The iPhone 7 Plus is Apple’s current iteration of their phablet-sized iPhone, albeit one that is rumored to be replaced in here in a couple months in September 2017. The iPhone 7 Plus is the cell phone that I’m currently using for the time being and a big reason I bought it was for the camera.
Although not perfect, I find myself occasionally blown away at some of the images the iPhone 7 Plus camera produces when the light is just right. Where it’s not perfect is when put in conditions that are less than ideal.
This article will address those conditions in which the camera shines and also the ones that give the camera trouble.
There are several phone cameras out on the market along with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus that are extremely impressive in what they can do. I hope to provide enough information here to help you make a decision as to whether the iPhone 7 Plus is the right camera for you.
I can only speak to the iPhone 7 Plus, however, not the regular iPhone7, although they’re very similar. I also have very little hands-on experience with competing phone like the Google Pixel or the Huawei P9, both of which I’ve heard are excellent. I have tried the Pixel out in-store and can confirm that it’s also a great choice and basically a toss-up when comparing it to the iPhone 7 phones.
This review is meant to be a real-world review of putting this camera through its paces. This is not intended to be a super technical review, just practical information about how this camera would be used in normal, everyday situations. If you’re looking for a super in-depth technical review, there are plenty of websites out there that do that.
With that being said, I’d still like to go over the specs of the iPhone 7 Plus to start off with. Normally I’m not one for spec sheets but this is a pretty unique camera design so I think it’s worth mentioning. Here they are:
- Dual 12MP sensors
- 28/56 mm equivalent focal length
- F1.8/2.8 aperture
- On-sensor phase detection
- Quad-LED flash
- DNG Raw capture and manual control with 3rd party apps
- 4K video at 30 fps
- 720p/240 and 1080p/120fps slow-motion video
- 7MP front camera with F2.2 aperture and 32mm equivalent focal length
I’d like to first start off by addressing some of these specs, because as stated before, this is not a spec sheet that reads like a standard standalone digital camera.
On the dual 12MP sensors and 28/56 mm focal length lenses:
The iPhone 7 Plus actually has two lenses on the back of the phone. One is a wide-angle 28mm lens and a longer 56mm lens. The 28mm has an f/1.8 maximum aperture and f/2.2 for the 56mm.
In order to capture images from the two, they both each have their own sensors, and sometimes the camera makes composites from the two.
When the camera is set to its normal shooting mode, it uses the wider, 28mm lens. If you put the camera into portrait mode, however, it switches over to the more appropriate 56mm focal length.
I wish you had more control over when the camera switches from lens to lens though. As it stands, you can switch to the 56mm focal length by putting the camera into Portrait Mode, but then you’re forced into having the phones fake bokeh added to the photo.
While this is great when you want that blurred out portrait look, you don’t always want it. The workaround is to have the camera save two versions of the files, one with the portrait-style added blur and another unedited file. This is just one of those things that would be nice to have more control over.
F/1.8 and F/2.8 Maximum Apertures
I find it very impressive that Apple was able to make lenses with such wide apertures and still keep them to a manageable size. This definitely has good implications for use in dark environments but does not really give you that true shallow depth of field look that you get with a camera with a large sensor and wide aperture lens.
Apple’s use of Gaussian blur to mimic the shallow depth of field effect of larger cameras is a pleasant look for the most part. However, it’s just not the same as the real thing and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. You also occasionally get splotches where the algorithm adds this blur where it shouldn’t.
For coming out of such a small sensor, image quality of the iPhone 7 Plus files is very solid.
Color rendering is accurate and there is good tonal range. JPEGs are a bit oversaturated in my opinion, but this is the first iPhone to offer RAW images, so you do get more leeway with RAW files. The camera does a very good job of picking white balance.
The camera does very well outdoors in strong light, although there is a good deal of room for improvement in the fine details. What looks fine at regular viewing size can degrade quickly when zoomed in to 100% or printed out.
But all in all sharpness across the frame is very good. This goes for both of the lenses.
