iPhone 6, 1/1800s, f/2.2, ISO 32
If you've already got an iPhone 5s, here's what AU$1,129 (US$1,000) buys you for one of the new phones, photographically-speaking:
A new sensor promising better low-light results, faster autofocus, focus tracking for moving targets, an image stabiliser (on the 6 Plus only), faster processing, slower slow-motion video, better battery life and... that's it. They're still 8 megapixels, still the same 30mm-equivalent lens with the same f/2.2 aperture, and still no proper zoom. And while dedicated cameras are shrinking, the phones have grown.
This doesn't sound like a compelling list, but it is aimed squarely at the common complaints that we hear from people who shoot on phones: wobbly pictures, smeary low-light results, slow shooting, and fading batteries. But is it worth over $1,000? If the camera is important to you, this article aims to answer that question.
I don't like too much choice, and I was torn between the two new iPhones, balancing the iPad-replacing possibilities of the enormous new iPhone 6 Plus against the convenience, and the “I’ve got a life as well as a phone” benefit of the smaller 6. So I got both. Here are our experiences from shooting for 48 hours with both new phones alongside the older iPhone 5s. By the end, there was an obvious winner, but not for the reasons I expected. I’m keeping just one of them, and I’ll tell you which at the end.
iPhone 6, 1/430s, f/2.2, ISO 32
Cutting to the chase
We tested each of Apple's claims about the cameras, and here are our verdicts. You can see, read and click all the details and comparisons further down.
Are photos better than from the iPhone 5s in low light? The iPhone 6 isn't noticeably better, while the iPhone 6 Plus is. But only for things that aren't moving. For things that move, the iPhone 6 Plus can sometimes look worse. We pulled apart what's going on, and found a very smart new trick up the sleeve of the iPhone 6 Plus that I expect will be coming to a camera near you soon.
How are the photos in good light? There's very little difference between the photos from the older iPhone 5s and the new ones.
Do the new focus pixels make it focus faster? This feature is great for video without the "throbbing" effect when it focuses. But for photos, we just couldn't measure any difference, and we looked hard.
Can it focus on a moving target? The new iPhones score 100% for effort, but only their mums would be proud of their results tracking a moving target for photos. Don't rely on this feature.
Battery life? Clearly better on the bigger iPhone 6 Plus. But it also takes proportionally longer to charge.
Will I feel totally self-conscious if I get the huge one? Yes.
iPhone 6, 1/430s, f/2.2, ISO 32
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus feel instantly familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone before. Everything is in its proper place except for the power button, which has migrated to a comfortable spot on the the right side. The new phones are much more secure to hold than the slippery iPhone 5s, thanks to their rounded edges and courser texture to the aluminium, so they're easier to use for shooting single-handed. The phones are thinner and the camera sticks out a bit, making most of your existing photographic accessories and Olloclip lenses obselete. The camera lens still has a sapphire crystal cover, so it should be safe from scratches.
The bigger screens are a joy to look at, and their size is either their main attraction or biggest problem, depending on your point of view. If you're drawn to the new devices for editing photos, their colours remain accurate and excellent - closely matching a calibrated computer monitor. But they show a touch more contrast than the 5s, so what looks good on screen may come out flat when printed. It's not a big deal, but I'm going to be cautious editing photos on the latest phones until I've tested it further and made some prints.
Unfortunately, there's no practical solution to calibrate the display on iOS devices (app-based solutions from DataColor and X-Rite involve duplicating all your pictures, and none works system-wide). But with iOS displays normally so well calibrated in the factory I find that further calibrating is not an issue in practice for all personal use and most of my professional use. Apple's camera connection kit doesn't work for any iPhones, including the new ones [UPDATE: from iOS 9.2 the old connection kit works with iPhones from 5 onwards, and Dec 2015 saw the release of a new SD-to-Lightning adaptor that's faster and works with phones too]. So you'll [no longer!] be at the mercy of fickle wireless connections if you want to get photos from your dedicated camera to the phones' lovely big screens.
I edited the display photos in this article directly on the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus with the new Edit controls directly in the iOS8 Photos app. The photos have only been resized and sharpened on a computer before posting. The photos used for comparisons are unedited.
