Still Image Performance

Now that we’ve discussed the user experience and still image quality we can start to compare the end result after taking photos. For those unfamiliar with how we test photos, we rely on a combination of controlled lighting tests and relative real-world comparative tests. In the interest of better-controlled testing I’m hoping to make a move towards more controlled testing in the future but for now relative comparisons in mostly identical conditions should give a pretty good idea for what to expect from a camera.

Looking at our standard resolution test, the iPhone 6s has visibly more detail than the iPhone 6, but we're basically looking at the ideal case here. Both phones have some noticeable haloing around high-contrast edges to enhance perceived sharpness but the iPhone 6s manages to keep smoother edges in the image and less distortion of the closely spaced line pairs in the center of the image. Given how subtle some of these changes are I suspect that in real-world situations it would be difficult to tell the difference between the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6 for overall image detail.

Daytime Photography

Our first real-world test is a daytime shot. Compared to something like the iPhone 6 in this test, oddly enough there isn’t a huge improvement, which suggests that either that noise reduction is reducing overall detail in the image or that the optics are actually the limiting factor in resolution. The Note 5 does hold an advantage here by virtue of larger sensor size and just more pixels to work with. However when compared to some of the other phones on the market like the One M9 Apple actually manages to produce a better image despite their sensor size deficit and pixel count deficit.

The same scene with HDR enabled shows that Apple is relatively conservative when it comes to how strong they make their HDR effects. Once again something like the Note 5 is clearly better here when it comes to detail and overall dynamic range, but Samsung does push a bit too far when you look at some shadows as the trees in the left half of the image have noticeable color artifacts. Interestingly enough, LG is the clear leader here when it comes to dynamic range and detail but they do have a problem with some excessive sharpening and some color artifacts when we look at some really extreme long distance detail. Apple does need to improve HDR here, as the latency for an HDR photo is quite long and the difference between HDR on and off is rather subtle in situations where it shouldn't be subtle.

Low Light Scene 1

Moving on to the same scene shot in low light, it’s almost kind of shocking to say this but the iPhone 6s is better than the iPhone 6 here in low light. However, this does come at the cost of more visible luminance noise which suggests that we’re looking mostly at differences in post-processing. The same is true of the iPhone 6s Plus when compared to the iPhone 6 Plus, which is kind of surprising but given that in low light we’re mostly limited by the sensor rather than the available light it makes sense that sensor-level improvements eliminate the disadvantages associated with small pixel sizes.

Relative to the Galaxy Note 5, the iPhone 6s Plus is pretty close here but the Note 5 does have an edge in detail. However, the post-processing has noticeably more artifacts such as the odd streak on the left side of the image which is due to stray light. The iPhone 6s Plus also does a better job of freezing motion of the people walking on the stairs, which is likely due to their image combination techniques to reduce motion blur that would otherwise be evident due to the long exposures used. The G4 might look better to some people but detail is similar to the iPhone 6s Plus with the motion blur of the Note 5, so it ends up behind both.

Low Light Scene 2

In the interest of gathering more data points for low light camera performance, I decided to try and find a relatively uniform low light scene that stresses detail more strongly. Here, once again the iPhone 6s and 6 are pretty similar but the iPhone 6s has better detail at the expense of more noise. Relative to the iPhone 6 Plus, the iPhone 6s Plus ends up with better detail as well. The iPhone 6s Plus is actually arguably better than the Note 5 here by virtue of more accurate color and better details. For whatever reason in some very low contrast areas Samsung is just blurring away details in their post-processing that Apple is retaining. The ground is clearly more detailed as well. This seems counter-intuitive but this is really just Apple’s processing here as they’re getting away with an absurdly long exposure time without the associated motion blur that you might expect from a quarter second exposure. Once again, the LG G4 actually manages to beat the Note 5 and iPhone 6s Plus in absolute detail here despite the much higher sensor gain selected for this scene. The OnePlus 2 in this scene looks pretty similar to the iPhone 6s Plus, but with more color noise and a bit more blur at 100%.

Low Light Scene 3

In the interest of breaking things down even more, I decided to do one last low light test scene which is really more designed to see what motion blur occurs in low light than anything else. This is far from scientific but the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are once again effectively equivalent at freezing motion, while the Note 5, G4, and almost every other phone I attempted to test this scene with is visibly worse at this. Weirdly enough, even though the Moto X 2014 and iPhone 6s are using the same shutter speed the iPhone appears to do a better job of maintaining detail. This is likely due to changes in image processing on the software side to try and reduce the effects but this is a rough estimate as I can’t control precisely how fast pedestrians and traffic move in this scene.

