The best camera is the one you have with you, the old cliche goes, and as we found in our experiment, if that camera happens to be an iPhone 7 Plus, you’re going to be just fine. The dual-lens camera system lets it take better photos than any smartphone we’ve tried, and the Portrait mode in iOS 10.1—while still in beta—is a lot of fun to play with.
Adam, our staff photographer, was incredibly eager to see what the iPhone 7 Plus could do, so we hired a model to re-create the kind of fashion photo shoot that he would normally do with his trusty Sony a7R II with a Canon 50mm lens.
We shot indoors in low lighting as well as full light, then took the show on the road for outdoor shots in a couple of locations near the office. Our model, Alina Lee, did a wonderful job, and Adam came away more than a little impressed with what Portrait mode could do.
Now, we must note here that Portrait mode is still in beta, and this isn’t a formal, scored review—just an experiment we did for fun. We wanted to see how Portrait mode (this first version of it, anyway) would react to different lighting conditions, and how its method of keeping your subject in focus while blurring the background would compare to a full-frame DSLR. Plus, Adam is a dedicated Android user, and he just wanted to see how far Apple has come with the iPhone 7 Plus. Who could blame him, right? Check out some of the results below—be sure to click each pair to see the details.
We started in low light, indoors. This is barely enough light to trigger the depth effect—you’ll see a yellow “Depth Effect” label appear on the screen when you’re at the right distance and lighting level to make it work.
In this shot, we’re pushing the distance a little bit too—typically, Adam says, a portrait would be a little tighter on her face. Since Portrait mode uses the 6.6m “telephoto” lens on the iPhone 7 Plus, which has a f/2.8 aperture and no optical image stabilization, you can see some noise, but all in all this isn’t too bad for an indoor photo.
Another low-light, indoor shot. In the depth effect shot on the right, you can see how some of the fine pieces of hair around her head get completely blurred out, but the blur effect also smooths out some of the noise on her arms.
Again, we’re pushing what Portrait mode is intended to do—this isn’t enough light for the best result, but it still looks interesting. And since the mode defaults to keeping both the original and blurred versions of each photo, you really don’t have much to lose by experimenting.
For our next set of photos, we stayed indoors but cranked up the lighting. In this shot, Adam was once again experimenting with how far he could get from Alina and still get the depth effect. It seems like we got the best results inside of 8 feet, but it was possible to push it up to 12 feet and still get it to work. The blurring is pretty minimal in this image because she’s relatively close to the background.
Once we got close up, we started to see how Portrait mode works to isolate Alina’s face. In this image, you can see how her entire face is kept perfectly in focus, like it would be if you masked it in Photoshop, while her hair (seen on the left side of the photo) is immediately very blurred even right next to the face.
Taking this same shot with a DSLR, we wouldn’t expect her entire face to be in the same plane of focus. Her left eye, for example, and her nose are angled closer to the camera lens than her right eye, but the iPhone 7 Plus keeps them in the same focus. The strap on her dress is even closer to the camera lens, but it’s blurred because the camera didn’t isolate it to stay sharp along with her face. It’s an interesting effect, just not what we would expect from a full-frame DSLR.
Then we went outside, where we found an alley illuminated with beautiful afternoon light reflecting off the windows of the building behind us, almost like we’d planned it that way.
In this shot, you can see Portrait mode having some problems with the very outer edges of Alina’s hair. (Sometimes you can control for that, if it’s less windy or you load up on hair products, but for this experiment, the flyaways are our friends.) It does OK with the larger pieces, and it’s understandable that it couldn’t isolate every strand.
The depth effect also blurs the texture of her shirt a little, and it’s slightly odd how the background is equally blurred right behind her as it is all the way back. With a DSLR, the amount of blur would increase as you approach the horizon. Adam says that a talented Photoshop user could reproduce this blur effect with software, but it’s pretty remarkable that the iPhone 7 Plus camera can do it for you, in real time as you’re taking the photo.
During the shoot, we started seeing a lens flare leaking in, but that actually lets us point out the way Portrait mode isolates just a person’s face and blurs everything else. In this image, the flare appears in the foreground, but since it doesn’t cross her face, Portrait mode still applies the blur effect.
In this shot, Adam managed to catch the flare across Alina’s face. On the right, you can really see how Portrait mode masks her face. The flare actually widens on the top of her head, then snaps back to its original shape as it crosses her face.
The blur on her shirt is pretty noticeable in this pair too. Since it’s just a texture, it’s not a big deal here, but another time when I used Portrait mode to photograph my husband wearing a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt, it was a little odd to see the type in the logo become harder to read.
In this shot, Adam included a couple of distracting elements in the background—the speed limit sign in the alley along with a couple of guys drinking beer or something. Portrait mode did a great job keeping the focus on Alina. We like how the brick wall on the photo’s right side doesn’t blur out too much, and her hair looks great. But we did lose a little bit of sharpness in her clothes—check out the bit of zipper and the two snaps you can see on her jacket, for example.
Mostly we think of portraits being taken in portrait orientation, but it’s worth mentioning that iOS 10.1’s Portrait mode works in landscape orientation too. This is one of our favorite shots from the day.
While iOS 10 does support capturing and exporting RAW images, Apple’s own Camera app sticks with JPEGs as a rule. In fact, Adam noticed that the Portrait versions are about half the file size as the untouched photos, so the Camera app is already making all the decisions about what data to keep and what to discard.
So it’s unlikely that we’ll see RAW support added to the Portrait mode anytime soon, but it sure would make Adam happy. He exported the Portrait photo and edited the JPEG to get the result above, but naturally, a JPEG is already compressed and doesn’t offer the editing flexibility that a RAW file would.
Sometimes, we found we liked the sharp image better than the depth effect version. This shot in front of the Bay Bridge is one of those times, but maybe we just don’t have the heart to blur out such a notable landmark.
Adam did some edits on the Portrait version of the bridge photo, to attempt to bring some sharpness back to Alina’s sweater and the stitching on her jeans.
For a few images, Adam put an edited Portrait photo taken with the iPhone 7 Plus next to a photo taken with his Sony a7R II. Then we showed them to a bunch of people around the office and had them guess which was taken with the “real” camera and which was taken with the smartphone. Not everyone got it right!
This closeup in the alley is another one of our favorites, but since the background isn’t so far from the subject, the blurring effect is somewhat subtle. You can still notice the effect having trouble with the edges of her hair, and adding a little too much blur to the texture of her shirt, especially the collar.
But when Adam edited the Portrait mode version in Photoshop, he was able to get some of that texture back.
This pairing, showing the edited Portrait mode photo on the left, and a similar shot taken with the Sony a7R on the right, impressed everyone we showed it to. In fact, even a fellow camera geek on our video team was fooled, identifying the iPhone 7 Plus shot as being taken by a DSLR. If you know to look at the fine flyaways around her head, you might get it right. But otherwise, these are delightfully close.
In the end, Adam admitted he’s more than a little jealous of the capabilities of the iPhone 7 Plus—even with the Portrait mode officially in beta. It’s not perfect, and we are eager to see how Apple might improve it in future versions. But just the fact that you can do this with a smartphone is incredibly cool.