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Camera tests: iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode vs a Canon DSLR

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When the iPhone 7 Plus and its dual-camera system launched, it did so missing a key feature: Portrait mode, which uses the Plus's two cameras to create a faux depth-of-field effect with a gaussian blur, simulating the look of higher-end cameras like DSLRs and mirrorless models. On stage, Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller even jokingly compared the iPhone's photos to a "DSLR photo" — before revealing the image had, in fact, been taken with an iPhone 7 Plus and a beta of Portrait mode.

Portrait mode is now available to everyone with iOS 10.1, and we figured a perfect test of this mode was to actually compare it to an entry-level DSLR — namely, Canon's T4i — with a 40mm f/2.8 lens, just a little bit shallower than the iPhone 7 Plus's second 56mm-equivalent lens.

We ran these tests with a beta of Portrait mode in late September, so I wasn't expecting miracles or for the iPhone 7 Plus to "beat" the Canon (spoiler: it doesn't). But what I do find fascinating is just how close the iPhone comes in certain circumstances to replicating — or, in some case, exceeding — the DSLR look without the heft or the cost of a pro camera setup.

How we tested

Like my other camera tests, the goal for these was to simulate the way an average user might snap images with their iPhone or entry-level DSLR. Both cameras were shot freehand, and though I shot with the DSLR in Manual mode, that was primarily to get a similar ISO and shutter speed to the iPhone's telephoto lens, and I kept the Canon's white balance on auto. Both recorded to JPEG, with no post-processing.

For the DSLR comparison, I used my Canon Rebel T4i (opens in new tab) with Canon's 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens (opens in new tab) to match the iPhone 7 Plus's telephoto lens setup as much as possible.

NOTE: Though many (myself included) have argued that this system is closer in comparison to a normal or portrait lens than a true telephoto, I understand Apple's intentions here: Because they're marketing the lens in conjunction with a 2x feature, it may seem more appropriate to call it "tele" than "normal" or "portrait" to the average user — especially considering that Apple has a planned "Portrait" feature coming out that utilizes both lenses later this year. For that reason, I'm referring to the lens as Apple names it — tele, or telephoto — even though I don't necessarily agree with that branding.

People

The iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait mode is designed around taking snapshots of people — it has face and body detection built in to aid with the effect — so it's only fair that its first test actually involve human subjects.

When it comes to shooting outdoors, the two cameras have almost identical picture quality, and the trees are nicely blurred out in the background. Portrait mode seems to struggle a bit right now with getting smooth cuts for faces and bodies against highly blurred backgrounds, however; it's most obvious against my hair in the first shot, and my male subject's face and body when shooting backlit.

The iPhone tends to try and grab more information about the background than the Canon, and as such, the background is a lot darker and has more definition in the trees than the DSLR shots, which blow out the light between the trees for a more stylized effect. (Don't make me call it bokeh.)

Indoors, the Canon's superior sensor offers a lot more detail than the iPhone, which resorts to smoothing pixels a bit to keep the image clear. The depth of field effect is gorgeous on the smartphone, however, providing a nice mid-level blur as well as blurring out the Enceladus poster in the background.

Pets

I tricked a few people on Twitter with the photos below, and for good reason: The iPhone loves outdoor subjects with clear focal areas to measure.

Though the iPhone continues to process images with a slightly warmer coloration and sharpness than the Canon, the depth maps on these images are quite similar. The Canon benefits from some foreground blur, but the iPhone smartly uses the dog's feet in this photo to create a midpoint blur and taper between that and the full background blur, and it looks beautiful. Even with the dog in motion, the iPhone identifies differing blur points and tapers down, though it's not as smooth as the Canon.

I wasn't supposed to be able to get this photo: When I first tried to grab it, Portrait mode insisted I was too close to my subject, and I probably was — I only managed to snap this after moving away, then pushing back in. But boy, am I glad I did. Even in relatively low-light conditions, I got a lot of the detail in our dog's face, and the multi-layered blur separates her paws and ears from the rest of the scene.

Products

I take a lot (a lot) of technology product shots, largely with my DSLR; in the past, the iPhone's lack of depth (save for macro modes) has made it difficult to get good spotlight shots. But I've been toying with shooting iMore heroes on the iPhone 7 Plus, and Portrait mode makes it surprisingly easy — as long as there's good light.

