The camera: Apple’s silent strength in the smartphone war

With iOS 5, Apple introduced new features for its iPhone Camera app that make it much more of a one-stop-shopping experience for mobile photographers, including photo editing and correction tools, as well as a physical shutter button. A new patent application published Thursday morning also describes a method to automatically correct for “tilt and/or perspective distortion in image capture devices,” indicating that Apple has more in the pipeline for its smartphone camera. The camera hasn’t always been the iPhone’s strong suit, but over the years, it has become one of the device’s most-improved feature, and arguably one of its selling points.

The iPhone camera has come a long way. In the early days, many complained about the quality of the camera. It started off with just a 2 megapixel sensor, and with a barebones stable of features. The iPhone 3G didn’t even update the camera’s megapixel count, though it does appear to have ushered in some slight improvements in picture quality. Finally, with the 3GS, we got a spec bump to a 3.2 megapixel sensor, but the real advantage with that generation was that it brought in touch-to-focus controls. The camera also seemed to just generally take better photos, in all but low-light situations, and it gained the ability to take videos (without jailbreak).

When Apple revealed the iPhone 4, it was clear that the camera was one big area of improvement. It gained a 5 megapixel sensor (which was also larger, and its the size and megapixel count combined that create better images), and one which is backside-illuminated, allowing for better performance in low-light situations, as did the new LED flash. Reviews of the photos taken by the iPhone 4 were almost unanimously positive, with many being quite free with the superlatives. The iPhone 4 also introduced HD video, and a front-facing camera for greater flexibility with video calling and other applications, like checking your tie just prior to a job interview.

But Apple is also clearly deicated to improving iPhone camera software, mot just the hardware. iOS 4.1 introduced high dynamic range (HDR) photos built-in to the photo app, which takes three photos in rapid succession with three different levels of exposure, and then combines them to prevent photos from looking washed out. And, as mentioned above, iOS 5 brings many new software features, including quick access to the Camera app from the home screen, which shows Apple is aware that photography is a priority for many iPhone users. The new grid feature for framing shots, white balance correction and editing and enhancement abilities bring the iPhone even closer to feature parity with consumer point-and-shoots, without even the need for any additional app downloads.

The next iPhone is rumored to be getting an 8 megapixel camera, and possibly dual LED flashes, which should make it even less necessary for people to carry around another camera, unless they’re looking for DSLR-level quality. The iPhone 4 has already replaced point-and-shoots for many, apparently, since it officially became the most popular camera on Flickr on June 21, and was probably unofficially atop that list for much longer thanks to photos shared to Flickr through apps like Instagram.

The iPhone’s success is the result of how all of its parts work together, providing an overall user experience that can’t yet be matched by competitors. But the camera, with its steady stream of value-adding improvements designed to improve the once-dismal experience of using a camera phone, may be one of its biggest, and least talked about strengths in the ongoing battle for smartphone supremacy.