iPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer The King

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

As an Apple-toting photographer, the thing I look forward to most about each iPhone update is the camera. This year's 6s and 6s Plus promised not only higher resolution, but better all-around pics, 4K video, and more. Now that there are other terrific smartphone cameras in the mix, the iPhone has to try extra hard to capture your photo-loving heart.

Apple has been renowned for smartphone camera quality for years. There was a time when they had such a leg up on the Android competition that the camera alone was a reason to go Apple. But things have changed in the last couple of years. Devices from Samsung, LG, Nokia, and Motorola have all managed to equal, and in some cases completely outshine, the iPhone's camera quality.

As soon as Apple announced the new camera updates, my first thought was that this was going to put them at the head of the pack once again. The timing feels right for them to reclaim the lead in an area they have simply owned for so long. When I finally got my hands on the phone, I was eager to test out the experience of the new camera on its own, as well as compared to some of the current camera leaders — the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and Motorola Moto X.

Photo Quality

The new camera has 12 megapixels of resolution, up from 8 on the iPhone 6. Just how detailed are these pictures? How true to life are the colours? How does it perform in the dark? In truth, getting into the nitty gritty of image quality doesn't matter to most people who mostly see photos on their phones, but there's a large swath of users who want the best of the best in photo brilliance. I'm one of them.

The first thing I did was compare the 6s to last year's iPhone 6. Now, I have read some reviews of the new model, and praise for the camera has been ample. Unfortunately when I compared some shots for mine own eyes, I had a different conclusion.

Here's a shot taken first with the iPhone 6s, and below it the iPhone 6:

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

Here's a side-by-side comparison of detail:

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

What I see is a bit more contrast, a bit more definition in the detail. But looking up close and compensating for the added resolution of the 6s, there is very little actual increase in visible detail.

Photo quality is barely better than the iPhone 6. Like, really hard to notice, and most people never will. You have to realllly pixel-peep, and still, the difference amounts to what I see as slightly more contrast and a hair more sharpness.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

When compared to the Android phones in daylight scenes, the iPhone 6s sat squarely in the back in terms of detail. The S6, G4, and Moto X all rendered detail in a more pleasing way in most situations. The Moto X shows the clearest detail in daylight.

Here's the iPhone 6s:

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

And the Moto X (cloud cover shifted slightly, so the image is a bit darker):

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

I stress the "most" part because detail is perceived differently to different people and can look better or worse depending on the specific situation. These are simply my impressions based on years of testing cameras.

Low light photos with the 6s is a different story. They do show noticeably better detail over the 6, and that's awesome. Still not enough to notice at normal social-media or web sharing sizes, but nice to see when blown up. Compared to the Android phones, it's a matter of taste. Certainly the iPhone 6s doesn't display as much detail as the other phones. However, it does look quite organic, and is able to interpret colour fairly naturally.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

In fact, day or night, I would judge the iPhone 6s as producing the most natural colours in most scenarios. That's a big advantage. The G4 displays weird haze and refraction, while over-flattening the overall tone for most people's tastes. The S6 goes overboard with saturation and contrast. The Moto X does a pretty good job, but the iPhone 6s is the most consistently natural looking.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

The iPhone's front-facing camera is now 5 megapixels instead of just one, but the image quality is still very poor. There is a sort of flash option which illuminates the display of the phone to cast light onto your face when shooting selfies. It works OK, but only when your face is about 18 inches or less from the phone. If you wear glasses, be prepared for some awful rectangular glare obstructing your eyes. The LG G4 has a similar feature, while the Moto X has a full-fledged LED flash on the front. None of these phones impressed me in selfie-mode. They all kinda suck.

Hi guys!

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

So, yeah, the iPhone 6s takes very nice pics overall. But it's not the best out there in all measures of quality. Photos still look like the same old phone pics. And those who would have you believe that this is a major upgrade in image quality over the iPhone 6 are fooling themselves, and you.

Video

4K video is here on the new iPhones. I argued not long ago that it's a neat but useless feature for most people. Your average iPhone owner doesn't know what 4K really means for them, and lack the equipment to take advantage of it. I wanted to see how it really affected my video shooting.

