Camera shootout: How the iPhone 6s compares to the iPhone 6

With a 12 megapixel back-facing camera, 4K video capabilities, and Live Photos, the iPhone 6s's camera is a significant leap forward from the iPhone 6.

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What about real video? 

Straight video is the other big upgrade with the 6s, since it can now shoot in 4K. 4K is four times the resolution of 1080p, also known as Full HD—think of a grid of four TVs stacked in a two-by-two grid—and so one of the big advantages of it is that you get more creative control in editing. Whereas the jump from 8 to 12 megapixels is a jump of only half as much again, going from 1080p to 4K is a fourfold increase in resolution, so you can do much more with cropping. In the video below, for example, the first five seconds show 1080p footage from the iPhone 6, while the last 10 show a 1080p-sized chunk cropped, cookie cutter-style, from the middle of some 4K footage off a 6s. 

In other words, if you intend to output at HD rather than 4K, you do get a facsimile of a zoom lens with the iPhone 6s by shooting in 4K, and you have the option of recomposing footage after it’s shot without it starting to look blocky and low-res. 

Of course, you could instead target 4K output, and the native 4K footage from the 6s is good. It’s not jaw-dropping—certainly, nothing like the quality from a Canon EOS-1D C or RED camera, even before you start talking about the creative possibilities from different lenses those cameras have—but essentially like the video footage you’d get from an iPhone 6, just with much more detail. If you have a monitor or TV that can display at least 4K, it will look impressive, though if you’re just shooting fun little videos to share on Twitter, rather than raw footage for projects or for posterity, it’s (at least currently) overkill. 

Here’s a quick example, though you’ll need to be using a display capable of at least 4K to see the difference.

The 6s also adds the option of shooting 120 fps slow-motion at 1080p (as well as 720p at 240 fps) rather than both 120 and 240 fps options being limited to 720p as on the iPhone 6. That’s great, but we’d have loved something slower still as well, even if limited to 720p.

Time-lapse

One last thing semi-related to video: Time-lapse “photos” (which are really videos, both technically in the way they get recorded as well as visually) are now stabilized. This is actually done in software on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (and so is unrelated to and independent of the optical image stabilization system in the iPhone 6/6 Plus), and so I wondered if it has been rolled out to all iOS 9-compatible devices. According to Apple, the answer is no—but it does at least work on the 6 and 6 Plus, too.

The results are good—better than not having it—though Hyperlapse still does a better job, both of stabilization and managing the exposure. In this example, the iPhone is being held in one hand as I walk, and a good deal of the bounciness has been suppressed:

You can’t take a photo from a standing start appreciably faster with a 6s compared to a 6, at least so far as the hardware is concerned, but there is a wrinkle. Touch ID is now so fast that your muscle memory has you shooting past the lock screen so unthinkingly quickly that there’s usually no opportunity to flick up the camera icon at the bottom right. But if, like me, you banished the Camera app from your first Home screen when that swipe-up was added, bring it back if you get a 6s, since pressing firmly on it offers you the option of launching it directly already into selfie, video, slow-mo, or regular photo mode. In other words, while you at first curse the newly fast Touch ID, missing the option of flicking up on the lock screen to quickly launch your camera, actually, quickly unlocking your phone and using 3D Touch to launch the camera in the mode you actually want to use saves on mucking about once the camera is launched, and so the effect is that in many cases the 6s is faster to first shot than the 6. 

Bottom line 

So after three thousand words, what have we learned? Basically, that photos taken with the iPhone 6’s back-facing camera are very good, that photos taken with the iPhone 6s’s back-facing camera are better in small but significant ways, and that the best camera feature has nothing to do with photos at all—it’s all about 4K. The ability to shoot reasonably good 4K video gives filmmakers more creative options and gives the rest of us the opportunity to record home movies that our children might just conceivably refrain from saying look horribly fuzzy and old-fashioned. And, like it or not, the biggest improvement of all is with the front-facing “selfie” camera, which is now capable of better shots and now sports all of the fancy features that were previously limited to the main, back-facing camera. 

And, speaking personally, I’ve also learned that I might not be allowed back into the grounds of St Mary’s Charlcombe in Bath.

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