One of my favorite recurring bits at iPhone introductions is when Phil Schiller notes, correctly, that the iPhone camera is likely the best camera most people will ever own. He's been saying it fairly regularly since the iPhone 4S came out in 2011, and he said it again last week when he introduced the iPhone 7 camera. This is an incredible fact, as is the fact that a huge number of people now quietly upgrade to a better camera on a fairly regular basis, and then use the hell out of that camera. The explosion in mobile photography is one of the most revolutionary aspects of the entire smartphone revolution, and the general excellence of the iPhone camera over time is a big reason why.
The iPhone 7 represents another upgrade over the iPhone 6S: there's a new, faster f/1.8 lens, the addition of optical image stabilization, a new four-color True Tone flash, and wider color capture. This all adds up to a decent improvement, but the iPhone 6S was already operating at the top of the scale, bested only recently by the latest cameras in the Galaxy S7 and Note 7. In low light, that faster lens and optical image stabilization means that the 7 significantly outperforms the 6S. But compared to the iPhone 6S, the iPhone 7 is a step improvement, not a major leap.
The attempt at a major leap is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Instead of a single lens and sensor, the 7 Plus has two: the same f/1.8 28mm wide-angle lens as the iPhone 7, and an f/2.8 56mm telephoto lens. These cameras operate simultaneously; they're always working together. Right now, what this means is that you can switch to a true 2x zoom by tapping on a button, which is very nice. You can also digitally zoom the 1x lens to 2x, where the telephoto takes over, and then digitally zoom the 2x lens to 10x. Digital zoom is still digital zoom; anything past 4x definitely looks like what you'd expect from grainy digital zoom.
And, well, that's all it really does right now. Zooming is great, but that's not the only reason to put dual cameras on a phone. Other phones with dual cameras, like the Huawei Honor 8, let you do all kinds of wild focus and depth of field adjustments, and some even let you refocus the image after the fact, like a Lytro camera. The effects can be a little fake-looking, but they're the sort of thing dual cameras enable. But the iPhone 7 Plus doesn't do any of that, although a forthcoming software update will enable a portrait mode that blurs the background into what looks like a very nice bokeh.
Even that is just scratching the surface of what can be done with two cameras on a phone with as much processing power as the iPhone 7 Plus, and I'm really hoping Apple allows third-party developers to tap into the system and experiment with possibilities like refocusing and perspective shifts. But for now, you get zooming. We spent a lot of time shooting with the 7 Plus, and it gets noticeably warm when you use the cameras for an extended period; it takes a lot of processing power to meld those two cameras into a single unit. I'm very curious to see the impact on heat and battery life when Apple enables features beyond zooming.
Apple has been blowing up iPhone photos to billboard sizes and crowing about its cameras for years now, so at this point the opportunity for improvement is fairly small. I took a few photos with the iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 6S Plus under decent light and asked people to tell them apart on a laptop screen. It was pretty hard for most everyone, although the 7 definitely has more vibrant colors and a noticeably shallower depth of field because of the brighter lens. You can tell if you know what to look for, but the difference in most shots will be imperceptible in an Instagram or Facebook feed.
Front cameras are almost more important than rear cameras in our Instagram Stories world, and the iPhone 7's front camera is excellent, with a new 7-megapixel sensor replacing the 5-megapixel unit in the 6S. The lens is not quite as wide angle as Samsung's cameras, but it's bright, sharp, and the Retina Flash is still a terrific idea that was absolutely worth lifting from Snapchat. It's a solid improvement, and a welcome one.
We conducted some pretty extensive camera testing against a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an iPhone 6S Plus, a Fuji XT10, and a Canon 5D MkIII — you can see the results for yourself. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus clearly hold their own, but I don't think they blow the pack away. That might all change when Apple starts taking more advantage of the dual cameras, but for now, I don't think the 7 Plus will keep anyone away from a mirrorless rig. Which is exactly what I said about the iPhone 6S last year.