iPhone 6S Plus vs. DxO One: how much night vision does $599 buy you?

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So here's an unfair comparison to make. Take the brand new iPhone 6S Plus, costing $749, and compare its camera performance to that of a $599 iPhone accessory that's basically a dedicated point-and-shoot camera in its own right. The DxO One is equipped with a larger, 1-inch imaging sensor that has both higher resolution and bigger pixels than the iPhone's iSight camera. Its aperture also opens up to f/1.8 whereas the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus max out at f/2.2. We already know, therefore, that the DxO One will be better, but that doesn't stop us from drawing a useful comparison between it and Apple's latest.

People shoot photos in low light all the time, despite knowing that such circumstances are the most challenging for their cameras. Most seem willing to accept an iffy picture, just so long as they have some record of a memorable moment or event. That exact impetus is what drove the first adopters of the primeval 1- and 2-megapixel cameras that appeared in phones well over a decade ago: convenience and timeliness often trump quality on our list of priorities. Over time, cameraphones have evolved to the point where they can compete with much more expensive cameras when it comes to the quality and clarity of their well-lit images, though they remain behind when it comes to low-light performance. The interesting question we can address today — by looking at the differences between the DxO One and iPhone 6S Plus in low light — is exactly how far smartphones are from the performance of enthusiast point-and-shoot cameras.

iPhone 6S Plus on the left; DxO One camera on the right.

Starting out in the hallway outside my apartment, I immediately see the difference the DxO camera makes. It's able to capture much more light than the iPhone 6S Plus, whose exposure of the image is nevertheless more accurate. The hallway is barely lit at all. The DxO exhibits plenty of unsightly chromatic noise, but that can be tamed by shooting in RAW and taking some extra time to fine-tune the image. The 6S Plus picture is both darker and noisier, and it appears to have a green tinge to it that's absent from the DxO photo.

Heading out to the moonlit street, the results echo the indoor shots. The iPhone exposes correctly, as there's only a distant street light dispersing the shadows, however the DxO One provides the inarguably better picture. Let's be fair: both look pretty bad, as the DxO loses sharpness and definition, but it's still clear enough to let me read the license plate in the background, which is lost when shooting the same scene on the iPhone.

Very similar, thoroughly inadequate lighting conditions as with the parked cars above. The DxO One is able to produce a reasonable image in circumstances where the iPhone only retains hints of the blooming trees.

iPhone 6S Plus on the left; DxO One camera on the right.

Under slightly brighter conditions, the DxO One maintains a clear lead, capturing a sharper and brighter image. Its larger sensor size also pays off here in creating a more pronounced separation between the foreground and background, with the latter being more diffuse than on the iPhone shot. The iPhone 6S Plus performs decently, and generally stays close to what I can see with my own eyes, but the DxO result is more useful and shareable once again.

Lest this starts to seem like a repetitive browbeating of the iPhone's camera, here's an example where it actually outdoes the DxO One. With both cameras working in their fully automatic modes, the DxO One can sometimes overexpose darker images in its effort to brighten them up. In this case, with the red Peugeot sitting directly under a street light, the DxO camera presents it as an almost fading orange color. The iPhone 6S Plus doesn't get it perfectly right, either, as its red is a little too saturated, but it's much closer to reality.

My favorite shot of the set. Look at the iPhone image for an idea of how little light is available, and then enjoy the glory of the DxO One result. The soda can is clearly delineated from its pleasingly diffuse background, and though the DxO pays for its exposure amplification by blowing out the street light at the back, it looks like an artistic bit of flair. I'm a fan of this photo because, no matter how I might have tried to tweak and adjust the iPhone 6S Plus, I simply would not have been able to obtain the same result with that camera. It's a cardinal example of the unbridgeable gap between smartphone cameras and devices with larger sensors such as DxO's One.

iPhone 6S Plus on the left; DxO One camera on the right.

Continuing the established trend, the DxO One is amping up the available light and creating an almost day-like exposure in spite of the relative darkness in which the photo is taken. You can always set your own exposure adjustment and keep it faithful to the actual conditions — which is what the iPhone again presents with reasonable accuracy — but then you wouldn't be able to read the Dodge wordmark on the back of that pickup truck.

Impressively, both the iPhone 6S Plus and the DxO One are able to get reasonably sharp definition on the veins of this leaf. The difference is that the iPhone does it in an image that's too dark to be of practical use, whereas the DxO picture is just bright enough to be considered artfully dark. A green tinge is again apparent in the iPhone pic.

This final comparison just underscores all the themes that have emerged already. The iPhone's output is neither as bright nor as sharp as what the DxO One produces. Apple's iSight camera also generates more image noise, but all of those things are to be expected. Having taken a series of further comparison photos, I would say there remains a meaningful gap between (one of) the best smartphone cameras and a dedicated imaging device with a larger sensor. Smart technology can only get us so far, and ultimately it's the basic rules of physics that dictate what photos we can achieve in certain lighting conditions and what photos we can't.


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