Adventures in iPhone photography from the creators of… Camera + MagiCam Filters

The ultimate iPhone camera comparison: How does the iPhone 6s camera compare to every other iPhone generation?

September 28, 2015 by 171 Comments

About Lisa Bettany

Lisa Bettany is cofounder of Camera+ and MagiCam and has been named one of the top 10 most influential photographers on the web. She is passionate about sharing knowledge and inspiring others to pursue their photographic dreams.



In the past eight years, each new advancement in iPhone camera technology has made dramatic improvements to image quality. The new 12-megapixel iPhone 6s iSight camera is no exception. With 50% more megapixels than the last four iPhone 8-megapixel models, the iPhone 6s boasts a number of key improvements including: improved auto-focus, local tone-mapping, noise reduction, and colour separation, with that fancy “deep trench isolation” technology Apple is raving about.

In this follow-up post to my previous iPhone comparisons, I present a 9 iPhone comparison from all iPhone versions taken with Camera+ including: the original iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3Gs, iPhone 4, iPhone 4s, iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, and the new iPhone 6s, in a variety of real-life situations to test each iPhone camera’s capabilities.

Macro

The first comparison is a macro of pencil crayons to examine the increase in detail with the new 12MP iPhone 6s. The original iPhone and 3G are fixed focus so they are unable to focus on closely placed objects resulting in blurry, pixelated images. Autofocus was added to the iPhone 3Gs which improves the quality of the image slightly. There is a noticeable improvement in the details and sharpness of the image with the 5MP iPhone 4 and the 8MP iPhone 4s, but we only begin to see the details in the pencil crayon tips with the iPhone 5 and 5s due to addition of the five-element lens which increased the sharpness of images. The iPhone 6 is a brighter image thanks to the local tone-mapping algorithm added to this version, but the clear winner is the iPhone 6s. The addition of detection autofocus and deep trench isolation gives this iPhone camera faster, more accurate focusing and clearer, less noisy images. The detail and colour separation in the iPhone 6s image is dramatic.


Backlit

Next, a backlit photo of a boat in a marina demonstrates the improvements the iPhone camera has made in dealing with high contrast lighting situations and noise reduction. The iPhone 3G stands out amongst the older phones its warm tones and high contrast. The detail and contrast on the boat is getting better with the 5, 5s, 6, but makes a marked improvement on the 6s. The boat is noticeably sharper and you can see more details in the mountains and clouds behind it. This image quality is very impressive.

Backlit Macro

Besides wanting an excuse to eat gummy bears, I thought I would add a backlit macro to this comparison. The results were incredible. I was surprised with the impressive quality of the iPhone 4 and 4s. For those of you who can’t afford an upgrade or have better things to do with $1,298.08 (the cost of my iPhone 6S), this is good news. Your old phone is still pretty good. Obviously, the quality gets better and better with the 5 series and even better with the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6s really shines in this challenge. The image is balanced with the bright sun behind the delicious bears and the details are very sharp. The colour separation is also bang on with the iPhone 6s shot. Yay deep trench isolation! Never thought I’d utter those words.

Daylight

In the first of these two daylight shots, the noticeable differences are white balance, contrast, colour and sharpness of the images. The original iPhone and iPhone 3G were low contrast and very blue in tone. The iPhone 3Gs is kind of an anomaly with it’s warm tone and rich colour saturation. We see a shift from a warm tone to a more accurate white balance with the iPhone 4s. An increase in the details in the last 4 phones is apparent looking at the rivets and the red cross on the side of the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.

In the second shot of the fishing boat in partially cloud conditions we see a similar increase in details. The sharpness in the lettering is quite noticeable. The sun popped out for the iPhone 6 shot which is why it’s warmer and has more shadows. The iPhone 6s image is very balanced and detailed. Also, I nearly fell off a dock taking this shot and some of my iPhones still smell a little fishy.

Portrait

One of the major complaints with the iPhone 6 was a pixelated “blotchiness” with skin tones in particular. In this version, Apple altered their local tone-mapping and noise reduction algorithm for better exposure and contrast, but it caused pixelation and a decrease in sharpness. It looks like Apple tried to fix this problem with iPhone 6s using deep trench isolation which causes a greater separation in the photo diodes to maintain accurate colours and reduce noise.

The iPhone 6s image looks more vibrant, sharper and skin tones look more true to life. The sharpness is apparent around my eye, but I’m still noticing the pixelation problem, especially with the highlights on my cheeks in the tight crop. I’m not going to lie… it is extremely creepy to see this many close-ups of my eye ball.

Sunset

In the sunset photo comparison, we see improvements in contrast, details and colour accuracy over time. As with last year’s comparison, I found that the iPhone 5s has more contrast and vibrancy than the iPhone 6 image. This is likely due to Apple altering the tone-mapping algorithm. With the iPhone 6s we see a return to the more highly saturated and contrasted style of the 5s. There is definitely more detail in the clouds, but they are still quite pixelated due to the noise reduction software Apple is using. It’s a tough balance between reducing noise and increasing pixelation. Something Adobe has been trying master for years. As a photographer, I would love to be able to tweak the strength of this noise reduction algorithm with a slider or manual setting.

Low-light

We’ve seen the biggest improvements in low light conditions over the years. The original iPhone, 3G, 3Gs and 4 all had an aperture of f/2.8. Apple added a backside illuminated sensor to the iPhone 4 which improved the quality over previous versions. We see some more improvement with a wider aperture of f/2.4 in the iPhone 4s and the 5 which had an additional low-light boost from ISO 800 to 3200. An advanced noise reduction algorithm was added to the iPhone 6 and you can notice the decrease in the overall graininess of the image and an increase in sharpness. The deep trench isolation technology used for colour separation in the iPhone 6s also improves its low light capabilities by ensuring that the light captured by one pixel doesn’t interfere with surrounding pixels. The iPhone 6 image is actually brighter than the iPhone 6s image and looks very good, but the 6s has more contrast, detail and less noise. I’d have to do more tests to really explore low light improvements between the iPhone 6 and 6s. One day wasn’t enough to thoroughly compare the two, although playing with it over the last few days, I’m definitely noticing improvements.

Low-light Sunrise

To test another low light condition, this year I’m adding a sunrise comparison. The older iPhones show little details in the clouds and water. There is also an increase in the details of the shadows of the iPhone 6s from the earlier iPhones.

Summary

Each year I do this comparison, and each year I am impressed at how much the iPhone camera technology has improved. The iPhone has made it easier to capture and share our memories. Each new phone gives us a better tool to capture better quality images and create incredible photographs.

The improved sensor, software updates and new A9 processor on the iPhone 6s has made this camera the best yet. There is an apparent increase in the speed of auto focus and improvements to colour accuracy, details and sharpness, especially in low light.

PS I’m still waiting for an adjustable aperture ;)

See my previous iPhone camera comparison posts here:

And check out this handy infographic that shows how the iPhone camera has evolved over the years.

171 Comments

  1. I’m glad Apple resisted the megapixel game for a while until sensor technology improved. Even still the difference between the 1.5 micron photosites on the iPhone 6 and 1.22 micron on the iPhone 6s clearly impact low light performance. It’s a pity Apple didn’t improve the f/2.2 aperture as a way to compensate.

    Great work Lisa

  2. “The original iPhone and 3G are fixed focus so they are unable to focus on closely placed objects resulting in blurry, pixelated images. Autofocus was added to the iPhone 3G which improves the quality of the image slightly.”

    Did you mean 3GS here?

  3. It would be really cool to automate these shots with a google-gopro-ring-like contraption and some capacitive touch to press the camera button!

  4. Were all of these cameras in new condition? The degredation of the coatings on the final element is a major factor in image quality. Try a year-old iPhone 6 which has lived in a jeans pocket against a brand new one. Without that as a control this is a useless comparison.

  5. Best comparison page I’ve seen (and don’t expect to see anything better) – thank you.

    Wanting the best no flash (often indoor) low light shots and with Apple upping the pixel count on the same size sensor by 50% this year I was pessimistic of the 6s. Frankly going to the low light shots and clicking the 6 and 6s photos to compare them – its really obvious the 6 will give you noticeably brighter pics, by default, in those often used conditions. May save myself $100 and get a 6 this year instead of the 6s as I want that brightness without editing (wish Apple would stayed at 8MP with the new sensor improvements).

  6. Wow superb info, I loved the article!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this and put it all together.

    Looking forward to reading more from you.

  7. Her lack of technical insight in photographic equipment and terminology is baffling, but not as baffling as her being called “one of the top 10 most influential photographers on the web”. Thanks for posting the comparison shots.

  8. Your descriptions don’t seem to match the images. To my eye the 4S is better in almost all the 1:1 crops. And by better I mean more natural, rather than higher resolution. It’s almost like Apple are adding subtle noise to create the impression of detail there. The 6S, by comparison, seems to have a lot more JPEG compression artifactiness (new word).

