iPhone 6 vs. Regular Camera … Fight!

How does the new iPhone camera hold up in Lightroom against RAW files?


Have you noticed something weird about the photos that come out of the iPhone 6? They’re less vibrant, flatter, lacking in contrast compared to shots from the iPhones 5, and to photos from most other phones and point-and-shoot cameras.

This realization got me excited. Do you know what else looks flat and dull out of even the best cameras? RAW files, the unprocessed soup of picture data that some cameras offer you instead of a nicely pre-pepped JPG.

And this got me thinking — are the iPhone 6's images designed to be edited? After all, iOS 8 is all about editing photos, with “extensions” that let you use powerful image-processing apps without leaving the comfort of your Photo Library.

To test this theory, I took the same pictures with the iPhone 6 and my Fujifilm X100S and pushed them around in Adobe’s Lightroom app. If I’d had an iPhone 6 Plus the results would have been identical — the only difference between the 6 and 6 Plus, camera-wise, is the optically-stabilized lens on the bigger iPhone.

Let’s see what happened.

Methodology

I wanted a real-world idea of how the iPhone 6 stacks up against the X100S, so I shot both of them as I would normally, instead of trying to match up all the settings between two very different devices.

On the iPhone, I used the native camera app, and used the new manual exposure slider to get a balanced image. On the X100S, I shot in aperture-priority mode and used the exposure compensation dial to match the shots (by eye) with those from the iPhone. To keep things as neutral as possible, I shot RAW+JPG on the X100S, and with the JPG processing set to Standard, the most neutral of the options.

The iPhone’s lens has a (35mm equivalent) focal length of 29mm. The X100S focal length is 35mm. To make up for the difference I just stepped a little closer to the subject when using the iPhone. I could have cropped the images to make them match, but as the Fujifilm already has double the megapixels (16MP vs. 8MP), that didn’t seem fair (although I did crop the squarer iPhone pictures to make the shapes match).

Seeing as this test is about the colors and the like, I figured that as long as the pictures were similar enough, the result would be useful.

Step 1: White Balance — things start going wrong

I was hoping the JPGs from both cameras would be relatively similar, but things went off the rails right away. Looking at the imported images side-by-side in LR, I saw that even in Standard mode, the X100S had made beautiful JPGs. Worse, these rich images had a completely different white balance than those in the iPhone.

The X100S JPG (right) is much warmer than the iPhone version of the same scene.

To fix things, and get us to as neutral a starting point as possible, I set the white balance on the X100S’s RAWs, then re-imported them as JPGs.

Pro tip: You can tell Lightroom to use a virtual second screen in a separate window (Window>Secondary Display>Show, or ⌘F11) and use it as a reference for matching white balance.

You can export a photo from Lightroom and have it auto-add the result to the library, and stack it with the original file.

Test 2: Exposure

One of the most useful things you can do with a RAW file is adjust the exposure after shooting. There’s so much raw sensor data in there that you can almost re-light the picture in post-processing. When the JPG is made, most of that data is tossed out in the service of smaller files, but apps like lightroom can still squeeze a lot out of them.

Overexposed by +1.9. The iPhone shot is on the left
Exposure set to -3. X100S on right

I pushed the exposure by +1.9 in Lightroom’s develop panel, and then by -3, using a different photo for each test. In the overexposed pictures, the Fujifilm JPGs keep their color better. When darkened, the X100S and iPhone images respond all but identically.

Result: a tie.

Both cameras make JPGs that can be tweaked to make small exposure adjustments, but if you think you’ll need to do a lot of work in post, shoot RAW, which means using a “real” camera. No surprises there.

What is a surprise is that the iPhone’s JPGs stand up as well as those from the X100S, even though the Fujifilm camera produces much bigger (in pixel terms) image files. And — more surprising still — the untouched iPhone picture beats the Fujifilm one in terms of viewer-appeal-ness (a term I just invented). Take a look:

iPhone 6 on the left

Test 3: Color

Here’s where the real fun starts. I thought about a plain color-correction test, but then I thought, like, Zzzz right? So here we start pulling on some of the sliders in Lightroom’s HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance) panel. First, let’s turn these yellow lamps orange and red:

The originals. You can tell which is which just by checking the shallower depth-of-field from the X100S (right)
In the Hue section of the HSL panel, I cranked the orange and yellow sliders up to +100

The JPGs from both cameras take this abuse rather well. Even zoomed in to 100%, and with the red and orange sliders slammed all the way over to the right, there are no troublesome artifacts.

iPhone on the left

In fact, the only difference you see up close is the superior detail of the X100S. Given that it has a large DSLR-sized sensor and some fancy tech to make the images even sharper, the iPhone 6 does an impressive job. I’m starting to get a feeling that the iPhone makes a pretty good camera. You?


Test 3: Freestylin’

For this last test, I decided to ditch Lightroom and run the photos through several iOS editing apps. There’s no easy way to apply the same set of edits to two separate images, so I just wrote down the settings and repeated them.

This test is probably a far more realistic one, in terms of what most people do with their photos. Who really edits their iPhone photos in Lightroom on the Mac or PC?

This time the iPhone 6 photo is on the right. If only there was a filter to make me hold the camera level

Both these images went through Flare 2 — the amazing app from Icon Factory that lets you design filters on the Mac and apply them with an iOS 8 editing extension — and then Fotograf, my other favorite iOS editing app. I used the JPG produced by the X100S (instead of the Lightroom-made version) and just cooled it down a little using the Photos app’s native color correction tool.

The winner? Me, for having two amazing cameras that can make images like this, even if I can’t hold either of them straight while I shoot.


Conclusion

I’d say the iPhone 6 comes out looking pretty good. Not only are the newly-muted JPGs pleasing straight out of the camera, they’re well-suited to pushing around in an editing app. When people shoot RAW for the first time, they’re often disappointed with the flat, lifeless images they get out of their cameras, but this is because the preview image you see hasn’t been fancied-up yet. And processing JPGs is like splashing milk into pancake batter: it’s a lot easier to add than to take it out.

There are plenty of other reasons I still choose the Fujifilm X100S over the iPhone — shallower depth-of-field, straight-up amazing JPGs out-of-camera (a feature I minimized for this article) and all those easy-to-use manual controls — but the iPhone counters with its own unique features, like being connected to the internet, or, you know, running frickin’ Lightroom.

Many experienced shooters know that the idea of the “best” camera is flawed. It’s all about what camera is best for a given job. And if that job is taking pictures that are more than good enough to stand up to heavy processing, and then sharing or even printing them, all with a device that you can carry in your jeans pocket, then the iPhone can hang with even the more conventional heavy weights.

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