iPhoneography Shoot Out: iPhone 4 vs. iPhone 4s

They say that The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You, and like so many other photographers out there, the one that’s always with me is my iPhone. That said, while I love almost everything about the iPhone 4 I’ve had for the last two years, I’ve found the camera to be a little bit lacking. For starters, the camera’s white balance has always made me a little (okay, a lot) crazy, the delay between shots was more than I liked, and I often found myself fumbling to trip on-screen shutter button. Sure, there are some apps that improved camera control functionality, and Instagram almost made me forget about my camera’s color issues … but as we photographers know far too well, there’s nothing like starting off with a clear, beautifully colored, nicely exposed image; slapping on a filter can only get you so far. … So when I heard that the new iPhone was finally being released, there was really only one thing I wanted to know: was it worth upgrading just for the iPhone 4s camera?

By the specs, the new iPhone 4s camera certainly seemed to be an improvement …

* Based on our testing. Official specs indicate an iPhone 4s camera startup time of 1.1 sec and shutter lag of 0.5 sec.

  … but did it live up to expectations once I had it in hand? Take a look:


iPhone 4 (left); iPhone 4s (right)

Given the color issues I’ve complained about with the iPhone 4 camera, I was surprised to see how lovely the color was in my test shot with the ColorChecker card. The iPhone 4 delivered color that was just slightly cooler than neutral; the iPhone 4s delivered color that was spot on. The difference is marginal – certainly not enough to sell me on an upgrade. I decided to move on to another subject:

iPhone 4 (left); iPhone 4s (right)

Here we see much better color rendition with the iPhone 4s, but how would it do with skin tones? Bright pink people with hot spots seemed to be the norm with the iPhone 4; would the 4s camera fare any better?

iPhone 4 (left); iPhone 4s (right)

The improvement in skin color is dramatic (does this remind anyone else of a slightly more vibrant Earlybird Instagram filter?), and I saw color improvement across the board with various subjects and lighting scenarios. The iPhone 4s images also showcase slightly lower contrast in most images (not necessarily an improvement), and the clarity advantage with the iPhone 4s was remarkable, especially at slow shutter speeds; the new “motion blur” reduction was very impressive, with handholding at slow shutter speeds producing far superior clarity with the iPhone 4s.

iPhone 4 (left); iPhone 4s (right)

100% crop:

 iPhone 4 (left); iPhone 4s (right)

The only thing that really left me underwhelmed was the low light performance iPhone 4s. Even shooting in a pitch black environment, I couldn’t get the ISO of the iPhone 4s to go beyond ISO 800 (vs. the ISO 1000 regularly selected by the iPhone 4).  Beyond that, it appears that some pretty aggressive noise reduction takes place, which doesn’t appeal to me; I’d much prefer noise to an oversmoothed appearance.

 iPhone 4 at f/2.8, 1/15 sec, ISO 1000 (left); iPhone 4s at f/2.4, 1/15 sec, ISO 800 (right)

What about other alleged improvements in functionality?

  • Face Detection (Focus): Sounds good, and it’s fun to see the focus point jumping around on the screen — but I don’t notice a major difference in the camera’s ultimate selection of focus point. In any case, I’m still particular enough that I want to choose my precise focus point on the screen itself.
  • Face Detection (Exposure): The 4s purports to focus on the most prominent face in the frame and balance exposure across up to 10 faces. Sounds like a great feature, but I’m still more than likely going to set my own exposure when I choose the focus point by tapping on the screen itself.
  • Focus and Exposure Lock: This is a big one for me — and for anyone who wants to be able to take more control over the final image; as with the iPhone 4, you can still tap the person or object on the screen to set focus … but brand-new is the ability to lock focus and exposure: touch and hold the screen until the rectangular focus point pulses; AE/AF Lock appears on the screen, and the focus and exposure remain locked until you tap the screen again. Editor’s Note: This feature is available on the iPhone4 when you update to iOS5 (thanks, Kerri and Nicole!)
  • Physical Shutter Button: Another major improvement. I always found it a bit awkward to try to reach up to the screen to press the shutter release, especially when I was trying to hold the camera extremely steady and/or shooting in landscape orientation.  The fact that I can now simply press the volume-up button to take a photo is an awesome change. Editor’s Note: This feature is available on the iPhone4 when you update to iOS5 (thanks, Kerri and Nicole!)
  • Quick Camera Access: In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily worth the upgrade … but it’s a nice little addition. Instead of having to press the Home button to wake the camera, slide to unlock, then select the Camera from my dock (three steps), now I can double-click the home button, then tap the camera icon (two steps).
  • Rule of Thirds Grid: Another minor but handy addition. I don’t find the Rule of Thirds terribly hard to visualize, but it never hurts to have it right on screen. Editor’s Note: This feature is available on the iPhone4 when you update to iOS5 (thanks, Kerri and Nicole!)
  • Photo Stream: Photo Stream (part of iCloud) automatically backs up your images by sending copies of your iPhone photos to any other devices that are set up with iCloud and have Photo Stream turned on. This is a great little addition, especially since I rarely download images from my iPhone; I love knowing that now I’ll have a master set of all of my images on my desktop. Editor’s Note: This feature is available on the iPhone4 when you update to iOS5 (thanks, Kerri and Nicole!)
  • Responsiveness: HUGE improvement! Apple has reduced the startup lag (time from pressing the camera button to the app actually opening) from 2.1 seconds to 1.4 seconds and has reduced the shutter lag (wait time between consecutive shots) from 1.3 seconds to 0.4 seconds, which is just incredible. Let’s say a moment lasts three seconds … with the iPhone 4, you could only get in MAYBE two shots; now, you can get in as many as six!

