The camera on the iPhone has developed such a reputation for excellence that it’s one of the device’s central selling points. It’s worth upgrading to a new phone just to get the latest and greatest camera. After a week of rigorous shooting, one thing is totally clear: the iPhone 7 has a damn fine phone camera that’s the best you can buy right now.
Figuring that out required pitting it against the Samsung S7/S7 Edge, our current top choice for the perfect blend of camera and phone, and the iPhone 6s, which takes fine photos as well. We looked at how well each performed in low light, how much detail each could deliver, and what kind of color they could capture. We also checked out that fancy zoom lens on the iPhone 7 Plus.
The iPhone 7 is the first Apple handset to have RAW shooting powers. This format has a larger file size than your average JPEG because it stores a lot more data—specifically unprocessed/lightly processed light data—which means it’s easier to fix a bad photo after the fact. And when you convert a RAW file into a smaller JPEG (after processing it in Photoshop) it is still often of higher quality than the JPEG quickly produced on the fly by a phone. Observe:
If you’re a photographer who for some reason hopes that shooting RAW would finally let an iPhone compete with a DSLR or high-quality mirrorless camera, then apologies, that is not the case. It’s clear in this quick head-to-head comparison between the iPhone 7 and the $700 Olympus OM-D E-M10 II with a 12-40mm zoom lens that smartphones can’t really keep up. Shooting the same subject with the same lighting, and both devices set on the same table, the images came out substantially different. Try as I might I could not replicate the Olympus image with the iPhone.
The Olympus, or any camera with a sizable sensor, maintains a much better gradient of light to shadow than a smartphone camera can. The lens is also just much higher quality and is thus much sharper. The point here is that no matter what tricks you do with software, fancy hardware wins out.
The comparison also illustrates the limitations of the iPhone 7's f/1.8 aperture. That very low number means that you are going to have very shallow, flat, slightly blurry images. With its f/2.8 aperture, the Olympus lens just creates a sharper photo with a better sense of depth than the iPhone can.
Of course, sometimes wider aperture is a good thing. The iPhone 7's f/1.8 aperture lets in more light than the the f/2.2 lens on its predecessor. So when lighting conditions get difficult, you can use a faster shutter speed without totally juicing the sensor’s ISO sensitivity. That technical jambalaya theoretically translates to crisper, cleaner, less noisy images that are free of camera shake. The iPhone 7 also has improved image processing that should help reduce noise as well.
In practice the iPhone 7 does a fantastic job in low light. Check out how vibrant this old comic book looks in my super dark basement.
Another reason photos seem more vibrant is because the iPhone 7 processes color differently than other either the previous iPhone or the Samsung s7. That’s why Superman’s cape in the photo above is a vibrant red in the iPhone 7 photo and significantly more orange in the other two photos.
And it’s one of the reasons the iPhone 7 photo looks so much more vibrant in the series of images below.
Besides that extraordinary color reproduction—and some exceptional contrast—the iPhone 7 does a great job capturing detail. But it’s still a toss up between it and the S7 on the detail front. In the above photo both cameras do a nice job capturing the fine veins on the leaves and the intricate details of the seed pods, but the great color of the iPhone 7 seems to give it an edge.
However in the below photo of the best dog in Brooklyn, you can see how sharp and in focus each hair on his face is on the S7. Things are just a little blurrier and less detailed in the iPhone 7 photo. The S7 has better contrast—specifically midtone contrast. That kind of contrast makes details a little clearer without making the image darker or lighter.
Unfortunately, the S7 is also doing some weird things with color—making images warmer than they should be. That’s why there’s the dull yellow glow to everything. When it comes to color, the iPhone 7 is clearly superior.
The iPhone 7 Plus gets even better. If you can stomach its larger size and higher price tag, you’ll get a phone with not one but two lenses. The first is the 23mm lens found in the iPhone 7. The second is a 56mm lens that lets you physically zoom in. A physical zoom is always preferable to the digital zoom found in the majority of smartphones.
Digital zoom leads to a splotchy mess of a photograph with big digital artifacts everywhere. Physical “optical” zoom leads to far fewer artifacts. In fact the picture of the iPhone at the top of this page was taken with the iPhone 7 Plus’s zoom lens (in JPEG!). It’s a good clean shot, but real sticklers for perfection will notice the telltale blur you still get from a digital photo.
It’s even clearer in the photo below.
The big Steve Jobs doll in this photo looks great. You can see the light fuzz he’s covered in, the small cracks in his eyebrows, and the fluff of his hair. But look at the fuzz around his ear. The JPEG process muted the details of the fuzz and made it blocky and digital looking. It’s worse on the little Steve Jobs doll’s face. All the fine detail is gone and replaced by a patina of digital detritus.
That issue isn’t quite as noticeable in the same shot from the 23mm lens.
And it’s a relatively small price to pay to have a physical zoom on one of the most popular smartphones available right now, and if you’re shooting with your phone a lot, it’s a no brainer, pick up the bigger 7 Plus.
For people just out to grab a quick shot of some calamity in front of them, or the cute things their kids did, or the drunk things their friends did, the iPhone 7 is all you need. Both phones are faster and provide exponentially better color than the competition, or even iPhones that came before them. It does such a good job with color and in low light that its minor deficiencies are just that—minor. If you need a great smartphone that’s also a solid camera, the iPhone 7 should now be your first choice.
- Absolutely amazing color reproduction
- Fantastic operation in low light
- Excellent at shooting photos of tiny Steve Jobs dolls, but not so excellent at detail
- 12-megapixel camera with a 23mm lens with 1.7 aperture, there’s also a 56mm lens on the iPhone 7 Plus.
- The iPhone 7 Plus additional lens is a great feature, but unnecessary for most people
- Still not quite as versatile as a DSLR