I should open by saying I’m a tough sell where cameraphones are concerned. My primary camera is a Nikon D3 full-frame 35mm DSLR with a set of lenses that takes the total cost well into ‘let’s never do the sums’ territory, so the bar is set rather high.
But camera technology advances, and I judge by results rather than reputations, so I did recently switch to using a Sony a6000 compact camera for most shots – including travelling. This is a lot smaller and lighter, and also attracts less attention. It has an APS-C sensor, which isn’t quite in D3 territory, but is a lot larger than an iPhone sensor and has proven itself remarkably capable.
I’d love to have that kind of performance in an iPhone, but it’s not there yet in two respects: shallow depth of field, and low-light performance, both of which I’ll address below. So the question for now is: is the 12MP camera in the iPhone 6s a worthwhile improvement on the 8MP version in the iPhone 6 … ?
Let’s start with the shallow depth of field business. I’m sure some people reading my comment on that were immediately ready to disagree and pull out some flower shots to prove it. So yes, if you get the iPhone very close to the subject – as you would when taking a flower shot – then you can get reasonably shallow DOF.
But only with the iPhone positioned very close to the subject. As soon as you are further away, you get almost infinite depth of field. You can’t, for example, take a shot like this, where I’m about twelve feet away from the subject and still able to isolate the subjects from the background.
But for daylight shots where you don’t need shallow depth of field, both sensors are extremely capable. In all honesty, at the typical sizes at which photos are viewed these days, you’re not going to see a noticeable difference between an iPhone shot and a good compact camera, and even the DSLR offers only a marginal benefit in this situation.
Of course, you can’t tell anything from downsized photos viewed online, so let’s start pixel-peeping, starting with a daylight shot …
With all the comparison shots, the iPhone 6 is on the left, the 6s on the right.
Here, if we weren’t pixel-peeping, there would be nothing to choose between the two. If we do a 100% crop, then we can see that there is just a tiny bit of noise in dark areas of the iPhone 6 shot, while the iPhone 6s version is cleaner (and also larger, due to the extra pixels – more on this in a moment).
But really, this is nothing at all that is going to show up when viewed on even desktop screen sizes, and it would be exceedingly unlikely to show in a print (we’ve been at the stage for years where screens show more detail than even pro prints).
12MP vs 8MP
The iPhone 6s does, of course, have more pixels to crop from if we want to zoom in, either when we take the photo or when editing afterwards. So what I’ve done below is take the earlier photo of the Gherkin shot through the arch, and zoom right in to the very top of the building. That’s a very severe crop indeed, losing around 90% of the total photo! I’ve done both crops proportional to the resolution so you can get an idea of what the difference between 8MP and 12MP means in real life.
Is this significant? In all honesty, I’d have to say not. How often do you really need to zoom in to that kind of extreme, either in the camera or in editing? I’d say for most people the answer is going to be hardly ever.
And let’s be real here: the vast majority of iPhone shots are viewed online: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, whatever. They are viewed at small size, and even zoomed right in to the top of the building, the 8MP sensor still gives us an acceptable size photo for most online use (i still had to reduce it in size for this piece). Your mileage may vary, but for typical use of the camera, I’d say the extra pixels are not a big deal.
But there is, of course, one very big difference between the two cameras: the Live Photos functionality of the iPhone 6s. As you probably know, the way the iPhone camera eliminates shutter-lag – the time between pressing the button and taking the photo – is that it’s actually taking photos the whole time time the camera app is open. Most of the time, it’s silently deleting them immediately afterwards, but when you press the shutter button it keeps the frame it shot just as you touched the button and throws away the rest.
What Live Photos does is to save a couple of seconds worth of these auto-taken photos and turns them into a very short video. When you swipe between photos in the Photos app, it gives you a very brief preview of the animation, and if you 3D Touch, you can view the entire clip. Here’s an example.
It’s too early to tell what I’m going to make of Live Photos. At one end of the scale, it could be a feature I’d play with a few times then switch off, never to use again. At the other end, it could be seen as a must-have feature that all cameras would offer within a year or so. My jury is still out, but so far at least, I’ve left it on. Apple claims it only roughly doubles the storage size for a photo, and my tests show this to be true (typically a bit more than double, but not significantly so). I have a 128GB phone, meaning space is not at a premium, so I’m guessing I’ll switch it on for people and cat shots, just in case.
