It might be one of the most popular cameras in the world, but there has been a sense of stagnation when it comes to the shooter on the iPhone. Yes, the camera has been improving with every new edition of the device, but unlike in its earlier generations, the improvements seemed relatively muted and significantly, the megapixel count – a parameter by which many mainstream users (somewhat erroneously) judge the quality of a camera – was left untouched. The megapixel count on the iPhone had progressed thus for the first five years:

iPhone (2007) – 2.0 megapixels
iPhone 3G (2008) – 2.0 megapixels
iPhone 3GS (2009) – 3.2 megapixels
iPhone 4 (2010) – 5.0 megapixels
iPhone 4S (2011) – 8.0 megapixels

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And there it froze. From 2011 till the iPhone 6s this year, the iPhones had a megapixel count of eight. Yes, there were improvements in the quality of the camera, the sensors (which had larger pixels) and the flash (Apple introduced the dual tone – or True Tone – flash with the iPhone 5S) were always tweaked upwards, but on the spec sheet, it seemed that just as it refused to get into the cores and GHz battle in the processor division, the Cupertino company would rather fight on experience and results rather than megapixels when it came to cameras. To be fair, it was a strategy that served it well – even as its opponents focused on more megapixels, Apple was able to pull so much out of the 8.0-megapixel camera (which seemed so 2010-11 on paper) that it could run an entire campaign based on the pictures taken by the iPhone 6.

However, with the latest iPhones, Apple finally decided to not just stick to tweaks in sensors but also upped the ante in the megapixel division – the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus come with 12.0-megapixel cameras, support for 4k videos, and (we can hear the selfie crowd go ‘hallelujah’) 5.0-megapixel front facing cameras. The company however is still betting on experience rather than specs. As it says on the camera section of the iPhone 6s page:

But great photos aren’t just measured in megapixels. That’s why we’ve added a state-of-the-art sensor, a new image signal processor, advanced pixel technology, Focus Pixels, improved local tone mapping and optical image stabilisation. What does that all mean? It means we’ve taken care of the technology. All you have to do is find something beautiful and tap the shutter button…

Which is why we decided to take them at their word and focus (pun intended) just on hitting the shutter button when we evaluated the camera on the iPhone 6s Plus, which is considered to be a slight notch above that of the iPhone 6s, thanks to the presence of optical image stabilisation. To find out just how much had changed, we also took similar pictures with the iPhone 6 Plus. The results are as follows, and our conclusions come after them:

  1. There are no changes in interface – the camera’s interface remains minimalistic and no, 3D touch does not come into play when you are shooting a picture or a video. If you press down on the display, you will simply lock autofocus on to that portion of the display as you move the phone.
  2. Let’s get one thing out of the way – the iPhone 6s Plus is as far ahead of its predecessor as the iPhone 4S was ahead of the iPhone 4. It is not just a matter of megapixels, really – the images clicked by the 6s Plus are discernibly better, even in good light conditions in terms of both color and detail.
  3. We would like to stress here that the iPhone 6 Plus remains a very good camera phone – in good and even relatively low light conditions, it took decent photographs, but compare its results with those of the 6s Plus, and well, the difference was often staggeringly discernible.
  4. One of the most significant changes we observed was the handling of glare at night or indoors. While in the past, the iPhones generally came a cropper with light flashing all around the source, the 6s Plus handles matters much better. We are not saying it totally eliminates flare like some of the phone cameras we have seen of late, but it certainly reduces it significantly and also captures much more detail in relatively low light. We would not exactly call it in the league of the LG G4 (which remains one of the best low light performers in our book, in spite of a penchant for inconsistency), but it certainly is capable of delivering very good results.
  5. Similarly, in very bright light conditions – the afternoon sun, for instance – we found the iPhone 6s Plus still digging out decent detail and colours, even while the iPhone 6 Plus managed at best to get a relatively clear image. If you are the type that likes to play around with light and shade effects, the iPhone 6s Plus is clearly the phone for you.
  6. Yes, we know that Apple itself played down the megapixel count, but well, the increase megapixels do make a difference – they result in higher resolution images and thanks to the sensor improvements, much more detail. Put those two together and you get the option of getting reasonably good quality images even after cropping them heavily.
  7. The iPhone 6s Plus pictures have a slightly ‘warmer’ feeling to them than those of the iPhone 6 Plus. These become noticeable when anything red, brown or yellow comes into the picture. However, unlike some of the snappers we have seen on other devices, the iPhone 6s Plus cannot be accused of ‘oversaturation’ for the sake of more lively colours – the colours are going to remain relatively realistic, although some humans might find themselves looking just a trifle more pink.
  8. Food snappers might not see too much difference between the results of the 6 Plus and 6s Plus from afar, but those extra megapixels do result in much sharper images, especially if you are looking at a colorful dish or something with a lot of grains.
  9. In close ups, we found the 6s Plus once again delivering very good results, often adding depth of field (simple English: “blurring the background, focusing on the subject”) on its own discretion.
  10. The better handling of light and color come to the fore in videos too, though once again, you will have to look closely at the video shot by the 6s Plus to notice how much better it is than that taken by its predecessor.
  11. The front facing camera is pretty much a walkover for the iPhone 6s Plus as compared to the iPhone 6 Plus – we can say that this is the best selfie camera we have seen on an iOS device. However, we are going to qualify that by saying that we think Android has stolen a march over iOS here in terms of edits (oh those beauty effects) and image quality.
[iPhone 6 Plus on left; iPhone 6s Plus on right. Click on each pic to see the full resolution version hosted on Flickr]

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Conclusion: Much, much better than before…and still so easy to use

We have often been asked why we use the iPhone for so much of our photography, when there are phones with much better specced cameras around. Our answer has been to point at the two greatest assets of the iPhone’s camera – simplicity and consistency. In those departments, it remains unmatched – you pretty much know what you are going to get when you hit the shutter, which is not something you can say of the better-specced shooters in Android and Windows Phone. Yes, we know that we can get better pictures than what we have seen on the iPhone 6s Plus from other devices like the LG G4 and the Samsung Galaxy S6, but what is significant is that in the cases of the latter, they more often than not have to be coaxed out carefully. The iPhone 6s Plus on the other hand, is an ode to the sheer simplicity of photography – just point and shoot and you will get decent results. Yes, Apple did get that right: “All you have to do is find something beautiful and tap the shutter button…

Just how well the 6s Plus compares with other devices out there is something we will be looking at in the coming days, but as of now, what we can tell you is that it is streets ahead of the 6 Plus, which incidentally remains a very good camera phone (don’t forget that the likes of LG and Samsung were comparing their flagships with the 6 Plus not too long ago), and we would go so far as to say that this is perhaps the most significant camera upgrade we have seen on the iPhone since 2011.

We love saying “cheese” to this one!


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Editorial Mentor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.