A look at the iPhone 7 Plus camera and portrait mode

I enjoy messing around with photography and have a nice Micro Four-Thirds camera and a few lenses.

Some of my favourite shots I’ve taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the 45mm portrait lens: this combo takes great portrait shots and is capable of quite a nice bokeh effect.

So when Apple announced portrait mode for the iPhone 7 Plus, which is capable of producing similar results, I was really excited to give it a try. I’ve been firmly in the Plus-sized iPhone camp since it was launched, so the idea of being able to take ‘proper camera’ shots with my daily phone was hugely appealing.

My Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus finally arrived last week, so here are some impressions of the iPhone 7 Plus cameras after playing with them for a few days.

(iPhone 7 Plus pictured with the tizi Flachmann Ultra iPhone battery)

Wide-angle lens vs telephoto lens

Note: Apple calls the 28mm lens a ‘wide-angle’ and the 56mm a ‘telephoto’, so I’ll be sticking to their naming.

The first thing you notice, is that the 2x telephoto lens is significantly less bright than the wide-angle. The official specs list them as f1.8 and f.2.8 respectively, but the first time you try to take a shot in low light, it’s still a bit of a surprise to see after several years of pretty great low-light performance from your iPhone.

The behavior of the stock camera app is already a bit surprising at first:

I was at my choir rehearsal taking some pictures of the stage setup and switching between the 1x and 2x lenses to fit in more of the stage, or zoom in on certain singers.

Or so I thought: looking at the exif data afterwards (with the excellent Exify by the Icon Factory), it turns out nearly all shots were taken with the wide-angle at 2x digital zoom.

The iPhone will still default to the brighter f1.8 wide-angle lens and digital zoom, if it thinks that will produce better image quality. I understand why Apple prioritizes capturing the best possible image over respecting the user’s lens selection, but I’d still like an option to turn off the automatic lens selection.

But luckily iOS gives apps such as ProCamera full API access to each camera individually, so they can give you fine-grained control over which camera you’re shooting with, shutter speed, ISO and more.

Here’s a low-light shot taken with the telephoto lens in ProCamera:

So given the right circumstances and settings, the telephoto can produce decent low-light results, but you’ll want to download an app with more manual control.

Telephoto lens is really best in outdoor scenarios – and then it works really well. You can get in close, or capture something a bit further away and there’s no noticeable quality difference between either lens:

Video performance

One feature I didn’t expect to use much was the new zoom UI, but it proves to be quite useful when shooting video. The control wheel gives you a more stable way to do slow zooms, so there’s much more control than you used to get with the classic pinch gesture.

Switching from 1x zoom to 2x zoom in a video really exposes the lack of OIS on the telephoto lens though: your 1x shots are super smooth, then you jump to 2x and it’s hellooo mr shakycam.

Thanks to the magic of digital video stabilization, the final product isn’t as bad as it seems when you’re shooting, but it’s still quite a noticeable difference. Tradeoffs!

Portrait Mode

The first portrait mode shots I tried were in a dimly lit office on a grey dreary autumn day. The results looked about as muddy as the weather outside: grainy, slightly soft images that just looked a bit blurry all over. As I joked on twitter, for best results, take pictures under Californian ™ sun!

But when you do get into better lighting conditions, the results are pretty great:

You can still tell that the lens isn’t as bright as the wide-angle and the colors pop a bit less than they do on my Olympus, but I still really like the way these pics turn out.

If you look really closely, you can occasionally see artifacts of the effect, but it’s more than good enough for Instagram and Facebook (or your food blog).

Taking a portrait mode photo is a bit more work than your typical iPhone snapshot, but so is taking a nice portrait shot with any camera.

If you’re taking pictures of kids though, I think you’ll still want to have a proper camera: kids aren’t going to stand still until iOS is ready to take a portrait picture, something that isn’t an issue with a real bokeh effect from a mirrorless or DSLR camera.


So is it worth it? I don’t think I’d bother upgrading for the 2x zoom alone: it really only works well in brightly lit environments or outdoors, are very often you can get away with digital zoom in those situations. I’m sure there will be times that having 5x or 10x digital zoom with better quality will come in handy, but that’s not the reason you’ll want to buy this iPhone.

But portrait mode might be: in the right circumstances, it does give you DSLR-esque pictures that look very nice. And thanks to the local lens, you also avoid some of the wide-angle distortion when taking pictures of people, so it’s a nicer image even without the effect.

If you’re a fan of the Plus-sized iPhone anyway, this year’s model is a real treat.

3 must-have iPhone 7 Plus accessories

Shoulderpod tripod adapter for iPhone

tizi Flachmann Ultra iPhone battery

tizi extra-long charging cable

Also published on Medium.