There's no doubt that it is so much fun looking at 4K video. The clarity of detail is astounding, as it is on any 4K camera. It's still a tiny sensor churning out this stuff, so there's no improvement to things like colour depth, dynamic range, or low light performance. And please remember something when you see things like this that are meant to astound you at what this device can do. These feats of cinema are products of sophisticated production efforts and external gear, not the abilities of the iPhone 6s itself. The only thing 4K gets you is a more detailed image.

With all the hype, it's easy to forget that other phones shoot 4K as well. The Samsung Galaxy S5 pioneered the feature, and the LG G4 also bangs it out. They are all on a pretty even par in terms of quality. I compared the iPhone 6s to the Galaxy S6, and saw no clear advantage either way. The iPhone has slightly better colour and less over-sharpening, but the S6's wider angle lens is more practical to shoot with.

Here's a still from a 4K iPhone 6s clip, followed by the same from a Galaxy S6:

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

Shooting 4K is going to take up more space on your phone than regular HD. Thirty seconds of 4K video is about 180 megabytes, whereas the same length of full HD video is about 60 megabytes. 4K costs three times the storage space. If you shoot a lot of video, that's going to add up.

The funniest thing about shooting 4K on the iPhone is that there is almost nowhere to view it in full size native resolution. Very few people have 4K computer monitors, and still only a fraction of TV owners have 4K sets. Even if you do have a 4K TV, there are very few options for viewing your iPhone videos on it in full resolution. You can't use AirPlay because it tops out at 1080p. You can't use Apple TV because it doesn't support 4K. You'd be limited to using a physical HDMI adaptor cable, or transferring to a laptop then connecting to the TV via HDMI. All less than ideal solutions.

Fortunately, you don't have to actually watch your 4k videos in 4K to see the quality advantage. The detail still shines through on normal displays. You will be able to see the extra detail when watching on your laptop or 1080p TV, it just won't be quite as cool as watching in full 4K resolution.

I think that the biggest advantage to shooting 4K on the iPhone 6s is for people who edit their videos and want the added flexibility of being able to crop in on their shots using the extra resolution. It makes things like field reporting with the iPhone a cooler proposition. But that is a niche case. For most people, 4K will be a curiosity and will probably fly by the radars of the vast majority of iPhone owners, especially since you have to dig into the phone's settings to enable it.

Live Photos

Live Photos is a name for the automatic capture of short video clips that accompany every photo you take (if it's enabled). With the iPhone 6s, you can use the new 3D Touch feature to simply tap firmly on a photo to play its short accompanied video.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

I found Live Photos to be mostly useless, as the vast majority of my photos are of scenery. It makes more sense for portraits for sure. But even then, the way we normally take pictures isn't to hold the phone up for seconds after hitting the shutter. As many have reported, most Live Photos end up being a split second of your actual subject, and the rest is...the ground. It almost never creates a really great moment to watch back.

You can turn Live Photos on or off for each photo you take, and I ended up keeping it off unless I was in a social setting or shooting my kid, in which case I switched it on. I could imagine the feature being a whole lot more fun if you could manually trim the clip to get rid of those shaky endings. You should also be able to delete the video clip independently of the photo itself. That would be great.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

Live Photos are stored alongside your stills as tiny video clips, each about 3 megabytes in size. That effectively doubles the amount of space your photos take up on your phone. It's a cutesy feature that some people will get a tickle out of, but hardly one that's going to convince people to upgrade.

Test Notes

  • Autofocus seems to be slightly faster than the iPhone 6, but still just a shade slower than Galaxy S6 and LG G4.

  • My tests were done with both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. The Plus is unique in that it has optical image stabilisation, which makes shooting video much easier and produces less shaky images in low light. The Galaxy S6 and LG G4 also have optical image stabilisation.
  • To shoot 4K videos, you have to delve into the menus, which is super annoying and ridiculous. Why you can't select the resolution right from the Camera app is beyond me.
  • Sony's Xperia Z5 is supposed to have a great camera, but I didn't have one to test against the iPhone and others.
  • The Galaxy S6 and the LG G4 can both shoot RAW, which is a huge boon for photographers who like to do serious editing on a computer.

