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iPhone 6S Plus takes on Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 in low-light photo shootout

We see which phone takes better shots in low-light -- the iPhone 6S Plus, the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the older iPhone 6.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Apple has given its new iPhone 6S ($528 at Amazon.com) and 6S Plus ($570 at Amazon Marketplace) a whole host of new upgrades, including a more powerful processor and a neat new way to poke at the screen. The camera has been given a hearty boost too, from 8 to 12 megapixels, and it's that I'm looking at here.

We've already seen the iPhone 6S Plus's camera do well in bright outdoor photos, as well as put its 5-megapixel front camera to good use in a selfie battle, but what about when the light fades? It's time for a low-light shootout.

Low-light photography on phones can be a tricky business as their small image sensors don't let in much light, and without securing them on tripods, your images can be susceptible to blur. However, if when given food at a restaurant, you reach for your camera phone before taking your fork in hand, then you'll need a phone that can capture that delicious dessert by only candlelight.

I put the iPhone 6S Plus up against one of its biggest rivals, the Samsung Galaxy S6 ($400 at Amazon.com) , as well as the older iPhone 6 ($229 at Amazon.com) to see whether Apple's tinkering with the sensor has resulted in better low-light shots. All shots were taken in full resolution and in full automatic mode. We're still doing a lot more testing with the new iPhones and will be testing the camera under more conditions yet, so stay tuned to CNET over the coming days to find out everything you need to know about Apple's new phones.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On this first indoor shot, there's quite a range of things going on. While the Galaxy S6 has a little less image noise than the iPhone 6S Plus, the white balance has fallen short, resulting in an an unpleasant yellow colour cast to the scene. The iPhone 6 has good colour, and its shot is bright, but its lower resolution sensor means there's much less detail than on the 6S Plus.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With flash enabled, the Galaxy S6 lost its nasty colour cast, although it had the darkest of the three images. The iPhone 6S Plus had a more yellowish tint to it this time, so I actually prefer the iPhone 6's shot out of the three. Image noise is kept to a minimum on all shots, and there's plenty of detail to be seen, too.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S6 has achieved a crisper shot of this red chap sitting on a copy of CNET Magazine, although again, its white balance hasn't done a great job resulting in an unnatural colour tone. The iPhone 6S Plus's shot is brighter, with more accurate colours, resulting in a more pleasing shot all round.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This dark garden scene is extremely challenging for any camera, so I wasn't expecting glorious photos from this test. Even so, it's clear to see again that the Galaxy S6's warm colour tones has lent an orange hue that doesn't look great to the whole scene. Even the leaves in the background look orange. The iPhone 6S Plus is brighter than the iPhone 6, and it has much better colours then the Galaxy S6.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S6 has lost its orange colour cast with the flash turned on, and all three shots have done a great job of lighting up the flower. There's actually not a whole lot to choose between them -- they all have accurate colours and not much image noise. The 6S Plus is noticeably sharper than the iPhone 6, and I personally prefer the more subtle flash too -- the Galaxy S6's flash is a touch overpowering on the flower petals, although it's not a bad effort at all.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On this dark street scene, the iPhone 6S Plus has been able to capture more contrast and detail on the wall on the left side of the image. The S6's shot is marginally brighter, although by increasing the sensitivity of the sensor, it seems to have lost quality overall.

iPhone 6S Plus camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Galaxy S6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET
iPhone 6 camera test (click to see full size) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

None of the phones have achieved particularly good shots of this church at night-time, but it is a very tough scene for a phone to get. Yet again, the Galaxy S6 is plagued by an unnaturally warm colour tone, which isn't present on the iPhone 6S Plus. The GS6 did however capture more fine detail, particularly on the small tree on the road in front -- the leaves are noticeably more crisp in the Galaxy's shot.

Overall

It's difficult to pick an actual winner from this test, as the iPhone 6S Plus and Galaxy S6 both did well in different ways. While the iPhone lacked the often unpleasant yellow colour cast of the Galaxy S6, the Samsung achieved sharper images in certain tests -- particularly on the final dark church scene.

I prefer the slightly brighter and more natural looking shots of the iPhone 6S Plus overall though, and it's the one I'd choose out of the three for low-light photo duties.