Less than a year ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus phones to the market. The iPhone 7 Plus was the first Apple phone to have a dual lens design (28mm wide-angle and 56mm telephoto equivalent), so Apple put quite a bit of emphasis on photography with this model. Although I was quite happy with my iPhone 6 Plus at the time of the announcement, I decided to upgrade to the latest version, primarily because of these camera features the phone offered. Since then, I have captured thousands of images in different environments, which not only allowed me to get a deeper understanding of the camera capabilities of the phone, but also understand its many issues and limitations. In this review, I will be going over my experience with the iPhone 7 Plus camera and discuss its pros and cons.
1) iPhone 7 Plus Cameras
First of all, it is important to point out that the iPhone 7 Plus actually has two cameras with two lenses. While both cameras have the same 12 MP resolution sensors, there is actually a difference in sensor size and maximum aperture between the two. The first wide-angle camera has a 1/3″ sensor with a 28mm equivalent f/1.8 lens (a total of 6 lens elements), whereas the second telephoto camera has a smaller 1/3.6″ sensor with a 56mm equivalent f/2.8 lens (a total of 5 lens elements). This in itself reveals that the cameras are made for different purposes and it highlights the disadvantage of the telephoto lens compared to the wide-angle lens. Not only does the telephoto camera have a smaller sensor, but it also has a lens that is over a stop slower in comparison, making it only practical to use in bright daylight conditions.
Still, despite these shortcomings, the telephoto camera on the iPhone 7 Plus certainly has its uses. First, thanks to its reach, it can actually be a great tool for close-up shots of people. In this case, instead of using digital zoom to get closer to a subject (which would result in huge resolution loss), one can simply switch from wide to telephoto and get tighter framing without compromising on resolution. The added benefit of using the telephoto lens to photograph people, is that one can use a special “Portrait” mode, where the camera uses a combination of software and the zoom lens to emulate shallow depth of field, which Apple dubbed as “Depth Effect”:
Second, aside from portraiture, the telephoto lens also opens up opportunities to get tighter framing when shooting landscapes, architecture or even macro. The nice thing about the telephoto lens, is that one can combine its reach with the panorama mode to stitch high resolution panoramas:
However, there are certainly disadvantages worth keeping in mind, so let’s discuss those in more detail.
2) Portrait Mode with Depth Effect Issues
Apple’s engineers did a great job coming up with a solution that can simulate shallow depth of field that can only be achieved with larger cameras and lenses. For the first time in cell phone history, we heard such words as bokeh being mentioned as part of an announcement, which certainly triggered some bold claims and even concerns from some photographers about cell phone cameras challenging DSLR and mirrorless cameras in terms of being able to “emulate” particular looks that were only possible to achieve with expensive camera equipment before. While I personally do enjoy using the “Portrait” mode with “Depth Effect” to photograph people and it does a pretty decent job in most situations, software emulation certainly has its issues. First, the software emulation algorithm is not smart enough to differentiate some foreground elements from background elements. For example, if the subject you photograph has a hat or some other head wear that is not part of the algorithm, the blurring might affect areas of the photo that should not be affected. In addition, it might not be able to properly isolate the subject from the immediate background, as can be seen from the sample image below:
Look at the immediate area to the left of the subject’s face, where part of the wall has not been properly blurred. Strange artifacts can often be seen in transitional areas as well.
Lastly, the algorithm is clearly optimized for photographing people and not other subjects such as pets. Take a look at the below before and after photograph of my cat and see what this mode did to the cat’s whiskers on the right side of the frame:
Also, pay attention to the area around the ears of the cat, where the transition is pretty rough.
Hence, depending on the subject you are photographing, the portrait mode can certainly show its weaknesses. The good news is that the phone saves two images by default – one with and without the software emulation depth effect, so if a portrait does not turn out good, at least you have the non-emulated version to fallback to.
3) Panorama Stitching Issues
Similar to the previous generation iPhone devices, the iPhone 7 Plus either has a problem with properly locking its exposure when stitching panoramas, or has some odd stitching algorithm that can mess up panoramas pretty badly, resulting in very uneven skies. While this is not a big deal in some situations, it certainly shows its weaknesses when shooting in low light conditions. Take a look at the below panorama that was shot at sunrise:
See what the camera did to the top of the frame in the clouds? There are vertical lines all over, making this panorama unusable. I have encountered a number of situations where I thought that the panorama looked good, until I zoomed in and looked at the details of the sky.
At the same time, I found out that the iPhone panorama algorithm can actually be usable for vertical panoramas, something I previously never tried before. Take a look at the below image of a church that I shot at night:
There was no way for me to be able to fit the whole church in one frame, so I tried a vertical panorama and it did a pretty decent job to my surprise.
4) Ghosting and Flare
What about ghosting and flare? Well, camera phones always have a hard time dealing with bright subjects and the iPhone 7 Plus is not an exception. Take a look at the below photo that I captured with the sun right above the frame:
And that’s a good case – sometimes severe ghosting and flare can ruin the whole image, especially if the lens is not very clean. When shooting at night, you might encounter strange ghosting and flare artifacts as seen below:
This behavior can change depending on the angle, so if you see outlines as in the above image, it might be a good idea to change the framing slightly to reduce the effect.
