iPhone 7 Plus review: How good is the new Portrait camera mode?

£719
Price when reviewed

The home button

Another big design change is the home button, which now uses a new version of the “Taptic Engine” to give tactile feedback. Yes, it’s no longer actually a physically moving part. Instead, the Taptic Engine’s feedback simulates the feel of the button clicking down, in a way that is very similar to the latest trackpads on the MacBook series.

How good is it? I gave the phone to people and asked them to click on the button, then powered the phone down and asked them to click on it again. In every case, they were utterly confused by the fact that, powered down, the “button” didn’t click. It’s realistic enough to fool anyone who doesn’t know it’s not physically moving.

This is showy, but it’s also practical. Anything that physically moves, especially something which is clicked as often as a home button, will be a consistent failure point for the device. Moving parts break more often than solid-state ones, and that, coupled with the water resistance, is likely to make this a much more reliable phone than any previous iPhone.

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Photography: More than okay, but still no Bokeh

It’s a cert bet that every time a new iPhone comes out, Apple will make great play about the quality of the camera. Photography is one of the distinguishing features of the iPhone, enough for Apple to devote huge billboards to photos “taken with iPhone”.

Previously, the larger and small iPhones shared the same camera, although the Plus had optical image stabilisation. This year the iPhone 7 Plus has stretched the differences further, adopting a dual-lens system which includes a 28mm lens alongside a 56mm lens. This gives the iPhone the equivalent of 2x optical zoom, a feature we made a lot of use of in testing.

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^ The 56mm second camera (right) gets you much close to your subject than the standard 28mm snapper (left)

There’s also up to 10x digital zoom, and here’s where the dual-lens system becomes interesting. Between 1x and 2x is actually a digital zoom that makes use of both camera lenses, interpolating the “best” elements from each. Beyond 2x, you’re into standard digital zoom territory – which is, as you’ll know if you’ve ever used it, not brilliant.

The 1x lens has also been improved over the previous model. It now uses a new six-element f/1.8 lens, compared to the relatively slow f/2.2 lens on the 6s Plus. In theory, this should significantly improve low-light performance.

What’s missing at the moment is the much-trumpeted Bokeh feature, which makes portraits look pretty amazing by altering the image to put the background out of focus. This is incredibly clever. One lens (the 56mm) captures the image while the other captures depth data, allowing the software to figure out which areas of a photograph to blur out and which to leave sharply in focus.

The bad news is that it’s not yet available, and won’t be until a software update later this year. The good news is that it’s already possible to get an idea of how it works by enrolling in the Apple Beta Software Program and updating to iOS 10.1.

It’s shaping up very nicely, too. Dubbed Portrait mode, it’s as easy to access as any of Apple’s other camera modes. You simply swipe up or down on the screen until you get to it, then point it at your subject and hit the shutter button. It requires that you stand a certain distance away from your subject, but this is all handled elegantly and it’s easy to understand what to do.

The results are reasonably impressive. I say reasonably because, as you’ll be able to see by examining the comparative shots below, the isolation of foreground from background isn’t always fantastic. The shot of the pumpkin works well, as does the teacup, but with the lens, the software has smudged the top edge into the background. Look really closely and you’ll see the same thing happening around the edges of the foreground subject on the other examples, too.

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Remember, though, this is a beta release, so it’s likely to get better before Apple unleashes it later this year, and already it works better than the fake bokeh modes I’ve seen on other smartphones. So a very promising start.

What are the normal pictures actually like, though? In some cases, the images we took showed a clear improvement in detail and colour quality over the iPhone 6s Plus. Outdoor shots, in particular, were better – sometimes much better. However, low-light shots indoors didn’t really show as much improvement as we’d expect given the changes in hardware, which was a surprise. Smooth transitions in particular looked a little blotchy, certainly in comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (see below). And, for my taste, the flash was still far too harsh if you’re close to the subject you’re taking pictures of in low light. It reminded me why I’ve turned off auto-flash on every single phone I’ve ever owned.

Looking at the shots in detail, and after long conversations with our reviews team, I suspect this is down to the algorithm Apple is using to process images. Apple has always written really good processing algorithms, often using this to compensate for less-than-leading-edge hardware. Remember the days when Apple’s cameras were “only” five megapixels, but the image quality easily matched competition with better hardware?

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^ The above comparison shows snaps from the iPhone 7 Plus on the left (28mm) and the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (right). Note the slight mottling in the shadow areas

With the iPhone 7 Plus, it almost feels like the situation has reversed. Now, Apple’s hardware is better – but it’s being let down a little by the software. This is entirely speculation, but I think the failure to release the Bokeh feature at launch gives us a clue, pointing towards the conclusion that the camera software hasn’t had as much polish as you would expect from Apple.

The good news, of course, is that this can be fixed with software. The even better news is that you might be able to do it yourself using third-party software. That’s because thanks to iOS 10 the iPhone 7 Plus can now capture and handle RAW DNG-format images natively, just like a high-end DSLR.

And although the camera app doesn’t give you the option of capturing in RAW just yet, third-party app developers are already beginning to explore the capability. One of the first is Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, whose built-in camera app now defaults to RAW capture. Using this – and a little judicious editing in Lightroom Mobile itself – I found I was able to produce much cleaner photographs in low light than with the native camera app, with none of the unattractive blotchiness in areas of smooth transition.

This is not ideal, of course. I’d far rather Apple sorted out its own processing algorithms, rendering this sort of workaround unnecessary, but for now, it’s good enough to know that the hardware is excellent; the software will surely soon catch up.

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