iPhone 4S

Apple’s iPhone has impressive imaging capabilities — for a phone. But now that the specs are out for the new iPhone 4S, what does it mean for filmmakers?

At first glance, the answer might seem to be, “Not much.” Based on Apple’s widely liveblogged presentation earlier today, the company really has gone all out to improve the capabilities of the on-board camera. It now boasts eight megapixels of still-photo resolution, but Apple was quick to point out that pixels aren’t everything, noting that a new “backside illuminated” CMOS will actually capture 73 percent more light — which should make a real difference in image quality. Capture speed has also been boosted, as has accuracy and uniformity of color.

Even the tiny lens has outsized capabilities. Apple has packed five separate elements into the lens assembly as part of a design that it claims increases sharpness by 30 percent (hopefully that means real, optical sharpness and not some digital-processing voodoo) and yields an aperture of f/2.4. White balance is also “26 percent better,” Apple says, although it’s not clear to me exactly what they’re measuring there.

Video recordings can now be made at 1080p, and the iPhone 4S will have image stabilization and temporal noise reduction built in. That sounds good, assuming the algorithms being used don’t give the pictures too much of a plastic, highly processed look.

It’s a real boon for consumers, but beyond some novelty projects, it’s doubtful that filmmakers will want to use the iPhone as a primary capture device. However, as a documentary tool, it could be invaluable. If creative people can carry around a quality still and video camera during every waking moment, a trip to the corner store can become a location scout and a Sunday afternoon snapshot can become part of a mood board. Not even the vaunted iPad, becoming one of the platforms of choice for on-location dailies playback and other creative tasks (see Adobe’s Android and iOS touch apps, announced yesterday), is as handy for capturing the spirit of a moment as the iPhone.

Julie AndrewsOr any camera phone, really. But as Apple lavishes attention on the quality of iPhone images, here’s hoping it encourages more filmmakers to document their own creative processes. (I’m looking at you and your mysteriously vanished Tumblr, Lee Unkrich.) How else are we to get to see such felicitous moments out of time as “Homework” (via director and blogger Joseph Kahn) or “harris savides rides his bike” (via director and Twitter maven Mark Romanek)?

Sure, Roddy McDowall’s home movies are breathtaking (that’s Julie Andrews in the picture at right). But just imagine the footage we might be rediscovering if Orson Welles had an iPhone in his pocket.