iPhone 6S - iSight and Facetime HD Camera

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iPhone 6S – Camera

On paper alone, there are legitimate reasons for disappointment with the iPhone 6S camera. While the bump from 8-megapixels to 12-megapixels is very welcome, Apple hasn’t upgraded the lens. Its f/2.2 aperture doesn’t sound that impressive sat next to the f/1.8 of the Galaxy S6 range, or the f/1.7 of the LG G4 – lower is better in this case.

This is important because a ‘wider’ aperture lets in more light onto the sensor. More light leads to better low light performance and superior ‘depth of field’ – where the background is blurred behind your subject.

The latter quality, often referred to as ‘bokeh’ – choose your own pronunciation of that one – is the desirable effect that gives photos that professional sheen. When veteran TrustedReviews contributor Andrew Williams describes something as “bokehlicious” you can be assured he approves.

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But wars aren’t fought on paper and neither are camera… erm, wars. Yes, it would be nice if Apple gave the iPhone a faster lens – my money is on the iPhone 7 for that one – but the iPhone 6S doesn’t seriously suffer for it.

It would be nicer still if the iPhone 6S had optical image stabilisation (OIS) as its ability to counter shaky hand motions would help low light performance even more, but that’s reserved for the larger iPhone 6S Plus for size reasons. This is arguably a greater loss than a faster lens, but you’ll only miss it when shooting in very low light, or for video.

Bottom line: The iPhone 6S is still right up there with – and sometimes leading – the best, though it’s a hotly contested (and disputed) field these days.

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This first shot shows some of the improvements in the iPhone 6S. First, there’s more detail. I’ve actually cropped into this shot to reframe it, yet it still looks great thanks to the excellent detail in the bud and petals.

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Above is the Galaxy S6’s effort – also cropped. It’s a good shot and the S6’s faster lens and shorter focus distance creates a lovely bokeh effect that isolates the flower beautifully. However, Samsung’s preference for extra sharpening creates a couple of small problems – some odd fringing around the edges and some smudged detail in the flower petals.

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In comparison, the iPhone 6S controls noise a little better and retains the contours of the petal as a result. It’s all fine margins, but it’s a good start.

In part, this reflects Apple and Samsung’s differing approaches to photography. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, but the iPhone tends towards natural, softer and more ‘lifelike’ shots. Conversely, Samsung favours a sharper, punchier and more bombastic approach – an approach that can produce stunning results, I might add.

You can see this again in the following HDR composition. HDR is an especially useful technique that combines different ‘exposures’ of the same shot. This  helps resolve extremes of light and dark that a single shot can’t. Both have Auto HDR, which means they’ll choose the best time to use it automatically.

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In the iPhone 6S example, it takes an even approach. The foreground isn’t outstandingly bright, but it’s clear, and the sky and distant building look exactly as they should.

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The Galaxy S6, meanwhile, supercharges the foreground but blows out the sky. I should point out that, in the interests of fairness, I chose the same exposure point for both shots.

This isn’t to illustrate why the iPhone 6S is better than the S6, though. Both approaches can be brilliant and flawed in different scenarios, and there’s no inherently ‘right’ way to expose this scene.

But it reinforces how the iPhone 6S remains an outstanding cameraphone. It renders colours faithfully with nice, smooth gradations that bring out the subtleties of shots, and it has excellent native dynamic range.

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The vegetable stand above shows this nicely where the pumpkins (centre of shot) transition from red to orange. The S6 captures richer colours, though, particularly reds, and its punchier contrast arguably edges this example.

It’s also much better in low light, which is the iPhone 6S’s primary weakness. The 6S is better than the iPhone 6, as the below shots demonstrate, but it can’t hope to match phones that have optical image stabilisation. 

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The iPhone 6 produces a usable(ish) shot for social media, but it’s blotchy and struggles to control refractions from the bright lights.

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The noise in the dark sky of the 6S shot is much finer and controlled, and the lights don’t cause such serious problems. It’s a decent effort, but there are better.

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Despite some odd shards of light, the Galaxy S6 is the clear winner here. There’s more contrast and detail in the water and sky, while the buildings in the background are far clearer. This is the difference optical image stabilisation makes.

Needless to say, the differences between the iPhone 6S and iPhone 5S are more extreme. We’ll explore this in a future update to our iPhone 6S vs iPhone 5S comparison, but the words “no contest” spring to mind.

Beyond pure image quality, there are noticeable improvements in performance, too. The iPhone 6S focusses faster than the iPhone 6 for one as it spends less time hunting back and forth. Choosing between the iPhone and Galaxy S6 is impossible, though; they’re both lightning fast.

iPhone 6S – FaceTime HD Camera

Apple has lavished the iPhone 6S with a serious front camera upgrade this time around. It’s up from 1.2-megapixels to 5-megapixels, a pixel increase that has more in common with the inflation rate of your average banana republic.

Apple’s also developed a method for using the screen as a flash for the front facing camera – a neater option than the HTC Desire EYE’s dedicated front flash. As Nigel Atherton, Editor of Amateur Photographer explained to me; this is clever because a large area flash like this should be softer and more flattering.

But this puts me in awkward position because I abhor taking selfies. But if forced at gunpoint to take some selfies, I’d be happy enough to use the iPhone 6S.

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The ‘screen flash’ is handy in dingy indoor lighting, the primary locale for the selfie. Like the dual-tone LED flash at the rear, the screen uses a flesh tone to avoid turning you too ghostly. It’s effective, too, aside from the odd white spot on my nose. Is “shiny nose” a thing?

Incidentally, Apple’s resisted the trend for strapping wide angle lenses on the front of phones. This makes it tricky to take ‘groufies’ without one of those stick-o-ma-bobs (umbrella’s, I think?), but affords just enough space to show how awesome your holiday destination is while you gurn furiously in the foreground.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to say whether this is the ‘best selfie cam’ or not, but it has to be up there thanks to the flash system.