Though I can't get quite as close as I'd like to when shooting in Portrait mode with the iPhone 7 (the 56mm-equivalent lens has a minimum focus distance of 19 inches), it still nicely highlights the iPhone and blurs out the background, though not with as much light diffusion as the Canon.

Where the iPhone unfortunately falls flat is low-light snaps: Because the iPhone 7 Plus's 56mm-equivalent lens has no optical image stabilization and a smaller sensor, it has real trouble capturing low-light images — especially low-light images that are close up. I went back and forth between the "not enough light" and "back up" error messages for at least two minutes before eventually deciding to just take the snap as-is, without the Portrait mode. It still has some depth of focus to it, but the image isn't nearly as clear or as tapered as the Canon.

This poor Lego.

I really pushed Portrait mode to the limit here, giving it a tiny subject to work with against a grained background, all while trying to shoot as close as humanly possible. The result: A very grainy photo on the iPhone 7 Plus side without a ton of nuance to the background blur, and a closer shot that confused the head of the Stormtrooper for the background. Whoops.

Flowers

Like the Lego example above, flowers are entirely outside Portrait mode's current scope, and given how well you can get decent depth of field shooting macro with the wide-angle, I don't know if I'd use Portrait for this stuff very often.

The flowers and leaves are a bit more blown out than the Canon image, in part due to this snap being in the shade and close to evening time. While there's a nice variegated blur going on at the top of the image with the ferns, the middle of the image (between the flowers) didn't get a blur applied at all, and the wall looks strangely in focus.

Were I going to shoot nature closeups with this mode, I'd probably do something closer to this shot: Macro leaves with the rest of the background out of focus. The only real clue between these two shots, besides the color temperature, is the slight foreground blur on the Canon image.

Drinks

Taking artsy drink shots is a time-honored Instagram tradition, but I'm skeptical as to how well the iPhone's telephoto lens will snap them unless you're outdoors or in a brightly lit area.

Admittedly, I gave the iPhone a stiff challenge in this photo of a whiskey bottle: glass bottle, dark kitchen, mirrored surface, onion in the background. And while it didn't exactly fail this challenge, there's no question about which image looks better. The iPhone struggled with blur areas, getting a nice foreground blur but missing parts of the reflective table and accidentally blurring out words on the bottle. And when it comes to macro, of course, the telephoto can't focus on the bottle at all, ceding the competition to the Canon.

Bottom line

Portrait is getting its start in beta as a fun experiment and a bit of a gimmick — one I have no doubt will take over Instagram as readily as vignetting and tilt-shift did. But I have high hopes for the feature: The iPhone is always going to struggle against something as full-featured as a DSLR given its limited room for sensors and lenses, but the device still puts together an awfully strong showing — and does so without the need of carrying a pro camera setup or fiddling with manual controls.

In some cases during our tests, I was able to get a very similar shot to my DSLR without taking the time to check the exposure meter and adjust my shutter speed accordingly; I needed only to lift the iPhone up to my subject and snap the photo.

The iPhone's Image Signal Processor is working overtime when you snap these shots, which is why you won't see extra bells and whistles just yet — no Flash or low-light images, no zoom, and no official support for snapping photos of objects. But I have no doubt this feature will evolve and transform as more users get their hands on the Public Beta and Apple continues to refine its controls.

For now, it's a fascinatingly fun feature to play with, and I can't wait to give it a more thorough run through its paces over the next few days.

Do you have an iPhone 7 Plus and Portrait mode? Let us know what you think.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

