Smartphone camera shootout: iPhone 6s compared to the best of Android and Lumia

I remarked in my recent full review of the Apple iPhone 6s a few days ago, that image quality from its rear camera is ‘excellent but not quite class leading’. Of course, the word ‘class’ is somewhat ambiguous here – did I mean to include camera specialist phones like the 1/1.5″-sensored Lumia 1020? Did I merely refer to 2015 camera-toting smartphones? And what about platform? Below, I look at each of these, including comparisons to imaging on the original iPhone 6 – suffice it to say that the camera in the iPhone 6s manages to be ‘up there’ while knocking spots off much of the competition in terms of performance and usability.

Smartphone Camera Shootout

Armed with the questions above, I selected the necessary candidates and headed out to take a variety of shots under a wide range of lighting conditions. I included:

  • Apple iPhone 6s (of course)
  • Apple iPhone 6 (i.e. last year’s model!)
  • Nokia Lumia 1020 (the monster-sensored camera champion from the Windows Phone world, still on top for image quality by quite a few metrics, even though in terms of speed and wider phone use it’s not in the same league as the modern iPhones)
  • Sony Xperia Z5 Compact (the camera in this is common to all the Z5 range and reckoned by DxOMark to be the current state of the art in the Android world, beating even the Samsung Galaxy S6, reviewed here in its Edge variant, and the LG G4, reviewed here). So this is standing in here for all the iPhone’s Android competition. For a comparison with a wider range of Android hardware, watch for an article in the future over on our sister site AndroidBeat.
Lumia 1020, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6, Xperia Z5 Compact

In terms of specifications, all the non-Apple devices above have larger sensors, higher native resolutions and often larger apertures as well, but Apple’s image processing is right up with the best, allied to lightning fast response, so I’m still expecting the iPhone 6s to do well, even just looking at image quality.

In each case, I’ll show the full scene (as captured by the iPhone 6s itself) and then (in all but the ‘pub’ mock-up case) 1:1 crops from each relevant smartphone camera, so that you can more easily see any differences.

Notes:

  • Resolution differences mean that the Nokia phone, which outputs by default at 5MP after oversampling from a native 34MP (in 16:9), was driven using a third party app in 12MP mode, in order to match up better to the iPhone 6s, while the Sony Xperia Z5 outputs by default in 8MP after oversampling from a native 20MP, but I left that as-is, since it’s close enough and also matches the resolution of the iPhone 6, also tested here in some examples.
  • The slight differences in framing are therefore caused by the differences between 8, 10 and 12MP resolutions and by the different fields of view of each device’s camera.
  • This site being hosted on WordPress, there’s a small amount of additional compression applied to all the cropped images below.

Test 1: Perfect conditions: sunny landscape

Plenty of building and natural detail here. Don’t expect much difference in the crops below, this is the really easy shot that every camera phone will get right. Here’s the overall scene:

The full test scene

And here are the 1:1 crops, in order from top to bottom, the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 6, the Xperia Z5 and the Lumia 1020:

1:1 crop 1:1 crop 1:1 crop 1:1 crop

As promised, there’s not much to choose between these image crops, thanks to the abundance of light. It’s evident how much extra detail can be included by the switch from the iPhone 6’s 8MP to the 6s’s 12MP though, and hopefully without any down side, thanks to the advancement in sensor technology (Google ‘deep trench isolation’, for example) in the intervening year or so.

Test 2: Overcast, murky light

One of my favourite test scenes, because of the water and because of the handy depth sign around 20 metres away, perfect for assessing photo detail too. Here’s the overall scene:

Ford scene/test photo

And here are the 1:1 crops, in order from top to bottom, the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 6, the Xperia Z5 and the Lumia 1020:

1:1 crop 1:1 crop 1:1 crop1:1 crop

Again the increase in both detail and clarity in going from the iPhone 6 camera to the 6s is very evident, it’s quite a leap overall. The Xperia Z5 looks to be low resolution by comparison, though remember that this is using the default 8MP oversampled mode – for anything more ambitious the Z5 also offers a true 20MP ‘manual’ mode. The Lumia 1020’s much larger sensor (around four times the surface area of that in the iPhone 6s) wins overall though, perhaps unsurprisingly, gathering slightly more light and detail. It’s a slightly ‘apples and oranges’ comparison though – I’ll comment on this below.