Overall, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are pretty consistently good cameras. In some ways Apple is losing out in raw detail for photos because they went with a smaller sensor size than most, but in general color reproduction, post-processing, and low light photo quality and overall camera UX Apple is leading quite strongly. To some extent, I would say that the Galaxy Note 5 and LG G4 are better in daytime just by virtue of their larger sensors, but in low light I would argue the iPhone 6s Plus is better by virtue of its ability to freeze motion while remaining competitive with the Note 5 and G4 for detail. The iPhone 6s by comparison is at least a few steps behind due to its lack of OIS, but this really only starts to matter when you hit the limits of the 2000 ISO and 1/15s exposure for a scene as the iPhone 6s Plus can push up to 2000 ISO and a 1/4s exposure.

Camera Architecture, UX, and Live Photos Video Performance
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  • Der2 - Monday, November 2, 2015 - link

    Its about time. Reply
  • zeeBomb - Monday, November 2, 2015 - link

    Oh man...oh man it's finally here. I just wanted to say thank you for faithfuflly using all your findings to incorporate this review. It may have take a little longer than expected, but hey, this is my first anandtech review that I probably camped out for it to drop, lol...thanks again Joshua and Brandon! Reply
  • zeeBomb - Monday, November 2, 2015 - link

    Ugh. I meant Ryan Smith...sorry! Waking up at 5 isn't the ideal way to go... Reply
  • Samus - Thursday, November 5, 2015 - link

    That's what she said, Der bra. Reply
  • zeeBomb - Sunday, November 8, 2015 - link

    Very valid point. Speaking of valid points... 500! Reply
  • trivor - Thursday, November 5, 2015 - link

    Have to disagree with your statement that the high end Android phone space has stood still. With this round of phones the Android OEMs have all upped their game to approximate parity with the iPhones and in some cases exceed the performance and quality of images taken by an iPhone. In addition, on phones like the LG G4 the option of having manual control of your picture taking and supporting RAW/JPEG simultaneously is a huge advance for smartphones. Add to that, phase change focusing, laser rangefinder for close focus, generous internal storage (32 GB) and micro SD expansion (which works quite well on Lollipop - not sure about Marshmallow yet) you have a great camera phone. It also has OIS 2.0 (whatever that means) at a significantly lower cost than even the low end (16 GB) iPhone 6s @ $450-500 for the G4 versus $650 for the iPhone. While iOS seems to get apps updated a little quicker, look nicer from what I've heard and seem to be a little more feature rich. Conversely, the Material Design language has greatly improved the state of Android interfaces to give Android OEMs a much more stable OS - although the first builds of Lollipop were not ready for prime time. Also, let's not forget that Android dominates the low - middle range of Smartphones below $400 with near flagship specs, excellent cameras in phones like the Motorola Style (Pure Edition in the US), Motorola Play (is apparently the base model for the Droid Maxx 2 for Verizon, a number of the Asus Zenphones, the Moto G and E. Also, the new Nexus' (6P and 5X) are both competitive across the board with new cameras with 1.55 micron pixels that let in significantly more light than the 1.12 pixels in other cameras, are competitively priced (especially the 6P @ $499), and are overall very nice handsets. Finally, the customizability and wide variety of handsets at EVERY PRICE POINT make Android a compelling choice for many consumers. Reply
  • Fidelator - Friday, November 6, 2015 - link

    I couldn't agree more, the Android space has not stayed still, if anything, most of the problems on that side were due to Qualcomm's lack of a good offering this year, still, the phones were further refines in other areas, saying this is overall the best camera phone given the only advantage it has over the competition is reduced motion blur is complete bull, the UI is far from the best given that auto on both the SGS6/Note 5 and the G4 is as effective yet those still offer great manual settings.

    The -barely over 720p- display on the 6S is inexcusable for 2015 and given the starting price of the 6S should not be passed as an acceptable not even as a good display.

    Where Apple deserves credit is with the A9, it is miles ahead of anything the competition currently offers, they have made some fantastic design choices, it just is on the next level.
    Reply
  • robertthekillertire - Monday, November 9, 2015 - link

    I'm actually very happy with Apple's decision to stick with a lower-resolution screen. Which would you rather: a smartphone with an insanely high pixel count that your eyes probably can't appreciate anyway, or a smartphone with a lower PPI (but barely perceptibly so) that gets better battery life and has smoother UI and game performance because it's not trying to push an absurd number of pixels at any given moment? The tradeoff just doesn't seem worth it to me. Reply
  • MathieuLF - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link

    But your eyes can tell the difference... When I had my iPhone 6+ and Nexus 6P side by side I can see it right away that the Nexus has more pixels Reply
  • Cantona7 - Tuesday, December 1, 2015 - link

    But the difference is not large enough to justify heavier power consumption and greater graphics requirement. I agree that more pixels is certainly more pleasant to the eyes, but I'd rather greater battery life. If the Nexus 6P had a lower resolution screen, it would have a even greater battery life which would be awesome Reply

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