Opinion: Here’s how both iPhone 6S cameras will likely improve

iphonecameras

Apple has called the iPhone “the world’s most popular camera,” a title originally earned by aggregating all iPhones together for counting purposes. But while the exact sales numbers for each iPhone model are difficult to quantify, there’s no question that Apple has already sold over 750 million iPhones, and well over 100 million iPhone 6 devices. Those are huge numbers, and well beyond the typical sales of individual point-and-shoot cameras.

Few people appreciate that growing iPhone demand has created an unusual challenge for Apple: reliably sourcing the tens of millions of parts needed to meet first month demand for tens of millions of iPhones. To that end, Apple’s camera maker Sony had to upgrade its manufacturing plants twice this year to produce more of the CMOS image sensors needed for smartphones including the iPhone. Even with a partner as large as Sony, however, iPhone-specific engineering requirements and the risk inherent in brand new technologies have led Apple to hold off on using the latest and greatest camera innovations in its devices. Instead, iPhones go with thin, lower-resolution sensors that offer great overall image quality for their size, and never eclipse rivals on raw specs.

So what can we realistically expect from the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus cameras next month? Here are my educated guesses…

pink iPhone 6S

If I was betting today, I would predict that the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will sport 2-Megapixel front-facing (“FaceTime”) cameras with roughly 13-Megapixel rear-facing (“iSight”) cameras. From the outside, they’ll look pretty much the same as last year’s, but each camera will be capable of taking clearer images, and offering better-looking digital zoom, than any prior iPhone. Neither camera will have the raw specs of Apple’s most advanced rivals, but as we’ve seen in prior iPhone generations, Apple will focus on speed, low-light performance, and color accuracy. Unfortunately, the front FaceTime camera will remain woefully behind the rear iSight camera, a bummer for fans of selfies. Here’s why.

iPhones use very small sensors. A 1″ camera sensor is roughly the size of the nano-SIM card found inside most iPhones, but Apple’s rear cameras use 1/3″ sensors that occupy around 25% as much space. In a teardown last year, Chipworks noted that the iPhone 6 Plus’s 8-Megapixel rear camera module is 10.6mm wide by 9.3mm tall by 5.6mm thick, with the sensor itself measuring 5.97mm by 4.71mm. The 1.2-Megapixel front camera module is even smaller, measuring 6.2mm wide by 6.0mm tall by 3.8mm thick. These dimensions provide rough boundaries for what can be expected in the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus; there isn’t a lot of room in either device for larger components.

Although there have been some tiny changes to the new phones’ thickness and the footprints of their logic boards, the cameras are unlikely to become radically larger or thicker this generation. To put things in perspective, Apple stepped up from a 1/3.2″ sensor in the iPhone 5 to a 1/3.0″ sensor in the same-sized iPhone 5s, a change that required only sub-millimeter dimensional changes to the sensor. Any sensor size increase for the 6S would be of a similar scale. Similarly, given their very different sizes, it’s unrealistic to hope that the iPhone 6S’s front camera will be able to match or even approach the rear camera, something I’ve noticed readers suggesting in recent weeks. There’s just not enough space inside the 6S for two modules of the same size, nor does the leaked iPhone 6S front glass suggest the presence of a huge new lens. Selfies will thus remain (much) lower-resolution than photos taken with the rear camera.

Small sensors limit Apple’s choices for specs. Sony makes at least 13 different camera sensors for mobile devices, but only three of them are the 1/3″ size Apple uses for rear cameras, with even fewer options suitable for the smaller front camera. Although Apple does source custom versions of components that aren’t on official parts lists, those custom parts are typically simpler, cheaper, or focused variations on existing parts, not quantum leaps forward. Additionally, Sony appears to be the exclusive camera provider for iPhones at this point. Apple is therefore limited by both Sony’s current state of the art technology at a given sensor size, as well as Sony’s ability to manufacture enough of those parts to meet growing iPhone demand. (It’s worth noting that previous media reports as to major new iPhone camera breakthroughs have repeatedly failed to wash out due to manufacturing considerations.)

