Sunday, May 28, 2017

Apple iPhone 7 Plus Camera Review - Great For Photographers or Overpriced & Overrated?

Apple iPhone 7 Plus
Cellphone cameras get better each year. They've made large leaps in image quality over the last decade. Chase Jarvis couldn't have known just how good they'd become when he coined the phrase, "The best camera is the one that's with you."

My first smartphone, and the first cellphone I ever owned that could capture decent pictures, was a Samsung Galaxy S. It was terrible and often acted possessed, and I went over a year with a badly cracked screen, but the camera made nice looking pictures when viewed small.

After that I "upgraded" to the Nokia Lumia 1020. The camera had tons and tons of resolution and a super sharp Zeiss lens. You could save in RAW. It had a very limited dynamic range and it was best to stay at base ISO whenever possible, but when the lighting was good it made beautiful pictures. I have a couple photos captured with this phone on the wall in my office. It was just as much a camera as it was a phone. The biggest issue was that it was a Windows phone, and so it was very limited on apps and such.

Last year I purchased an LG G4. I had heard good things about it, and I was excited to get back on an Android system. The camera had a lot less resolution than the Nokia, and the lens wasn't quite as crisp, but it was a good camera overall with a larger dynamic range and better high-ISO capabilities, among other things. But the battery life was miserable and, after a system update, the phone began to freeze randomly.
iPhone 7 Plus Duel Rear Cameras
So last week I was in the market again for a new cellphone. Being a photographer, one key feature that I require is a good camera. There are some photographers who use their cellphones as a primary photographic tool, but that's not me. However, having a capable camera in my pocket all of the time is a big deal. You just never know when you need to capture something, and you want something that can do a decent job of it. So I looked only at cellphones with good cameras.

It came down to three: the Samsung Galaxy S8 Edge, the LG G6 and the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Google Pixel wasn't an option, even though it seems intriguing. I've already owned a Samsung and LG and had issues with both, so I thought it was time to give Apple a try.

My wife has had a couple of iPhones that she has been mostly pleased with. I have some friends and family members that are Apple fanatics. People have been singing the praises of the iPhone's photographic capabilities for years. The iPhone 7 Plus seemed like a safe and logical choice.

Besides, I was fascinated by the duel rear cameras. Also, Apple recently added the ability to save in RAW format. And then there's that Portrait Mode thing. I was sold!

The iPhone With Three Cameras
iPhone 7 Plus on an iPhone 7 Plus
The iPhone 7 Plus has three different cameras, one on the front and two on the back. The phone is basically three different fixed-lens, fixed-focal-length, fixed-aperture cameras on one device that will fit into your pocket.

On the front of the phone is a 7 megapixel "selfie" camera with an f/2.2 32mm (equivalent) lens. It has optical image stabilization and can record 1080p video. It's JPEG only. For the casual self portrait and video messaging it works very well, but it's not all that great for more serious pictures.

The main camera on the back has a 12 megapixel 1/3" sensor and an f/1.8 28mm (equivalent) lens. It has optical image stabilization and can record 4K video. It can shoot RAW or JPEG (or both) and uses phase detection for autofocus.
Music Expert - Riverdale, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 200, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
This was my very first exposure with the new phone.
The second camera on the back has a 12 megapixel 1/3.6" sensor and an f/2.8 56mm (equivalent) lens. It can also record 4K video, but lacks optical image stabilization. Like the wide angle camera, it can shoot RAW or JPEG (or both) and uses phase detection for autofocus.

Camera phones have always lacked versatility. Apple's solution is a third camera option, one that provides a "normal" focal length in addition to the wide-angle lens you always find on cellphones. This is a very appreciated innovation that I hope more phone manufacturers consider. I like shooting wide, but I don't always like shooting wide, so having a nifty-fifty lens is great.

How do these cameras perform? Do they live up to the hype? Or is the iPhone 7 Plus just another overpriced and overrated gadget? Read on to find out.

New Phone, Baby!
Newborn Johanna - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 25, 1/30, VSCO 
Before I get too deep into this review, let me explain that my daughter, Johanna, was born a handful of days ago. In fact, she was born just 16 hours after I purchased my iPhone 7 Plus. She's my fourth child.

When your wife is giving birth, it's not practical to have a big camera around your neck. You need something small that fits into your pocket. It's important to get the pictures, but you also need your hands free and a camera dangling around your neck will be in the way. A pocket camera is what's required for this.

The iPhone 7 Plus is definitely a pocket camera--three different pocket cameras, actually. It seemed like a great option for capturing the birth of my baby, and so it was the only camera I brought with me to the hospital.

I had only captured a handful of exposures with the phone prior to this. I was still learning everything and figuring stuff out. That's not ideal, but the phone is designed for people who don't know what they're doing, so I figured it would be ok and that the pictures would still look good.

The camera app that comes with the phone, simply titled Camera, is pretty much auto-everything. You don't have hardly any manual controls whatsoever, and you also can't save in RAW with this app. To capture RAW images you need a third-party app. I read that VSCO Cam allows for RAW capture as well as some manual controls, so I downloaded it and used it sometimes. It's also a good app for quick post-processing.

Below are some of the photographs. I'll talk more about them in a moment.

Nurse, Preparations - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 200, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO 
Transporting - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 160, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Twenty One Minutes Past Ten - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 200, 1/60, VSCO
Johanna, Just Born - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 80, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Checking The Baby - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 125, 1/60, VSCO
Meeting The Family - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 250, 1/60, VSCO
Capturing The Moment - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 200, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Sleeping Baby Girl - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 50, 1/60, RAW, Snapseed & VSCO
Dreaming Newborn - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 125, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO 
Bag With A Bow - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/404, VSCO
Black & White:
Dramatic Sky Over The Building - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 25, 1/13699 (not a typo), VSCO
Drip System - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 200,1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Window Shade Pull - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/180, VSCO
Measuring Johanna's Head - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 64, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Johanna's Feet - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 25, 1/30, VSCO
Time To Check Her Heart - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 32, 1/30, VSCO
Baby & Stethoscope - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 125, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
In Her Mother's Arms - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 125, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Brother & Baby Sister - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 160, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
Sister Kiss - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 160, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO
These are just a small sampling of the photographs that I captured of my daughter's birth. As a proud husband and father, I could share them all! However, I've probably included too many for this type of article. I hope you don't mind too much the large number of pictures included in this review.

When I viewed the pictures on my iPhone's screen they looked great! I thought that this phone had really taken cellphone photography to the next level. As cliche as this sounds, I thought that the phone was a game-changer! I couldn't have been more impressed.

Then I uploaded the images to my computer, and I couldn't have been more disappointed. The photographs looked terrible! Or, at least, the image quality was not up to my standards. The pictures looked so much better on a small screen than a larger screen.

The photographs are soft and plastic looking, or maybe I'd describe them as watercolor. They are full of artifacts and look very much like low-resolution digital. Nothing like what I expected, especially from a 12 megapixel camera in 2017.

Had I wasted hundreds and hundreds of dollars on something overpriced and overrated? Was there something I could do to improve the image quality on my iPhone 7 Plus?

Taking A Closer Look
Foreshadowing - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/1473, Portrait Mode, VSCO
I wanted to understand what was going on with my iPhone camera, and why the image quality was so poor, so I put it through a series of tests. Boring tests. I'm not going to share all the images here, because it would take up way too much space and because you'd quickly lose interest. But I will share some of the pictures with you plus all of my important discoveries and impressions.

If you have an iPhone 7 Plus experience similar to mine, and you want to know what you can do to remedy the problem, you'll want to pay attention. There is hope!

Yes, this part of the review is a little dull, but stay with me for a moment and we'll get through it and to the good stuff. I promise. Here we go!
iPhone 7 Plus JPEG
iPhone 7 Plus JPEG massive crop
The picture above is a straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG captured and created with Apple's Camera app. It was auto-everything, all I did was snap the picture. This is with the 28mm lens at base ISO.

In the crop if you pay close attention to the leaves you'll notice a softness, lack of fine detail and a "plastic" or "watercolor" look. It's not a real big deal at ISO 20, but it becomes more pronounced as the ISO increases. It's also a bit more noticeable with the 56mm lens.

But the fact that the larger sensor (of the 28mm lens camera) at base ISO has some smudging is troublesome. What's Apple doing to their JPEGs and why?
iPhone 7 Plus JPEG edited with VCSO Cam
iPhone 7 Plus JPEG edited with VSCO massive crop
This is the same image as above, except that I ran it through the VSCO app. It's a reference picture that will matter a little more in a moment.

Let's keep rolling.
ProCamera JPEG
ProCamera JPEG massive crop
I researched a better camera app for the iPhone 7 Plus. There are several different options, but the one that seemed to get the most recommendations was ProCamera, so I paid about $5 and downloaded it. ProCamera provides manual controls and the ability to save in RAW. It's a much better app than the one that came loaded with the phone, and, really, Apple should have an app like this that you can download for free.

I recreated the first shot using the ProCamera app, using RAW+JPEG. The image above is a straight-out-of-the-camera JPEG. You'll notice that it looks almost identical to the first JPEG. I think ProCamera applies a slightly lighter noise reduction, but in real life use there's no difference.

What is different is the file size. The ProCamera JPEG is over twice as large as the Camera JPEG. Apple is applying some serious compression to their images; however, it doesn't seem to negatively impact image quality much if anything.
ProCamera JPEG edited with VSCO Cam
ProCamera JPEG edited with VSCO Cam massive crop
I ran the ProCamera JPEG through VSCO. No surprise, it looks the same as the other JPEG that was given the same treatment. In just a moment this reference photo will come in handy.

Let's keep moving along.
ProCamera RAW edited with VCSO Cam
ProCamera RAW edited with VSCO Cam massive crop
I took the RAW file that was captured with ProCamera and processed it through the VSCO app. The reason that I did this is because I had captured a couple of RAW exposures using the VSCO app, and the image quality outcome wasn't any different than the JPEGs captured in the Camera app.

What I discovered is that VSCO isn't a good app for RAW processing. There is a tiny improvement in image quality over the camera-made JPEGs that were given the same treatment, but the results are nearly identical. Without closely comparing the crops (those reference pictures are handy now), you would never be able to spot the differences.
ProCamera RAW edited using Snapseed
ProCamera RAW edited with Snapseed massive crop
Next I processed the RAW file captured with ProCamera through Snapseed. I used Snapseed to post-process the RAW files from my LG G4 and really liked using the app, so I downloaded the Apple version onto my iPhone.

What you'll notice is that there is a noticeable improvement in sharpness, fine details and dynamic range. The plastic-looking smudging is gone. The watercolor effect is gone. However, there is a significant increase in digital noise. I don't mind a little noise in my photograph and would prefer a sharp image with noise to a fuzzy image without it, but I do have my limits.

What we can gather from this is that the sensors in the iPhone 7 Plus generate a lot of digital noise. To clean it up, Apple applies a strong noise reduction to the JPEGs, blurring the pictures, and then applies some sharpening to make the pictures more crisp. It looks good on a small screen, but the flaws are obvious when viewed larger. Apple must figure that most people will never look at the pictures larger than what's displayed on their phone's screen.
ProCamera RAW edited with Alien Skin Exposure & Nik Color Efex
ProCamera RAW edited with Alien Skin Exposure X & Nik Color Efex massive crop
Finally I downloaded the ProCamera RAW file onto my computer and processed it through Alien Skin Exposure X (an initial RAW conversion to TIFF) and Nik Color Efex. It looks similar to the Snapseed version, but editing it this way creates a slightly crisper, more detailed image with a tad better noise control.

The moral of the story is this: get an app like ProCamera and capture in RAW, then post-process using Snapseed or, even better, your software of choice on your home computer. You'll get much better results than using the camera-made JPEGs.

28mm f/1.8
Where I Slept - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 20, 1/2083, VSCO
The best camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is the 28mm f/1.8. The lens is pretty sharp (which you begin to notice once you shoot RAW). It has a wide aperture. The sensor is larger, and you get a slightly greater dynamic range and slightly better noise performance because of that. The minimum focus distance is about 4" or so. It has optical image stabilization, which is good for when the shutter speed is slow.

Digital noise is the biggest issue. Apple's solution is to be overly generous with noise reduction. That's not how I would handle it. It's better to shoot RAW and control the noise reduction yourself.

The lowest ISO is 20. That's a really small number, but because the aperture is fixed so large (f/1.8), a low ISO is necessary in order to prevent overexposure in bright-light situations. There's very little difference in noise between ISO 20 and ISO 100.
Hall Window - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 28mm, ISO 20, 1/665, VSCO
I would compare the noise of ISO 100 and below on the iPhone 7 Plus 28mm camera to ISO 800 on the Sony RX100 II that I used to own. The results are very similar. There's a noticeable increase in noise at ISO 200, and I would compare that to ISO 1600 on the Sony. The iPhone 7 Plus is actually capable of ISO 2000, but the best results are found at ISO 200 and below. For grainy-looking black-and-white images, you can go as high as ISO 400, but I'd avoid going there unless you really have to.

12 megapixels are enough resolution for most people and purposes. Heck, the full-frame Sony A7S II has the exact same resolution! You won't be able to do large crops are poster-sized prints, but a good quality file should be capable of printing as large as 16" x 24" just as long as people are viewing it from a normal distance and not too up close. 

56mm f/2.8
Monochrome Lily - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/341, RAW, Snapseed & VSCO
A non-wide-angle lens on a cellphone camera? It's about time!

Even though the 28mm camera is the best camera on the iPhone 7 Plus from a technical standpoint, the 56mm camera is the one that I choose most often. I really enjoy the nifty-fifty focal length. And it makes for images that look a little less like cellphone pictures. I applaud Apple for doing this!

The fixed f/2.8 aperture isn't nearly as large. The sensor is smaller and digital noise is an even bigger problem (even though the lowest ISO is 20 on both cameras). The minimum focus distance is about a foot and a half. It lacks optical image stabilization. The lens is equally as sharp as the wide angle.

The difference in digital noise between the 28mm and 56mm cameras isn't huge, but there is definitely a difference. I would keep it at ISO 160 or below if possible, and no higher than ISO 320 for grainy-looking black-and-white. It's capable of ISO 1250, but it's not worth even trying.

I don't know if the 56mm camera lacks an optical low-pass filter or if it is a very weak one, but I encountered moire pattern distortion a couple of times. I have yet to experience this with the 28mm lens. It's something to be aware of, but not necessarily a big deal most of the time.
Women & Newborn - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, straight-out-of-camera JPEG
Massive crop from above. Note the moire distortion.
Portrait Mode
Butterfly Dreams - South Weber, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 80, 1/60, Portrait Mode, VSCO 
The iPhone 7 Plus has a well-publicized feature called Portrait Mode. Using this, the camera automatically creates fake bokeh by gradually blurring the background.

The phone has two cameras on the back. It uses the 56mm lens for the exposure, and it uses the 28mm lens to judge depth. Think of it like your eyes: you need two for depth perception. The phone makes nine different layers, and blurs eight of them to different degrees depending on how far away it thinks something is.

There is a certain range you have to be in--not too close or far away--for it to work, and it requires a well-lit scene. It can be finicky, but the camera provides some useful messages to help you along the way. 

The results are a mixed bag. When it works, it's pretty convincing. You are able to create pictures that simply aren't possible using other cellphones, that look like they were captured with bigger and better gear. Often times, however, there are things that just aren't right about the blurring. And it is a JPEG-only function, so you have to deal with the problems associated with that.

I wouldn't buy this phone for this feature, but it is fun to play around with should you happen to own the phone. It's a nice bonus, I suppose.

Ever Blue - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/1497, RAW, Snapseed & VSCO
The iPhone 7 Plus is available in three memory levels and six different colors. I chose silver, and added a leather case for looks, grip and protection.

The MSRP of the 32 GB version is $769, the 128 GB version is $869, and the 256 GB version is $969. Apple doesn't allow you to add external memory, so you may want to opt for more than 32 GB. I hate how Apple charges so much money for memory. Digital memory is cheap nowadays, and I feel like I'm getting ripped off.

The phone itself is about 6" x 3" and is about a third of an inch thick. It's about as big as you'd want a phone to be--any larger and it might not fit into your pockets. It's a little hefty at nearly a half of a pound.

Apple made the iPhone 7 Plus weather sealed, meaning it's water and dust resistant, but not water and dust proof. I've seen videos of people placing their phones under a running faucet. I'll trust them on that and hope for the best next time I'm out in the rain.
Four Butts - Murray, Utah
iPhone 7 Plus, 56mm, ISO 20, 1/120, RAW, Snapseed & VSCO
I didn't talk much about video. I shoot video occasionally, but I'm a still photographer. With 4K capabilities, the iPhone 7 Plus likely has better video quality than your DSLR. If you're creative enough, you could shoot a movie with this phone and show it at a film festival--it's been done more than once.

All of the cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus are pretty quick overall. Auto-focus can be a little sluggish sometimes, especially in dim lighting. There's a burst mode that will allow you to capture a bunch of frames quickly. There are a lot of different features that you may or may not find useful.

Battery life is great! One overnight charge will last the day, even with heavy use. This is a big deal when you are travelling and don't have access to a plug.

After my initial excitement that was followed by a letdown, I'm feeling pretty good about my cellphone choice. The Apple iPhone 7 Plus is a great photographic tool when you need a camera but don't have or can't use your better gear. It's far from perfect, but it has sufficient image quality and versatility to pinch hit when needed. You won't feel bad about using it, and you won't feel bad about leaving your big camera at home occasionally. Just shoot RAW and keep the ISO low, and hashtag that you shot it on an iPhone.

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