C is for Camera

iPhone 7 Plus camera

You don't need an iPhone 7 to get iPhone 7 camera features. {.intro}

So, by now you've read all the reviews of the new iPhones 7. You're impressed with the performance, you like the new colors, and you're awed that Apple has rebranded "scratches" as "micro abrasions". Likely you also think the new cameras are pretty cool. In fact, the new cameras are cited by just about every reviewer, including myself, as the prime reason to upgrade.

What if your iPhone 5s is still serviceable, though, or you love your iPhone SE's wonderful form factor, or your iPhone 6 or iPhone 6s are still great phones for you? Maybe you can't find an iPhone 7 plus or anything in Jet Black. The thing, is, you really want that new camera, you just don't want to spend north of $600 for a new phone.

There's an app for that

First, there are a couple of great apps I love that will make your current phone's camera a whole lot better for very little cost. The first is called Tadaa SLR. It's a fun little app that lets you create some nice "faukeh" for yourself. It's not quite in the league of a 7 plus, but it's a lot of fun. The second is NightCap Pro. This is a fantastic app for low light pictures. It has settings for everything for low light to starlight, and even has an ISS capture mode. Even if you're using an iPhone 7 it's a worthy app.

Still cheaper than a new iPhone

What if, perhaps, you'd like to have updated camera hardware that's arguably better than the one on the new iPhones? Well, for $499 you can get an amazing camera add-on, that's small in size but big on power. It's called the DxO ONE. It's been around for a bit but it's worth discussing again these days in the post-iPhone launch frenzy. If the name sounds familiar, its because DxO is the place that tests and measure all smartphone cameras. It's the same company that awarded the iPhone 7 it's second highest rating (apparently right behind the new Google Pixel).

The DxO One is a small device that connects to your iOS device with a lightning connector, charges via micro-USB, and comes with a micro-SD slot so your phone storage is never an issue. At the heart of the camera is a 20.2 megapixel f/1.8 lens with a full 1" image sensor (the same size found on cameras that cost well over $1,000). Those last two things are really important. That f/1.8 lens means that the camera is fast and will do well in low light.

That 1" sensor is important because the bigger the camera sensor, the better it's going to perform, especially in low light. The combination means there's also a nice shallow depth of field so you can get some very pleasing bokeh, not faukeh. No software algorithms needed. If you miss the zoom feature of the 7 Plus, those 20MP images have plenty of room to crop, giving you excellent results. Of course, digital zoom is even better. The DxO One shoots in JPEG, RAW or Super RAW, saving to either your phone, the camera, or combination of both.

There's more to the camera than just an iOS add-on. It's also a pretty good standalone camera. There's a tiny OLED display on the back that lets you see a grainy 2-bit image for framing and focus. You can also save setting from the companion app and call them up on the camera itself. It works, in practice, quite well, making it perfect for casual street photography.

The good folks at DxO also make a waterproof outdoor shell for it. Forget splashes. This thing can now go in the water or off road. There are also 30.5 mm filters that let you deal with unwanted reflections with a polarizing filter. Or you can use an ND filter for long exposure shots in bright sunlight. In short, there's very little about the DxO One I don't like.

The biggest issue is the same with any accessory; It's one more thing to carry, one more thing to charge. In this case, I'd say both of those are mitigated by the extremely small size, as well as the flexibility to use it as a standalone device in places where no iPhone should go.

Wait and see

You might not have an iPhone 7 in your future for any number of reasons but you can upgrade the camera of your existing iPhone. Then, perhaps wait and see just what 2017 might have in store.

Michael Gartenberg

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.