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Why Apple's iPhone 7 Plus camera has two lenses

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Most of the chatter in the wake of yesterday’s Apple event focused on the tech giant’s decision to cut the cord as far as the headphone jack is concerned. Look back over the keynote, however, and you’ll find a company waxing lyrical about the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus’ photographic capabilities.

The big photography differences are most evident in the iPhone 7 Plus. Glance at the new premium smartphone and you’ll find not one but two camera lenses. It may look like a tiny set of peepers, but what does the addition of a second lens actually do?

First there are the upgrades to the standard iPhone 7 to consider. Optical image stabilisation is now in place (previously only available on the Plus variant). The aperture on the lens is wider at f/1.8, which Apple says lets in up to 50% more light. There’s also an upgraded 7-megapixel front-facing camera, and quad-LED True Tone flash.

The iPhone 7 Plus gets all this, and then some. It gets the iPhone 7’s 28mm (equivalent) wide-angle, 12-megapixel lens, but it also has a 56mm (equivalent) 12-megapixel telephoto lens. This second lens effectively gives the iPhone 7 Plus a 2x optical zoom. In a nutshell, this means you can get closer to your subject without the loss of image quality you’d see on the regular iPhone 7 or previous iPhones.

iPhone 7 Plus camera: Zoom, zoom, zoom

As well as the 2x optical zoom enabled by the additional telephoto lens, the iPhone 7 Plus can zoom up to 10x using Apple’s software. This will work a lot like normal digital zooming, and the close-ups will be subject to image degradation.

Still, Apple says image quality at these higher zoom levels will be better than the equivalent photographs captured with other smartphone cameras, simply because your starting point is that much closer. In other words, you should be able to get a better shot of far away things without it looking like a blurry soup.

iPhone 7 Plus camera: Bokeh eh?

If you look at professional fashion photographs you’ll likely notice a degree of background blurring, known as Bokeh. With a DSLR this is achieved by setting a wide aperture. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field and the blurrier the background.

You can’t produce this effect naturally with a tiny smartphone camera simply because the laws of physics don’t work that way. So Apple is offering a faux-Bokeh effect with the iPhone 7 Plus.

To do this, Apple analyses the difference between the wide-angle lens and the telephoto lens to create a depth map, differentiating between close up objects and distant objects. It then uses this data to layer on a Bokeh effect, which gives the image a depth of field impression.

It isn’t the first time we’ve seen a smartphone company try this. The first was HTC with its One M8, and others have also attempted the feat since, but none so far have met with great success, with ugly artefacts often marring the boundaries between in-focus and blurry areas in photos. It will be interesting to see how good Apple’s version is.

iPhone 7 Plus camera: New image signal processor

Both models of the iPhone 7 also get an upgraded image signal processor (ISP). While not as immediately noticeable as a second lens, this could be one of the key differences over the iPhone 6s.

Apple says the new ISP is twice as rapid in its ability to analyse a scene – calculate necessary focus, colour, noise reduction etc.  While the exact outcome of this will have to wait for our full review, it points to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus being speedier snappers compared with the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.

As we said, Apple isn’t the first company to venture into dual-camera territory. The LG G5 and Huawei P9 both have two lenses, while HTC got in there more than two years ago with the HTC One M8.

We’ll have a better idea of how successful Apple has been when we get more time with the two handsets. For now, you can check out our hands-on review of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and well as the Apple Watch Series 2.

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