  9. Very Nice!!
    I’m very much of enjoying this article, and please update more details comparison on low light or night shoot between 6 and 6s, cause the pics from these conditions don’t’t seem to match the results from other websites, anyway very good!

  10. Like Nils in the message above . . . I can only see the first image, which I assume is the original iPhone. Would love to see the full spectrum of comparative photos.

    What a great idea, Brittany. And what a good website.

    Thanks very much. Look forward to hearing from you.

    Rick Jakle

  11. Speaking of daylight photos I would say iphone 5 has the same level of details as iphone 6s. Although 6s has more sharpening on photos and more advanced noise reduction. Judging by these photos it seems like 6s > 5 > 6, surprisingly.

  12. “The iPhone has made it easier to capture and share our memories.”

    What does this have to do with “capturing memories”? That’s not what a camera does.

    If somebody found a way to capture memories, it would be a major scientific breakthrough. Cameras just capture selected parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

  13. Wow there are some over critical dbags here.

    Where is your comparisons boys?

    If you’re so awesome how come I haven’t heard of a single one of you but have known of Lisa for years?
    What have you achieved that earned you the right to be so critical?

  14. If you look carefully, you see that the coin detail differences are mostly because the autofocus focused further back on the 6S shot.

  15. If you look carefully, you see that the coin detail differences are mostly because the autofocus focused further back on the 6S shot.

  16. Yeah, Lisa! If you didn’t perform the jean-pocket test that no one has ever heard of, this comparison is useless. USELESS!

  17. “Her lack of technical insight in photographic equipment and terminology is baffling,” said the baffled man who demonstrates no technical insight in photographic equipment and terminology and performs no comparison testing.

  18. “What does this have to do with “capturing memories”?… Cameras just capture selected parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

    Or in other words, “Your idiomatically imprecise human language confuses me. Let us continue in my native binary code.”

  19. I’ve bookmarked this for the last few years. It’s more definitive than other attempts to demonstrate visible improvements to each iPhone camera iteration. Any photo comparison has to have the same position time and subject matter to be of value, Lisa seems to understand this much better than most other sites, where invariably one camera is pointed up more to the sky or light source more than the other. Having every one of the 9 iPhones and hopefully soon 10, to compare is very definitive. You can see how each years upgrades are mostly subtle, but how when added up; show how far the worlds most popular camera has come. With the selfie front camera getting improved to a decent sounding 7 megapixel is it time to include all the front facing cameras for one comparison?

  20. I’ve bookmarked this for the last few years. It’s more definitive than other attempts to demonstrate visible improvements to each iPhone camera iteration. Any photo comparison has to have the same position time and subject matter to be of value, Lisa seems to understand this much better than most other sites, where invariably one camera is pointed up more to the sky or light source more than the other. Having every one of the 9 iPhones and hopefully soon 10, to compare is very definitive. You can see how each years upgrades are mostly subtle, but how when added up; show how far the worlds most popular camera has come. With the selfie front camera getting improved to a decent sounding 7 megapixel is it time to include all the front facing cameras for one comparison?

  21. I’ve bookmarked this for the last few years. It’s more definitive than other attempts to demonstrate visible improvements to each iPhone camera iteration. Any photo comparison has to have the same position time and subject matter to be of value, Lisa seems to understand this much better than most other sites, where invariably one camera is pointed up more to the sky or light source more than the other. Having every one of the 9 iPhones and hopefully soon 10, to compare is very definitive. You can see how each years upgrades are mostly subtle, but how when added up; show how far the worlds most popular camera has come. With the selfie front camera getting improved to a decent sounding 7 megapixel is it time to include all the front facing cameras for one comparison

  22. A simulation of what? Yes it’s not the native app, if that’s what you mean? Otherwise it seems to be a comparison of all the images caught by each iPhone iteration in various scenarios. I’m surprised iMore or others haven’t taken this idea, it’s a good one.

  23. I’m getting iPhone 5C in 2017 , though it’s going to be an old phone , I think its camera is going to perform just fine ! Hope my budget is going to be enough for next year !

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  25. Kudos to you for the amount of time spent producing this comparison. Ignore the requests to go back out and reshoot with your left foot off the ground. I just picked up a 6s plus and I honestly don’t see a big difference from my 5s. I got it hoping to leave my DSLR’s at home for an upcoming cruise but I think I have to carry the big stuff if I want to be serious about pics.

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