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.
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:
Here's a side-by-side comparison of detail:
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.
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:
And the Moto X (cloud cover shifted slightly, so the image is a bit darker):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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: