Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus: A photographers’ guide
posted Thursday, September 8, 2016 at 5:59 AM EDT
Good news, iPhoneographers: The next generation of the world's most popular cameraphone series is almost here! And better still, Apple's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus both sport upgraded camera capabilities, among many other changes.
As in the previous generation, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus share much of their feature set, differing mostly in size, weight, display size and resolution, and camera features. The difference in their imaging capabilities is greater than in the past, though, with the iPhone 7 Plus being Apple's first phone to sport dual rear cameras.
Brighter, more colorful displays
As in the previous generation, the iPhone 7 is based around a 4.7-inch, 1,334 x 750-pixel, Retina HD-branded IPS LCD screen with 326 pixels per inch resolution. The iPhone 7 Plus, meanwhile, retains a 5.5-inch, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel IPS LCD screen with rather higher 401 ppi resolution.
And as in the earlier iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the smaller-screened model has the higher contrast ratio of 1,400:1, while the iPhone 7 Plus has a lower contrast ratio of 1,300:1. Both variants also retain the 3D Touch capability of their predecessors.
So what's new? Well, Apple says that the displays on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are 25% brighter than those of their respective predecessors. They're also said to offer a wider DCI-P3 color gamut, matching the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in this respect.
Brighter, faster, more efficient rear cameras
Just as in the previous generation devices, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus sport 12-megapixel, backside-illuminated rear cameras. However, there are a fair few upgrades in this area, even if resolution is unchanged.
For one thing, the iPhone 7's rear camera now boasts optical image stabilization, a feature which Apple had retained as a differentiator solely for the more expensive iPhone 6s Plus in the previous generation. The iPhone 6 had to rely on digital image stabilization, which is far less effective.
Apple also says that it has increased sensor readout speed from the 12-megapixel imager by around 60% over the previous generation, while at the same time reducing the imager's power drain by around 30%.
And the company has switched to a new lens in front of the updated sensor, as well. The iPhone 7 opts for a brighter six-element, 28mm-equivalent f/1.8 lens, in place of the previous generation's five-element, 29mm-equivalent f/2.2 optic. As before, the front element of the lens is protected by a sapphire crystal cover glass, which is good news given that the lens protrudes slightly from the rear of the camera body.
Dual rear cameras for the iPhone 7 Plus allows a pseudo-optical zoom
The iPhone 7 Plus has the same setup as for the iPhone 7, but supplements it with a second rear camera, adjacent to the first one. This has its own separate 12-megapixel BSI image sensor, but with a tighter 56mm-equivalent focal length and a less-bright f/2.8 aperture.
This secondary camera is used in a couple of ways, or at least this will eventually be the case. For one thing, it can be used as a quasi-optical zoom, with the iPhone 7 Plus simply switching between its wide and normal lenses when you enable zoom. This means you'll get noticeably better image quality after zooming, since past models would have had to use 2x digital zoom to match the 56mm-equivalent focal length of the iPhone 7 Plus' secondary optic.
It's really more like using a pair of interchangeable prime lenses, though, rather than a real zoom, though. That's because you can't smoothly zoom from 1x to 2x, but rather instantly step from one lens' focal length to that of the other lens. And if you need to frame your subject even more tightly, you're back to digital zoom, with an additional 5x digital zoom provided on top of the 2x optical "zoom", for a total of 10x zoom.
The iPhone 7 Plus can also fake a bokeh effect for portraits
The other way in which the iPhone 7 Plus can use its dual rear cameras is to fake a bokeh effect replicating the shallow depth of field provided by large-sensor cameras. This is something we've seen in quite a few cameraphones and standalone cameras over the years, sometimes achieved using multiple optics and sensors, and sometimes with multiple exposures from a single unit.
The basic idea is to generate a depth map of your scene, and then use this information to blur parts of the image which aren't sharply focused. With an ideal subject, the effect can be pretty convincing, at least if you don't look too closely at the boundary between the subject and the blurred background. With more complex subjects, though, the technique typically falls apart pretty quickly.
It will be interesting to see if Apple has managed to do a better job of handling these more complex situations than have its rivals thus far. We're going to have to wait a while, though, as Apple won't be providing this feature at launch. Instead, iPhone 7 Plus owners will have to wait for a firmware update before they'll be able to try the function, which is enabled automatically in Portrait mode shooting, and offers up a live preview on the phone's display.
A more powerful LED flash
There are two more changes of note for the rear camera(s).
The first -- and this applies to both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus -- is a brighter True Tone-branded flash. It's still based around light-emitting diodes, but instead of two as in recent iPhone models, there are now four in a tight cluster behind a single window. Compared to the flash in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the updated True Tone flash is said to be 50% brighter.
The other change is a new flicker sensor which is used to detect variable light sources and then correct for the flickering automatically when you capture an image.
A somewhat higher-res selfie camera, too
At the same time as the rear cameras of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple has also taken the opportunity to increase resolution of its front cameras, as well. Selfie fans will find that the front camera, which is still branded as FaceTime HD, now offers seven-megapixel resolution instead of five-megapixel.
The new chip is a backside-illuminated type, as was the one it replaced. And video capture at 1080p is now possible with the selfie camera, which was previously limited to 720p capture. The f/2.2 aperture is unchanged, and Apple doesn't state a focal length or provide other lens details for this camera.
Interestingly, Apple notes that the selfie camera now sports "auto image stabilization". No mention is made of optical stabilization, though, so it's most likely digital stabilization.
A beefier image signal processor
Along with the new cameras, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus both feature uprated image processors. Apple states that the new processor, which again is an in-house design, is now around twice as fast. Tone mapping is said to have been improved, and it now provides not just face detection capability, but also object / body detection. The company says that the new image processor is capable of performing 100 billion operations in 25 milliseconds.
Raw file capture
Perhaps as a result of the added processing power, Apple has also added support for raw capture in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The company is using Adobe's open DNG raw format, just as did Google in its Android 5 release two years ago. But although Google got there first, the tech giant has squandered its lead, with almost all of its handset makers still having failed to add support for DNG raw all this time later. Score one for Apple over its biggest rival.
Video capture is basically unchanged
Like the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus before them, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus provide for 4K video capture at 30 frames per second, 1080p capture at 30 to 120 frames per second, and 720p capture at 30 to 240 frames per second. A 3x digital zoom is provided, and can be combined with the iPhone 7 Plus' 2x optical "zoom" to provide an effective 6x combined zoom.
Dust and water-resistance
Apple's rivals have been waterproofing many of their phones for quite some time now, and now the iPhone too is sealed against the elements. However, where some of its rivals are said to be fully waterproof -- for example, Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are IP68-rated and said to be good for a 30-minute immersion to a depth of five feet -- Apple's new phones are still only IP67-rated as splash, water and dust resistant. iPhone 7 and 7 Plus users won't be shooting photos in the pool or underwater with their phones, or at least they'll be taking rather a risk should they decide to do so.
A faster main processor and graphics processor
As well as the uprated image processor, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus not surprisingly share a new CPU and GPU. Apple rates the new 64-bit quad-core A10 Fusion processor as being around 40% faster than the previous generation, while the new GPU is said to be around 50% faster.
A new home button and no more ugly antenna lines
Another change to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus' reworked aluminum bodies is the absence of the unsightly antenna lines at top and bottom of the earlier iPhone 6s and 6s Plus bodies. The antennas are now embedded within the body, and can't be seen.
And doubtless as part of the splashproofing, the Home button has been redesigned. It no longer moves, and is instead force-sensitive. Haptic feedback vibrates the button when pressed, substituting for the tactile feedback of the earlier clickable Home button.
As expected and loudly decried, there's no headphone jack
As widely predicted before the launch, Apple has done away with the standard 3.5mm headphone jack of earlier models, opting instead for proprietary Lightning-connected, wired headphones which are included in the product bundle along with a clumsy Lightning-to-3.5mm audio adapter for those who really don't want to let their existing headphones go.
But how Apple really wants you to use your iPhone 7 or 7 Plus is with its new, expensive rechargeable wireless earbuds. These will need recharging after every five hours of audio listening or two hours of talk time -- if not more frequently -- but thankfully they can get back to a half-charge after around 15 minutes in the chunky 2.1 x 1.7 x 0.8-inch charging case, which packs in enough juice for around five full charges.
One thing the rumor mill didn't predict -- at least, not until a day or two before the official reveal -- was that these would use a proprietary communication protocol layer on top of the widely-available Bluetooth, which is already used by many wireless headsets.
Apple's solution to in-ear audio is proprietary, whether wireless or wired
The company would have you believe the move to drop the 3.5mm jack is courageous, but the cynical might point out that Apple stands to profit handily from the move. Apple's own wireless buds are priced at US$160, after all. And the use of either a proprietary Lightning connector or a proprietary wireless protocol means that third parties wanting to provide an optimal wireless experience or a wired one will have to pay licensing fees to Apple.
They can still make Bluetooth headphones, yes, but here Apple continues to shun the higher-quality aptX codec in favor of the lower-quality AAC. It isn't currently clear whether Apple's own earbuds can use a higher-quality codec with the latest iPhones, incidentally, or whether they too use AAC encoding. Either way, though, you'll get better-quality audio from most recent third-party Bluetooth headphones on Android devices than you will from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.
That's doubtless great for Apple's bottom line, but it means iPhone 7 and 7 Plus owners will be eating the company's license fees in the form of higher accessory pricing. And really, there was no reason to get rid of the 3.5mm jack -- there's no longer much clamor for thinner phones, and rival devices with similar thickness to -- and even better environmental sealing than -- Apple's latest and greatest still manage to fit in unprotected 3.5mm jacks.
Finally, stereo speakers
While the headphone situation is arguably worse, one positive change on the audio front is that the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus now sport twin speakers. And since there are two speakers instead of one, Apple says these latest phones will also be twice as loud.
Pricing and availability
Available in 32GB, 128GB or 256GB storage capacities, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus ship in the US market from September 19th, 2016. Pricing starts at US$650 for the 32GB iPhone 7, which is the same price as the iPhone 6s, but with double the storage capacity. The 32GB iPhone 7 Plus will cost US$770. The 128GB variants of both phones will come at a US$100 premium over the 32GB versions, while the 256GB versions will carry a US$200 premium.