If you'd like more details on the iphone 6 and 6 Plus' performance, and how their photos compare to common cameras, then the next section is for you. Yes, and the verdict is right at the end!
Picture quality in bright light
How do iPhone 6 and 6 plus photos stack up against dedicated cameras and the iPhone 5s? The following series of photos compares the same scene shot on different cameras.
All of the cameras were set to base ISO, and shot on a tripod, without using the zoom on the phones. Focus was set on the distant buildings. The light was full late afternoon sunlight. We took several shots at different exposures and chose the images that were sharpest and closest matched for brightness. All of the photos from phones are untouched jpegs straight from the camera. To get the most out of the Nikon D800 camera, we shot raw format and treated the raw file to a full round of sharpening in Adobe Lightroom 5 to taste. The pictures below show 100% crops from the centre of the main picture, and also from the right hand side, close to the edge, because some lenses give softer pictures at the edges. We chose this collection of cameras to give a spread of prices and types of camera. For a more rigorous and systematic comparison of phones and cameras through the years, see our article here.
iPhone 6, 1/1800 sec, f/2.2, ISO 32,
The cameras have different numbers of megapixels, and these screen views are enlarged to make the pixels the same size, to show all the detail that each camera can capture. The smallest are the iPhone shots - they represent an enlargement 115cm wide.
Brisbane city, taken with an iPhone 5s
1/2200s, f/2.2, ISO 32
iPhone 6 Plus
1/1250s, f/2.2, ISO 32
1/1500s, f/2.2, ISO 32
Panasonic LX5 compact ($500 in 2010)
1/640s, f/4.5, ISO 80, jpeg
Canon EOS 30D ($2k in 2006)
1/320s, f/8, ISO 100, Canon 16-35 f/2.8L II professional lens, jpeg
Fuji X-E1 with 18-55 f/2.8-4 ($1,000 in 2012)
1/400s, f/6.4, ISO 200, jpeg
Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone (2013)
1/1200s, f/2.2, ISO 100, jpeg
NIkon D800 with 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 ($3k in 2012)
1/250s, f/8.0, ISO 100, raw (LR5), sharpened. Photo by Tim Boyd with thanks
The two iPhone 6 models gave essentially identical performances. They came close to the performance of jpegs from the Panasonic LX5 - one of 2010's premiere compact cameras. While the images aren't perfectly-matched for exposure, you can see how all of the phones have a lower dynamic range than the dedicated cameras, so their highlights bleach to white more easily.
Photos from the new phones look very similar to photos from the older iPhone 5s in bright light. They continue Apple's trend of applying more aggressive but more selective, 'smarter' noise reduction with each new model. So the skies look less noisy on the iPhone 6 models than on the 5s, but the details and textures such as tree leaves aren't seriously degraded. Apart from this, they look pretty much identical to the iPhone 5s. None of the phone cameras shows the slightest hint of aberration at the edges - there is clearly a lot of processing going on to overcome the limits of their small lenses.
Overall, the clear winner for sharpness and detail was the Nikon D800, even though we cruelly hobbled it with a kit superzoom lens. If you'd like to see what the Nikon is capable of with a better lens, have a look as this more systematic comparison of phones and cameras here. The Fuji X-E1 mirrorless camera came next, closely followed by the slow-shooting but incredibly detailed Nokia Lumia 1020 phone.
Picture quality in low light
With its optical image stabiliser, the iPhone 6 Plus (left) should beat the iPhone 6 in dim light
Apple put a new sensor into both iPhone 6 models, and claim better images in low light. We wanted to test this, and we also wanted to tax the optical image stabiliser added to the iPhone 6 Plus. So we used all the cameras hand-held indoors under the equivalent of candlelight (EV2.7), standardising each camera on 1/15th second where we had a choice, and recorded the proportion of sharp photos. We picked the sharpest pictures to show here:
Diarama scene in the Queensland Museum, showing the area chosen for enlargement
iPhone 5s. 96% sharp handheld
1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 500
iPhone 6 Plus. 95% sharp handheld
1/4s, f/2.2, ISO 125
Canon PowerShot A2200. 100% sharp handheld
1/20s, f/2.8, ISO 800, jpeg
iPhone 6. 100% sharp handheld
1/15s, f/2.2, ISO 320
Fuji X-E1, 18-55 f/2.8-4. 100% sharp handheld
1/15s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, jpeg
Nokia Lumia 1020. 45% sharp handheld
1/6s, f/2.2, ISO 800, jpeg
The iPhone 6 Plus clearly beat all the other iPhones in dim light, recording more fine detail in the texture of the cloth and the tool. It's a big improvement over the 5s. The iPhone 6 Plus set a longer shutter speed of 1/4 second, but with its optical image stabiliser we still got 95% of the pictures sharp. Photos from the iPhone 5s and 6 look very similar to each other, but compared to the iPhone 6 Plus, both had details smothered by noise reduction from their higher ISOs. The Nokia 1020 got the best phone shots of all, with plenty of detail and little noise, but its image stabiliser wasn't as effective as that on the iPhone 6 Plus, getting fewer than half of the shots sharp when handheld. The iPhone 6 Plus used an extra digital trick to keep shots sharp, and we'll look at that in detail in the next section.
We included a $100 compact camera from 2011 (a Canon Powershot A2200) as a point of reference. The phone images look more heavily processed and much cleaner. Which you prefer would be a personal judgement. We also included the Fuji X-E1 which has a contemporary sensor to show the size of the gap the phones have yet to close in dim light.
Is the autofocus faster?
Apple has targetted faster focusing on the iPhone 6 models by adding 'phase detect' pixels to the sensor - the same technology that makes focus so much quicker on dedicated SLR cameras. We tried it out under bright light and dim light to measure how much more quickly it can acquire focus when you tap the screen. You can see the result from dim light in the 20-second video below.
Comparing the autofocus speed when you tap on the iPhone 6 (left) and the iPhone 5s (right)
[UPDATE: with the iOS8.1 update, the autofocus on the 6 Plus now seems much zippier when you don't tap to focus, and it is now handily faster than the iPhone 5s. But when you tap to focus, we still get results just like those in the video above]
Can you spot the difference? We can't. The iPhone 6 and 5s seemed to focus at the same speed when we tapped to focus. So we tried it again with the iPhone 6 Plus, then again under full subtropical sunlight on a scene with plenty of contrast, then we tried overcast light on scenes with textures, and we tried tapping on the centre of the screen in case the phase-detect pixels are clustered there. All with the same result. Let us know if you see any problem with our approach. Perhaps tapping forces the old-fashioned contrast-detect focus system? The 'throbbing' of the screen suggests that it's the traditional contrast detection going on, rather than the new phase detection. But we've yet to find any situation where the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus focus more quickly than the older 5s for taking photos.
But for video, the new phase detection focus makes a huge difference - allowing quick and accurate refocusing during the video without the 'throbbing' effect as it hunts for focus.
Hitting a moving target
What about Apple's claim that phase detection lets the phone track moving targets like children running around? We tried it out in two situations where we knew digital SLRs with phase detect focus tracking would do well. The first was Dean a wearing contrasty black-and-white clothes jogging at a constant speed towards the phone in half sunlight. The second was moving the phone smoothly towards a brightly-lit sign, square on. We shot bursts on the cameras and checked their focus.
Both the 6 and 6 plus showed signs of adjusting the focus to track their target - but don't rely on either to deliver consistent results. After the first shot, they only got a couple of shots sharp here and there on a quarter of the bursts. By contrast, under these conditions we'd expect DSLRs either to lock onto their target and get almost every shot sharp, or completely fail to lock, and get everything out of focus. Perfect tracking is not essential on a phone as it is on a DSLR because phones give so much more depth of field (equivalent to a full-frame DSLR on f/19). We had to look very closely to see where the phone had focused, and when it missed, it was only obvious if it had missed by a long way. So we found focus tracking to be a welcome addition, but not a major leap forward for phone focus.
iPhone 6, 1/1300 sec, f/2.2, ISO 32
The technical details: Controlling the Phone
Up until iOS8, iPhone cameras have been entirely predictable. In the same level of light, they'd pick the same camera settings every time. And with their fixed aperture (f/2.2 on the iPhone 5s and 6), they only have two settings to play with – shutter speed and ISO. The iPhones have balanced them in a way that has barely changed since the iPhone 4. Once you got the hang of it, you could have a pretty good idea of what settings they were going to use every time. But now things are getting more... interesting.
The iPhone 6 behaves just like the iPhone 5s
The iPhone 6 native camera is still fairly traditional, and it chooses almost identical settings to the iPhone 5s. Essentially, outside it changes the shutter speed to match changing light (up to 1/10,000th second maximum), but as you step indoors it leaves the shutter speed parked at 1/30th second and plays with ISO to cope with the dimmer light. When things get really dim, it lets the shutter speed slip into “hail Mary” territory of 1/15th second, where some shots of people are blurred, and it lets the ISO range freely up to its maximum of 2000, making it just able to shoot in candlelight. Curiously, while dedicated cameras compete to increase their ISO range with each new model, the iPhones have lowered their maximum ISO for the last two models in a row. The graph below tells the story - follow the red iPhone 5S line for the iPhone 6.
How the iPhones' native camera apps picks ISO and shutter speed in various levels of light.
In iOS8, camera apps now have permission from Apple to jump off the lines to choose their own settings
The iPhone 6 follows the iPhone 5S almost exactly, so it's not shown. The iPhone 6 Plus is the first iPhone to have different exposure options in the same level of light; in dim light below EV4.5, it can stretch the shutter speed, and we believe it cheats digitally to do this.
The new brightness control in the iOS8 camera app still sticks to these lines, and moves the camera's settings along the line. We've recorded a video here as a free part of our iPhone photography course to show you how it works. It has a broad range of 4 stops of exposure in each direction, so it can make pictures up to 16 times brighter or darker. But if you're near to the dark end of the line (dim interiors) and you try to brighten the picture, you'll bump up against the end of the line. Then, just like a normal camera, the exposure compensation doesn't do anything, but confusingly its slider still slides.
iPhone 6 Plus, 1/430s, f/2.2, ISO 32
The iPhone 6 Plus is completely different
The 6 plus adds a hardware optical image stabiliser - when you zig, it zags the lens to keep the image more stable. It’s instant, totally silent, and it’s effective. It lets the iPhone 6 Plus choose a whole new range of settings in dim light. Instead of stopping at 1/15th second as the light drops like the other iPhones, the 6 Plus stretches to a 1/4 second, and uses the extra light to drop the ISO by two stops for crisper images. The stabiliser is effective enough that we got a 95% rate of blur-free photos indoors at 1/4 second - about the same hit rate that we get on 1/15th second with the unstabilised iPhone 6.
So in light dimmer than EV4.5, the iPhone 6 Plus gets noticeably sharper, less noisy images than all the other phones. But only if you shoot things that don’t move.
If you’re photographing people with a pulse, a quarter of a second is simply too long, and you’ll expect them to be blurred. So won’t all your party photos dissolve into a smeary mess? We shot images of moving people in dim light to illustrate the masses of blur that we expected to get… but we were perplexed to see that it didn’t happen. Instead of blur on moving targets, we saw masses of grain and smeary noise reduction instead. So we dug deeper.
Here’s 1/4 second photo on a dedicated camera and a simultaneous 1/4 second photo on the iPhone 6 Plus. The 1/4 second figure comes from the photo's EXIF data - the information recorded in the photo by the phone. The person was walking from left to right in the frame, with the camera held still.
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 18mm
1/4s, f/4, ISO 400
iPhone 6 Plus
1/4s, f/2.2, ISO 160 (as reported by EXIF)
The phone isn't shooting for a 1/4 second as reported by the EXIF information. It's pretending.
It seems that the phone is glueing together a sequence of several shorter images to create a single 1/4 second photo. If everything is stable, the phone blends them to reduce noise and blur, and you get better quality than any individual image. It’s as if you’d used 1/4 second and lower ISO, but it’s done through processing. But if things are moving too much between the pictures, the phone refuses to blend them into a blurry picture. Instead it blends fewer frames to keep things sharper, but this picture has more noise and grain than a regular picture. It looks fairly ugly:
The two approaches that the iPhone 6 Plus can take to shooting in dim light. The upper picture is a normal picture shot at 1/15th, ISO 800. The lower pictures shows more grain and noise, yet claims to be shot at just ISO 320 and 1/4s. The lower picture was made by the phone blending images, and this created the strong look of noise reduction and posterization.