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

Bottom Line

If you're thinking of upgrading from the iPhone 6, I can't really say whether the camera upgrades should sway you in favour of a new device. You get 4 more megapixels of resolution that you will probably never know is there. You get a hair sharper detail and contrast that you will probably never notice. You get a better front-facing camera with a psuedo-flash option that is good only close up. You get slightly better low light performance and 4K video resolution.

That could satisfy you, and that's cool. But please, oh please, do not be tricked by Apple's marketing tsunami or by over-excited reviewers into thinking this thing is capable of photographic feats of strength.

People love "iPhoneography." This device is what stoked the insane mobile camera culture that subsumes us all. For a while the iPhone camera was the best smartphone camera out there. This is no longer. It does some things really well, like produce natural colours, and other things not so well, like render fine detail. But with the few great Android phones out that have terrific cameras with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, the iPhone 6s stands as just one in a strong line of options.

Here are some extra shots:

IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos
IPhone 6s Camera Review: Apple Is No Longer the King of Mobile Photos

Comments

    Each looks better in certain circumstances! But each one takes really good shots! Shame I can't re-do my uni years, I was using a Sony Ericsson as my night out camera for most of it, dark and dingy and tiny photos!

    I dont buy a mobile phone based on how good the camera works.....ITS ALL ABOUT THE PRETTY COLOURS IT COMES IN DUH

    the area where apple really stands out over android for the everyday user (this coming from an android fanboy) is the slow motion.. it's so easy and the fact that anyone can easily whip out 240fps from their pocket is the only reason why apple is still the best for videos. Photo quality mostly varies on a case-by-case basis and I'm not going to care much about your pixels being clearer than mine

      LG and Samsung have slow motion video. They even had it before apple decided to include it.

        yeah 120 [email protected].. can't compare that with apple's [email protected] or [email protected]

          Yep, your right. Did some research and you're spot on. If you like slow motion in your phones, check this out.
          http://www.pcworld.com/article/2926292/sharp-phone-cameras-play-slowmotion-video-at-2100-fps.html

            If you're going to be condescending, at least have correct grammar.

              Condescending??? As for grammar > autocorrect.

    I'm very happy with the camera on the 6s+. I've done a lot of low light shots and the quality is amazing.

    I don't know, I like the 6s pictures of the city way more than the others, and the front facing camera shot the 6s photo looks way more flattering/natural.
    The images of the flowers, hard to say, the moto ones look a bit oversaturated.
    All in all, I mostly liked the 6s photos, the colour rendition looks more natural, and the slow-mo is incredible.
    The only take-away from this for me is that it doesn't matter all that much, they all take great photos for a phone camera (though the LG has some issues) , the 6s seems to handle colour better and the resolution on any of them is more than enough. So choose your phone based on other criteria, the cameras for the most part will more than do the job, and if they won't, you will be reaching for a DSLR anyway.

    Last edited 19/10/15 12:40 pm

      Have to agree with everything you've said there, they do all look fantastic and great point and shoot replacements. I was surprised when I got to the city picture as its the first comparison and as the author had suggested the moto x performed best, I was surprised to notice there was more detail in the 6s photo. Look at the building in the centre and the clouds.

        And better dynamic range with the clouds retaining more detail and looking less blown out compared to the other cameras.

    I am on hols at the moment and am carrying my Canon 5DSR most of the time, but still often use my iPhone for shots as its WAY lighter and it is often quicker and easier to pull out the phone and grab a pic. I still find it amazing that when i get home i can mix the phone shots in with the DSLR shots and most people don't notice which is which especially the panoramic shots.

    That said i am bitterly disappointed that my new 12MP 6s is no better at all than my old 8MP 6 with pretty much zero extra detail in photos, and there seems to be more "smearing" of the details. It seems to me by adding the live pictures AND extra MP they were forced to do far more JPEG compression to compensate, otherwise they would fill up the iPhones measly storage too fast. Its that extra JPEG compression that ruins the images.

    I just wish there was a "Pro Photog" setting that dialled down the compression or give us RAW files, maybe use it as an upsell by only including it on the 128GB phones? I don't care if the image size is five times the size, as long as they don't have this excess compression!