The only sensors Sony publicly lists at the 1/3″ size right now have 13-Megapixel resolutions. Reports have suggested that Apple will use something like Sony’s IMX278, which has an RGBW (RGB with white sub-pixel) color array for greater color accuracy and low-light sensitivity. Two older sensors are also options: the IMX214 doesn’t have the white sub-pixel feature, but supports single-frame, full-resolution HDR and HDR video, while the IMX135 is a lower-end model with lower-resolution HDR support and a lower frame rate. Any of these sensors would be an upgrade in resolution relative to the 8-Megapixel sensor currently in the iPhone 6, though it’s unclear whether Apple will include 4K video recording support.

On the FaceTime side, Sony’s “really small sensor” options are capped at around 2-Megapixel resolutions, without the RGBW feature. Based on available hardware, the most likely improvements would be a jump to 1920×1080 still images, and full HD video recording, possibly with 60FPS video at 1080p and slo-mo video at lower resolutions. The video features line up with code found in iOS 9 several months ago. There’s no chance that the front-facing camera will have 4K video support, as the sensor won’t have enough resolution to create such videos.

iphone-6-protruding-camera

Don’t forget the lens, flash, or OIS. Apple does make changes to its lenses and flashes from generation to generation. Rumors have suggested that the rear iPhone 6S lens might get a boost to an f/1.8 aperture, further improving its low-light sensitivity, speed, and potential depth of field. Apple could upgrade the optical image stabilization on the iPhone 6S Plus with more impressive shake/bounce reduction than was found on the iPhone 6 Plus camera. And it might improve the front lens, or leave it alone. Code found in iOS 9 suggested support for a front-mounted flash, which hasn’t yet been spotted on leaked iPhone 6S parts, but could help with selfies.

Apple always considers its next-generation devices, too. At least where camera upgrades have been concerned, Apple’s annual upgrade strategy typically takes a small step forward, with room next year for another step, rather than taking a big step forward one year with no room to upgrade the next year. The iPhone spent four years capped at an 8MP resolution, making small sensor and lens changes each year to improve color accuracy, low-light performance, and speed. By the time the iPhone 6S comes out, Apple will already be substantially through the development process for the iPhone 7 (and 7 Plus?), with a good sense of the sensors, lenses, and flashes it wants to use in the designs, as well as how large the devices will need to be to fit them. It would be hard to imagine another rear camera resolution jump next year, say to 21MP, but if Apple’s engineers made more room for a bigger sensor, it could happen.

I’m personally very optimistic about what we’ll see from the iPhone 6S cameras. Even though Apple tends to make small camera improvements from year to year, resolution bumps for the iPhone’s front and rear cameras have been long overdue, and this will likely be the year when both take welcome steps forward. As a camera fan who uses the iPhone to shoot thousands of pictures every year, I think that’s a major justification to upgrade, and can’t wait to see how the iPhone 6S performs in the field.

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Comments

  1. if they go for a 5 megapixel front facing camera, i’m totally sold, cuz i cant stand how lame the current facetime camera performs. even 2 megapixel would be a disappointment, cuz current competition goes for 5 and even 8 megapixels for selfies

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      Take a peek here at Sony’s mobile sensor lineup: http://www.sony.net/Products/SC-HP/IS/sensor1/products/index.html

      The ISX012 (5MP) is 5.5mm by 5.4mm. The ISX007 (3MP) is 4.7mm by 4.8mm. The IMX132 (2MP) is 3.8mm by 3.1mm. Chipworks noted that the iPhone 6 FaceTime camera’s chip die size was 4.13 mm x 3.36 mm, which is to say closer to the IMX132 than the others. Anything’s possible, but 5MP would be a stretch this generation.