I suspect that many people will see this and interpret it as heavy-handed noise reduction and appalling low-light performance - that’s exactly what it looks like. It’s actually the iPhone 6 Plus being completely fanatical about stopping you seeing blur in a photo that would otherwise have shown movement. It’s very brave of Apple, given that the phone will now get the blame for the poor picture quality instead of the user.
This approach isn’t new - it’s the “intelligent low light” mode on lots of compact cameras, and it’s the way that some night-shooting apps already work on the phone. But this automatic implementation is quite slick. By dicing a 1/4 second exposure at low ISO into shorter exposures at high ISO, the phone can essentially choose the exposure settings after it’s taken the picture. But it means that low-light shots are a bit erratic - jumping from excellent when everything stacks neatly to terrible because there was too much movement to stack the images. It also means that you can’t actually exploit that 1/4 second for creamy waterfalls or panning with a moving vehicle. You’ll still have to use apps like Slow Shutter Cam and NightCap Pro for this, and they give you lots more control too in how the photos are blended.
If you’re uncomfortable with this image-stacking approach, there is a way to force the iPhone 6 Plus to shoot the old-fashioned way with a regular 1/15th second and ISO boost instead. Just shoot a burst. Hold your finger down a moment longer on the button, and the iPhone 6 Plus uses the same settings as the unstabilised iPhone 6, with no sign of image stacking.
I wonder if this approach to long shutter speeds will be coming to dedicated cameras. It would let you choose the shutter speed and ISO after you've taken the picture. And you could change the way that pictures blend together... instead of light painting, we might be doing 'dark painting' soon.
iPhone 6, 1/15th sec, f/2.2, ISO 500
Flash and red-eye
The iPhone 6 models have kept the nifty colour-changing LED flash, so its light isn't as dreadful as it used to be (see our iPhone 5s review for details of this). But I still don't recommend inflicting the camera's own flash on people if you can avoid it. Just ask someone else to turn their phone's flashlight on, and use their light instead, and you'll get a better look and no red-eye.
On the iPhone 6, the flash has also continued its hesitant migration away from the lens. It now gains an extra millimetre of separation. That's slower than continental drift.
Panoramas work in the same way as on the iPhone 5s - a single stripe of horizontal or vertical images built up by smoothly panning through up to 200 degrees - but the maximum resolution has doubled on the iPhone 6 models to 43 megapixels.
The problem with stripes in panoramas under fluorescent lighting has finally been fixed, and the best news is that the fix comes with iOS8, so it applies to older phones too. You can now shoot panoramas under fluorescent lighting in any country, regardless of whether mains power is 50Hz or 60Hz.
iPhone 6 Plus, 1/100s, f/2.2, ISO 500. iOS8 recognises 50Hz fluoro flickering, and avoids the stripes that iOS7 left behind (below)
iPhone 5s, 1/120s, f/2.2, ISO 1250 with iOS7. The vertical stripes come from lights with 50Hz power
Flare and the purple fringe
The iPhone 6 models both keep the synthetic sapphire lens cover to guard against scratches. The lens seems to resist flare well, particularly the 6, even when pointing directly at the sun. On the 6 Plus, we were able to provoke purple fringing, but only in extreme situations. And if you're shooting a panorama in Apple's camera app, it intelligently removes flare as you pan.
iPhone 6 Plus. 1/600th, f/2.2, ISO 32
Storing and managing photos
Like all iPhones to date, neither of the iPhone 6 models has a memory card or removable storage, so you’re stuck with the memory limit of the phone – nominally 16, 64 or 128 GB, but there’s less actually available: iOS8 eats at least 3GB. With normal photo sizes hovering around 2MB each, and panoramas around 16MB, that’s still a lot of photos, but you may want space for music, videos, movies, e-mails and apps too. If you’re travelling, you might want a computer or cloud storage to off-load photos to.
Managing your photos on the phone has inched forward with iOS8, but it's not yet a complete system if you have a large number of photos. There's a rudimentary "favourites" button to mark your best pictures, and there's the beginnings of support for finding images by keywords now that iOS8 search feature includes photos too. But there's nowhere in iOS8 to put the keywords in yet! Photo tags already added by the (now defunct) iPhoto app for iOS7 can be searched as keywords in iOS8. But keywords added in regular computer software like Lightroom aren't picked up by iOS8 search. Some apps offer both keywording and full star rating to separate the best photos from the rest, but only by duplicating all of your photos.