Final Verdict: We constantly remind new photographers that the artist – not the camera – makes beautiful photos … but in the hands of a talented artist, better equipment certainly makes a difference. So is the camera worth the upgrade from the iPhone 4 to iPhone 4s?  The color improvement alone makes the sale for me.  Add in the vastly improved clarity, improved functionality (physical shutter, AE/AF lock, quick camera access, and Photo Stream), significant improvement in responsiveness (startup lag and shutter lag), and to me, the decision is easy. If you rely on your iPhone for taking pics when your DSLR is at home, then I say the upgrade is necessary, absolutely.

Here are some of my favorite images taken with the iPhone 4 (all processed with Instagram filters). I’m excited to see what I can do with the even more impressive iPhone 4s!

What kind of images have you produced with your current cameraphone? Are you considering a switch to the iPhone 4s? Share your thoughts and images with us in the comments!

About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs.


  1. Hélène Oct 22 2011 at 6:04 am - Reply

    Thanks Sarah for sharing. 🙂

  2. Nicole L Oct 22 2011 at 7:38 am - Reply

    The iOS5 software update actually added some of those features of the 4s to older models. My 3Gs now can use the volume+ botton to snap the shutter, I now have the option of using the rule of 3rds grid, and the AE/AF lock. (and if iCloud is enabled in the options menu it will back up too 😀 ). Thought I would share this information for those that are either waiting for the 5 to come out or aren't able to upgrade yet (and want to) so that they can get those features too 🙂

  3. Kerri Oct 22 2011 at 7:47 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing the comparison shots. I love how much clearer the pictures are and te color is great. Did you know that if you upgrade the iOS on the iPhone 4 that you get the added features of the shutter release button and quick camera access? I don't know about the exposure lock. I will have to test that out. Thanks again!

  4. Sarah Wilkerson Oct 22 2011 at 7:48 am - Reply

    Nicole and Kerri – news to me; good to know!! I will edit the article to reflect that – thank you!

  5. Kendra Oct 22 2011 at 9:12 am - Reply

    I'm sold! I was really going to be good and not upgrade – but now I must!!

  6. Amii Oct 22 2011 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Yay! So glad you did this Sarah! I'm still waiting for my 4s to ship but I'm so excited to upgrade from the 3GS (I know…I'm so behind the times!). And I kind of only upgraded because of the camera…ha!

  7. Lynne Oct 22 2011 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    pfffft. enabler.

  8. Sarah Wilkerson Oct 22 2011 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Oh Lynne Rigby …. you need this. You know you do.When is the last time my enabling steered you wrong?

  9. Shannon Lang Oct 22 2011 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    I really want to upgrade to the 4s from the 3gs just for the camera! I use my iPhone camera for almost everything.

  10. Jennifer likes Oct 22 2011 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Not to mention Siri is one funny chic! Thanks Sarah great article. 🙂 I say buy it Lynne!!

  11. deb Oct 23 2011 at 7:11 am - Reply

    Thank you for this info. I just upgraded to the 4s and I've barely used the camera. I really need to try it out.

  12. Romana Oct 24 2011 at 1:22 am - Reply

    No NO No.. I don't need to know this:) Too much wonderful information and reasons to upgrade. Thanks for the excellent review – I will try IOS5 and then save a little 🙂

  13. Anabel Toboz Nov 22 2011 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    LIMITED OFFER GET A FREE iPhone FROM FACEBOOK! http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=24653928540…!

  14. SUV fan May 13 2013 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    ein guter Beitrag. Heute liebt jeder sein Handymehr als alles andere.Und ich kann nur sagen wer mal ein iPHone besessen hat will es nicht mehr hergeben.

  15. Lacy Ferdolage Aug 14 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    i hate my iphone

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