Review: How does Apple's new iPhone 5s perform as a camera?
The 5s shoots full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second like pretty much every other phone on the market. You access the video mode using the flick-scroll bar next to the shutter button: one swipe gets you there. The big red record button is the extent of the controls, except for an icon to switch to the front camera (which records 720p video) and a toggle for the video light.
Once you start recording, you get a white button under the record button for taking still images. This is the first iPhone to perform this trick and while it’s a nice feature to have, the images are disappointingly low-res at 2 megapixels. They’re in HD video’s 16:9 aspect ratio.
The 5s has a narrower angle of view in video mode than when taking stills, presumably a side effect of its digital video stabilization. Unlike most other phones with digital video stabilization, you can’t turn the feature off on the 5s. The good news is that it works quite well, which isn’t always the case. Though not as rock-steady as the video image you get with optical stabilization, it’s a noticeable improvement on nothing at all.
The 5s is the first iPhone that can zoom digitally while recording video, though this is hardly a headline feature for most other handset makers. Pinching on the screen brings up a zoom slider. If you’re planning to zoom it’s worth doing this before you start recording, since you can zoom with less phone movement using the bar.
Video Sample 1: Good Light, Normal Mode
In good light, the 5s’ video output quality parallels what you find in its still images. There’s a good amount of detail, and colors are rendered with just a little extra zest. Motion is smooth. Focus is fairly confident, with little hunting.
Video Sample 2: Low Light, Normal Mode
In our low light testing, the 5s tended toward underexposure: our typical test scenes seem to be on the dark end of the brightness range that Apple designed for. Most phones accommodate this light level, though some deliver very grainy video as the sensor gain gets pushed up or blur motion with longer shutter speeds. The 5s appears to hope someone will just turn up the lights. That said, the video is perfectly useable, and what can be seen looks relatively clean and sharp. Focus hunting, which tends to be more of a problem in low light, doesn’t plague the 5s.
Video Sample 3: Slow Motion
The 5s features a slow motion mode, a first for the native iPhone camera. It records 720p video (better than most) at 120 frames per second, which translates to smooth quarter-speed motion when played back at the standard 30 fps.
The feature is notably polished in some ways and weirdly cludgy in others. The good stuff first: when you play back a slow-motion video from the Camera Roll, the clip starts at normal speed, slows down through the middle (where the peak of the action might be), and then resumes normal speed before ending. This produces a nifty Matrix-y effect that you can tweak with sliders, adjusting where the video transitions to slow-mo and back again. So far, so good.
There are some sharing options built in: you can fling the video at YouTube or Vimeo with decent results. You can email it or send it to Facebook, but what arrives at other end is low-res and blocky with compression. You can AirDrop it, thought that’s only for the most recent crop of iOS devices in the neighborhood.
But if you want to send your slow-mo video to a service that’s not supported on the Share sheet (say, Instagram) you have to get creative. You can email the video yourself, save it to the Camera Roll, and proceed from there, but you lose the HD goodness of the original file. We’ve seen reports that opening the video in an iOS editor that supports high frame rates lets you save a “finished” slo-mo video that’s playable anywhere back to the Camera Roll, but we didn’t have any success ourselves with that strategy (even iMovie on the iPhone won’t let you slow down slo-mo clips).
If you just want the full-quality file on your computer, things are bit complicated as well. Simply copying the .mov video file to a PC or Mac gives you a video that plays at 120 fps — i.e., it will look like any other video, except maybe a bit smoother. You’ll need to import it into a capable video editor to adjust the speed for slo-mo playback.
Overall, the new slow motion feature is a lot of fun, and the video quality of the actual file is excellent. We just hope Apple adds a bit more flexibility to the export process.
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