As the saying goes, the best camera you have is the one you have with you--and that makes your device's camera one of its most important features. So it's no surprise that Apple would bolster photography features with iOS 5.
If you've bought photography apps from the App Store in the past couple of years, you may find that some of the new photo features in iOS 5 offer similar functionality. But now those features will be available for everyone, on every iOS device that has a camera, with no App Store shopping spree required.
That saying about the best camera being with you? It doesn't say anything about swiping to unlock, entering a passcode, finding the Camera app's icon, and then waiting for the app to launch. Sometimes the right moment passes before your device is ready to be that "best camera."
With iOS 5, the act of removing your device from a pocket and snapping a photo is much simpler. Now if you double-press the Home button, a camera icon appears to the right of the unlock slider. Tap it once, and the Camera app will automatically open.
If your device is usually locked behind a passcode, fear not: in this mode the Camera app is limited. You can take photos and view or delete images you've just taken, but you can't access any other images from your Camera Roll.
iPhone 4S owners will see an even greater speed boost. A faster processor means the built-in camera on that phone will spring to life a bit faster. Couple that improvement with iOS 5, and you'll be able to take that shot you wanted to capture quicker than ever before.
Physical shutter button
Third-party photo app developers have tried to turn the iPhone's Volume Up button into a shutter release before, only to get shot down by Apple. In iOS 5, Apple has taken the hint and made the hardware tweak itself. Now just tap the button to snap a picture.
The Volume Up button isn't in the ideal spot for a shutter button--the lens of the camera is in the lower right corner while you're shooting--but as long as you are careful not to put a thumb in front of the lens it's a great new option to have. Using the button should feel more natural to use than tapping the screen; it will also minimize camera shake.
New to the Camera app
To help you properly frame your shots, there's a new Grid option that divides the screen into thirds. The addition of an optional grid overlay might be useful for photographers practicing the rule of thirds. To toggle the Grid view on and off, tap the Options button in the Camera app. (The Options button replaces the old HDR button--but the option to toggle HDR images now lives right next to the Grid option in this new menu.)
You've always been able to tap once on screen to set the focus and exposure point for an image. But if you move the phone, or if the view changes too much, the Camera app will recalibrate and pick a new focus and exposure point. If you'd like to force a certain focus and exposure setting and lock it in place no matter where you point the camera, just tap and hold until the blue box appears and pulsates. The words AE/AF Lock appear at the bottom of your screen.
Another new feature of the Camera app is the ability to use a Multi-Touch gesture to zoom in and out. If you want to zoom in, just stick two fingers on screen and spread them apart. The Camera app will do exactly what you expect it to do: Zoom in. Just pinch with two fingers to zoom back out.
But perhaps the coolest new feature of the Camera app is its integration with the Camera Roll. Yes, you can still tap on a small thumbnail image to view the photo you just took. But there's now a more intuitive way to view previously taken pictures: just swipe with one finger from left to right. It's as if the camera interface is the most recent photo on the Camera Roll, with all your photos right behind it. It's a good move: Swiping back to check your recent shots feels a lot more natural than tapping the thumbnail and navigating through the Camera Roll interface.
New to the Photos app
With iOS 5, Apple has at last brought a bit of photo editing to the Photos app. As in Apple's iPhoto app for the Mac, the Auto-Enhance button (which is represented by a magic wand) will instantly improve an image by tweaking settings like sharpness, levels, and contrast, and automatically reducing red-eye. (There's even a nifty animation that shows you it has detected incidents of red-eye and removed them.) You can also manually remove red-eye and rotate and crop images. When cropping, you can choose the crop ratio manually or choose from nine preset crop sizes; while in crop mode, you can also choose to straighten images by using a two-finger rotate gesture.
Also new to Photos is the ability to create and edit photo albums directly on your device; previously, you could edit albums by using a third-party app or by transferring everything back to your computer for editing there. When you add a photo to a new album in iOS 5, it also stays in the main Camera Roll folder.
The most inventive new photo addition is Photo Stream, which is part of the iCloud data-sync service. Photo Stream syncs your most recent thousand photos across all of your iOS devices, iPhoto on your Mac, second-generation Apple TV boxes, and, on Windows PCs, the Pictures Library. You turn on Photo Stream support via the Photos area of the Settings app. Once you turn it on, any new photos you take will be automatically uploaded to iCloud and downloaded on any other device with Photo Stream enabled.
Like the name says, Photo Stream works only for still photos, not videos. And there's no real control over what syncs--all your photos will make the move.
Photo Stream isn't limited to shots taken on your device's camera. It also works for images imported to your iOS device (say, if you're backing up your SD card to an iPad by using the Camera Connection Kit). New photos are stored only for 30 days, but if you want an image to stay on your device longer, you can save it to your Camera Roll. Your Mac or PC will keep all photos that come through the stream, not just the last thousand.
Worth a thousand words
The most important upgrades to photography in iOS 5 are the addition of the photo button on the lock screen and the support for the volume-up button as a shutter. Those two features go a long way toward making the iPhone work more like a dedicated camera.
The upgrades to the Camera and Photos apps are great, because they set the bar high for all iPhone photography apps. That said, habitual Instagram and Hipstamatic users may not even notice they're there.
Jason Snell is editorial director of Macworld.