I am, though, already pretty sure that 90%+ of the Live Photos people are going to show will be of just two subjects: kids or cats …
Oh, and I also tested the selfie flash. I do my best to stay on the correct side of cameras, so I’ll simply say that it works.
Ok, this is where we get to the stuff that separates the men from the boys: low-light photography. As I mentioned earlier, DSLRs and high-level compact cameras deal with low-light situations in three ways. First, they have large sensors which have more widely-spaced sensor pixels that are less vulnerable to noise, so you can boost the ISO (aka amplify the signal) a lot before it degrades significantly. Second, they have wide-aperture lenses, which let in as much of the available light as possible. Third, they allow long exposures, keeping the shutter open longer to allow in more light in total (this of course requires a tripod or similar to hold the camera steady).
Cameraphones have small sensors, wide-ish aperture lenses but still not in DSLR territory, and they can’t do long exposures. So, what they do instead is to amplify the signal from the sensor a lot. This works, but the downside of amplification on a small sensor is that it generates even more noise than you get from a densely-packed sensor in the first place.
All photos were taken with Live Photos off, which improves the quality by allowing (somewhat) slower shutter speeds.
This is a reasonably-challenging shot for a camera. We’re in relatively low light, and we’re shooting directly into the light, which washes out detail. Cheap cameraphones tend to shrug and give up when faced with this kind of situation.
But both iPhone cameras are up to the task. If we take a 100% crop, we do see a tiny difference, but there’s very little in it.
Ok, let’s let the sun dip a little further, and see how the two cameras cope with that.
Now this is where things start to get interesting. Light levels outside are falling, and this is the point at which you normally start to see noise. Again, both cameras are coping really well. Viewed at normal screen size, it’s a perfectly acceptable photo – and even viewed at 100%, the noise level is extremely low. Both sensors are impressive.
But … if you compare closely in the 100% crop above, there’s actually slightly less detail in the iPhone 6s shot. I think what’s going on here is that the more densely-packed 12MP sensor is starting to get noisier, so Apple is applying more noise reduction to compensate – and this is where we lose a little detail.
I stress, this is only visible here when pixel-peeping – it’s not something we’d ever worry about in real life in this level of light. So let’s see what happens as things get darker.
Here we have bright light from the sun, and most of the rest of the shot is dark. This is a really tough challenge for any camera. As we’d expect, detail at street level is washed out. In real-life use, I wouldn’t bother including anything at street level, I’d just show the sunset and the reflection on the Cheesegrater (the foreground building), but it’s interesting to include for test purposes. (The diagonal streaks, incidentally, are on the window, not an issue with the photos.)
Now, at this point, looking at the photos on my iPad, I was convinced that the 6s shot was better. There seemed to be less noise. But, when I looked at 100% crops the next day, it confirmed my theory about the more aggressive noise-reduction necessary to compensate for the denser pixels. There is indeed less noise, but it’s achieved at the expense of loss of detail. You can see this in both the street-level buildings and the reflections in the windows – there’s a muddier look to the 6s shot.
So in a sense, my initial impression of the iPhone 6s camera being better in low light was completely wrong. But I’ll return to this point shortly.
Let’s now give it the ultimate test of a true night shot. There’s still a glow in the sky, but the city is essentially in darkness and all the lights are on. I wouldn’t normally even dream of attempting a cameraphone shot in this light, but let’s see what we get.
Again, viewed on the phone and at iPad size, the 6s shot looked noticeably cleaner (look at the sky around the Shard, top left). But again, when we look at 100% crops, it’s because the stronger noise-reduction on the 6s is simply wiping out detail. Look at the latticework in the arched arcade lit in yellow, for a good example. The 6s shot is noticeably less sharp due to the greater level of noise-reduction applied by the phone.
This reinforces what I’d long said: that Apple was right to refuse to enter the megapixel race and concentrate instead on quality rather than quantity. The more densely-packed sensor in the higher megapixel camera requires more aggressive noise-reduction to overcome the increased noise – and that is achieved at the expense of detail. So the higher resolution image does, in low-light conditions, end up less detailed than the lower resolution version.