The camera does struggle when placed in tricky lighting conditions – its performance is not impressive in instances of low light or scenes with deep contrast between light and dark. In the former you get very noticeable pixilation and in latter you often end up with badly clipped highlights.
For those situations in which there is a lot of contrast in the scene, the HDR mode of the camera can help. It’s not always ideal, particularly if you’re dealing with moving subjects because the camera stitches together several images, but does work well for stationary shots.
Autofocus and Phase Detection
One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised and pleased with is the autofocus of the iPhone 7 Plus, thanks to the phase detection autofocus integrated onto the sensor.
I’ve found that the autofocus is snappy in bright outdoor lighting conditions but what I was impressed with the most is that it’s really not all that much slower in dark conditions. Even in a dark bar the camera rarely has problems locking onto subjects. It does run into problems though when in dark situations and you try to focus on something without much contrast.
But I’m very satisfied with how the autofocus performs in low light. Image quality in low light, however, is another story.
Images shot with the iPhone 7 Plus in low light without the flash are very noisy. I’ve used point and shoot cameras that have worse autofocus than the iPhone 7 Plus in low light but when they do lock on, their image quality is far superior.
Speaking of flash, I’d like to address that as well
The flash of the iPhone 7 Plus is 50% brighter than the previous flash of the 6s. The flash adjusts its color cast to compensate for whatever environment you’re shooting in, kind of like putting gels on a hot shoe flash but on a much subtler level and not for effect, just for color matching.
I find the flash to do a decent job when necessary, but basically reserve it for emergency use only. Although the flash is apparently stronger than the previous one on the iPhone 6s, I still find it to be underwhelming in terms of power. But that’s to be expected of a small cell phone camera flash. Flash distance is pretty ineffectual further than a distance of about five feet.
DNG (RAW Shooting)
I think Apple is moving in the right direction by, albeit indirectly, allowing access to the camera’s DNG files. I say indirectly because you can’t actually access them using the phone’s camera app – you have to use a third-party camera app such as Manual, ProCam or Obscura.
I’m sure there are probably other third-party apps that give you the option of shooting in DNG or DNG + JPEG, but these are the ones I’m aware of and they’re not free. They range in price from $3.99-$4.99 as of this writing.
In addition to having to use a third-party app to tell the camera to save files in the DNG format, you also need something like Lightroom Mobile to be able to edit the files.
To be honest, I imply think this move is a simple step in the right direction in being able to have more power over the editing process for your cell phone photos. Although the DNG files certainly do contain more detail than the iPhone 7 Plus’s JPEGs straight out of the camera, I was not all that impressed.
DNGs from the iPhone 7 Plus do carry more detail and a wider gamut of colors, but not significantly so. Also, editing the RAW files of the iPhone 7 Plus leads to significant increases in digital noise levels.
I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s software rendering of their JPEGs – they’re a bit too contrasty for my liking, which makes mid-tones and bright colors look oversaturated. But for my purposes, I can’t really justify the extra effort it takes to shoot in and edit the RAW files.
I use my phone for casual purposes, mainly taking pictures of family and friends and find the JPEGs from the phone good enough even though they’re not perfect. I don’t plan on creating any masterpieces anytime soon with my iPhone, so I think it’s fair to say I’ll be shooting in JPEG for the time being. I’m sure one of the future generations of the iPhone camera will change my mind, but for now I really don’t think the DNG files from the iPhone 7 Plus provide enough value to shoot with them.
Front Selfie Camera
The camera on the front of the iPhone 7 Plus is 7 megapixels, a 2 megapixel step up from the 5MP front-facing camera of the previous iPhone 6s. This selfie camera lags quite a bit behind the main camera(s) on the back in terms of image quality, although that shouldn’t come as a big surprise considering it’s a good deal less in resolution and is about the size of the opening to a pinhole camera.
This camera really struggles in extreme lighting conditions. In dark settings images are very noisy. In harsh, bright lighting, the camera produces washed out tones and has severe clipping issues.
How does the iPhone 7 Plus work in the real world?
