The world’s most popular camera has learned a new trick: it can animate still images in minifilm called Live Photos. But beyond that little sleight of hand, the iPhone 6s doesn’t improve much on the issues that can cause many phone photos to turn out poor.

The latest iPhone is a bit of a letdown for avid mobile photographers. Over the past year, the iPhone has found its photographic equivalent in the Samsung Galaxy S6 (and, in Asia, the Xiaomi Mi Note). I was hoping Apple could be a game-changer on the iPhone 6s with a bigger image sensor or some new tech locked up in Jony Ive’s secret lab.

I shot over a dozen scenes with five different smartphones: the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus alongside last year’s iPhone 6 models and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5.

You still can’t find a better all-round smartphone camera than the iPhone 6s Plus. But changes from last year’s iPhones, including more megapixels for photos and videos, are mostly hard to spot. And in some cases, I even preferred the Samsung shots.

So how exactly does the iPhone 6s camera deal with the challenges that plague smartphone cameras?

Resolution-Apple has followed Samsung and others in megapixels, the resolution needed to crop or print photos. Apple’s (legitimate) rationale was that adding ever more pixels to a small sensor can introduce color issues and image distortion known as crosstalk.

With 12 megapixels on the iPhone 6s camera instead of 8 on the iPhone 6 camera, you can crop while still retaining some extra detail, but not a lot.


Geoffrey A. Fowler / The Wall Street Journal

In the 6s, Apple found a way to go from 8 to 12 megapixels without these issues, thanks to sensor technology that channels light better. The color and saturation of iPhone 6s photos are as realistic as those of iPhone 6.

The details in my photos were a bit sharper, but the extra 4 megapixels weren’t really enough to fill a zoom lens. (Here’s a sample image from an iPhone 6s Plus.) The biggest impact is on video, where the iPhone can now capture 4K resolution, four times sharper than regular HD.

Low light-When will a phone finally be able to take a decent photo of a dark restaurant? Or the city lights? Low-light scenes require a physically larger image sensor, which the latest iPhone does not have. The cityscape he took of San Francisco after dark still looks stained.

Last year’s 6 Plus and this year’s 6s Plus both have optical image stabilization hardware in their lenses that reduces blur. It actually had a bigger impact on the quality of my shots than the new sensor. It is also integrated into the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5.

In fact, I almost always preferred how the Note 5 handled low light, even more than the 6s Plus. There was often more dynamic range – here is an example of a Note 5 shot – sharper characteristics and less noise. The downside: Samsung’s night photos had a yellowish tint, and sometimes so much anti-noise smoothing, they looked botox.

Selfies—The iPhone 6s increases the resolution of its front camera (5 megapixels), which brings it to the level of Samsung. Fortunately, the 6 can use the phone screen as a flash. It allows me to take a sunset selfie without getting lost in the sun or looking like a ghoul.

Color-Color has long been the hallmark of the iPhone’s camera, and the 6s takes it a step further. The blue of the sky looks a bit more real.

Compared to Note 5, the color of iPhone 6s is less saturated and the tonal range is more natural. It’s not to everyone’s liking – often people want their photos to appear, especially on the small screen, and Samsung clearly increases the saturation and sharpness. If you’re serious about photography, you’ll appreciate the more natural starting point that iPhone offers.

Depth-The X factor that always escapes all smartphone cameras, be they Apple or Samsung, is the portrait shot with an artistically blurred background. Cameras like DSLRs or add-ons like the DxO One reach depth with larger sensors and lenses.

The biggest novelty of the iPhone 6s camera doesn’t have much to do with photo quality – the ability to capture the action. These so-called Live Photos add seconds of video to still images. They’re like pictures from Harry Potter’s diary.

It’s a gadget, of course, but after a few days of experimentation, I fell in love with Live Photos. To make them interesting, you need to stand still before and after clicking and look for situations where something is moving. I got into the groove capturing skateboarders in flight, passing trains, even a sneaky eyebrow-raising selfie. But it was also useful at a block party where a little bit of action, like the kids’ dancing, reinforced the feeling of being there.

Be careful though: Live Photos take up to three times more storage. And right now, you can only share them with other Apple devices, although Apple says we can eventually share them on Facebook..

If you buy a phone and you must have the best camera, buy one with optical image stabilization, like the iPhone 6s Plus. We’re not at the end of the road of smartphone camera innovation, and Live Photos are certainly worth exploring. But it may take another year or more for a real leap forward in image quality.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at [email protected] or on Twitter @geoffreyfowler

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