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No SLR, iPhone Only, Weekend Destination: DC – Camera Impressions

Why “Praised by National Geographic Photographer” also means “Perfect for Instagram”…

Shadows can be recovered reasonably well, even though the iPhone metered the sky here...
Shadows can be recovered reasonably well, even though the iPhone metered the sky here…

When I went to D.C. last weekend to visit my friend in the heart of Shutdown City, I decided early* on that I would be traveling light. Traveling light meant ditching my SLR and pocketing only my newly acquired iPhone 5S. Having owned it for no longer than a week, I figured the trip would be a perfect test of Apple’s engineering to see if there was any substance to the marketing rhetoric.

*Early = as soon as I heard the Government Shutdown-pocalypse would shutter the Air and Space museum.

#nofilter. Uncorrected image. Looks very un-vibrant, does it not?
#nofilter. Uncorrected image. Looks somewhat drab, does it not?

For all the features touted by Apple in the new iPhone 5S, only one of them has really impressed me, the new camera. And no, I’m not talking in terms of megapixels (everyone else except HTC wins) or pure photon-hogging, low-light performance (Nokia wins there), I’m talking about the ISP. The silicon. The brains behind the sensor that takes your bucketload of pixels and turns it into a jpeg.

So how does the iPhone 5S stand out from its smartphone peers? Simple: correction-friendly dynamic range. If you read smartphone reviews, the following excerpt from DigitalTrends should sound pretty familiar, thematically speaking:

"... we found the 1020 to be particularly strong in low-light situations, but Nokia also likes to increase the brightness and color contrast versus the iPhone 5 which takes more accurate but drab-looking shots."

Apple has always graciously restrained itself when it comes to trying to impress. Instead of wooing you with surreal vibrance and over-the-top saturation, like almost every TV or sound system in Best Buy does, Apple is instead confidently conservative in its color palette. And for someone like me who will take the time to make fool around in post, that is a really good thing.

Yes HDR Regular (top) and HDR (bottom) pictures of the same scene.

If you take a look at the results of an “HDR” image from the iPhone, nothing really jumps out at you. The colors and levels almost look unchanged from regular to HDR, though in the example shots above the shadows on the grill are better exposed and the clouds are slightly better defined. And that’s the way it should be. These pictures are even a little more saturated than my pics from DC (Above pictures from my backyard).

If you look at any RAW footage from a real cinema camera, it’s pretty unimpressive… until you color correct it. A neutral color palette can be stretched further. Darks can go darker, lights can go lighter, contrast can be amplified many times. That’s not to say the iPhone gives you anything close to 14-bit RAW when you HDR something (you still get a comparably sized JPEG to the original) but the flexibility in post is preserved very well.


Sadly however, most people won’t actually take the time to color-correct, crop, and straighten their photos. Well… not manually anyway. But that’s okay, because the neutral gradiation of iPhone photos means that the sledgehammer-like approach to color correction more commonly known as Instagram will produce less painful, noisy, blown out pictures. They say in the computer world: Crap in, crap out. But if you have an iPhone, you have now improved your situation to: kinda crappy in, meh out.

#empty #DC #streets #nocars #hashtag #yoloswag
#empty #DC #streets #nocars #hashtag #yoloswag

Couple this with the 720p120 video, which is absurdly easy to motion stabilize and has almost no rolling shutter, and the dynamic exposure panoramas and you have a very competent all-around shooter. Again, that’s not to say it’s the best in *every* category. You won’t poster a shot that’s only 8 megapixels, and iOS restricts you from taking more manual control of the sensor output (anyone want 1080p60?). But for most people, the iPhone 5S is a great everyday camera that keeps up with its Android and WP8 peers.

Minor overexposure, but overall very salvageable.
Minor overexposure, but overall very salvageable.

In the interest of being OS-agnostic, if you have any direct-comparison HDR/regular shots from different smartphone cameras (un-edited), you may post links in the comments below. I may add them to my article and link to your page(s) with the source.

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