The iPhone 6 camera is capable of taking stunning pictures which belie its modest 8 megapixels, but even Apple’s stellar image processing skills can only push its current hardware so far. Recent flagships from both LG and Samsung have raised the bar sufficiently high, that Apple is going to have to make significant improvements to avoid falling behind.
Here are five crucial features I believe Apple needs to feature in the forthcoming 6S to keep the iPhone on top.
With only 8 megapixels in its rear camera, the iPhone 6 has fallen way behind the pack in terms of fundamental picture sharpness. Recent flagships from both LG and Samsung offer twice as many pixels – and the difference is tangible.
The iPhone 6 makes very good use of its relatively modest camera hardware, holding its own against much higher on-paper specifications, but the time has come to step into 2015 and increase the level of detail.
You may feel that image sharing on low-resolution services such a Instagram or Facebook doesn’t require any more resolution than you can already get from an iPhone, but even low-resolution images can look better when re-sized down from a larger original.
Having more pixels also allows for a greater degree of cropping while maintaining an acceptable level of detail. The iPhone 6’s fixed lens can’t zoom in, so if you’re not able stand any closer to the action, you’re going to have to crop instead.
A higher resolution sensor also offers many benefits for video, including digital zoom while recording and higher-quality footage (see below).
The Samsung Galaxy S6 (above) can capture finer detail than the iPhone 6 Plus (below).
In this image, cropped from a test chart, we can see that the 16 megapixel Galaxy S6 is able to differentiate between the converging black lines all the way to the left of the image, whereas the 8 megapixel iPhone 6 Plus cannot.
Rumour has it that the iPhone 6S will feature a 12 megapixel sensor. While this may not enable it to beat the Galaxy S6 in the resolution test above, keeping the pixel count a little lower can have other benefits such as reduced file sizes, less imaging noise and better low-light performance.
The iPhone 6 lens is pretty bright, but its f/2.2 aperture is no improvement over the iPhone 5s. In the time since the launch of the iPhone 6, Apple’s competition has improved by leaps and bounds. Samsung and LG featuring are now offering f/1.9 and f/1.8 lenses respectively.
While these might seem like very small numerical differences, the extra light gathering capability is really rather large. When all other parameters remain equal, an aperture of f/1.8 gathers 50% more light than an aperture of f/2.2.
More light delivered to the sensor has several tangible benefits: Image noise, which shows as visible grain, is reduced and colours are more saturated and truer to life. It also helps reduce unwanted motion blur by allowing faster shutter speeds in darker situations as the required amount of light can reach the sensor more quickly.
A wider lens aperture can also create a shallower depth-of-field, giving a visually pleasing blur to the background, while helping your subject pop.
The iPhone 6 lens (left) isn’t as bright as the best of the competition (LG G4 right). Images from Apple and LG.
Apertures of f/1.9 and f/1.8 have been shown to work well in the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4, so it would be great to see Apple doing something similar. Adding more pixels to the sensor often results in increased image noise, so a brighter lens is a sensible way to mitigate this effect.
It is possible to go too far though: wide apertures can become a disadvantage in very bright sunlight if you can’t get your shutter speed fast enough, as your pictures will come out overexposed and washed out. A shallow depth-of-field is also more challenging for the autofocus system as any focusing inaccuracies are significantly more noticeable.
Also important is the fact that larger lens apertures require physically larger lenses, which are more expensive to manufacture and harder to keep sharp and bright all the way to the edges of the image.
The iPhone 6 is very fast, but when it comes to launching the camera both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the LG G4 are faster. This is partly down to raw processing power, but where these competing flagships pull ahead is in their ability to launch the camera almost instantly no-matter what application you happen to be running at the time.
A double-tap of the Galaxy S6 home button will immediately launch the camera even if you’re in the middle of running a different app. Likewise, the G4 has a dedicated rear camera button which can immediately take a picture regardless of what you happen to be doing with your phone at the time. Both of these shortcuts work even when the phone is locked.
An overall speed upgrade from Apple is all but certain, but particular attention will need to be paid to the camera launch time. As it stands right now, you either have to go back to the app drawer and launch the camera from its relevant icon, or you have to lock the phone and swipe up on the camera icon from the lock screen.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 camera can launch in 0.7 seconds (Image Credit: Samsung)
The Force Touch feature found in the Apple Watch is rumoured to be making an appearance in the forthcoming iPhone 6S, and this unique features is a great opportunity for Apple to really differentiate the iPhone from the competition.
By detecting the difference between a touch and firmer press, the iPhone 6S camera could become easier to use. For example, you could push harder to take burst mode photos without having to locate and change settings. Apple likes to leapfrog existing technologies and no other phone has this feature, so Apple could get well ahead of the game with this one.
Force Touch on the Apple Watch – Image credit Apple
While 4K UHD video isn’t yet an essential for most users, it’s one of those features that everyone else has and therefore Apple will have to, at some point, catch up and add the feature to the iPhone.
The iPhone has easily enough horsepower to handle 4K and there are third party apps available which will get you most of the way there, but the current 8 megapixel camera simply doesn’t have enough pixels to capture 4K UHD (4K requires 8.3 megapixels and in a wider format than a iPhone 6 photo).
The rumoured upgrade to 12 megapixels would be all that’s needed to enable full 4K recording on the iPhone 6S via an official app. Chances are, even if Apple doesn’t add a 4K mode to the default camera app, the existing third-party ultra-high definition apps will bump up their “almost 4K” options to true 4K UHD. If that happens, Apple would be silly not to officially tick that 4K checkbox in the iPhone 6S specs.
Unless Apple decides to somehow block these apps from recording in ultra-high definition, 4K video on the iPhone 6S is definitely going to happen.
ProCam2 Shoots 4K Video with an optional upgrade
The iPhone 6 may currently be a few steps behind in terms of camera technology, but let’s not think for one moment that Apple is simply resting on its laurels.
Apple is constantly researching new technologies and filing patents for cameras which go way beyond anything currently available in a smartphone, including optical zoom lenses, three-sensor cameras, and multi-lens cameras.
Apple will certainly want to stay ahead of the game, and any one of these new features could propel the iPhone 6S way ahead of the competition. I just don’t think we’re likely to see any of these right now as they would all require a radical physical redesign of the case – not something which generally happens in the step from an iPhone to it’s “S” model, which usually retains an identical external appearance.
The iPhone 6S could add the manual exposure controls favoured by some of the competition, but this isn’t really Apple’s style. The iPhone camera is all about getting an excellent point-and-shoot experience, with other effects and functions left to third-party apps. We’re also unlikely to see raw capture enabled as apps don’t currently have the required low-level access to the camera sensor. Apple could add the feature in the default app, but again this doesn’t really fit with the way people currently use the iPhone.
What features would you like to see in the iPhone 6S camera? Have other smartphone cameras tempted you away from the iPhone?