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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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab). 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.

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.

17 Comments
  • Me: Hmm... that DxO ONE sounds really interesting. Lets click on the link and take a look at it. Amazon: Price: CDN$ 1,296.54 + CDN$ 57.82 shipping Me: *closes tab*
  • Yes. There are much better cameras for much less than this one. And this doesn't really offer that much integration with the iPhone.
  • I've bought, or at least used, almost every lens for the iPhone that ever come out. My profession for decades was commercial photography, including running a commercial photo lab here in NYC. Unfortunately, not a single one of those lenses has been what I could describe as "good". Every single one degrades the quality of the built-in lens. That's a shame, but it's obvious why. None of those lenses is a quality design. They're all built to a price level that simply too low to achieve a quality image. I've has discussions with Zeiss on this, and asked why they couldn't make some lenses for around $300, which would, because of the small size, and lack of the need for focusing and aperture adjustments, be capable of excellent quality. Their response was the same as the ones I've been stating, as well as the skepticism towards the idea that they would sell enough to be profitable. The other reason is centering and spacing. There is no way these add-on cases and holders can do either of these necessary functions well enough to not be very noticeable. As far as add-on cameras, Sony tried this in the past, and it didn't work well. The DxO camera has received universally poor reviews. I found that the picture, while somewhat better than the one from the iPhone, isn't that much better. If one wants a better camera, one should just go out and buy one. The truth is that DxOs' reputation for independent testing has taken a blow with this camera. They have claimed, over time, that they test sensors without the manipulation the camera manufacturer does, and so give a pretty true "picture" of what the sensor, and camera, is capable of. But with their own camera, they broke that promise. Be very careful when reading their own rating of the camera and sensor, as they don't compare with any others because of the biased testing. I recommend reading the various other reviews before considering this clumsy, not so great device on your iPhone. And remember that it costs several hundred dollars, and doesn't integrate well.
  • I question your knowledge due to the assertion that the DxO one has received universally poor reviews, when a quick google search can easily refute that claim: http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/dxo-one/dxo-one-field-test-part-i.htm
    https://www.cnet.com/products/dxo-one/review/
    http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/1/9236679/dxo-one-review-camera-iphone
    http://www.macworld.com/article/2995052/cameras/dxo-one-review-a-better-... It's also humorous regarding your comment about Zeiss given their history with smartphone lenses.
  • Even if you read the reviews you linked to, you'll see that not everything come up roses. This camera just isn't all that good, and for what it is, it's way too expensive. Leica, Zeiss and other high quality lens producers don't worry too much about costs when producing their multi-thousand dollar lenses. They're really good. I have some Optus lenses for my camera. But when producing a lens that costs $5, they have no advantage over the companies that have been doing this for many years. So smartphones that advertise Zeiss or Schneider lenses, are doing so more for the marketing than for anything else. They're certainly no better than the ones Apple designs for its smartphones. The one on this camera is better, because it costs more, but no more, and no better, than a lens from small cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sony and others.
  • I have two main issues that bothered me with this article, first, the aperture of a lens has absolutely nothing, zero, not a single thing, ever, period, to do with shutter speed (speed of pictures being taken). And two, Super RAW, how can you have a "super" version of a file that is literally at its max. RAW is completely uncompressed and ready for editing. Sent from the iMore App
  • That's not what's meant by "fast"... lenses with wider aperture are considered "fast" lenses because enough light enters and hits the sensor for a photographer (if that's the intent) to raise their shutter speed - offering superior "stop action" and clarity (essential for handheld, non-tripod photography) without having to bump up the ISO (which can introduce noise to the photo). Sent from the iMore App
  • This is one of the problems I mentioned in my above post earlier. They take several shots with the camera and combine them for the final image. While that's fine, it can't be done much of the time because of the time delay. You get ghosting in the image, because the camera simply isn't that fast. And they rate the sensor and image quality with that multiple exposure, rather than the more conventional single shot. There are several apps for the iPhone that allow multiple exposures for reduced noise, and even for higher resolutions than the sensor is capable of. Some work fairly well. Since some are free, and the rest just a few bucks, I'd recommend trying them instead of this mess. Frankly, I'm surprised that Michael is recommending this.
  • It does though. The larger your aperture the higher your shutter speed will be when you take the photo given the same lighting situation. Dslr cameras often have wide aperture lenses like 1.4 that really let in more light so that you can take pictures in lower light situations but still have a usable shutter speed.
  • To the two comments about shutter speed. You have proven my point. Really. The larger lens does not take faster photos, the larger lens only lets more light in so with a DSLR you can change the shutter speed to take faster photos. You cannot adjust the shutter speed on the iPhone therefore a larger lens would only be plausible in low light situations, regular day shots would be flooded by excessive light. There is a cut off point for lens size and the shutter speed of the iphone. Saying a larger lens takes faster photos is like saying bigger tires makes your car go faster. Sent from the iMore App
  • Please excuse my ignorance, but what does the default camera do normally? Does it not adjust both aperture and shutter speed accordingly? Whenever I point my camera to the sky, the initial image is a flood of light, then the camera adjusts. What I'm taking away from your comment is that shutter speed doesn't change, only the aperture does. Sent from the iMore App
  • It is my understanding that neither the aperture nor the shutter speed change on mobile phones. You are limited to what is set from the factory. Unlike a DSLR where you can manually adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and the ISO. There are apps that will allow you to adjust the ISO settings in a phone, however you cannot the adjust the aperture or shutter speed. Sent from the iMore App
  • I may be completely missing your point. How does a mobile phone expose a scene properly then? What's happening when we use that exposure slider before taking a pic? Are all adjustments software based? Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes, it's all software based with apps. Simply because Apple doesn't let you control those functions, physically or with software. External lenses may come with some physical controls depending on which one you buy, however even many of those have complimentary apps. The addition of an external lens doesn't change the iphones lens at all, or it's physical limitations. The lens in question with the write up I've never used, it may have some physical controls. All external lenses though have to work in conjunction with the lens they are coupled with. Sent from the iMore App
  • Very interesting! TIL. I honestly thought a lens was a lens and assumed phone cameras acted mechanically allowing aperture to affect shutter speed and visa versa. Thanks for bearing with me. Sent from the iMore App
  • Really loving Obscura Camera (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/obscura-camera/id915939220?mt=8) not just for the filters, but the control you get.
  • Don't you think the DxO kind of cheats the whole mobile photography thing? It's a cool invention, but if I'm going to spend that much I rather just buy a camera.