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Can you tell an iPhone 4 photo from a 'real' camera's?

People have been saying some nice things about the iPhone 4's camera lately. But is it really that good?

To find out, I used the iPhone 4 and a three-year-old point-and-shoot Canon digital camera to took the same five shots: close-ups of the contents of one bookshelf, an older writing instrument and a flower; a self-portrait taken with each device held at arms-length (as you'll see, I didn't shave today); and a picture of trees and the sky. Aside from setting the Canon to use macro focusing when necessary (something newer models do automatically), I let each device's automatic modes determine whether to fire the flash and on what to focus.

(I shot the same photos with the Droid Incredible I reviewed last month, but most of the results looked so obviously bad that they didn't make for a fair test.)

Then I cropped each shot to the same size, stripped out the EXIF tags that identify the camera and posted it after the jump in a random order. So have a look, then tell me in the comments which photo came from which device. I'll post the correct answers Sunday.

Update: My answer appears towards the end of the comments, posted June 28 at 11:43 a.m.

flower 1.jpg

flower 2.jpg

typewriter 2.jpg

typewriter 1.jpg

bookshelf 1.jpg

bookshelf 2.jpg

sky 2.jpg

sky 1.jpg

self-portrait 1.jpg

self-portrait 2.jpg

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 25, 2010; 6:20 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Pictures  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Today's iPhone 4 freakout: calling while left-handed
Next: Messy math about Microsoft and the iPhone 4


This is hard. I have a three-year old Canon point-and-shoot also. My only clues, maybe, are in the flash photos. Like the Russian doll. The upper, brighter one looks like one where my Canon camera guesses too much flash and washes everything out. The lower doll looks like a lower LED light illumination. But, again, I don't know.

In addition to which is which, there is also the question of which one a viewer likes better. The upper flower photo, and the upper tree-and-sky photo, appear better to me than the lower, more washed-out corresponding photos. I will be interested to see if the better photos came from the same camera.

Posted by: jethro1 | June 25, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

While you're comparing photos, other people are actually trying to use the new iPhones to make, um, telephone calls. Great camera ... lousy phone! Turns out the antennae is allergic to moist skin unless, wonder of wonders, you buy a $30 rubber bumper direct from Apple. What a scam! I'll stick with Verizon thanks... I've had my AT&T purgatory and now Apple's own device is compounding the reception problems. Hilarious...

Posted by: Omyobama | June 25, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

My guesses (and the reasons for them):

Flower: first photo from iPhone; second is from point-and-shoot. The shallower depth-of-field in the second image is characteristic of a larger lens+sensor system.

Typewriter: first is again from iPhone; second from point-and-shoot. The light falloff from the flash in the first image suggests a weaker light source (LED versus xenon flash).

Nesting doll: first image from point-and-shoot; second is from iPhone. The flash duration on a xenon flash is much shorter than LED, and the second image shows signs of camera-motion blur.

Trees and sky: first image from P&S; second from iPhone. There's more noise in the sky on the second shot, which is characteristic of a small, densely-packed sensor.

Self-portrait: first image from P&S; second from iPhone. The first image has shallower depth-of-field, again something you'd expect in a larger lens+sensor combination.

Presuming my guesses are right, the P&S is still delivering better images. With that said, the iPhone's images are very good for a phone.

Posted by: viennava22181 | June 25, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

I have a Nikon Coolpix 4300 from 2003 that won't overexpose the flash like that.

Posted by: blasmaic | June 25, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

I've been using the iPhone 4 camera for the last two days, and it's fantastic so far.

Also note that if you want to try it yourself, is giving away an iPhone 4 32GB:

Posted by: wallacrw | June 25, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

The antenna problem is overblown. As with the wifi problem of the iPad and the connection problem of the 3GS, it will fade away in a week.

Posted by: eternalemperor | June 25, 2010 11:43 PM | Report abuse

@eternalemperor: It'll mean like the iPhone's phone reception slowly fades :)

Anyway, sure the flaw will fade as news but not for those who bought the flawed devices. What about the yellowing of the screen? The non-shatter-resistant glass casing? I suppose those will also fade but better not drop your iPhone anytime soon.

Posted by: tundey | June 26, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

@eternalemperor: It'll mean like the iPhone's phone reception slowly fades :)

Anyway, sure the flaw will fade as news but not for those who bought the flawed devices. What about the yellowing of the screen? The non-shatter-resistant glass casing? I suppose those will also fade but better not drop your iPhone anytime soon.

Posted by: tundey | June 26, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

All the lower photos except the Kachina doll were from the iPhone; in that case it is the upper one. Or at least that is my guess.

