The iPhone's camera has come a long way, baby

Regular upgraders might not have realised the huge leap from iPhone to iPhone 6 camera


Call me what you will–miser, Luddite, or plain stubborn are all options–but I’ve never felt compelled to upgrade my gear at the merest hint of a new release. I am more than content to meander along, making the best of the kit I own, until I reach such a point where I’m frustrated by its limitations or it becomes unusable. This upgrade-adversity is due sometimes to a shining sliver of rebellion, and a stalwart refusal to be bound to the upgrade treadmill and the cycle of planned obsolescence imposed on us by tech companies. It’s a losing battle, I know, but I’m sufficiently stubborn to hold out for as long as I can.

Sometimes, though, I’m just not excited by an upgrade; without seeing how it can improve my enjoyment of a product, or my life, in any meaningful way, I don’t find it necessary to shell out the pennies for it. From laptops to cameras to KitchenAids, I hang on to them for as long as feasibly possible.

When it comes to my phones, I’m not so much a leap-frogger, but someone who pole-vaults across an entire catalogue of devices. My first iPhone was a 3G, purchased in autumn 2008. My next was an iPhone 4, a reluctant upgrade made in September 2011, when a viciously cracked screen and an inability to use some of my favourite apps because the OS the 3G was running couldn’t support them, forced my hand. And last month I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into 2015 with an iPhone 6. A severely compromised battery life that afforded me about eight hours of use if I were lucky made for an unsustainable iPhone 4. 

Taken with the help of the Easy Macro band. Both are unedited. iPhone 4 to the left; the iPhone 6 is to the right.

Whatever the positives and negatives of upgrading regularly or not, jumping from the iPhone 3G to the iPhone 4, and then hurtling from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 6 has allowed me to appreciate just how much improvement the iPhone camera has undergone. In case anyone were wondering, it’s massive. I started with a 2 megapixel camera that didn’t have a flash. Self-portraits were an awkward Houdini act and best guess at focusing. And anything had to be shot in good light.

Then came a 5 megapixel sensor with an ƒ/2.4 lens, an LED flash, and an HDR function, as well as a front-facing 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera. The white balance was out of whack by a quarter-country-mile and the grain was hopeless, but I still managed to turn out some lovely photos.

Now, I have an 8 megapixel sensor and a lens with an ƒ/2.2 aperture. The flash is True Tone rather than LED. There’s face detection, panorama, time-lapse, and burst modes, a timer function, and slo-mo video and the option to automatically square crop my photos if I want them. And there’s a world of improvement in the FaceTime camera, too.

Both taken using the FaceTime camera, both unedited. iPhone 4 to the left, 6 to the right.

But even without all the bells and whistles of camera functionality, it's the sensor and lens improvements that are truly striking. The ability to capture detail and the improvement in colour reproduction is superb. The sharpness in lower light images is superior by several orders of magnitude. 

With a small improvement here and an extra feature there, incremental changes have a tendency to pass with less notice and fanfare than a flying leap into better pictures. The addition of the panorama mode between 4 and 4S was great. Burst mode was a nice addition from 5 to 5S. Auto-HDR and image stabilisation are mighty useful, too. While the larger pixels, improved low-light capability, and faster camera reaction times don’t go unnoticed between upgrades either, they suffer even less recognition for their augmentation. First, there is always an expectation that there will be some kind of improvement. Second, because they're not evident in the form of a big red button or an option menu, it's harder for them to be discerned for the advancements that they are.

In fact, it’s easy to be non-plussed by the changes until you jump four iterations in one leap and realise just how much technological progress has been made in five years and even more so in the eight years between the first generation iPhone and today. It’s remarkable. If you’ve an iPhone languishing in a drawer somewhere that’s a few generations removed from your current model, get it out and compare the camera and image quality. It’s a useful exercise in expectation management.

You've probably spotted the iPhone 4 to the left and 6 to the right pattern here. And the unedited thing. That colour discrepancy? Totally happening. 

Remember, if you don’t think that a product offers you sufficient improvement between one iteration and the next–whether that’s a camera, a smartphone, or a food processor–you don’t have to upgrade. It’s perfectly fine to wait for the next round!