60 Comments
  • For the looks of these I actually prefer what I see with the iPhone camera. Sent from the iMore App
  • I gotta agree. The 7+ held its own. Big time. Good stuff! Thanks for the comparison guys!!
  • Good article most likely I'll use my iPhone 7+ most of the time! Sent from the iMore App
  • For the most part, even with similar settings, the DSLR is still better, however I'm sure more experienced photographers taking their time could blur the line. I'd like to see that comparison as well, more so than the normal/average comparison. Sent from the iMore App
  • Not being a professional photographer myself, I do believe I will have a lot of fun with the iPhone plus! Sent from the iMore App
  • None of the pics are showing in your iOS app, ON an iPhone 7 Plus - ironic Sent from the iMore App
  • Yikes! We'll look into that right away, not good.
  • Are there any updates expected for this app? I would love to see the app reflect the design philosophy of iOS and take advantage of 3D Touch! Sent from the iMore App
  • The app rarely gets updated, if anything it'll just be bug fixes. It took a long long while for the app to be updated to match the iOS 7 new design
  • Yes maybe merge with the iMore forums app so that there does not need to be two separate apps. And as for the pictures not showing up, that was happening last week as well with the nighttime low light photos at Serenity and Renée were taking. Actually had to go to Safari and go to the website in order to see them. Sent from the iMore App
  • We hear you. :) We're working hard to build a new version of the app that sucks a bit less.
  • Please add watch complications for news headlines that can time travel. :) and the widget in iOS10 needs the ability to "Show less" as it defaults to the large real estate only.
  • Please do! It's a consistent problem with the app! Sent from the iMore App
  • Bizarrely they work fine in the Android version but not the iOS one! Sent from the iMore App
  • The Android app seems to work better in general as opposed to the iOS version. I guess there's different developers working on each one
  • Yup.
  • And the Windows Central app on Windows 10 for Mobile is the best of the bunch so Windows>Android>iOS, yes? ;)
  • Pictures often don't show in the app and I must exit the app and open in safari to see pictures that are included in articles/reviews Sent from the iMore App
  • It's probably easier just to use the website, the app has a fair number of issues. Sometimes images don't display in articles, sometimes they do but they're stretched or formatted weirdly. Sometimes when posting a comment it doesn't appear although it has actually been posted, and you can't up/down vote comments in the app
  • That stuff happens a lot for me, too. Frustrating.
  • Still not showing... Sent from the iMore App
  • ^This!! Sent from the iMore App
  • Interesting... Some shorts visually look better on iPhone 7 Plus than entry level DSLR. Not really surprising through... The need to take an entry level DLSR vs an iPhone will soon be just *not even have to think about" I believe "portrait" type mode is probably just the start with smart-phones, not just the iPhone 7 Plus.
  • And you didn't even have to pay for a camera. It's already there in the phone.
  • If it didn't have a camera I would hope it'd cost less than £700, so yes, you are paying for the camera :)
  • The iPhone images looks pretty horrid imo. The subjects tend to have this hairline border around them obviously where the CPU is cutting the line from the background and the subject. I understand its beta so I'll give it that, but these still look a lot cookie cutter-esq. They kinda just look like Apple identifies the subject then blurs the background selectively to create the effect. The only one I think that you can see might even come close is the leaf on the porch, everything else is pretty bad. I'm surprised that Apple turned down the noise correction for dimmer subjects. The male subject's face shows a ton of noise, trying to keep the sharpness, but usually Apple does the opposite and is a little more aggressive removing noise. This might be another effect of there's is to blur the background while sharpening and increase the iso to keep things sharp. I think the only thing Apple has is their post processing to appease their audience. I really prefer the warmer tones they choose, but I feel the Canon were more what the light was at the time. Hands down the DSLR is still leagues ahead, I wouldn't even say they were close. The biggest advantage is still portability and availability of the iPhone, but when it comes to it shooting on a DSLR or mirrorless camera still kicks it's **** to the curb and back.
  • Agreed, the iphone is nice if that's all you have, but for really great pics, I always want my DSLR, especially in low light.
  • Agree. Almost looks like the subject is Photoshopped in which is unfortunate. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • The iPhone's sensor and glass size is a big reason why it can't play with the high-end cameras — it has major trouble with low light, hence the grain. Definitely still a ways to go.
  • I’m very disappointed in how noisy my own Portrait pix are (almost heartened to see the same in the shots here, which at least reassures me I don’t have a defective iPhone). I mean, I get that there are technological limitations to how much they can do with the feature, but the quality of the images for indoor shots feels like iPhone 1, not iPhone 7.
