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iPhone 7 camera in-depth: Apple said you'll love it and we think you actually might

Andrew Williams

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iPhone 7 Plus 9

What's all this dual-camera talk about?

Every year Apple gets accused of making a boring iPhone upgrade. There’s nothing boring about the iPhone 7 Plus camera, though. It’s a dual-lens system, but isn’t anything like the dual-camera phones we’ve reviewed to date.

Here we take a bit of deep dive into each of the important part of the new camera and explain what Apple has done and why it's really rather cool.

Watch: iPhone 7 vs iPhone 7 Plus

1. It has “lossless” zoom

The most important part of the iPhone 7 Plus camera is that it actually contains two cameras. Before the launch my bet was that Apple would use a colour sensor and a black-and-white one to improve low-light performance beyond both the capabilities of the iPhone 6S Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S7.

That’s not what the iPhone 7 Plus has, though.

It uses a 27mm lens and a 56mm one. So that’s a 1x-zoom lens and a 2x-zoom lens. This gives the phone the equivalent of a 2x optical zoom. That may not sound all that impressive, but it is in a phone only 7.3mm thick.

Such a dual-camera setup also separates the iPhone 7 Plus from other dual-sensor phones we’ve seen before, like the HTC One M8 and Huawei P9. This is something new.

Related: iPhone 7 Plus vs iPhone 7

iPhone 7 Plus 5

When you use the iPhone 7 Plus, you’ll be able to select 1x or 2x views, or anything between 1x and 10x zoom. There’s a good reason to stick to the native 1x and 2x focal lengths if you care a lot about image quality, though.

Beyond 2x zoom, the iPhone 7 Plus reverts to standard digital zoom. This is like opening up an image in Photoshop, cropping it and expanding it. Terrible, in other words.

There’s also an issue using zoom settings between 1x and 2x zoom. It’s all down to what these images are made of. At, say 1.3x zoom, the scene is larger than the 2x-zoom lens can see, but small enough that the 1x lens can’t use its full resolution to render the image. The iPhone’s brain then has to squish together the image data from the parts of the scene each lens can ‘see’ and hope for the best.

The only focal lengths equivalent to a normal optical zoom are 1x and 2x. The range in between is made from software compositions. However, it’s exciting stuff.

Apple hasn’t come up with this tech itself. It acquired LinX in 2015, a company that's been working on this tech for years, and outlined a very similar camera setup in 2014.

iPhone 7 Plus

2. The lens is much faster

Even if you just use 1x-zoom photos 90% of the time, image quality should be significantly improved in low-light conditions. The iPhone 7 Plus has a new 6-element f/1.8 lens.

The older iPhone 6S Plus has a relatively slow f/2.2 lens, which had already been radically outstripped by rival Androids when the last generation was announced. The f-stop rating tells you how wide a lens’s aperture is.

The wider the lens aperture, the more light can get through to the sensor. Apple says 50% more light gets to the sensor this time around, which will improve low-light performance.

It’s great, although not the widest-aperture phone camera around. The Samsung Galaxy S7 has an f/1.7 lens. Of course, it only has the one rear sensor.

iPhone 7 Plus

3. Optical stabilisation is in

A fast lens doesn’t mean much in the phone world unless it’s partnered with optical image stabilisation. Even larger phone sensors are tiny, and a fast lens isn’t enough to ensure good low-light performance.

OIS keeps the sensor steady so that even if you move a little bit while light is pouring in, your images will stay sharp. Night shots demand slower shutter speeds, meaning there’s more chance that little hand movements will change what the camera sees while it’s taking in light.

Last year, only the iPhone 6S Plus had OIS. This year both iPhone 7 models do.

There are a few questions left to answer here, though. First, we don’t know how hard Apple has pushed the optical image stabilisation. The Samsung Galaxy S7’s night-time image quality is only as good as it is because it’s willing to make the shutter very slow in order to avoid ramping up sensitivity, which is what makes your photos noisy.

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The iPhone 6S Plus’s limit is around 1/9 of a second, even though a good OIS system can let a shutter slow down to 1/4 of a second and keep handheld photos sharp.

Our second question is whether the 2x-zoom lens is also stabilised. It seems highly unlikely that it will be.

More ‘zoomed in’ lenses take up more space, which is why some DSLR zoom lenses are absolutely huge. Looking at the iPhone 7 Plus’s camera housing, the bump isn't huge. It's highly likely that the added size of the 2x lens roughly matches up with the extra space taken up by the 1x lens’s OIS motor.

In other words, zoomed-in photos probably aren’t going to look as good in poor lighting. Sorry.

4. Apple hasn’t had to mess up the focal length

It is reassuring, though, that Apple hasn't had to change the focal length of the new iPhone in order to accommodate its new style. The base focal length is still 27mm in standard camera terms, meaning its view will be the same as you’re used to in recent iPhones.

5. New ISP should be able to keep up

Apple is great at maintaining standards. Through the entire iPad series, it has obsessively stuck to offering at least 10 hours of battery life.

