From the way Apple has been marketing the iPhone 6s, you would think that the camera integrated into the newest iPhone is the most advanced one on the market. But real-life tests of the iPhone 6s have revealed that the camera is no better than the competition, highlighting the fact that most of the top smartphones are quite comparable in terms of hardware.
Lauren Goode, Dan Seifert, and Sean O’Kane report for The Verge that it’s easy to forget that when Apple first launched the original iPhone eight years ago, the smartphone featured a 2-megapixel camera that was “basically functional.” A lot has changed since then, and both Apple and rival smartphone makers have introduced phones with increasingly impressive cameras. Many, from Samsung and LG in particular, have outpaced the specifications of Apple’s iPhone cameras.
So The Verge tested the cameras from Apple’s new iPhone 6s models against the camera systems in other “market-leading smartphones”: the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Note 5, the LG G4, and the iPhone 6S Plus. Interestingly enough, the publication’s analysis found that “there’s often very little discernible difference between them in the real world. In almost every scenario, each phone took perfectly usable (and sometimes exceptional) photos that are far better than what we could expect just a few years ago.”
Overall, there were a few minor differences in camera performance, and the iPhone 6s came out ahead on some counts but lost on others. Images from the iPhone 6s showed a slight green cast, especially on portraits, that resulted in images that weren’t quite as pleasing as those taken by the other phones. The iPhone 6s also frequently missed when focusing for macro shots. But in other cases, such as when shooting landscape photos, the iPhone produced the best image.
The close competition in smartphone cameras is a new development and represents a departure from competitions between flagship phones past in that the iPhone used to be the clear leader regardless of lighting situations and shooting conditions. Clearly, getting a handle on the performance of a phone’s camera is much more complex than looking at the device’s specifications. For instance, the figure that everyone looks at first — the megapixel count — isn’t the best indication of image quality.
The rear-facing camera in the iPhone 6s boasts 12 megapixels, four more than the 8 megapixels in the last three models. But more megapixels don’t always add up to a great photo. In fact, if you try to cram too many megapixels onto a relatively small sensor, each pixel collects less light, which results in poorer image quality. Additionally, pixels can bleed color data into one another when they’re packed too close together. To counter that, Apple is using what it calls deep trench isolation to form a barrier between each pixel and produce better images with more accurate colors.
But photographers aren’t happy with all of the decisions that Apple made with the camera in the iPhone 6s, regardless of how well its performance compares to other phones’ cameras. Apple chose to stick with the same f/2.2 aperture for both its rear and front cameras, while competitors like Samsung and LG offer faster lenses in their flagship phones. (Samsung’s Galaxy S6, for instance, uses a f/1.9 lens that captures more light.) And despite the inclusion of 4K video capability, the iPhone 6s doesn’t offer the optical image stabilization with which the iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6s Plus are equipped.
Ben Lovejoy reports for 9to5Mac that the iPhone 6s’s camera system disappoints both in low-light performance and in the ability to capture shots with shallow depth of field. But even more disappointing for those versed in photography equipment is Apple’s entrance into the competition for megapixels and the resulting focus on quantity rather than quality. “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.”
Lovejoy laments that this is “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).” If you want to get technical, the iPhone 6s sensor actually represents a retrograde step in that it sacrifices detail for pixel count.
But because real-life viewing for the vast majority of iPhone users maxes out at a 15-inch MacBook or a 27-inch iMac — and the majority of viewing is downsized by Facebook and Instagram — the iPhone 6s shots look better than those from the iPhone 6 or from iPhones that came before. “So on balance,” Lovejoy points out, “Apple made the right decision: in real-life use, your iPhone 6s photos are going to look better to almost everyone who views them.”
These problems aren’t unique to the iPhone, and Apple’s careful balancing of hardware and software, specifications and true performance, reveals just how far smartphone cameras have come since the days most people who took photographs on a regular basis needed a dedicated camera to do so. In fact, they’ve come so far that the company that, arguably, catalyzed the move toward high-end smartphone cameras doesn’t clearly stand out from the competition anymore.