  • I like the dog photo for the 7 looks really decent. The one with your significant other can see some indecisiveness below the chin. Should have just blurred that part too. Of cos the light through the foliage the canon would render more bokeh balls but the standard blur on the iPhone is not bad. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Your Snap shots are really very much nice and it helps me to get a brand quality in iPhone and it is very attractive too. Thanks for sharing those awesome pictures , it clearly explained the features of iPhone and with other brands.
  • Am I the only one who can't see the pictures? I'm on my iPhone 6 Plus and any of the articles about the pictures taken with the 7, I can't see. Sent from the iMore App
  • They don't show up in the iMore App for some reason, view them through the website
  • That defeats the purpose. But thank you for the info, I thought I was doing something wrong. Sent from the iMore App
  • Interesting how the iPhone looks warmer almost everywhere, but then the DSLR is clearly warmer in the drink shots....
  • iPhone tends to have a warmer auto color temperature outdoors vs Canon and other manufacturers.
  • Just like to remind everyone that we are comparing a lens and sensor a small fraction of the size in the phone. It's not meant to be a fair comparison, it's meant to see how far phone cameras have come. To complain about the iPhone's pictures in comparison would be like complaining a Formula E car is still slower than a regular Formula One car. (eye roll). That being said, I'd also like to mention that Consumer Reports can't be trusted. No doubt people will be seeing articles online about how Consumer reports rated the iPhone 7 camera with quite unscientific hyperbolic based language like making generalized statements such as "no major leap" or "no improvement over the 6S". The first statement is just plain dumb. Of course there won't be a "major leap". Smartphone cameras in high end phones are so good already, there won't be any major leaps because we are limited by physics! That's what some folks, and apparently CR, don't seem to understand. In photography, usually physics is the bottleneck. You can't cheat physics, you can't gather an equal amount of light and resolve great detail from that light with a tiny lens and sensor no matter what you do. It doesn't matter what kind of technology you have (unless its something sort of time/space light bending magic from the distant future). So no major leaps is a worthless statement that will just be spread around the internet by trolls now. Great....
    Also, "no improvement" over the 6S is utter nonsense. I know because I tested it myself. I took the exact same low light shot with both my 6S and my new 7, both handheld, and the 7 showed a noticeable and non trival reduction in noise and resulting quality and detail improvement. No doubt due to the addition (finally) of OIS and the larger f1.8 aperture. So there is a noticeable improvement if you know basic things to look for.
  • Word. This is definitely how I view these kinds of comparisons: Of course a DSLR is going to have a competitive edge. It has about five times the space for the hardware, and the only job a camera has to do is take great pictures. But the iPhone does a pretty darn good job simulating the look, if lacking the overall prowess.
  • I wish you guys have taken the same shots with 7. For all of us that don't want to carry big phone. iPhone 7 should create some depth of field especially on some of these close ups. It would be nice what the difference is. It's never too late :).
  • Our big iPhone 7 Plus vs 7 vs 6s vs 6s Plus compare is coming soon! In the meantime: http://www.imore.com/camera-tests-zoom-iphone-7-vs-iphone-7-plus
  • Hey Ren, I saw that review and it was great as well. Thank you guys for working so hard for us. These are really helpful. I'm interested to see what kind of blur you can get from iPhone 7 when you are taking portraits or close ups. iPhone 6s can create little bit of blur I'm wondering if 7 is any better. I'll be waiting for the upcoming review.
  • This is such a bad test. Serenity should've let her hair hang and photograph the ends, so that we could see if the iPhone would struggle trying to figure out what to "blur" and what's part of the background. That's the real test. Obviously a camera with a large sensor and a fast lens is not going to have an issue with that.
  • When Portrait mode is officially launched for iOS 10, I'm planning on doing a test that judges the mode more objectively, but I don't feel like it's a fair shot to test it on bits the engineers are still clearly working on. It definitely doesn't do hair well yet. But it's also clear that hair and fine objects are a top priority before this thing ships (and why it's a beta on a beta OS right now).
  • Thanks for the response. Looking forward to another test. If I may make another recommendation, it might actually be better to post process the images to give them similar exposure and temperature. So that the only thing people are judging it on is the stylized effect. Because most people will at the outset always visually prefer the more exposed and warmer image, that's why I gather so many of the folks commenting feel the iPhone photos look better at first glance even though when you click on the full size, they don't stand up.
