Apple Announces iPhone 6s & 6s Plus

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Today Apple announced two new versions of their best-selling iPhone and are calling them iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.  Both have identical specifications and both promise a breakthrough user experience courtesy of the newest version of iOS coming later in September.  But I wanted to take a moment and consider what this means to the up-and-coming filmmaker shooting on a tight budget.  First, let's look at the all new iPhone 6s camera specifications:

  • 12MP iSight camera (from 8MP)
  • 4K video recording (UHD; 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution) up to 30p
  • 5MP FaceTime camera (from 1.2MP)
  • "Deep Trench Isolation" to reduce cross-talk artifacts at pixel level
  • Smaller 1.22µm pixel size resulting from larger MP count
  • A9 SoC Processor (from A8 SoC)
  • Retina Flash (for use with FaceTime camera)

The new iPhone 6s still features the same f/2.2 aperture, software-based image stabilization, and flash storage options as previous models.  However, it's only a matter of time before App developers like Cinegenix, LLC (maker of FiLMiC Pro) and others release updates that enable additional functionality to what looks like a great pocketable video camera.  To give you an idea, here's a featurette for the feature film Tangerine that was filmed with an iPhone using the FiLMiC Pro App and an anamorphic lens adapter:

 
 

One of the main benefits of using an iPhone as your A-cam is definitely portability.  Another is certainly smaller crew size when appropriate.  However, there are also drawbacks to the iPhone that directly impact the general aesthetic of your story and the statement you want to make as a visual storyteller.  For example, aliasing.  Everywhere.  And it's impossible to eliminate.

If you haven't already, have a look at Apple's Keynote Address at around the 109 minute mark to see their 4K footage captured directly on the new iPhone 6s.

The image captured from the iPhone sensor has an inescapably digital feel that lends itself to a hyper stripped-down aesthetic, but will likely be in direct conflict with more classical portraiture where jagged lines detract from the emotion and visual storytelling process.  It's hard to sell a period look when the image feels a little bit like an interlaced "HD upgrade."

Additionally, the previous iPhone had about 8-stops of dynamic range, meaning exterior shots will almost certainly render skies blown out in order to retain shadow detail, and vice-versa.  It's rather unlikely we'll discover a more professional DR packed into such a small imaging sensor.  And footage captured in even slightly low-light conditions suffered from excessive noise artifacts that certainly limits its usefulness in many genres.

 

An example of dynamic range across a prosumer and professional range of modern cameras.  Image courtesy Cinema5D.com.

 

The compression method is certainly h.264, meaning it throws away a ton of scene detail that finishing houses rely upon to create the final look-and-feel of the movie.  Again, this might work for contemporary storytelling, but not so well for period pieces, action movies and anything involving lots of VFX compositing.  Believe me, you would be surprised at some of the things clients have sent me over the years.  It's like asking for a Tesla and getting a Plymouth. Not the worst thing ever, but . . . when given the option, just say no to h.264.  Embrace RAW, Uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 and Cinema DNG variants for cinematic storytelling.

But that's not to say there's nothing to appreciate in the new iPhone 6s camera.  Quite the opposite.  I've been using the iPhone 5 for two years and love the results for journalistic storytelling.  And the new camera seems even better than its predecessor.  Remember, even Francis Ford Coppola—director of such iconic films as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather—once declared his appreciation for the image the iPhone rendered in the hands of a knowledgable cinematographer.  Have a look at the incredible series Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012 produced by Zacuto and administered by Bruce Logan, ASC for more insight into how well an iPhone 4s compared against the professional counterparts of its time.

 
 

In the end, it will be the determined filmmaker that forges the iPhone 6s into a venerable filmmaking weapon.  But I guarantee you someone will do it.  And we'll all be impressed.  And we'll all wish we had done it first.  And it will be another reminder that sometimes the best cinematic tools really can fit in your pocket.

Sources:  Apple Inc.  |  YouTube  |  Cinema5D  |  Zacuto