5) Autofocus Performance
The iPhone 7 Plus is obviously not going to give you DSLR or mirrorless-level AF performance, so nobody expects to see a speed demon. The camera certainly does a good job with maintaining pretty solid and reliable AF performance, which is good enough in most situations. Keep in mind that a tiny 1/3″ sensor along with an f/1.8 aperture translate to a boatload of depth of field, so focusing is not comparable in many ways to what one would experience on a large sensor camera. Still, it is fast and responsive enough for a smartphone and that’s all that matters. You simply tap with your finger on the area you want to focus on and the camera does its job. When the phone detects faces, face recognition algorithms kick in and the camera automatically focuses and tracks your subjects, putting the camera on face priority mode, which is nice. Would I use the iPhone 7 Plus to photograph fast action? Probably not. But for everyday subjects, it does the job reasonably well.
6) Details and Noise
Thanks to a small sensor and tiny pixels, it is expected that the camera produces plenty of noise in low-light situations. This is not an issue if you are showcasing small to medium size images to your friends on social media, but if you are trying to do something more serious, you are not going to have a lot of options. The good news is, if you shoot in good daylight conditions, the camera is capable of producing plenty of detail with little noise in images:
The bad news is, if you shoot in low light conditions and ISO needs to be pushed above ISO 100, you will be dealing with tons of noise that might make the image completely unusable:
As you can see, the above image has way too much noise at ISO 320, which makes the image look bad, even at down-sampled web resolution. Keep this in mind when shooting in low light conditions.
7) HDR Mode
Just like the previous generation iPhones, the iPhone 7 Plus is also equipped with the “High Dynamic Range” (HDR) feature, which does a decent job at recovering highlights and shadows when dealing with more difficult lighting situations, as can be seen below:
While the camera certainly does a good job at preserving highlights, I am not a big fan of the way the images come out by default to be honest. I am not sure if Apple changed anything in the HDR algorithm on the iPhone 7 / iPhone 7 Plus, but when comparing a standard image to its HDR version, the latter typically comes out more flat, dull and washed out. In many cases, I still found HDR to be beneficial to use simply to preserve highlight details and if a photo was too important for me, I would probably end up blending two images together in Photoshop, rather than trying to tweak the HDR version.
8) RAW / DNG Format
When the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus came out, I got excited when I heard about the capability to shoot RAW / DNG images. However, I quickly found out that this capability was not natively built into the iOS and one has to rely on a third party app to be able to shoot DNG images. While I do have Lightroom mobile installed on my phone and I have tried taking a number of DNG images using this app, the fact that it is a third party app that makes it difficult to quickly access all the photographs from other apps made me abandon it after a short while. It was especially annoying when I tried to launch Lightroom mobile in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception, and the app wanted me to sign in to my Adobe account to proceed. While there might be other great third party options to shoot in DNG format, unless Apple provides this functionality natively like other phone manufacturers do, with the capability to make quick DNG to JPEG conversions in the camera app, I really don’t see myself shooting in DNG. For me, it is often easier and simpler to just shoot in JPEG without any hassles…
It is certainly great to see all the innovation mobile phone manufacturers are putting into each new generation device. With Apple and other manufacturers now adding multiple cameras to their phones, even more photo capabilities are being pushed to appeal the masses. The idea is to show that camera phones can be good enough for everyday needs, and this marketing strategy has certainly been working – the point-and-shoot market is pretty much decimated by now. Year after year, we are experiencing improved image quality and overall performance of camera phones, which is certainly exciting to witness for many of us. Mobile photography has exploded in the past few years, with hundreds of millions of people taking pictures and uploading them to social media platforms such as Instagram. And without a doubt, Apple has played a huge role in pushing others to innovate in this area – there are some manufacturers out there today who are now specifically targeting photography enthusiasts with larger camera sensors, external attachments and multiple lenses.
The iPhone 7 Plus continues to push innovation and provide specific features that appeal photographers. Apple engineers certainly did a good job with the simulated portrait mode that gives subjects a “depth effect”, something we have never seen on camera phones before. However, it is clear that such new technology certainly has its drawbacks and limitations. Although some want us to believe that we no longer need our large cameras to take pictures and phone cameras can do as good of a job, we know that such claims will never be true – and the size of the sensor has a lot to do with it. Still, for those situations when we don’t have cameras handy, camera phones offer pretty good image quality – far better than what we had to deal with in the past.
Overall, despite all the shortcomings pointed out in this review, the iPhone 7 Plus does a decent job for my needs. While there are other great camera phone choices out there, the iPhone 7 Plus serves me well when I need to take occasional shots, especially in bright daylight conditions.
10) More Image Samples
iPhone 7 Plus Camera
- Optical Performance
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Ease of Use
Photography Life Overall Rating