So how good are the cam­eras in to­day’s smart phones? Over the next few is­sues tech ex­pert Stephen Daw­son puts a few of the mod­els specif­i­cally pro­moted for their cam­eras through their paces. We’re only look­ing at the pho­to­graphic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of th­ese pho

Camera - - CONTENTS -

Reg­u­lar Cam­era read­ers will know that we’re no great fans of cam­era phones, but there’s no es­cap­ing that they can be hugely con­ve­nient at times so, over the next few is­sues, tech ex­pert Stephen Daw­son is go­ing to look at the smart­phones that have the most ca­pa­ble cam­era ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Not sur­pris­ingly, we’re kick­ing off with Ap­ple’s lat­est iPhone model.


it was Ap­ple’s iPhone which in­tro­duced the half-de­cent phone cam­era to the world. The iPhone 3GS – or per­haps the five megapix­els iPhone 4 – crossed a thresh­old from the half-de­cent to the ac­tu­ally quite use­ful. The cur­rent work­horse is the iPhone 8. The two higher level mod­els, the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X, add a sec­ond cam­era. We’ll re­turn to one or the other in a fu­ture is­sue.

The iPhone 8’s rear cam­era is lo­cated in the top-right cor­ner of the phone (when viewed from the front). The res­o­lu­tion is 12 megapix­els, a sweet spot for phone cam­eras. The field-of-view is equiv­a­lent to the mod­er­ate wide-an­gle 28mm fo­cal length in the 35mm for­mat. The aper­ture is fixed – one of the many dif­fer­ences be­tween a typ­i­cal phone cam­era and a typ­i­cal real cam­era. Bright scenes are han­dled by means of a faster shut­ter speed and a very slow ISO for the sen­sor (of­ten as low as ISO 20).

The sen­sor is a back­side il­lu­mi­nated (BSI) type which, in the topsy-turvy world of cam­era op­tics means that the im­age is cap­tured by ac­tive sen­sors on the lens side of the wiring, rather than be­hind the wiring. That typ­i­cally in­creases sen­si­tiv­ity by around half a stop. Op­ti­cal im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion helps re­duce cam­era shake to en­sure op­ti­mum sharp­ness.


Ap­ple iPhones have at least one sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage over most An­droid phones in that they man­age their bat­ter­ies bet­ter so your phone cam­era is less likely to be de­pleted when you need it. What you don’t get in stan­dard trim is the abil­ity to cap­ture RAW im­age files. The stan­dard iPhone cam­era app in­stead cap­tures the im­age in JPEG or HEIF. It’s odd that JPEG has re­mained the stan­dard for lossy photo com­pres­sion this past quar­ter cen­tury. The video and au­dio equiv­a­lents – things like MPEG2 and MP3 – have long since been sup­planted by high­ef­fi­ciency com­pres­sion regimes. HEIF ap­par­ently halves the stor­age space for the same qual­ity, and also sup­ports things like burst and stacked pho­tos in a sin­gle file. The only prob­lem is that there’s little ex­ter­nal sup­port for it yet. Even Pho­to­shop CC won’t yet read HEIF files. So you’ll prob­a­bly want to change the de­fault to JPEG.

How? The cam­era app fol­lows Ap­ple’s prac­tice of keep­ing some of its set­tings in the ‘Set­tings’ app. You have to scroll down a long way to find it. This is in­con­ve­nient for chang­ing things like setting the video res­o­lu­tion or switch­ing on the Auto HDR func­tion. With the app you can choose the flash mode (On/Off/ Auto), switch­ing the ‘Live Photo’ cap­ture mode, the timer, and one of ten colour fil­ters.

I don’t think there’s any­thing in the fil­ters that can’t be done as well in post.

You can fire up the cam­era app with­out un­lock­ing the phone by hit­ting the power but­ton and swip­ing left. You can copy files to any com­puter by plug­ging it in via USB and open­ing the DCIM folder. Ap­ple’s file prac­tices re­main in­scrutable to me. Even with ‘High Ef­fi­ciency’ cho­sen for photo se­lec­tion, stan­dard JPEG ver­sions are the only things avail­able in that folder. The HEIF ver­sions synced to my com­puter via OneDrive. Even if I have ‘High Ef­fi­ciency’ off, the same pho­tos are up­loaded via OneDrive with a com­pletely dif­fer­ent file name to that when im­ported via a wired con­nec­tion. Oh, and you can’t see the file name of a photo on the iPhone it­self, so you can’t take notes clearly iden­ti­fy­ing a shot.

The ‘Live Photo’ mode, in­ci­den­tally, is ac­tu­ally a three­sec­ond video clip, like the news­pa­per pho­tos in a Harry Pot­ter movie. The Panorama mode can stitch to­gether mul­ti­ple images to up to 63 megapix­els in size, but it’s a bit lim­ited, al­low­ing a ro­ta­tion of around 200 to 210 de­grees. The stitch­ing was ad­e­quate, but nowhere near the best out there, with vis­i­ble bumps on some joins.


The first thing to note is that as a point-and-shoot cam­era un­der a wide range of cir­cum­stances, the iPhone 8 is glo­ri­ous. It’s fast. Its fo­cus is sure, and if you don’t like what it has cho­sen to fo­cus on, you can se­lect some­thing dif­fer­ent by tap­ping on the screen. That will also ad­just the ex­po­sure based on that area. Swipe up or down to then ad­just the ex­po­sure. Tap and hold, and you can fix both ex­po­sure and fo­cus.

Don’t be mis­led by the fixed aper­ture of f1.8 and ex­pect a shal­low depth-of-field. The sen­sor is tiny and the an­gle-of-view fairly wide, so things are go­ing to be in fo­cus to great depth. Only ex­treme close-ups will give you a sig­nif­i­cant bokeh ef­fect.

A dig­i­tal cam­era de­pends on two things; its phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics – sen­sor and op­tics -- and its sig­nal pro­cess­ing. The lat­ter is, in part, in­her­ent to the phone and its OS and, in part, man­aged by the app. RAW pho­tos not only avoid the com­pres­sion arte­facts of JPEG (or HEIF), but skip most of the im­age im­prove­ment fea­tures of the cam­era app. Apps tend to be based on the ex­pec­ta­tion that the pho­tos will only be shown on the phone’s screen, so there is a ten­dency to over process the im­age.

With the test images I’ve paid close at­ten­tion to not just all the stan­dard stuff that even a cheap phone cam­era can do well, but also some ex­tremes. I used the Halide cam­era app to cap­ture RAW images for com­par­i­son.


The Ap­ple iPhone 8 is a very safe choice for a phone cam­era. It does its stuff well. The stan­dard app it­self is a mar­vel of pro­cess­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.


But with Auto HDR the sun­lit brick­work and tiles are re­solved and the sky be­comes blue, while the de­tail on the lat­tice is largely re­tained (ISO 20, 1/200 sec­ond, but those fig­ures are mean­ing­less since this is a com­pos­ite of two pho­tos cre­ated by the phone). The same shot with the iPhone cam­era app. It went for a longer ex­po­sure and de­liv­ered a semi-us­able re­sult (ISO 2000, 1/4 sec­ond).

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