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iPhone 5 camera not much better than 4S cam, our tests show

iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S
Cameras on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S (beneath) share similar specs, and relatively similar performance. This picture was not taken with a cellphone. Wilson Rothman

NBC News photographer Jim Seida spent a day shooting stills with the iPhone 5, along with the iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, the new Samsung Galaxy S III and a high-end point-and-shoot from Nikon, the P7000. The results? While the iPhone 5's 8-megapixel camera performed well, it did not noticeably outperform its most recent forebear. But there was one way that the iPhone 5 clearly bested the 4S.

The key to the test was that Seida didn't use any special apps, just the native camera mode, and the only manipulation he did was to tap the same spot on the screen each time, to focus the camera and determine the exposure.

By comparing low-light portraits of Seida's colleague, you can see a slight reduction in noise compared to the 4S, but the picture itself is a tad underexposed, too.

eyes test with iPhone 5 and others
These are 100 percent image crops shot in low light with a camera and four camera phones. The top image was taken with a Nikon CoolPix P7000 at ISO 400, 1/2 second at f/2.8. The next four images were taken with, from top to bottom, the Samsung Galaxy S III, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. Jim Seida

While noise was also not a problem for the Samsung Galaxy S III's 8-megapixel camera, it did lag in detail (and also appeared somewhat dim).

Outdoors, Seida challenged the phone-cams with high color contrasts and an abundance of light. The only noticeable difference between the iPhone 5 and 4S was background detail, which could be explained away by multiple factors. (Besides, having a slightly blurred background is generally preferred.)

Comparison of iPhone 5 and others outside
This image, shot outdoors, shows comparative shots of the iPhone 5, 4S and 4, along with Samsung's Galaxy S III and a Nikon point-and-shoot used as a "control." Jim Seida

The Galaxy struggled a bit with exposure — towards the top, the meter is too washed out.

The results aren't surprising. One of the biggest leaps for the iPhone 4S was its camera — just look at how the iPhone 4 did in the above experiments, paying special attention to the noise in the low-light shot and the over-saturation in the outdoor shot. Meanwhile, the specs on the iPhone 5's camera never suggested a quantum leap forward. 

But Apple has promoted its camera as improved — going so far as to say that the new A6 chip has an image signal processor that can deliver more brightness to a picture, up to two full stops. In our real-world and controlled testing, we have not seen any significant difference. 

Consumer Reports had similarly unspectacular results in its comparison test of the iPhone 5 and 4S cameras. Though usability is better, due to the phone's overall faster performance and bigger screen, outdoor shooting showed a "modest step up," yet "the claimed improvements of the iPhone 5 in handling low-light shots were not apparent in our tests."

When it comes to the front-facing camera, however, the difference doesn't require expertise to spot. The FaceTime camera on the 4S supports "VGA-quality photos and video" in the 640x480 resolution, while the new one on the 5 brings 720p HD-quality video and 1.2-megapixel stills. Seida's self-portrait shows just what that means:

Front-facing cam self-portrait with iPhone 4S (inset) and iPhone 5
These two images were made with the front-facing cameras on the iPhone 5 (larger image) and the iPhone 4S (inset). This shows the images' relative size at 100 percent crop. Jim Seida

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.