Putting The 7 Plus Camera To The Test

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have been out for little over a month now, and I have been testing the camera of the Plus since I got mine a couple of weeks ago. In this blog post I want to give my thoughts on how this phone performs with photography and show a selection of the many pictures I have been taking with it. Also: Treat yourself to this blog post on either the new MacBook Pro, iMac or iPhone, those have the wide color displays (P3) which these pictures were taken with on the 7 Plus.

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 20

General Photography

You’re walking around the city, having dinner with friends or playing with your kid and there is this moment: You pull out your phone, frame the subject and press the shutter. That is how I see general photography, and how I think the iPhone is used most often to take pictures. The best camera is the one you always have with you, and that couldn’t be more true with a smartphone in 2016. But how does the iPhone 7 Plus actually perform in those moments where just taking a picture without putting much though into it is crucial? In a way Apples new phones perform the same way last years phones have, or for that matter, the last couple of generations: Pretty damn well. I have snapped so many truly good pictures just by hitting the shutter since the 5s three years ago.

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 32 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 20 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 20

The Basics

Apple didn’t actually change much apart from the wider 1.8 aperture in the main lens which is a good thing. What they did instead, at least in the Plus model, is adding a second 2.8 aperture telephoto lens right beside the first one. This brings a couple of perks: You can use optical zoom at 2x and Apple added an all new “Portrait Mode” which I’ll be getting to later. This leaves us with the following setup: The main wide-angle lens with optical image stabilization and the telephoto lens with no OIS, both shooting with 12MP sensors that support wide color capture (P3).

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 20

The telephoto lens might not have OIS, but the fact that it’s a 57mm lens is another huge add-on to this years setup. 57mm film is often used in portrait photography and will give you different possibilities in how to frame your subject then the usual 28mm wide-angle lens. In fact, most of the pictures you see here are shot with the telephoto lens, just because it makes for so much nicer compositions. I was surprised to see how much I actually preferred this, but it has changed how I think about taking pictures with my iPhone. In a way it makes the iPhone feel a bit more like a professional tool for photography, giving you options and “dials” to choose from. In a different way this takes away some of the ease of taking pictures with your smartphone, but only if you actually dig in and use all of the features. There is one thing though that I would like to see changed in a future iOS update: When using the 2x zoom of the telephoto lens the phone will automatically switch to using the main lens if there isn’t enough light in the scene. This most likely has something to do with the telephoto lens only having an aperture of 2.8 which will perform poorly with little light, but if I as the user choose the 2x zoom I want the optical zoom, nothing digital.

28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 20 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 40 | 57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 64

As mentioned before, the wide color capture and wide color display on the iPhone 7 are a welcome addition as well. In fact, this is where Apple really shines. I have had the chance to compare the camera and display to last years 6s and the colors are amazing. Holding both devices side by side shows an incredible advancement in capture and display performance and colors just pop right out of the screen. After using my 7 for a while now every other display looks washed out and “boring” in a way.

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 250 | 57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 32

Low Light Performance

The iPhone 7 Plus has outstanding low light performance. I have been continuously impressed when shooting in the evening or even at night. Pictures look crisp and have little to no noise and the phone really takes in all the light it can possibly get from a scene. You can see some incredible detail and gorgeous colors in the examples below. What impresses me most is the continuous lighting in some of them, taking in even the night sky of Berlin in the background of the main subject. Bright light sources also look very sharp in all of my testing, though good low light pictures will obviously still require a steady hand.

28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 250 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 80 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 100
28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 100 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 160 | 28mm - f 1.8 - ISO 100

Portrait Mode

Here’s the thing: You can do one more thing with the 7 Plus camera, and only with that model, which Apple added this year. Its called Portrait Mode, it sits right in the camera app with all your other options and it has been talked about a lot. This is Apple approaching the pro photography market in a way it can with such a “small” device, no big lenses, no mirrors, not even huge sensors. This is how it works: When you switch into Portrait Mode in the camera app the phone will use the 57mm telephoto lens (remember how I said 57mm was mostly used in portrait photography?) and the main lens in unison to achieve a so called “depth of field” effect. This means what you see on screen and in your photo is framed by the telephoto lens, but the phone will use the data of the main lens to establish a depth map of what is in the picture. The sensor and processor will then take that depth map apart to pick out things that are in the foreground and background and then, which is the effect I am talking about, blur out the background slightly. This creates a very professional look in images and will definitely look great on all of our Instagram feeds.

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 250 | 57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 500 | 57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 20

Apple calls this feature a beta at this point, and I couldn’t agree more: It does have issues. As you can see (best) in the image below, this isn’t working too great in pictures with lots of small elements in the foreground like those leaves. The phone renders parts of the leaves blurry that should be sharp, and other elements of the background are sharp although they should be blurred out. You can also see the fake effect along the edges of a subject, sometimes more and other times almost not at all. Everything less then bright daylight is also not working very well, with the image getting very noisy quickly.

57mm - f 2.8 - ISO 20

In general I find this feature to be amazing if it works and it is truly remarkable what this can achieve if done right, but its not quite there yet. Portrait Mode needs some further improvement, and Apple knows it. If that improvement will come as a software update over time or requires better hardware? I don’t know, but I do think they are going in the right direction.

Conclusion

The iPhone 7 Plus has the best camera Apple has ever put in a smartphone, no doubt. The improved aperture handles low light perfectly, the 57mm telephoto lens makes makes for awesome new possibilities while also providing 2x optical zoom and Portrait Mode is definitely a cool addition to the cameras feature set. Is there room for getting even better? Absolutely! The second lens needs OIS as much as the main lens needed it and should get to a decent aperture level, while Portrait Mode needs to get some serious software updates. But in the end: If everything was perfect now, would there be a reason to buy next years iPhone?