The iPhone 7 Plus’s new ISP suggests we’ll see the same excellent shooting performance seen in all recent-gen iPhones. One of the greatest, least talked-about, strengths of iPhone cameras is that they shoot quickly with almost zero shutter lag and tend to nail difficult things like white balance and exposure.

A new image signal processor (ISP) is destined to be one of the least-appreciated, most often-used parts of the new Apple A10 processor. This handles everything from noise reduction to exposure and white balance.

The zoom array hugely increases the pressure on image processing, particularly if you shoot between 1x and 2x zoom. With such shots, the iPhone 7 Plus has to merge the information from two sensors. It’s not a simple operation.

Apple’s Phil Schiller says it involves 100 billion operations, and claims it takes just 25 milliseconds. That’s fast enough to feel instant. We'll see whether it stacks up in our review.

Buy Now: iPhone 7 at Amazon.com from $780

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6. Its shallow depth of field doesn’t look terrible

One feature we may not see right from the on-sale day is something phones like the HTC One M8 use their dual-camera arrays for. By capturing a depth map of a scene, the iPhone 7 can create a shallow-depth-of-field effect, making your subject pop by blurring out the background.

Historically, this hasn't worked well. Poor-quality depth maps and very simple blurring of backgrounds can make your shots look like they’ve been edited on Photoshop by a 14-year-old who only spent about five minutes on the job.

There is a sign that Apple’s take on the idea is going to be something special, though. At the iPhone 7 Plus launch, Apple showed off a few demo images using the algorithm, and it was the most convincing faux-bokeh effect I’ve seen from a phone.

iPhone 7 Plus 11

iPhone 7 Plus 9

The crucial difference is that the background doesn’t appear simply blurred. Light sources have a ‘bloom’ effect, which you can normally only get with a wide aperture lens and a much larger sensor than the iPhone 7 Plus has.

We’ll have to wait until later in 2016 to see whether this makes it into the final software, though.

This effect will be part of the Portrait mode in the iPhone camera app, and you’ll be able to see a preview of the effect before you shoot too. With this sort of feature, you normally have to apply it in post-production, which makes it enough of a pain for most people to forget about using it.

Apple has a chance of making this bokeh effect more than a gimmick. Hopefully it'll pull it off.

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Watch: Apple Watch Series 2 vs Series 1

Got a question about Apple's new camera system? Let us know in the comments.

toboev

September 8, 2016, 4:59 pm

"It uses a 27mm lens and a 56mm one. So that’s a 1x-zoom lens and a 2x-zoom lens."

So, er, no, that's no zoom lenses. That is one fixed focal length lens and another fixed focal length lens, the second being twice the focal length of the first. But no zoom.

Oberoth

September 8, 2016, 10:51 pm

I don't think you can use both cameras at once can you? That would be the best use, both cameras take photos simultaneous then combine them into one photo. Then you can zoom in after without quality loss.

toboev

September 9, 2016, 6:15 am

That, I think, is exactly what they are doing. However there is a loss of quality involved at any setting other than 1x and 2x. That is why I take exception when it is passed off as an "optical zoom".

The article eventually goes on to admit that problem, giving the example of an intermediate 1.3x setting. But that admission comes only after the author has firmly lodged the prior erroneous impression in readers' minds with headlines and paragraphs implying a "lossless optical zoom".

A "lossles optical zoom" is the holy grail we've been waiting for in a mobile phone. This is not it.

Andrew_TR

September 9, 2016, 6:27 am

Okay, perhaps I could have said "the 2x lens that enables the camera app's new zoom function", but it sounds a bit clunky. It's also arguably technically wrong to call the lenses 27mm and 56mm without referencing it as an equivalent 35mm standard. I think this whole 'computational photography' area is going to need some new acceptabled terminology. Suggestions welcomed! I do see what you mean about this sort of thing being ripe for misinformation.

toboev

September 9, 2016, 6:44 am

The focal length thing, I never understood why lenses were not classified - for public consumption - by angle of view rather than by focal length. I understand that focal length is a property of the lens itself, whereas angle of view depends also on how it is being used, but we all end up using focal length as a proxy for angle of view. Now, with so many different formats, we even end up using an "equivalent" focal length, a proxy for a proxy. No wonder it gets confusing.
But the issue here is the idea of "lossless optical zoom". That implies capabilities beyond what this phone can achieve, but contains enough grains of truth that it will end up being widely accepted.
I'm sure you have the technical insight and the journalistic skill to tease out and clarify the truth and explain how that varies from Apple's key note hype.

PGrGr

September 9, 2016, 9:46 am

Not really. Just keep it in terms of 35mm (ie full frame) equivalence. This has worked well for years in discussions of APS, APS-c and M4/3 lenses.

PGrGr

September 9, 2016, 9:50 am

I'm highly skeptical of the faux bokeh effect. Sure, the example images look great, but you'll notice that in both of the example shots, the background is clearly a long way behind the subject. That's not hard to fake, even with just a single lens. I had an app (on my Android phone) for doing that to photos years ago.

