The marvellous iPhone 3Gs camera

The camera is located on the back of the iPhone 3Gs. Most of what I’ve seen on the net about the iPhone camera is that it’s viewed as more or less a toy given its low resolution. What I have found however, is that it is a remarkably capable camera within its limits and produces high quality jpegs. I enjoy the fact that it is a fixed focal length lens, fixed aperture and fairly responsive autofocus and shutter. Thus, the only parameters the camera plays with then are shutter speed and ISO. To use it recalls my days with a large view camera where it was impossible to hide the fact you were taking photographs. The iPhone is the same: taking pictures requires holding the camera up away from your face where you see the image in live view. You can pick the area where you want the camera to focus by touching the screen. Gently pressing the camera icon trips the shutter. Here are the specs from the Apple web site:

-3 megapixels
– Autofocus
– Tap to focus
– Video recording, VGA up to 30 fps with audio
– Photo and video geotagging
– iPhone and third-party application integration

Based on my own photos, here’s what I found:

File size: 2048 x 1536 pixels producing a file generally 1.5 MB in size
Sensor size: 3.58mm x 2.69mm Active Image Area
Output: JPEG
Aperture: Fixed f/2.8
Focal length: 4 mm. (approximately equivalent to 35 mm in 35 mm format)
Shutter: From what I can tell a maximum speed of 1/1970 secs. and a minimum of 1/10 sec.
ISO: varies from 70 to 1016 for night shots (fairly noisy). This by the way is quite cool. It is the same feature found in the new Leica M9.
Metadata are found in the image header to describe picture data.

What I love about this camera is that it is remarkably versatile and easy to keep in your pocket. In parts of the world where I travel where theft is very real, it is possible to walk around with the phone more or less hidden in the palm of your hand and slips into a pocket quite discretely. What I enjoy however are the applications that support the camera, in particular Autostitch which I downloaded from the App Store in iTunes. I can take a series of overlapping images and then instantly see the combined result via Autostitch on the phone screen.

This application is quite a marvel of software design. Aside from the incredibly easy interface and the very fast processing times, the application can be used as a tool for expression once you get the hang of how it works. I have worked with sophisticated panoramic tools on the desktop, but they were always quite unforgiving in terms of lining up one image with another, with interfaces I found difficult to use. One of their big difficulties was handling movement from stitch to stitch. This is where Autostitch excels: it will create ghosts. Now there are those who would argue that that is no solution at all. Well, mathematically it is and what else could you expect it to do? If you know this, you can use it to your advantage.

It also does a great job of aligning images, rationalizing exposure and contrast and putting together a fairly seamless stitch. Where the seams are least visible of course is when the error due to parallax is smallest. The closer you are to an object, the greater the error. Holding it as close to your face as possible and rotating in a small arc gets you reasonably close to a corrected panorama. However, I find that knowing that where there is fuzziness in the aligned images can be used for expressive purposes and thus making a ‘mistake’ adds to an image’s interest.

The more I use this software, the more experimenting I am willing to do. In the end, you wind up having another set of tools in your tool kit to maximize expressive intent. At the same time, combining images together results in one with greater resolution, thus compensating for the relatively low native resolution of the camera. Nevertheless, I am always amazed at how good the photos are with the iPhone. I don’t have access to a good inkjet printer, so it is difficult to tell how good a print they make, but I would imagine that in small sizes, they can hold up to scrutiny. The panos however could be printed large probably. For web publishing, they are more than adequate.

Here are some examples from a business trip to Nairobi. The long and wide images were constructed with Autostitch.

Needless to say, I really like using the camera and it, along with the other useful apps I have on my iPhone all add up to make it a very useful, handy and indispensable tool. And don’t get me started about my Macbook Pro! Neither product is perfect, but the software design and the objects themselves are so well designed it fits perfectly with my belief that good design is the most ecologically friendly thing one can do. There is nothing more wasteful in every sense of the word than a poorly designed and manufactured object.

No, I do not own Apple stock, although I wish I did when they were $50 a share. And no, I am not an Apple salesman, although I could be!! 🙂


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