I’m definitely not in the hypey camp that says the cameras on our iPhones are going to replace our big DSLRs any day now. People have been on that schtick and saying that for a while now. Several years people have been saying that.
But I think at the same time quite a few people in the photography community have eased off that sort of thinking and embraced a more practical notion of what the cameras on our phones can do for us. That practical notion of cell phone cameras is that they are cameras that are reliably with us at all times and provide us with a way to capture moments with decent image quality.
But the notion that cell phone cameras will eventually replace all of us professional photographers is just unfounded in my opinion. There will always be a demand for photographers who know how to light, direct subjects, and tell a compelling narrative through still photography.
Compact cell phone cameras are a long ways off the point where they will be able to compete with professional photography gear, and I don’t really seeing that happening in our lifetimes. Nothing can really compete with a good interchangeable lens camera system with a somewhat sizable sensor.
With that being said, I am still amazed at the current state of cell phone camera technology. I still remember the first cell phone I got that had a camera on it, not much longer than ten years ago. I think it had a whopping 3 megapixel camera.
It was so bad that it was almost like a toy. If I recall correctly I think I was amazed with it for the first few days but quickly grew bored with it and stopped using the camera altogether because of how bad the image quality was. The pictures were so blurry you could barely tell what you were looking at. That camera was really more of a gimmick than an actual working camera.
So it’s pretty incredible to look back on those cell phone cameras of yesteryear and compare them to the ones we have available to us today. Digital camera technology has come a long way in a very short amount of time and it’s only going to keep getting better and better from here.
The best thing the iPhone 7 Plus does is simply being with you at all times. We’ve all heard the popular refrain “the best camera is the one you have with you” – almost to the point of cliché. But setting aside the fact that it’s an obvious truism, it’s repeated for a reason.
The best camera really is the one that you have with you, and your cell phone is with you at all times, quite literally attached at the hip. This solves a lot of those problems when you to take a snapshot but you forgot to bring the camera or you didn’t feel like lugging around big, heavy, bulky camera gear with you.
I always felt a twinge of guilt every time I saw a situation pop up when I was out and about that would have been a great photography opportunity but I hadn’t brought along my camera with me. Now I have no excuse for it, as I can just pull out my phone and swipe left and I’m ready to go.
The iPhone 7 Plus is great for taking pictures of family and friends. It’s great for any type of quick snap that you otherwise would have refrained from had a bigger camera been the only option.
It’s even a respectable option for street photography, particularly if you come across an interesting situation or scene on the street at a time when you’ve left a bigger camera at home.
I don’t think the image quality is good enough to justify going out solely for the purposes of street photography if you’ve got a better camera but there are plenty of good photographers out there who do just that and produce fantastic work with iPhones. But it’s no slouch by any means and a big advantage it has going for it is how inconspicuous it is.
Big cameras can draw a lot of attention but with an iPhone you can shoot a bit more incognito.
I find shooting with the iPhone 7 Plus camera to be a very pleasurable experience. Within the limitations of it being a small camera that fits in your pocket, the iPhone 7 Plus certainly delivers. It does a pretty good job of just getting out of your way and doing what you want it to do.
If you go into the experience of shooting the iPhone 7 Plus camera with realistic expectations, you’ll find that it’s a very capable camera and a great companion to have with you at all times.
iPhone 7 Plus Photo Gallery
Some of these are JPEGs straight out of the camera and others have been edited with VSCO. Should be fairly clear which ones have been edited.
Wedding photos shot with the iPhone 7 Plus
These are from the wedding a family member that I shot as a guest, not as a hired photographer. I forgot to bring my point-and-shoot camera, but I was able to get some decent snaps because I had the iPhone 7 Plus with me.
The iPhone 7 Plus is a solid step forward for Apple in terms of camera performance. Apple’s iPhones have remained at the forefront of innovations both in cell phone technology and camera design. With this offering, the iPhone is still up there with the best of the best.
Are you thinking about getting the iPhone 7 Plus/want to share your own experience with it? Let us know in the comments below.
Brandon Ballweg is a photographer from the Kansas City area. He is the founder of ComposeClick.