Test 3: Very low light landscape

The same shot as in test 1 but in opposite lighting, at dusk with very little natural light around – can the phone cameras still pick out detail and keep digital noise under control? Here’s the overall scene:

Very dark test scene

And here are the 1:1 crops, in order from top to bottom, the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 6, the Xperia Z5 and the Lumia 1020:

1:1 crop 1:1 crop 1:1 crop1:1 crop

The difference between iPhone 6s and ‘6’ results is again dramatic – the combination of the cell isolation and sensor cell lens repositioning, mentioned by Apple at the 6s launch, really shows up in much cleaner, more detailed results in these extremely challenging light conditions. The Z5 in the same ballpark, but even with a smaller sensor the iPhone 6s’s results are better – Sony still has some work to do in managing noise reduction. The Lumia 1020’s photo is again better for detail and low noise, but then this is the gold standard and comes with significant extra baggage for its huge sensor and industrial OIS, of which more below – the iPhone 6s photo isn’t that far behind the 1020, remarkably.

Test 4: Down the pub!

One of the test shots you rarely see in any other phone camera comparisons is a mock-up of one of the most common use cases of all – snapping friends and family at the pub, at an indoor event, in a living room, and so on. Think lowish artificial light, but mainly human (i.e. moving) subjects, not some inanimate flower pot! Here’s the overall test scene, shot (deliberately) handheld by an accomplice, with flash turned on in the phones and with me chatting away to simulate a real world ‘pub’ moment:

Pub scene mock-up!

And here are downsized crops, in order from top to bottom, the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 6, the Xperia Z5 and the Lumia 1020:

Cropped shot Cropped shot Cropped shot Cropped shot

Photos in this situation are rarely good from camera phones, and results from the two iPhones are typical – dark and slightly blurry. Interestingly, the original ‘6’ result is slightly better than that on the ‘6s’, perhaps because the latter does have smaller sensor pixels at the end of the day – though the delta is within the margins of error, I’d argue. Proving that physics usually wins, the Xperia Z5’s larger 1/2.3″ sensor and f/2.0 aperture let in more light in a shorter amount of time, and so the snap is clearer and crisper, plus the Lumia 1020 takes things once step further with its 1/1.5″ sensor and a proper Xenon flash to make sure that there’s enough light.

Verdict

There are some significant takeaways from these comparisons, all positive(!):

  • The iPhone 6s camera, as with most of the other internals, is a significant bump up from the capabilities of that in the iPhone 6. Greater detail, lower digital noise, less artefacts… and it’s even faster too, if that’s possible, from the already lightning quick iPhone 6 unit. If imaging is important to you and if you’ve been eyeing up my iPhone 6s review and wondering whether to upgrade from the ‘6’ then yes, take the plunge. In fact, you might even want to consider going up a size, since the 6s Plus camera has OIS in the same fashion as the Lumia 1020 above.
  • The iPhone 6s camera is competitive with the best of Android. Here represented by the brand new Z5 flagship, though I’d expect similar results from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 family.
  • The iPhone 6s camera is within striking distance of results from the Nokia Lumia 1020 yet without its baggage. The 1020 was released in 2013, with (taking a deep breath) 1/1.5″ sensor, Optical Image Stabilisation on the whole lens assembly, Xenon flash, full mechanical shutter, 41MP sensor with multiple oversampling options to reduce noise. It’s the gold standard in camera phones still, but the specs just mentioned, allied to a 2012 S4 processor, mean appallingly long camera startup (4 seconds), slow focusing (1 second), slow shot to shot times (3 seconds), plus something of a camera ‘bump’ on the back, as you can see in the photo on the top. That the iPhone 6s, with only a 1/3″ sensor, can get close to the Lumia 1020 in many imaging use cases while keeping almost instant camera startup, almost instant focusing and ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ shot to shot times, all within a thinner and smaller form, shows how much camera phone technology has advanced in the last few years.

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