After a few years of abuse, my old phone was on its last legs when Apple announced the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus this summer. My old phone limped into the fall when I finally got my hands on the iPhone 7 Plus, and boy was I surprised by just how capable the camera is. I never thought I’d seriously see a smartphone camera as a useful photographic device. But given that the smartphone is literally the camera we have with us all the time, it’s good to see all of the technological advancements going into these devices. The iPhone 7 Plus not only impressed me with its image quality, but also with some new features that make it a really fun and useful camera. Better still, it offers a glimpse at what features we might come to expect as standard in smartphone cameras of the future.
First, the specs. The iPhone 7 Plus features two cameras: a 28mm equivalent wide angle and a 56mm telephoto. Both feature 12MP sensors, and the wide-angle lens has a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture while the tele lens features an ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture. Both cameras feature optical image stabilization, automatic HDR, face detection, noise reduction, burst shooting and more.
Portrait mode. Once you upgrade to iOS 10.2 your iPhone 7 Plus will use its two lenses to help simulate shallow depth of field in Portrait Mode. The pleasing out-of-focus background—known as bokeh—simply helps make portraits more attractive and appealing, and the process is simple. Simply select Portrait Mode where you would choose from options such as Square, Panorama, et al. The camera does all the heavy lifting. And while the difference in the background is subtle, it’s also very important. Because the sensors on these cameras are so small, shallow depth of field is nearly impossible to achieve optically. Kudos to Apple for figuring out how to “fake it” with post processing for a little improvement in every portrait.
Optical zoom. This is the feature I’ve found most useful in my time with the phone. Granted, a 56mm telephoto lens isn’t going to win any awards for long-range power, but it takes the shackles off for a photographer limited by the fixed focal length lens of every previous iPhone. Having a telephoto choice is incredibly useful. I even found on occasion that I zoomed in too far to get the shot! What a great problem to have in a smartphone camera: too much focal length! I also love what this forecasts: a future in which multiple cameras at multiple focal lengths make our smartphones practically as versatile as DSLRs with zoom lenses.
Auto HDR. Some people freak out when they hear HDR because they envision overcooked, supersaturated ugly images. But in high-contrast lighting situations, the iPhone’s Auto HDR kicks in to render an increase in dynamic range that limits blown out highlights and blocked up shadows. It’s an incredibly practical feature that makes this phone that much more capable as a camera, given the wide variety of less-than-ideal lighting situations in which it’s bound to be used.
Live photos. What a neat feature this is! I knew nothing of Live Photos when I purchased my new iPhone, and now I’m hooked. It’s such a simple little thing, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it. For those who don’t know, Live Photos are like a little bit of video added into an otherwise still photograph. It’s a still photo, a JPEG file, with a 1.5 short movie file attached. In practice, after shooting a Live Photo, simply press firmly on the image file and it will animate, complete with audio, turning what was simply a still into a photograph that comes alive, capturing the instants before and right after the shutter was clicked. It may not sound like much, but it’s a really neat feature that has practically invented a new type of picture: not just a still, not entirely a video, a Live Photo! Maybe someday this will be the standard format for every image file? Stranger things have happened.