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iPhone 7 Plus review: A tale of two cameras

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Why would you buy an iPhone 7 Plus over the iPhone 7? Especially since it’s considerably more expensive than the iPhone 7 and, in many respects, is a very similar phone.

Well it’s a question that’s pretty easy to answer: it’s the more accomplished of the two devices. And that isn’t simply down to the new twin-camera setup, which is the most obvious difference between the two handsets of course. There’s a whole lot more to the iPhone 7 Plus than initially meets the eye.

READ NEXT: Our iPhone 7 review

It’s considerably larger, with a 5.5in 1,080 x 1,920 resolution display, and it has a more sizeable battery as well. And all that comes in addition to the improvements made to the iPhone 7: the new Home button, the improved battery life and faster performance, new colours and more generous baseline storage.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus display

Twin-camera bonanza

So how much better is the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual camera? Well, from one perspective, not at all. There are two cameras here and one is exactly the same as the unit you’ll find in the iPhone 7. It has a 28mm, six-element lens with a f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilisation and the same improved ISP.

And you won’t be surprised at all to find that the results from it look precisely the same as the results of the iPhone 7. It’s a much better camera than in the iPhone 6s for action shots in good light, and it produces brighter, more colour-rich photographs in low light – the result of slower shutter speeds and lower ISO sensitivity levels. But it isn’t entirely free of issues: notably, slightly blotchy processing in low-light shots, which is particularly noticeable in shadows.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus camera

It still can’t compete with the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which produces more natural, colourful and cleaner images in low light. You can see the difference in the image below, where the iPhone 7 Plus is on the left, while the S7 Edge is on the right.

But the iPhone 7 Plus’ big party trick is its second camera, and that’s something the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge can’t match. Its 56mm focal length adds a 2x optical zoom to the Plus, which you can flick in and out of by simply tapping the 2x icon at the bottom of the camera app screen.

This may not sound like much in a world where bridge cameras routinely hit 24x optical zoom and beyond, but to fit suc optics into a smartphone as slim as the iPhone 7 Plus is a remarkable feat. And it’s a far more powerful feature than you might imagine, allowing you to get closer to far-off objects, and capture startlingly good macro images as well.

The iPhone doesn’t just offer two-stage optical zoom, although sticking to those two default settings is the best way to achieve the best quality photographs. You can hold that 2x icon and drag up to venture into digital zoom territory – up to 10x – although the quality drops off quite dramatically when you do this.

Alternatively, you can zoom down to a point between 1x and 2x, at which point the camera snaps two photos simultaneously and combines them together to produce a better quality image.

A couple of things to note before I delve into the details of the second camera. First, it isn’t the same camera as the 28mm one. It has a narrower aperture of f/1.8 and doesn’t, therefore, perform as well in low light. Second, although it produces more “zoomed-in” shots, it isn’t really a telephoto lens, despite Apple’s protestations to the contrary. Its 56mm (equivalent) focal length is, in fact, closer to the “standard” 50mm prime lens that many DSLR photographers choose as their walkabout lens. True telephoto lenses start at 70mm and up.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus camera test zoom lens
Apple iPhone 7 Plus camera test zoom

Quality-wise, images captured with the 56mm lens are fine. In fact, they’re uncannily close to photos produced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, with more grain in shadow areas and less vibrant colours than with the 28mm lens, but with better control over noise – and none of that blotchiness I highlighted above.

It’s a useful tool, in other words, and it sets the iPhone 7 Plus apart from most of the competition. But the really interesting part of the dual-camera equation will arrive later this year. Apple says it will release an update that enables fake, shallow depth-of-field photography. It will do this by combining images shot simultaneously by both cameras, creating a depth map based on that data and using it to artificially blur out the background while keeping the foreground in sharp focus.

Apple iPhone 7 Plus camera test zoom indoors

If it works, it will be great. For instance, the feature will allows you to create portraits approximating those produced by professionals and keen amateur photographers with their DSLRs. However, this isn’t the first time the feat has been attempted. HTC tried it with its dual-camera HTC One M8 and quality was patchy. Hopefully, Apple’s attempt will be more impressive.

I’d also like to see Apple venture further, using the second camera to produce more effective HDR images, especially since one of iOS 10’s new capabilities is to unlock the capture and processing of RAW DNG images. Perhaps some other app manufacturer will get there first. I do hope so.

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