The biggest challenge is that the iPhone's organising system currently stays on the iPhone - you can't see or use it when you plug the phone into your computer. That will all change for Mac users with the introduction of the new Photos app for OSX Yosemite in early 2015. Until then, it's still a mess, but a mess with a lot more promise. Apple's plan is to keep all your photos in their cloud, and your computers and devices become windows into that world with edits and keywords shared instantly. It's a great vision, if you can afford the storage.
Personally, I still take the photos off the phone and then manage them by computer using Lightroom 5.
Battery life is a permanent challenge for iPhone photographers - you can easily drain a full battery in 4 hours of shooting and editing. Apple's claimed 10%-ish increase in battery life on the iPhone 6 won't make much difference, but the 6 Plus has a substantially larger battery lasting 40%-ish longer. For shooting and editing photos, it feels like a bigger improvement than even this figure would suggest. I found myself doing a double-take when I looked at the battery meter, expecting to see much less juice left.
One thing I didn't factor was that this bigger battery in the iPhone 6 Plus also takes proportionately longer to charge with the supplied 5 amp power supply, and the supply gets worryingly hot in the process. Switching to a 12 amp iPad supply almost halves the charging time, and Apple approves it as fine to use with iPhones. I don't know if it has any impact on the overall life of the battery to charge it faster.
iOS8 now lets you keep an eye on which apps are draining the battery the most. Tap Settings > General > Usage > Battery usage, to see what a power hog the camera is, and to find out what apps the kids have been using while you weren't looking.
iOS8 lets you check the impact of each app on your battery
Close-up performance remains unchanged on the new phone cameras compared to the previous iPhones. You can still fill the frame with something slightly smaller than a business card (about 7.5 cm long).
iPhone 6, 1/120s, f/2.2, ISO 32
My head and heart disagree.
My head says to stick with the iPhone 5s and sell both of the 6 models. The photos from the 5s are almost identical to those from the 6, it’s discreet, convenient, and its screen is more accurate for editing. iOS8 brings some great photographic steps forward to all iPhones from 4s onwards, and the 5s takes full advantage of them all. Sticking with the iPhone 5s is the obvious thing to do.
If I must upgrade, the sensible choice is the iPhone 6. Its slightly larger screen makes most tasks quicker, and it’s got a great camera. The camera isn’t as much of a step forward as I’d hoped for - the new sensor and processing are better, but trivially so, and I’ve yet to find a situation where the phase-detect autofocus makes a difference compared to the 5s for taking photos, although it's great for video.
But I’m keeping the iPhone 6 Plus. This is not a head decision. I’m about to travel to Japan for 3 weeks with family all hand-luggage only. This is not the sensible choice to take. But having enjoyed the big screen, trying to use the 5s feels faintly comical, and the iPhone 6 seems too… middling, indecisive and… sensible. The image stabiliser on the 6 Plus works well and - with proper technique - the new 1/4 second image blending approach delivers better results. But these aren’t the reasons that I’m keeping the 6 Plus. These advantages are more than offset by its awkward size and loss of discretion. If it were any larger, I wouldn’t want to take photos on it at all. It’s because I like it. I like the enormous screen, and its usability for basic editing. I like the noticeably better battery life. And, sadly, I like the way my daughter said "That looks like a cool spy phone, Dad".
Want to get the most out of your iPhone camera? Check out the World's only jargon-free iPhone Photography course.
The course includes video materials showing how to use the apps we mention. Click here for an example
A huge thank-you to the following people who helped-out with this review:
Eleshia Nielsen for going miles above and beyond the call of duty to help out and make sure we got the phones and got them tested.
Tim Boyd from Brisbane Camera Group for support, lugging, technical input and ideas
Sue - coffee, understanding and logistics
Apple, iPhone and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. Take Better Photos does not claim any endorsement by and receives no sponsorship from Apple Inc. We are Apple developers, but the agreement with Apple does not restrict us from being critical of Apple hardware where warranted. We queued and paid normal full price for the iPhones. Photoshop and Lightroom are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems.