iPhone 5s- Camera and digiscoping

The iPhone 5s shipped with a 8 megapixel camera, like last year’s iPhone 5. We hoped it would be something more on the order of 13 megapixels like some of its competitors, but Apple decided to keep it at 8 megapixels and improve the quality of the sensor. Some of the biggest changes from last years model are the larger sensor, now 20% larger, and larger pixels which pick up more light for a better picture. Another improvement is the better aperture of f/2.2 compared with the f/2.4 in the iPhone 5. There are also some other major improvements to the way the camera processes images due to its more powerful computing power and improved autofocus.

In this post we are going to look at some of the possibilities with the 5s when it comes to using it for digiscoping. Hopefully when you are done reading this you will be all set to get some great professional quality digipics!


As mentioned above, this phone is capable of taking phenomenal pictures. The first few pictures really showcase what is possible with this phone. Sure, it won’t totally replace your SLR, but in some cases it comes darn close, especially for distant subjects.

As you can see in the above images, you can get some pretty sharp images of birds. The background blurring is also pleasing to the eye without any type of editing in my opinion which helps take iPhone digiscoping from ‘record shot’ material, to truly good photography.

One thing that is true with any camera is that you lose some quality if you use digital zoom. In theory, the iPhone still is taking 8 megapixel photographs when you zoom in. It re-samples the image over a smaller sensor size, but this makes the pixels smaller. The result is that photographs start to lose much of their sharpness and quality. While there may be some benefits to using it, it’s much better to crop a photo after the fact rather than using the digital zoom in our experience.

Eastern Meadowlark with 100% Digital zoom. handheld/Leica APO-Televid (Mike Lanzone)

Eastern Meadowlark with 100% Digital zoom. handheld/Leica APO-Televid (Mike Lanzone)

You can see in the two comparisons below that the images taken with digital zoom are not as sharp as the same subject taken with no digital zoom that is then cropped (on the left) or with zooming in with the scopes zoom lens (right). Images without the digital zoom show a lot more detail, more accurate and subtle color. Quality is still pretty decent with the digital zoom, so don’t be afraid to use it if you really need to get in there and get some detail on a gull that’s 2 miles out on a breaker wall.

Burst Mode


One pretty major upgrade with the iPhone 5s is the ability to take 10 frames per second. Previous iPhones can also do a burst mode but at a slower (but still very useful) frame rate. This high frame rate gives you the ability to freeze the action and make sure you get the shot you need. The nice feature here is also the fact that it will continue to take pictures as long as you hold down the shutter button until it reaches 999 pictures. These are full resolution pictures too! SLRs will take bursts, but after 12-20 pictures in a row it needs time to save them to the card but not the 5s, it does not slow down at all. This is quite impressive. After you are done you can choose your favorite shots and delete the ones that are not sharp. The Camera app will suggest which ones are the best based on how steady the camera was when it was taken among other things.

Previously, we used different apps to pull out still shots from video, but this ends up producing much lower quality images (1920×1080 max for videograbs vs 3264×2448 in the iPhone 5s burst mode). The high shutter speed means we will be relying more on the burst mode to capture record photos, and they will be of much better quality.


The picture above shows in the upper left corner that this was taken in burst mode. Your phone automatically selects one picture to display for all until you select favorites. By Clicking “Choose Favorites” it will bring you to a screen like the photo to left where you can pick all your best shots out of the bunch to save.

You can tap the clearest photos that show the identifying features of your subject and then you are set to share some spectacular photos in your eBird checklists or to the records committee!

There are a bunch of other useful features in the Camera app, including AE/AF lock which allows you to tap and hold on a point on the screen to lock the exposure and focus to that point. An ever improving High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature is fantastic for landscape photos where you have both shadows and bright areas in one photo but we have not tested this feature for digiscoping birds. The HDR feature takes three consecutive photos with different exposures and combines them into one, which may not be a fast enough process to capture any bird that is not sitting absolutely still.