indoors. Take it from someone who has been obsessively using camera phones for 5 years: that is what makes or breaks the quality, as most camera phones above 2mp will do fine outdoors but become useless pieces of plastic and metal indoors. Let’s see some night shots too and how the LED flash performs (my old W800 cast a yellow hue around everything when using the LED flash).

  30. Anonymous says:


  31. Bonedoggie says:

    Independent of the camera, these are great pics. I especially like the last one. Thanks for posting.

  32. HackTheMainframe says:

    Did you take any iPhone 4 vs 3GS low light comparison shots in the same location or conditions?

  33. Anonymous says:

    The images still do not look as good as a real point and shoot such as an ELPH. Though, I will say good job on the magic hour light, at least you know not to go out in broad daylight.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Guys – its a phone you are talking about and for a phone the camera is performing amazingly. I cant believe it even gets compared to a regular camera and questions like if photographer would use it get ask. Its a mobile phone and its only intention is snapshots and videos. Its not like you’ll take your wedding photos with it.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Want to put your old iPhone to use doing exciting new things? How about sending it to Kenya in two weeks to record oral history interviews in endangered tribal dialects? My name is Kamilah Welch and I am the public relations intern for Smallbean(www.smallbean.org), a Boston-based non-profit. Smallbean’s initiatives teach technology skills and document community life around the world through the use of refurbished electronics and solar power.

    With yesterday’s debut of the iPhone 4, we are seeking old iPhones for use as digital voice recorders for our oral history-based Citizen Archivist Project. Any information or references of people whom we could contact on this prospect would be very much appreciated. Thanks!


  36. Silverer says:

    Some photo experts have checked in here. Just remember, this is a phone. It’s smaller than a lot of cameras that are just cameras. Realizing that limitation, I’m wondering just how great your Nikon or Kodak or Canon or SLR or whatever would work if you had to put a battery in it that lasted as long, a web browser, software, an RF section for the phone, antenna, wi-fi, accelerometer, etc. Where would the device be lacking? Super great camera, so-so web browser? Anyway, it’s a thought. I don’t expect Apple to try to match the better digital cameras out there, at least not yet. But it’s a good try from what I see.

  37. Anonymous says:

    The BEST Camera is the one you have with you. Since I always have my phone with me, it’s important that the camera be decent. I’m delighted in seeing how good Xeni’s photos are! Definitely an upgrade over my 3Gs … which is why I immediately ordered a iPhone 4.

    Remember, it’s not the camera … it’s the photographer. Capture a great moment and it doesn’t matter what camera you used!

    thanks Xeni … Mako, Makofoto photography

  38. Anonymous says:

    I’d just like to add that, I’m not sure what you did to get suck nice looking pictures off the iphone, but the ones I take are all pixilated and chunky. The camera isn’t bad but i had a 2Mpixel camera with my motorolla KRZR years ago and thos pictures looked nicer than the ones I get from the iphone. So be weary individual results may vary I suppose. And yes I made sure I wasn’t using the digital zoom

  39. Anonymous says:

    I was very impressed with the quality, take a look at some of mine i posted onto my blog:

  40. Anonymous says:

    The photos looks great taken by this iPhone. What is the digital zoom? Max Mega pixels does it ahve? I am curious being a wedding photographer :)

  41. Anonymous says:

    When i take pictures of skateboarding with my iPhone 4, it gets all blurry because of the speed, is there a way to fix it??