My colleague Scott Bourne took a recent look at the iPhone 5S from the point of view of a photographer. Lets turn to the other features the camera supports and look at it from a video point of view.

Let’s get the necessary Apple clarifications out of the way first.

  • I own an iPhone 4S (didn’t feel compelled to upgrade to the 5 at full price thanks AT&T)
  • I will be ordering an iPhone 5S
  • I currently use my iPhone 4S as a behind the scenes and point of view camera for some of my professional projects
  • I only have access to the published specs, a detailed test will follow after I get my phone
  • In this post I am ONLY going to discuss the iPhone 5S as a video camera

Alright, let’s take a look at the specs and their meaning.

1. The camera’s sensor

The camera’s sensor is larger (a 15% increase in size). Fortunately the didn’t stuff in more megapixels, they just made the current ones more sensitive to light. This means better quality images across the board. You should also see cleaner video (less grain), especially in low-light shooting situations.

2. /2.2 aperture

The aperture of the lens saw a minor improvement from /2.8 (used in the iPhone 4) or /2.4 (used on the 4S and 5) to f/2.2. Is this an earth shattering change? Nope. But when combined with the better sensor, it adds to the overall improvment. After all, more light hitting the sensor is often a good thing.

3. Backside illumination sensor

This feature currently exists in the current iPhone models. The feature is supposed to be improved however with the new phone. Essentially, the camera sensor puts the wiring out of the way of the photocathode layer. This can improve the amount of light hitting the sensor. This tech used to just be part of security cameras, microscope cameras and astronomy systems, but has made its way into consumer tech in recent years.

4. Focal Length & Zooming

The camera behaves like a 30mm lens when shooting stills (35mm equivalent). We’ve typically seen a little shift when switching from video to photo mode in the past. But this is a good focal length (wide enough for coverage, but not too wide for much visible distortion.

The camera adds the pinch-to-zoom technique from the photo camera to its video mode. This means you can now zoom in on your subject up to 3x during a recording. We’ll need to see how this zoom behavior impacts autofocus and exposure, but signs point to it working well.

5. Sapphire crystal lens cover

My kids and my wife will love this feature. A new lens cover makes it harder scratch the lens. I still suggest a hard case to prevent the lens from hitting the ground on a hard drop as well as minimize scratching when laid down on a rough surface.

6. Frame Size and Rate

This is real HD at 1080p. The camera records 1080p for the backfacing camera and 720p for the front facing one. The camera will also drop to 720p when using the SloMo feature (more on that next). These specs match the iPhone 4s and newer. For those of you asking about 4K… kindly be quiet and stop asking for a useless feature that would fill your hard drive and melt the processor.

For frame rates, Apple has seem to stick with 30 fps as the default. They’ve told developers that the Software Developers Kit (SDK) will support choosing up to 60 fps. We’ll see if they update this to 120 fps now that SloMo is out of the bag. What’s unclear is if they’ll give users a System Setting to go to 24 or 25 fps which are also popular frame rates. Currently some third-party apps do this, but not the Apple camera. I’ll test this once the device ships.

© 2013 Apple Inc.
2013 Apple Inc.

7. SloMo

It wouldn’t be an Apple presentation without a slick demo. Apple showed off the ability to record at 120fps. This feature already exists in several action camera models (like to GoPro Hero 3 and WG-3 that I use). By shooting at a higher frame rate, you have more images. This allows you to reinterpret the file and switch to another frame rate. For example, switching from 120 fps to 30 fps would give you a four times slow motion effect. This is not the jittery slow motion caused by frame blending, this is sharp and clear.

When shooting this way, Apple drops the camera to 720p (just like most DSLRs do). That’s acceptable. Hopefully the video can be exported at this higher frame rate to be used in professional editing tools like Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X.

Apple also showed off a cool app to allow you to edit the clip. You can transition between the frame rates to create special effects. The transitions don’t appear to have ramping controls to smoothly blend rates, but lets see what ships with the iOS updates. For those of you wanting this feature, this seems to be phone specific and is tied to the faster processor speed.

8. Improved video stabilization

Since most users don’t have a tripod mount or Steadicam for their iPhone, stabilization is a very good thing. For the record, both exist (and of course I use them often). Apple claims the stabilization is improved. The showed samples of photos (which looked dramatically better). This is tied to processor speed, so I’ll assume the video will look better as they claim.

9. Video geotagging

This excites me quite a bit (and yes I am a geek). I use geotagging to remember where a location is. This is useful for return trips or when location scouting for a professional shoot.

10. True Tone flash

The new flash looks great for photography. The dual-LED flash uses different color temperatures on each LED. Let’s see if this can translate into a light with more controls when shooting video. The flash seems to adjust to different shooting conditions for photo work, hopefully it will be smart when used as a video light. At least with two LEDs it should be brighter.


As I said up top, I will be upgrading. On paper the video capabilities look like a winner. While this certainly won’t be the fanciest camera in my arsenal, it will be the one I have with me most often. Once I’ve got the camera in-hand, I’ll post an update about how the specs line up to real-world performance.