This is, unfortunately, what happens when people who know nothing about photography simply count pixels and criticize Apple for falling behind. The company refused to play that game for a long time, but I guess this is the point at which it feared it would be panned for remaining with an 8MP camera for a fifth generation (after the iPhone 4S, 5, 5S and 6).
At a pixel-peeping level, then, the iPhone 6s sensor is actually a retrograde step, sacrificing detail for pixel-count. But … real-life viewing for most people maxes out at either a 15-inch MacBook or a 27-inch iMac. And the vast majority of photo viewing these days is far smaller than that, downsized by Facebook and its ilk. At any of those sizes, the iPhone 6s shots look better. So on balance, Apple made the right decision: in real-life use, your iPhone 6s photos are going to look better to almost everyone who views them.
For me, though, I care about quality, and have some of my photos blown up on my walls at 30×20 inches. So I’m going to be sticking with real cameras for now. If you want to see why, here’s a photo taken on my Sony a6000 camera with APS-C sensor: a 30-second exposure at 100iso. You would never guess it, but this is actually taken in very similar light to the final shot above – it just lets in so much more of it! The difference between 30 seconds of light and a fraction of a second is … night and day.
Maybe we’ll get there by the iPhone 10s.
If you’ve bought the iPhone 6s and tried out the camera, do take our poll – and as ever, please share your thoughts in the comments. Oh, and if you have any long-exposure apps you’d recommend, do please let me know – I’m going to be testing one or more of these shortly. Update: I did, and unfortunately none of them impressed me. Several were better than the native camera app, but not by a sufficient margin to make it worth the hassle.
You can find part one of my iPhone 6s diary here. You may also enjoy my Apple Watch diary series, and my many and varied opinion pieces.
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Great review – did you have live photos turned on? I was wondering if you turn that off, if you would get better results.
“All photos were taken with Live Photos off, which improves the quality by allowing (somewhat) slower shutter speeds”
I THINK that the iPhone 6 photos are on the left, and the 6S photos are on the right, but I cant really be sure, and I guess I missed where it’s said. That seems like a pretty obvious thing to include in the article about comparing the two.
I’m also a bit disappointed with your assertion that the iPhone’s camera isn’t “real” (“So I’m going to be sticking with real cameras for now”). I think that you’re better than that. The best camera is the one you have, we all know that. And even my pinhole camera that I made from an old shoe box is a “real” camera.
Otherwise, so long as my assumption about which photo came from what device is correct, good article.
Steve, yes, iPhone 6 on the left and 6s on the right – I’ll add an explicit note to that effect. Perhaps ‘dedicated camera’ is a fairer term. I guess you can indeed say that even a pinhole camera is a real one; I must confess the last time I used one was as a kid, but perhaps I should have another play sometime – they are fun!
I believe the reason for apple bumping up the resolution from 8 to 12 megapixels is not to “keep up” in the resolution race, but to make 4k videos possible.
You need 12MP for 4k video :) So they had to do 12MP :)
While 4k is just 8mp it’s not in 4:3 format(like the iPhone sensor) it’s 16:9 so you need more pixels on the wide side.
Good write-up. But can you label ALL pictures with which camera(s) you’re using? It is not always obvious when you’re comparing iPhone 6 to 6s or your DSLR.
The only DLSR shot is the father and son. The only a6000 shot is the final blue-hue cityscape.
Which is obvious. ;) There’s no confusing the DoF afforded by a longer focal length and wide aperture compared to a miniscule pancake lens on a cell phone.
You can’t cheat physics.
Thank you for sharing your experience with the 6s.
I own the iPhone 5s and have been looking into getting a DSLR. As for long expo apps, I suggest you use Slow Shutter Cam by Cogitap Software. The other app is nightcap pro (the feature needs to be enabled in the app). i primarily use Slow shutter cam as it has several modes of long exposure capture. I managed to capture star trails using this app, although they look more like meteor shower :D
Thanks for the recommendations, Rahim – I’ll try those.
Good review but I disagree with you being so pleased with the final shot made by the Sony camera.
Your comment above the final iPhone says “Let’s now give it the ultimate test of a true night shot”
The Sony picture is indeed very good but apart from the lights being on in the buildings it nowhere gives the impression of a night shot.
