It was bound to happen sooner or later: A smartphone would convince me that I no longer needed to carry around a powerful compact camera, despite a general interest in taking photos that straddles both my professional and personal lives. The iPhone 6 and the even more photo-friendly iPhone 6 Plus are that tipping point.
While on paper the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus cameras don’t appear to have changed much from the version introduced last year with the iPhone 5s, as is usually the case with Apple hardware, there’s a lot more going on than is apparent from a cursory glance at a spec sheet. The 6 Plus gets optical image stabilization, of course, but both cameras represent big improvements over last year’s 5s in terms of shooting experience and final result (less haze, better color rendering). The faster AF is instantly noticeable, and the low-light image quality is by far superior.[gallery ids="1060017,1060018,1060019,1060021,1060022,1058402,1058663,1058401"]
It’s the low-light picture quality (without triggering the flash, this isn’t amateur night) that really seals the deal on this phone becoming my primary personal camera. For bar outings and nighttime gatherings, I’ve been a slave to carrying at least a large-sensor compact, first Canon’s S100 and then later the Sony RX-100 (first generation). These produced good results, without triggering the fun-time-ruining, in-camera flash — even in bars where it’s hard to make out the features of the person sitting next to you. But for all their size advantages over DSLRs and interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras, they’re still cumbersome, and they’re still an added gadget in addition to your phone.
The fact is that the performance of both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in low-light conditions is more than acceptable. At full res on a desktop, it’s true that you can see noise, and they aren’t as crisp around the edges as pictures taken in well-lit environments, but they look terrific when viewed on the iPhones themselves in your library, or when shared via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
I’ve given up on the idea that I’ll ever actually print any of my photographs, which was a fantasy that persisted for at least a decade from the time I got my first DSLR. Even when I cut my teeth on a basic Rebel film SLR, I hardly printed any of the results, so I’m not sure why the delusion survived 10 years and mountains of evidence to the contrary.[gallery ids="1058668,1058669,1058670,1058400,1058666,1058399,1058397,1058394,1058396,1058398"]
That’s not to say Apple’s mobile cameras couldn’t handle printing: in most cases, especially in good, daylight conditions, they most definitely could. But the truth is that for around 98 percent of the use cases that most people will need over the course of their adult lives, the resolution and quality that Apple’s iPhones now offer more than fits the bill. That goes for image-quality snobs like myself, too – holdouts from a bygone era who clung to the notion that compact cameras still have a role to play in a world that has mostly moved on.
I’m still a camera geek, and I will forever enjoy a good physical control dial, but the iPhone 6 has finally undone my ability to justify carrying a separate camera that isn’t a DSLR, and then I’ll only bring out the big guns for professional use situations. It even manages decent bokeh for close-up shots, as you can see from some of my samples above, and it’s a more innocuous street shooter than just about any dedicated camera, though the gold iPhone 6 Plus can be an eye-catching combo.
From this point on, the question isn’t whether smartphone cameras can catch up to their standalone counterparts, it’s how much better they can get in their own right.