Even Apple knows it can’t afford to snooze on the camera during an “off year.” The company’s two newest iPhones are S-models, moderate upgrades to existing designs that seldom dazzle quite the way their odd-year siblings do – but for 2015, they do come packing new optics. Our iPhone 6s Plus camera comes proper with a 12MP sensor featuring an f/2.2 aperture, optical image stabilization, a five-element lens behind sapphire cover glass, and an array of “focus pixels” dedicated exclusively to … well, getting focus.
It’s an impressive-sounding package, but as we were recently reminded on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, there’s more to a great smartphone camera than specifications – and even the mighty Apple can’t coast on reputation alone. Does the iPhone 6s Plus camera live up to the sterling record of its forerunners? Let’s find out.
iPhone 6S Plus camera samples: daylight
Shooting with the iPhone 6s Plus is almost as simple as with previous generations. There’s still the straightforward interface with a sliding carousel of options below the viewfinder and a handful of toggles at top, anchored by a large capture button at the very bottom and shortcuts to the gallery and filters alongside. Once you learn how to swipe left and right to scroll between the various modes (Photo/Video/Slow-Mo/Panorama/Time-Lapse) it’s a pretty intuitive piece of software.
Sadly, the lock screen shortcut to quickly launch the camera is all but useless thanks to another iPhone feature working too well: the fingerprint scanner. The new biometric sensor just does too good a job reading your thumb, and as a result the lock screen slides out of the way before you can even think about reaching for the camera shortcut. While this may be a good problem for the iPhone to have, it still adds another step to the process of launching the camera app, which could mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it.
What increases the complexity on the iPhone 6s Plus camera is the inclusion of the new “Live Photos” mode, which records 1.5 seconds of additional frames on either side of the actual capture moment. This makes it possible for iOS 9 to introduce small animations to liven up the image previews in the gallery, but it takes up more space on the device and also means you need to hold the phone still for longer than you actually would if you want the full benefit of the 3-second
video “Live Photo.” If you manually import photos onto your computer, this also means you’ll find a bunch of 3-second .m4v files interspersed between your pictures, which is awkward for batch file management. Like the Live Photos feature itself, these are familiar challenges to those of us who experienced this offering on the first go-around (back when it was called HTC Zoe), and if you don’t think it’s worth the hassle –or storage space– you can disable it using the toggle in the viewfinder.
The photos themselves are solid in daylight, with pronounced contrast and blur-free captures, presumably thanks to the optical and digital stabilization working in concert. Colors are well-saturated but not so much as to cross the line into inauthentic, and the HDR mode does a good job of kicking in when it’s needed (so long as you leave it in the default “Auto” setting, it’ll toss up an icon when it enables itself). HDR still doesn’t do as good a job of pulling detail from the shadows as it does on other phones, though, and though we did some of our shooting on a cloudy day, some of the photos seem a bit under-exposed to our eye.
iPhone 6S Plus camera samples: Low Light
With the small sensor sizes of smartphone cameras, there’s only so much you can expect from them in extreme low light. Still, that doesn’t stop us from demanding unrealistic performance from other phones in near-dark conditions, and “good low light performance” has become the new must-have feature among smartphone cameras today.
So how does the iPhone do in this area? Well, it holds its own with the best Samsung can throw at it (the Galaxy Note 5 produces brighter photos, but at the expense of significantly more digital noise) so short of carrying an obsolete Windows Phone like the Lumia 1020, it’s tough to say the iPhone is worse off than any other flagship.
Turn on the flash and the story changes; Apple’s “True Tone” torch uses twin LEDs of varying color temperature to avoid washing out fleshtones as other flashes might, and the results … well, not to be coy, but we’ll keep them under our hat until the full review, at which point we’ll also have more low-light samples to share. We’ve got to keep you reading somehow.
iPhone 6s Plus camera samples: selfies
Probably the biggest improvement to this generation’s iPhone cameras comes on the front side, where last year’s anemic 1.2MP shooter has been replaced with a proper 5MP sensor. The improvements extend to the software as well: in dark environments, the iPhone will analyze the scene and overpower the display backlight to 300% of normal, illuminating your face with a glow specifically calibrated to the lighting already present in the scene. We’ve seen similar “display flash” implementations in apps like Snapchat, but Apple’s approach does make for a brighter, warmer burst of light (best observed in the rightmost picture above – don’t mind the fun filter we’ve applied).
On the down side, Apple still hasn’t seen fit to include a wide-angle lens with its front-firing camera, so you still can’t fit nearly as many people (or as much background scenery) into your shots as you can with many of the iPhone’s competitors.
iPhone 6s Plus camera sample: Time-Lapse
There’s nothing really new about the iPhone’s Time-Lapse mode, except that some of us are getting our first chance to try it out on the iPhone 6s Plus. While it tests the patience (and the steadiness of one’s hands) to stand motionless for several minutes to capture enough footage, the payoff is well worth it given a dynamic enough scene. That goes double if you can find a convenient rock to lean the phone against.
iPhone 6s Plus camera sample: Video
The iPhone 6s camera is capable of shooting video in 4K, but as we were reluctant to fill our 16GB review device with sample footage we settled for shooting in 1080p at 60fps. Even at this “low” resolution, video output is quite good, with rapid automatic corrections of exposure as we swung through brightly-lit areas into the shadows and back again. The new camera’s phase-detection autofocus means there’s very little “hunting” for focus when the subject switches from foreground to background or vice-versa, and audio capture is quite clear as well. Especially impressive is, again, stabilization: while the video does suffer from some cropping compared to still photos (meaning you need to get farther from your subject to get as much in the frame) the tradeoff results in silky-smooth footage, even while stumbling around on an old cobblestone sidewalk.
Smartphone cameras have a long way to go before they reach the quality of the big honking mirrorless and DSLR cameras favored by professionals – but we’d hazard a guess that, most of the time, only those professionals and their enthusiastic colleagues would be able to tell the difference between a picture taken with a $2000 camera and one taken with a high-end smartphone. The iPhone 6s Plus camera is very, very good – and of the new iPhones, it’s almost certainly the better option for those who shoot photos or video while on the move; that optical stabilization is nothing to sniff at.
It’s important to keep in mind that the iPhone camera isn’t perfect, nor is it even necessarily class-leading. From the lack of a wide-angle front-facing lens to the absence of a working camera-launch shortcut, Apple missed a few opportunities here. And devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and LG G4 more than keep up with the iPhone; they surpass it in significant ways. But those who have their hearts set on an iPhone can rest easy: when it comes to the optics, for the most part, Apple’s got it covered. And where it doesn’t, there’s probably an app for that.
Dying for more detail? Our full iPhone 6s Plus review is coming soon! In the meantime, check out Apple’s top camera competition from the conventional to the lesser-known to the straight-up ridiculous – and tune in to the most recent Pocketnow Weekly podcast to hear guest TJ Donegan of Reviewed.com teach us all about how good smartphone cameras really are(n’t)!