The sky is really bright, on the right you can see sunlight etc etc.
I think the point was to “exaggerate” the lighting through longer exposures to show how low light can be handled to brighten a picture without becoming noisy.
I’m a huge fan of the blue hour – that time of the day about 30-45 mins after sunset when there’s still a glow in the sky. 100% dark, when there’s no glow at all remaining in the sky, is less interesting to me. The eye sees something between what is captured by the iPhone and a long-exposure shot, but closer to the iPhone view. What I’ll do when I compare long exposure apps (which take a whole bunch of photos and then overlay them to build up the light levels) is take direct comparison shots with the Sony at exactly the same time. That will be an interesting test – I’ve never used long exposure apps on my iPhone, so I’m very curious to see the results.
The a6000 pic is nice, but i REALLY want to straighten that horizon! ;-)
You’ll struggle as the horizon isn’t straight: that’s the South Downs. :-)
so there’s ONE hill, that stretches for what? 10 miles that has a constant slope of a few degrees?! From that vantage point the horizon would appear straight as even a proper mountain would only take up a portion of the pictured width. You’re so high up, the horizon is a VERY long way away.
If you wanted to align with the horizon, you’d have to choose which bit. Personally, for this type of shot, I align with a building.
Also, the south downs is just a few little hills!
They don’t feel so little when cycling up them, believe me. :-) One of them is 600 feet in one mile …
To “straighten” the horizon would tilt the Shard (I am guessing that’s the name of the tall peak building)….which is more important to keep vertical than the horizon horizontal.
What about the external cameras that works with your iOS devices, any thoughts on them? Like DxO ONE or Olympus Air 01.
I haven’t tried any of them yet.
I already hated the idea of upping to 12MP (and downscaling pixels from 1.5m to 1.22m), and now I can see the effects confirmed. Who wants more pixels if photos are going to lose detail? The technology simply wasn’t ready to produce as detailed 12MP photos in every situation.
Then there’s Live Photos which I find a gimmick to the extend I simply can’t believe Apple released it. Cluttering the Camera and Photos apps, double the storage consumption, worse low light, and it’s on by default.
And 3D touch is nice, with peak, pop, keyboard trackpad, homescreen shortcuts and app switching. Consistent interactions, unlike OSX. But then it made the iPhone thicker (6s Plus being almost as thick as the 3 year old iPhone 5), and significantly heavier. Again, technology wasn’t ready to do this without nasty compromises.
Not sure what to think of all this. Really wanted to upgrade my old iPhone 5, but it feels like the iPhone 7 will be the one to refine the awesome features of the 6s while fixing the aspects where the 6s is a step backwards compared to the 6.
Great article Ben!
Like you I am shooting a fullframe camera (Sony A7II with great Zeiss lenses here), but I really like the statement ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’, and so I’m glad the iPhone is quite capable at least in good light, because I have it always with me.
Thanks, MK – and yes, it’s certainly great to have a capable camera in your pocket at all times.
Also try camera+ by tap tap tap. It’s long exposure is only 5 seconds but it allows you to control many other settings that would normally only be available on a DSLR
Thanks, Sanath, I’ll add that to the list.
Sanath, i also use Camera+, but i can only go to 1/2 sec. Can you tell me how i can go down to 5 sec? which iPhone do you use? i own the 5s. Thanks for the help!
WHO voted iPhone 6S is a big improvement? To me, it’s a slight backward in most cases, while very small improvement in just 1-2 cases. Overall, it’s more noisy and worse picture quality.
It’s 12 versus 8. Clearly, it’s a big improvement – 50% larger number! ;)
“It goes all the way up to 12, man!”
thank you for explaining for the lay person. learned something new today. :)
Ben, thanks for this exceptional comparison of 6, 6s and “real” cameras. I’m with you on that. Your night shot with the Canon is a masterpiece, a true work of art. If I wasn’t considering a new iPhone, if I wasn’t into photography, this article would still be worth the price of admission just for the precious video of the feline family and the cute little tongues cleaning each other.
My friend took a picture of a bee today, and you could hear it faintly buzzing as it moved around the flower…now that’s cool!