Posted by: 1toughlady | June 26, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Your next srticle should be "Can you tell the difference between a call with the iphone 4 or one with tins and a string?"

Posted by: ozpunk | June 26, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

The Canon photos are --
_ day lily - First photo
_ typewriter - Second photo
_ bookshelf - First photo
_ trees - Second photo
_ RP portrait - First photo

Rob, will you tell us which model Canon you used for this?

Thanks for an interesting quiz,

Posted by: Charlie_W | June 26, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Best are 1, 2, 2, 1, 2.

Posted by: llrllr | June 26, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse old is your WP pic? The one in the column banner/header/whatever?

As for the cameras, the real gap is between an SLR and something like a phone camera. (No offense to my many point-and-shooting friends, but...)

Posted by: mindkiller1 | June 26, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

It'll be interesting to hear the experiences from people outside of US esp on the dropped calls issue. My 3GS has been truly fantastic in sound-Q, reception etc, ie as a phone. It's easy to handle in all aspects and the software is very user-friendly. I wouldn't wanna change for anything - but the 4G :-)

Posted by: igroucho | June 26, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

I have been taking some amazing pictures with the camera in the new iPhone. My guesses: iphone pictures are lily - 2nd photo; typewriter - 1st photo; doll - 2nd photo; sky - 1st photo; face - 1st photo.
And I love the new glass on the phone, it hardly even shows fingerprints. I am really loving this phone.

Posted by: jtsw | June 26, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, I've got to agree with mindkiller1; your headshot on your blog REALLY makes you look like a dweeb (I'm paraphrasing). Nothing wrong with that, really, especially for a tech blog, but if you actually look like your self-portrait then your headshot is woefully out of date -- it looks like it was taken when you were 18.

Posted by: ramoynihan | June 26, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

iPhone photo is first except for the Russian doll.

Posted by: ctmckee2 | June 26, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

I think your blog headshot is fine. It was probably taken by one of the Post photographers. Reducing a photo to thumbnail size has a flattering effect. Also, lighting is very important.

Since this subject came up I have to comment on the blog headshot for your colleague Cecelia. It is nice. But she recently did a video that is still on your site (June 11 with Brad Burnham on net neutrality) where I was struck by how beautiful she is. It is a beauty that does not come across on the headshot, and I DO think HER headshot should be redone. I don't want to embarass her so I have not commented on this directly to her. There is nothing wrong with the current headshot, but I look at that video and . . . wow!

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | June 27, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

I will say your latest Twitter photo is very flattering. Dark jacket and white, open, button-down shirt is a good look for you, I think. Reminds me of the look @declanm has, which I also like.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | June 27, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for competing, everybody. The answers follow, with explanations about the quirks of each shot included (I'd meant to post these yesterday, but I-95 traffic had me arriving home too late and worn-out to do things associated with work).

* The first flower photo comes from the iPhone 4, the second from the Canon. This was a best-case setup for each, so I'm not surprised this confused some of y'all.

* The first typewriter photo is from the iPhone, the second from the Canon. As some of you noted, you can see the limited range of the iPhone's flash in that one. The Canon also did a better job of keeping everything in focus.

* The first bookshelf shot is the Canon's work, the second the iPhone's. The surprise of this one was that the iPhone's flash didn't fire at all--resulting in an absence of glare but some annoying blurriness on the book titles.

* The Canon took the first sky photo, the iPhone the second. This was the most-unfair comparison, since I got more of the sun in the iPhone shot (but writing the column kept me from realizing this until hours later). I find it interesting that the iPhone photo has a faded look I associate with the 1970s-vintage prints in my old family photo albums.

* The first self-portrait was the Canon's doing, the second the iPhone's. I'd flunk both devices on that test: Each one botched the focus and the exposure, which is more surprising given the Canon's face-detection focusing.


@viennava22181: Congratulations, you are the winner for guessing all those correctly first. If I can interest you in a random PR tchotchke, please e-mail me and I'll arrange delivery.

@Charlie_W: It's a Canon A570is.

As for the dorky mug shot on this blog--no argument there. We had some new portrait photos taken a while back and, after a few weeks of indecision followed by collecting random reader input, I've picked a replacement that should be up here this afternoon. I don't know if it'll be as flattering as Cecilia's, but at least it will accurately portray my well-earned gray hairs.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | June 28, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm am very surprised that the first flower photo is from the iPhone 4. It is so much better in several respects.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | June 28, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

With the Canon’s exposure compensation and flash compensation, it was CAPABLE of creating a much superior self-portrait to the iPhone 4.

Who makes the 5MP imaging sensor for the iPhone 4?

Are the new Android EVO 4G and Droid X phones any better than the Incredible? Not that I’d give up my DSLR...

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | June 28, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

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