      There is... pickup 645 Pro
      http://jag.gr/645pro/

    I've never liked the photos that iPhone have come out with. They always seem dead, dull and lifeless. I'd rather my pictures pop out at me and iPhone low light capability isn't flash at all. My LG G2 use to do way better than my mates iPhone 5. His pictures use to come out all dark so you could hardly see anything and my G2 took photos like it was day light. My note 5 is the same. Compared it with a mattress iPhone 6 and mine shits on his. Same with video.

    Last edited 19/10/15 2:19 pm

      lol I think you'll find most images don't "pop" straight out of the camera unless they have filters or extra crud added onto them, kind of why neutral photos are king.

      If your photos are "popping" on the G2 then you are enjoying the filters that Samsung are chucking ontop of your base image.

      For me, I'd rather have the base image and adjust accordingly (if it needs it).

        Different strokes for different folks. You like ala natural and I like poster ads.

          On iOS you can select pictures and edit them with the "wand" tool. It makes them look like Samsung photos (super saturated, high contrast). It's there, they just didn't think it looked good.

      hay guyz, contrast and saturation sliders to the right! it's totes pro!

    I think we are all at the pointy end of the current tech, until some new sensor tech arrives that can pull low light out of its arse and mega resolutions etc, not much can improve as JPG compression will destroy any improvements from here on.

    Not a single mention of any Lumia's? Typical...

      With all due respect, as much as I love the Lumia's, there hasn't been a new one for quite some time. Though I think comparison with the 1020 should be performed, because that 'was' (and maybe still is) the benchmark.

        As an owner of both the 1020 and 930, i can say the camera is pretty damn awesome still. My partner is using the Galaxy S6 and the 1020 in my opinion still has better quality and colour. While i would say the 930 is better also, there has been a few times the S6 has traded blows with it.

        But that being said, the S6 is way faster at processing pics than the 1020.

          Traveled Europe with my 1020 earlier this year and lots of the photos I took, most people refused to believe they were taken on my phone and they had to be from my DSLR.

          Sure the 1020 is slower (it's a 2 year old phone and lots changes in that time) but the image quality is what's being reviewed and it's hard to beat in that category

    Wonder how the Z5 would fare in this group.

      That would've been a good comparision.

      Disregard the high MP count, I read it takes good pictures, but the camera app takes a few sec's to load.

      You'd hope this is improved with a later F/W release.

      Last edited 20/10/15 1:43 pm

        Got my z5 compact yesterday, and it's pretty good so far.

        The normal mode supersamples an 8mp image, so it's not nearly as grainy as you'd expect out of a 23mp sensor (and it IS better at fighting noise than other 8mp sensors). It's also pretty good at dusk and night shots, nowhere near a real camera, but near the top of the pile of phones.

        The initial loading of the camera and gallery is a bit atrocious, a couple of seconds longer than it should be, but secondary openings are nearly instant.

        That said, apparently the phone was a bit rushed in that Sony has announced that the proper software has been held back for marshmallow. Hopefully we get a bit of tweaking and it smooths off a few of the rough edges and adds in raw support (pipedream, but i'd rather handle the processing myself).

          Thanks for the info. On paper and in a few reviews, Sony seem to make great handsets. It's interesting as I don't an awful lot of them.

          From my what I've read, Sony wants to be proactive in pushing F/W updates much sooner.

          Last edited 21/10/15 8:10 am

    Long live my Nokia Lumia 1020!

      yeah, ever since the 808 then the 1020, apple hasn't had a better camera.

        The N8 had an awesome camera for it's time too.

    At what point was Apple ever the king of mobile photo's?

    I think 'king' refers to the number of iPhone pics taken and hosted at Flickr. At some point in the last few years.

    Although - i will say that i've always been very happy with the quality of Apples camera phones. to the point i ditched a camera as the phone took livelier shots.

    Thanks for the honest & well written article. Glad to see someone write about a phone camera and not get too hung up about the number of megapixels.

    Hate to burst you bubble buddy, but iPhone has never been king of the cameras in smart phone period, not even close. So this is not news. The only news is that the new camera is much better than before. But is the flash still just as useless as on the 5s?

    Have to say that in every example you show, the iPhone seems clearly better except in one where the S6 was on a par with it. In all other cases of the still photos, the iPhone was simply more realistic and pleasing and the others were dull, lifeless or garish. Not even close.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now