Hey Ben, great article! For long-exposures, I’ve been using Magic Shutter for years. It has a decent set of controls, and I’ve shot a lot of fun images inside, say, airports, where a DSLR might freak TSA out. Motion-blurred people in an airport, or any heavily-trafficked area, are something I enjoy, but I also enjoy having the customization of varying “shutter” speeds, exposure sensitivity, and other manual and automatic settings. Certainly worth a look on your end, but also I’m curious which long-exposure apps you review! A quick question: have you done any minimal focusing distance testing between the iPhone models? I shoot a lot of macro photography with my iPhone, and that requires locking in the focus as close as I can, then moving the phone closer and farther away until I can see the best sharpness. I also use apps like Camera+ so I can not only lock focus, but also enable Stabilizer mode, which only takes the shot when the camera is absolutely still. Helps a ton! Ever tried that combo out? Again, great article!
Thanks, Amarand. I’ve done almost no macro photography, and my iPhone 6 goes to its new owner on Weds, so I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to do that comparison, but I will if possible. Thanks for the app recommendations, I’ll check out Magic Shutter.
I mailed my iPhone 6 a few hours after I had my 6S happy, but I’m fairly certain I can find someone with a 6 to test against. Is there a minimal focusing distance testing methodology? Locking focus close, rulers, etc.?
You obviously need the 6s plus if you’re serious about photo taking. My tests on my 6s plus showed dramatically better low-light pictures than my previous 6, with less noise, sharper details (yup, as opposed to how 6s performed in this review) and brighter feels.
The two models have exactly the same sensor and lens (1.22µ pixel sensor, f/2.2 lens). The sole difference between them is that the 6s Plus has optical stabilisation, which would make a difference to handheld low-light shots but not otherwise. http://www.apple.com/uk/iphone/compare/
If the iphone were to have a manual mode like the LGG4 it would be nice.!
You’re not comparing like-to-like, you need to either “stretch” the iphone 6 photos to match the size of the 6s, or “shrink” the 6s photos to match the size of the 6. Then you will see that the 12mp iphone 6s camera probably produces better results with more detail and i would guess similar noise.
When people view a photo the “viewing size” of the photo is already preset – the size of an ipad, the size of a 6×4 print, the size of 30×20 inch print.
Nobody views a photo at 100% crop unless they are the FBI trying to catch a serial killer – in which case the 6s will give more detail as seen in your photos
Granted, I can see you make a brief mention in of this in your comments.
It would be great if you could perform the above modifications at re-post some images to compare them once the sizes of the images has been equalised – and them to compare 100% crops – I would be very interested. Unfortunately I don’t have both devices.
However, thanks for the insightful information — I am very interested in the capabilities of the camera and I was going to purchase an iphone 6s and I’m still going to purchase an iphone 6s
Thank you for the great review. Loved it. I, too, own the a6000 and have just upgraded from the 6 Plus to the 6S, mainly for the 4k Video and improvements with pictures. For me, I am noticing a bigger improvement over the 6 Plus, but then again, mine was one that had the faulty camera and when they replaced it, I began seeing other problems. The 6S resolves those issues. My girlfriend consistently gets better pictures with her 6 than with me and my 6 Plus. In any case, it is clear the 6S won’t replace a DSLR but it certainly provides exceptional photos and video. Looking forward to a year with my 6S and all the images I will be taking with it!
I just picked up an a6000 as well and its a fantastic camera. The 35mm f/1.8 lens is a great prime and takes fantastic pictures. I have been finding it hard to use my iphone for any type of photography since I picked this up.
I think the biggest thing is the 4k video mode – in 20 years time when we are at 8K and have screens the size of our living room walls we’ll be glad we shot all our family video in 4k! Now for the average joe with a 16Gb phone, you’re buggered! I have footage on Super 8 from 40 years ago and I wish it were a little sharper. My 5S seems to be just fine for photos and in bright light the 1080p video looks good on the plasma 720p TV from 2008 I have! Funny as downsampling the 1080p to 720p makes it look better and it helps to have those incredible blacks on the Panny plasma.
I am rocking a GH4 for video and of course its video is nice but as they say, it’s what you got in your pocket that counts and sometimes when you’re wrangling kids and 100 other things a DSLR is just too much hassle and you have to use your smart phone.