I'm holding out judgement on the Apple method until we've seen more real world attempts, in which the background is closer to the subject, or, much more common than either of those examples, where there is a series of background layers at differing depths within the photo.

dmo580

September 9, 2016, 9:14 pm

Not sure how you can call f/2.2 slow. f/2.2 by any standards is a fast lens. Is f/1.8 faster? Yeah, but let's not use marketing speak because a 1/3 stop = 33% more light and 1 stop = 100% more light. Sounds impressive, but if your images are barely passable at f/2.2, f/1.8 isn't going to give you huge improvements. Anyone working in photography should know that.

dmo580

September 9, 2016, 9:15 pm

I hate fake bokeh personally as a photographer. The problem is people don't understand the concept of depth of field and incorrectly apply bokeh filters like in Instagram. Nor do they understand what tilt shift photography is. Oh well, I suppose bringing these features to the masses is cool though.

Muhammad Jihad ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

September 11, 2016, 6:07 am

Apple is generally pretty good about their sample shots - they are reproducible in the real world in general. If it's using the two lens together to create a "3D" depth of field image so it knows what is in the foreground and what isn't, then wow, that's a great use of that technology. Also I like the fact they're making optical zoom a big thing, and yes I know others have done it but no one cares, but by Apple doing it it will now become a thing and people will focus more on optical zoom and perhaps in the near future we'll have cameras with 5x optical zoom and the ability apply believable filters to images.

Fred Brown

September 19, 2016, 3:01 pm

Lol, the iPhone features RAW photos and 4K video yet doesn't offer expandable storage, so considering these file sizes, you'll be forced to spend hundreds more on an iPhone with sufficient storage, or buy apples own iCloud storage... The iPhone has dropped the aux Jack, so you'll have to buy their adaptors, or apple ear pod headphones lol... The feature 4K video yet only have a 1080p display... The iPhone has copied HTC for years, the iPhone 6 copies HTC's all metal body, antenna bands, long slender shape, and rounded edges. The iPhone 6s copied HTC's 5MP front camera, and live photos. Now the iPhone 7 copies HTC's dual sensor camera, dual speakers, simultaneous camera shots (HTC has offered simultaneous camera shots and video of both front and back cameras, the iPhone uses this same idea but with both rear cameras) the iPhone 7 opted for a similar finger print sensor as found on the A9 and HTC 10. To me it always seems as though Apple is always has some angle to rip of its customers, making you use their own cables, insufficient battery life so you'll buy their battery expansion cases, insufficient storage, lacking SD CARD slot so you'll have to spend hundreds more on a model with sufficient storage, or buy their own iCloud storage. They feature their own iTunes by default on iPhone5 so they make money off your music downloads, they feature their own apple airplay and connections so you'll buy products which have paid licensing fees to feature it, meaning the product will also cost more. the list goes on, and this just makes me feel like their is always some angle to make more money of the users...

Fred Brown

September 19, 2016, 3:15 pm

The HTC one m8 was the first to feature a dual sensor camera and the depth in the photos was amazing, it looked so life like. But they also were the first to opt for larger pixels over resolution, and while many ridiculed them for it, look at the market now, almost everyone is opting for larger pixels over resolution and even featuring dual sensor cameras... The iPhone 7 camera isn't anything revolutionary, just a bunch of Android features crammed into one. Dual sensor cameras, and simultaneous photo shooting, have been featured by HTC for years, and optical zoom has also been featured on androids. The dual camera sensor here is very similar to that featured on the G5, with the secondary being a wide angle lens, and while the iPhone 7 offers optical zoom, it's only 2X zoom which would only really be good for close up shots, of like insects and things, with anything more than 2X zoom using digital zoom so the optical zoom doesn't help with zooming into far away objects, because it still uses digital zoom for those... The thing I find completely idiotic about the iPhone 7 is that it can now take RAW photos, and like the 6s record 4K video, but these are huge files, and the iPhone doesn't support SD CARD'S so your unable to expand the memory, so you'll have to spend hundreds more for a model with sufficient storage, or buy iCloud storage. Also despite being able to recording 4K video the display is only 1080p, and the microphones are still mediocre with the audio sounding especially low quality for 4K video.

kalle123123

November 15, 2016, 7:44 pm

I love bokeh, but I'm not happy with the $1000 price tag of the iPhone 7 plus. However there's an app called Portrait Blur which achieves similar effect for OLDER iPhones with just one camera. It's FREE and really cool IMHO. Just search for Portrait Blur in the App store.

Here's their App store screenshot along with a photo of my son taken with an iPhone 6. It also has a Portrait Camera which is a bit zoomed in, that I think gives you a better crop by default. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/...

https://uploads.disquscdn.com/...

https://uploads.disquscdn.com/...

jerrymcguire12

November 21, 2016, 6:29 am

I don't understand why anyone doing a camera review of the iPhone 7 hasn't noticed the very irritating shutter lag. I miss photos all the time because it can take up to 2 full seconds (average about 1 second) from the time you press the shutter button to when it takes the picture. It's extremely irritating and I miss shots all the time because of it. My iPhone 5 or 6 did not exhibit this problem at all. There are posts on apples website about this but Apple has not acknowledged the problem with a fix yet.

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