4S camera no longer a shot in the dark

Having recently entered a contract with Telstra for a 24-month plan with an iPhone 4, the 4S's features are of no real consequence to me, or so I thought. However, having now shot some video on a 4S, the temptation to pursue an upgrade is a good deal stronger. More about that in a moment.

The iPhone 4S release sure caused a stir, didn't it? I found it a bit of a laugh, actually. Some of the reporting was the worst I've yet read. Can anyone tell me how one "fails to live up to rumours"? How is that done, exactly?

Here's a rumour. Let's call it Rumour X. And it's been picked up by some media outlet, let's say Spews Limited, and presented as a "likely new feature" according to an expert insider who knows someone who works at Apple but can't, of course, reveal their name. So it could be anybody. Or nobody. When the 4S is released and the "new feature" isn't there, then according to Spews Limited maths, it just don't add up. Thus, Apple failed to live up to rumours.

Is that how the logic goes? Could someone help me out?

Another of my favourites was "New iPhone 5 is only half what you expected". Let's break that one down. It's not an iPhone 5. And, er ... no, hang on, that's it. The fact the people who made it call it an iPhone 4S should be a reasonable indication it's not an iPhone 5. Mind-boggling stuff.

(As a matter of disclosure, I was one of those who reported on the 3G when it was released in Australia. I was working for a newspaper at the time and the editor informed me there was a page three in it. That's the penultimate big deal in newspaper reporting. That's the editor saying he thinks it's big news — but not so big that it would knock the Pope dying off the front page. For a tech reporter, back then, page three was your call to the major league.

Fair enough, too, because the iPhone's first Australian release was a big deal. It would be the device that changed the smartphone landscape, that would get people to take notice of what a pocket-sized, phone-enabled computer could do for them. So, you might imagine, the report was a bit on the breathless side. Combined with a fancy layout with diagrams and a breakout, it was quite a splash.

I'm a little embarrassed now about how I wrote that piece. I remember the editor walking past on the day of publication, saying: "Well done, mate, you stopped just short of gushing, which is just how I wanted it".

I was also taken down a peg the next day by a critic writing for Crikey, who placed the importance of the iPhone's release in stark relief by pointing out the newspaper ran a story on page 17 about a murder on the north side of town. Page 17. Apple device trumps local murder, by 14 pages. I still think there's something disturbing about that.

But the point I'm trying to make here is that while my iPhone report had a bit of fanboy flavour about it, I can proudly tell you that its contents were based entirely on what actually did happen.)

When the iPad 2 came out, it so happened that I was trying some Android tablets: Motorola's Xoom, Samsung's Galaxy, and Acer's Iconia. I didn't care much for the Android OS, certainly not on a tablet, but what I really liked about each of those tablets was the camera. The camera on each of them really blew the iPad 2 away and I decided there and then I would wait until iPad 3.

It was a comfort, therefore, to see the quality of camera Apple has put into the 4S. If at least its equal is not in the iPad 3, I may well go postal. Although, given some of the decisions that have come out of Cupertino of late — yes, Final Cut Pro X, I'm looking at you — one could be forgiven for thinking that any crazy stuff could happen.

In any case, the video capability of the 4S is a very welcome improvement. Coupled with iMovie or a third-party video editor such as Splice, the 4S is now a viable consideration for vloggers who value mobility and accessibility over the features and multi-stepped workflows that go with shooting with a "real" video camera. I believe that with an iPhone 4S you could maintain a series of high-qaulity video snapshots of a holiday, cover a news event, or shoot a how-to video. Pretty much most simple video tasks. And do it with panache.

On the down side, there's no zoom in the 4S's camera, so if you are going to cover a news event, remember what famed war photographer Robert Capa said: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". Also bear in mind that getting close enough can kill you, so use some judgment on that one.

How good is the video quality of the 4S? Better than an iPhone 4 camera? Pfft ... yeah. Better than a Flip HD? Yep (just). Better than a Nokia N9? Yep. Better than a DSLR — such as, say, a Canon 5D MkII? Now, there's an interesting comparison.

A video went up not long after the 4S was released comparing it to the Canon 5D MkII — the camera that started the DSLR video phenomenon. It compared some very average scenes — and by average I mean scenes that didn't really test the resolving power and clarity of the 4S's lens and sensor combination — shot on a 4S and a 5D MkII and presented a comparison that was very favourable for the 4S. However, what it didn't show was the 4S's negatives.

The 4S may be able to adjust exposure to suit a darker scene but at the same time it can't allow for control over colour temperature changes, so if you shoot some ducks in full light and then some ducks floating into a shady part of a pond, you get a clip from the shady shot that's cool and bluish. Put the warm, full-sun clips next to the bluish clips and they look ugly. The touch focus is pretty good but will hunt for the subject in high-contrast lighting. Also, it's too easy to slip your finger over the lens.

The jelly effect is still there, too. This is the distortion that happens to the geometry of the image when you jerk the camera suddenly. Avoid handheld shooting to minimise this effect.

With all that said, the 4S can produce some very satisfying video if you shoot within its limitations. And it's much smaller thatn an EOS 5D MkII.

In all the discussion about what the iPhone 4S is not, cannot to and does not deliver, not to mention what the number on the box isn't, some things were overlooked. Not the least of which was what it can do as a still and video camera — something actually worth reading. Some of the media outlets reporting on the device's lamentable lack of being called "iPhone 5" actually wanted you to pay for the privilege of reading it.

Like that's going to happen.

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