      • yeah but dont forget the 6S body is 2mm thicker, so it would make perfect sense to go for the 5 megapixel one

      • my bad, it’s 0.2mm thicker lol
        but anyways, Apple doesnt necessarily has to use Sony sensors

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

        It’s actually supposed to be 0.2mm thicker rather than 2mm thicker. Barely even perceptible, and not enough of a change…

      • dcj001 - 7 years ago

        “Unfortunately, the front FaceTime camera will remain woefully behind the rear iSight camera, a bummer for fans of selfies.”

        There is no rear FaceTime camera. There is no front iSight camera. So…

        Unfortunately, the FaceTime camera will remain woefully behind the iSight camera, a bummer for fans of selfies.

        DCJ001

    • Radek Miszczu Górny - 7 years ago

      LOL, the screen of 6 Plus is 2 megapixels, so how useful would it be to have 5 or (sic!) 8 megapixels? You’re a victim of bullshit camera marketing. In other words, you can even have a gazillion of megapixels, but you will still see just 2 (on 6 Plus, even less on 6).

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

        Some people like to view their iPhone pictures (including selfies) on screens other than the iPhone’s. And print them out. Etcetera. That’s like saying “a camcorder shouldn’t bother offering 4K video recording unless it has a 4K screen built in.” People consume 4K videos on much larger screens than the ones in their recording devices.

      • Radek Miszczu Górny - 7 years ago

        I know that, but this guy abused FaceTime quality and thought it’s because of megapixels.

  2. ag80911 - 7 years ago

    Excellent article..I think we are set for the 6s – likely 12/13MP – the question is next year. The redesign will probably include making the phone thinner (who is asking for this) which will make camera bulge even worst.

  3. Harvey Lubin - 7 years ago

    “Code found in iOS 9 suggested support for a front-mounted flash, which hasn’t yet been spotted on leaked iPhone 6S parts, but could help with selfies.”

    Apple doesn’t need to add a physical front-mounted flash module. All that needs to be done is software changes to use the LCD as a controlled (intensity and duration) flash for selfies.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      I agree, assuming that (a) the screen has enough brightness (given ambient lighting conditions) to serve as an effective flash and (b) the impact of such a large flash wouldn’t blow out the skin tones etc. of the subjects.

  4. robinlmp - 7 years ago

    Changing the aperture to improve both speed and depth of field? Not possible, could be one or the other. It is stated that apple are not going for ‘Raw specs’ and then says they are going for speed, low light performance and colour accuracy. What about those are not raw specs? Do you just mean resolution when talking about raw specs because there is a whole lot more to it than that.

    On another point, anyone know why a 1″ sensor is called that? No dimension of it is anything close to 1″. Puzzling

    • I think it’s the die size of the sensor.

    • darwiniandude - 7 years ago

      f1.8 is a bigger aperture, allowing more light in, and shallower depth of field with softer backgrounds when close focused. More light means the shutter speed can be faster to produce the same exposure assuming ISO is set the same.

      • robinlmp - 7 years ago

        I’m quite aware of that thank you. Typically when people refer to improving depth of field it would increasing it, ie a smaller aperture/larger f number. You can’t do that and increase the amount of light!!!

    • radellaf - 7 years ago

      “The size designation does not define the diagonal of the sensor area but rather the outer diameter of the long glass envelope of the tube. Engineers soon discovered that for various reasons the usable area of this imaging plane was approximately two thirds of the designated size. This designation has clearly stuck (although it should have been thrown out long ago). There appears to be no specific mathematical relationship between the diameter of the imaging circle and the sensor size, although it is always roughly two thirds.”
      http://www.dpreview.com/articles/8095816568/sensorsizes

  5. Mel Gross - 7 years ago

    I would just be bothered if dynamic range takes a back seat to resolution. As it is, these small sensors are just barely adequate in that area, when compared to slightly larger sensors, and Apple has promoted their larger 1.4 micron sites to the 1.1 micron sites of other cameras.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      Sony’s Exmor series and particularly stacked CMOS sensors are enabling major improvements in light sensitivity even in small sensors with small sites. If the sensor, image processor and software work well together, no problem. But my personal concern, having seen corresponding improvements years ago in Canon point-and-shoots, is that the sensor’s enhanced light gathering capability won’t be offset properly by the software or image processing, leading to blowouts (related to the dynamic range concern you mentioned) and overexposure. I have to believe that Apple has been working heavily on the processing side of the equation to guarantee this won’t happen, as it has had a long time to get its next big MP jump right, and hopefully the Sony sensor doesn’t suffer from the same problems I saw in Canons.

