While I was shooting images for our all-shipping-iPhones camera test (SE, 6s, 6s Plus, 7, 7 Plus, and 7 Plus telephoto), I had quite a few people ask on Twitter about the iPhone 6. I didn't include it in our big test simply because it was too many iPhones to carry around NYC by myself — five was pushing it! — but I still wanted to give iPhone 6 owners an idea of how their shots might compare to the new 7 camera. So, without further delay, here's a quick test comparing all of Apple's 4.7-inch phones: I went through a variety of common shooting situations, as well as a section on color tests.
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How we tested
I shot with the iPhone 6, 6s, and 7 over the course of a few days using just the phones and the Camera app. The resulting photos haven't been touched up in any way — they're exactly the way the iPhone's image signal processor (ISP) made them, save for some image compression from uploading to our server.
Our first major round of testing involved walking around a park and photographing scenery, as well as some portrait shots, selfies, and a cute dog or two.
We started with a good old-fashioned outdoor portrait in bright — but not direct — sunlight. In general, you're not going to see a huge improvement from phone to phone when shooting in this kind of environment, save for some extra background detail: The iPhone has been great at shooting well-lit outdoor portraits for years, and this shoot was no exception.
All three phones put out nice photos here, though with slightly different color tones: The 6 tended to tint blue and over-saturated to mask lack of detail in the background, while the 6s and 7 have more reddish hues. The image signal processor on the iPhone 7 goes in almost the opposite direction of the 6, giving a much more desaturated and contrast-heavy look than either the 6 or 6s, though it appears to do so in order to capture more detail in the background. I tend to prefer the coloration of the 6s more here, but the level of detail on the 7.
Shooting portraits at a distance is where we start to see the iPhone 7 pull away. At small scale, these shots of me underneath a bridge (shot at a shutter speed of 1/30) look pretty similar, but when we blow up the photos, we start to get a very different impression.
At a 100% crop, the iPhone 7 again has a little less saturation than its 6 and 6s peers, but vastly more detail: You can see individual hairs and far more folds in the scarf and jacket, and the Apple Watch display is practically readable. This kind of extra detail may not matter much for your average Twitter or Facebook photograph, but it's hugely important for users who might want to blow up their photos for wallpaper, further editing, or printing.
With the iPhone 7 sporting a newly-enlarged 7-megapixel sensor, it felt only right to shoot some outdoor selfies while we were at the park. The front-facing camera is one of the big photographic differences between the 6, 6s, and 7: The 6 sports a 1.2-megapixel sensor, while the 6s has a 5-megapixel option and the 7 has the aforementioned 7 megapixels.
The 6s and 7 are pretty close to each other in quality when it comes to bright light, but the 7 again offers a little bit more detail in the darker areas of the photo (under the collar of Rick's shirt and the trees in the background). The 6's 1.2-megapixel sensor just can't compete in terms of data — it renders the scene with a much more blue tint, and without the level of detail.
For our HDR shots, we tried to grab extra-tricky lighting with plenty of light and dark spots. Rick is practically backlit, here, with the sun shining in the upper left corner on a small pond and trees.
Given the very visible presence of the sun, all three of the images include lens flare, though the 6 bears the worst of it, with the 7 walking away with barely a few beams in the upper left corner of the picture. As with the portrait, the iPhone 7's ISP tends to process photos with more contrast than the other two smartphones, though that results in less light fuzz around the image, and clearer background details (like leaves in the pond), even though certain portions of the image are by nature darker than with the iPhone 6s.
This next shot is very similar to the one above, but we've removed the human subject in exchange for a nice landscape of differently shaped and colored greens, a brown road, and a grey border wall.
As with the other HDR image, the iPhone 7 escapes with the least amount of lens flare and refraction, and offers dark shadows without completely destroying detail (especially close to the light source). The 6 doesn't do too poorly here, though it can't quite capture the shadows with enough depth in comparison to the 6s and 7.
For a wide landscape shot, we chose the riverbank: It not only had a wide variety of colors (blue sky, red bridge, green and yellow foliage, darker blue river), but also light variation.
You can really see the iPhone 7's f/1.8 aperture at work over the 6 and 6s's f/2.2 in the riverbank foliage: Despite shooting at a faster shutter speed (1/1200 vs 1/800 for the 6s and 1/1100 for the 6) than the other two smartphones — and thus, giving the sensor less time to get light — it has the greatest detail of all three photos, while avoiding the over-saturated blue skies and river of its predecessors. I'd always loved the iPhone's bright blue tint for clear skies, but it's somewhat more remarkable to see the sky exposed as it truly looked that day — with a softer, gentler blue.
We shot a lot of beautiful flowers and plants while wandering around the park, but this vine helped demonstrate another benefit of the iPhone 7's f/1.8 aperture: Shallower depth of field.