16 September 2014

iPhone 6 Camera: A photographer's perspective

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have landed and some have proclaimed that the new Apple smartphones offer something new for photographers to be excited about. Personally, I’m not really that impressed about Apple’s latest handsets or the hype around “Focus Pixels” and “Tone Mapping” and here's why.

iPhone 6 Camera

What's (actually) new in the iPhone 6 camera?

In truth, not much. The improvements to the new iSight camera seem to be restricted almost exclusively to processor and software updates allowing for improved colour reproduction and noise handling algorithms. The only hardware improvements we’re getting here are Optical Image Stabilisation (available on the iPhone 6 Plus only) and a new sensor that uses “Focus Pixels”, otherwise known to the rest of the world as on-chip phase detection autofocus, which focuses twice as fast as their previous generation sensor according to the tech giants from Cupertino.

While straining every synapse in his brain to appear enthusiastic during the camera section of the iPhone 6 keynote speech, Phil Schiller neglected to mention that the Samsung Galaxy S5 already uses phase detection AF as does the LG G2 and the newer LG G3, but that’s none of my business.

Aside from these two more significant improvements, if you look at the side-by-side iPhone comparison on Apple’s own site, the only thing that’s obviously new about the iSight camera on the latest iPhone is that Apple is calling it new.

It features the same 1/3-inch sensor size and the same 8-megapixel resolution that the company’s flagship mobile devices have carried since the iPhone 4S was announced in the first half of 2011, as well as the same f/2.2 aperture lens, True Tone flash, Hybrid IR filter, and a host of other features previously seen in the iPhone 5S.

The additional photography ‘features’ offered in the new iPhone 6, such as larger Panorama capture (now up to 43-megapixels), improved face detection and new video recording functions such as 60 frames-per-second HD video with continuous focus, have been enabled by the new A8 and M8 processors.

Interestingly, it’s perhaps in the new processing engines where visually creative folk keen on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus will see the greatest benefits. These new processors come with improved algorithms for processing images captured by the Apple smartphone.

What should we expect from the revised camera?

In theory, the revised iSight camera should be able to discern between genuine image data and electrical noise generated by ISO sensitivities with greater accuracy. Image noise is typically visible during low-light situations showing up as red, green, blue (colour noise) and white dots (luminance). If the iPhone 6 is capable of tackling noise more intelligently as Apple claims, I’d expect to see less smudging of details, such as hair and skin texture, as the phone’s camera attempts to smooth out the noise.

Ultimately, the new iPhones should deliver higher quality images in terms of colour, clarity and sharpness. But considering that the pixel size at 1.5µ and 8MP sensor resolution is unchanged from the iPhone 5S, it’s hard at this stage to imagine that the image quality will be vastly improved.

The other potential improvement is the amount of shooting time you'll get from the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Previous iPhone models need charging after 6-8 eight hours of normal use, dropping down to 3-4 hours if the camera is being used regularly, as battery power is typically devoured by high-resolution displays.

Although the new iPhones feature larger screens, now dubbed “Retina HD displays” (iPhone 6 Plus: 1920 x 1080 @ 401ppi and iPhone 6: 1334 x 750 @ 326ppi), the A8 and M8 processors are designed to cope with the performance burden more efficiently, delivering sustained high quality graphics and faster operation performance, on paper at least.

Improved contrast ratios on the updated models will also make these devices good for showing off the quality of your work, with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus displays putting out contrast ratios of 1400:1 and 1300:1 respectively, providing a more vibrant viewing experience than the iPhone 5S, the Sony Xperia Z2 and the HTC M8.

Early Verdict

Apple’s new iPhone 6 has a 31mm f/2.2 lens, an 8-megapixel sensor with 1.5µ micron sized pixels and True Tone Flash. Only the iPhone 6 Plus has O.I.S. Although the handsets look beautifully crafted, from a photographer’s perspective I’d have hoped Apple would have delivered a lot more with their new flagship. Considering how much smartphone technology has moved on since the iPhone 4S was released, it’s disappointing that Apple has done so little to evolve the camera capabilities of its smartphones.

Sure the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus will take better pictures than the iPhone 4S, but how much better will those pictures be when they’re using a camera based on the same architecture as a handset released in 2011? Even if the picture quality is good, which it probably will be, Apple could have delivered something truly special. On current evidence, it hasn't.

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