  6. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    1) Does Apple think people actually print out murals from these pictures? With a 5MP photo one can print out 100cm / 40inch wide and you won’t see any pixels. The only reason for more pixels could be cropping. Most people I ask don’t even bother with it; their photos are posted online, and apps like WhatsApp downsize anyway, maxing out at 1200*1600px (≈2MB).

    2) I’d love to see more reports on the use of smartphone photos.

    3) My wish: the stock camera app to gain Full Manual. And disable shooting portrait video.

    4) Another excellent article, thanks.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      Thank you. In response – what people do now and what people could do are two different things. Yes, people make use of what iPhones currently have. But give them the tools to go further and they might.

      There was a point when phones had only terrible rear cameras. When they got good rear cameras, they ate the point-and-shoot market alive. There was a point when they didn’t have front cameras. Then they got them and we started to see anywhere video calling and selfies take off. So what happens when the front camera gets good and you can actually take great selfies that are worth printing out and framing? (i don’t think photo printing is dead; it’s just waiting for the tech most people carry to catch up with and utilize what modern printers are capable of.)

      On that note, I can tell you from experience that 5mp is nowhere near good enough for a 40 inch print without visible pixels. I’ve just done a series of 40″ diagonal prints using 20mp source images and they are just on the edge of acceptability. The Retina 5K iMac is ~15MP and only retina at 27″ diagonal. So 5MP/8MP photos are non-trivial steps away From making the most of either big screens or prints. Apple could show 13MP iPhone camera shots on the 27″ Retina iMac to spotlight both products, but technically the images would be sub-Retina on a display of that size, unless displayed in a window.

      • PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

        Those are very valid points! It would indeed result in other usage, thanks for pointing this out.

        As for 5MP printing 40″ wide, I was merely copying the views of Ken Rockwell, a quite controversial photographer/blogger, from an article I read:
        http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/mpmyth.htm

        Apparently my memory is degrading, as I quote:

        “This means a 6 MP camera can make prints 30″ (75cm) wide and still look great.”

        Still, perception plays its part. And likely also technique, as taking a sharp picture is an art on its own. I still need to take advice from diglloyd:
        http://diglloyd.com/index-msi.html

  7. George Rivera - 7 years ago

    All Apple needs to do is make the top portion of the iPhone rotate to take advantage of the rear camera as a selfie. Pull it up and spin it around and snap it down. It will be the most innovative selfie camera ever. All u will need is 1 camera and make it one really powerful camera that can rotate. If you guys need more ideas call me, I’m full of innovative thoughts.

  8. I would take a flush 8MP rear camera anytime over a 13MP protruding camera. Even if they keep the camera protruding, I would prefer 8MP. For quality photos, exposure is much more important than MP count.

  9. Gary Dauphin - 7 years ago

    I truly could not even care about the FaceTime camera improving, for what it does its just fine. I would enjoy seeing big improvements to the rear camera though. I love my iPhone 6 Plus, but having just spent a day with the Samsung Note 5, Apple truly needs to step up its camera game. I was totally surprised at the quality of images from the Note. I don’t want a reason to switch!

  10. coinaphrase - 7 years ago

    I think the IMX278 makes a lot of sense. The white filter should give it better color accuracy, and the mention of RAW10 in the specs hopefully means we will get 10 bit color depth. Can’t tell where they will be on wide color gamut though. These are all right in line with the kinds of improvements that Apple has promoted in the past.
    Apple should be able to have all the hardware/software pieces in place for a really great 4K/HDR/WCG system.
    I can’t wait to see what they release.