  • The fact that so many of you think the iPhone shots look better, makes me realize that people have SUCH a strong bias towards Apple, and anything they do. The shots are so much worse on the iPhone. If anything, you may like that they are warmer, which is simply a setting..but they are downright terrible. The area around Serenity's hair in the first photo looks so weird, it's like they pasted her into the photo and she wasn't there to begin with. This is such a stupid gimmick.
  • I wonder how many people actually click on the photos. Or look at them on anything other than a phone. Because the thumbnails do indeed look fantastic; the artifacts only become visible when viewed at a larger size. At that point I agree that the photos are ruined.
  • Yeah when you glance at the thumbnails it looks decent and the colors may be warmer then the Canon but when you click it and look at it larger you can see the clear cut out from the software on a lot of the outdoor ones. Its clearly in beta so hopefully it will improve but so far I am not impressed. I wonder what the keeper rate was? I heard that it can be very indecisive at times with the software. That being said the iPhone 7 and indeed other smartphones all have excellent cameras in general and its not the end of the world if this part of it just is not going to be as strong as the rest of it.
  • Agreed. Thumbnails show very little and I also suspect that people are not clicking on them. The images when you click on them are still 1600x1200 (~2MP), so that is still way smaller than the native 12MP images. Not that resolution should be the only thing, but it matters quite a bit when comparing low light images for details.
  • "The iPhone tends to try and grab more information about the background than the Canon, and as such, the background is a lot darker and has more definition in the trees than the DSLR shots, which blow out the light between the trees for a more stylized effect. (Don't make me call it bokeh.)" Calling the visual result of an optical construction a "stylized effect" while at the same time refusing to call it bokeh made me cringe so hard. The DSLR doesn't blow out the lights for style, it does so simply because it meters the subject differently. Only the iPhone applies a stylization effect to the photos. The iPhone shots are extremely respectable for on-the-fly processing. I remember having a Photoshop plugin that could simulate bokeh (not just apply Gaussian blur, but imitate the circles and imperfections of real lenses); its results were far better, but the problem was always the lack of a depth map. Clear separation of subjects as well as problematic elements such as hair and (worst of all) semi-transparent objects were huge problems back then, and I see the iPhone still has trouble with it. But I'm very excited about these developments! My iPhone 5s is still working fine for me (and still having the perfect form-factor), but once the 4.7” iPhone gets the dual-lens setup, I'll upgrade.
  • I realize fully it's an optical construction, but explaining light metering in a post designed for the vast majority of iPhone users is a wee bit challenging. :) But yeah, I'm hoping as Apple improves the A10 load for this effect they'll take better advantage of the depth map and work on mapping finer objects and switch from gaussian to optical blur. (It's limited right now by RAM and A10 efficiency — it's clear from a few days' use with the beta that the engineers are still very much at work making the feature functional.)
  • Still prefer a real camera and compare my S7 vs the iPhone 7 plus for now they are almost the same but the most important when I pinch to zoom in the S7 with 2x zoom and use the iPhone 2x the s7 still looks better
  • In photos where low light wasn't a factor, I think I prefer the iPhone.
  • The iPhone 7 plus is not that bad compared to the Canon. Isaiah Heart.
  • Pleas please stop calling telephoto a 56mm equivalent optic
  • Hate to ask (I may have missed it), but is there any chance iMore could consolidate all these great photography reviews and tips to a single link page for quicker access? BTW - I was particularly struck by the quality of the 10x digital zoom in the 7+; far better than I would have imagined compared to regular digital zoom.
  • Interestingly, Canon Rebel shots are closer to those 6s shots in your previous comparison. ;-) My first impression is iPhone 7 camera is not better than 6s camera in terms of color content. 6s has a better tonal range. Apparently Apple couldn't manage the f/1.8 aperture washing out everything with excessive light. That may be corrected with a software update, however. More tests must be performed with RAW data.
  • hey guys i want to know whether this mode will come in 6s?
  • i just got my 7 plus yesterday and was blown away by the portrait mode! almost looked identical to pictures i take from my t5i but the only drawback is i know right when i go to zoom in, is where the camera will need to be a stand alone. all in all, if you don't have your camera with you but see a good picture, it will do a good job. i still consider returning my camera and just using my iPhone to take all the pictures but i think ill stick with both because I'm still getting familiar with really fine tuning photographs i take on my canon.
  • The Iphone's leaves look calmer because it's applying the bokeh effect *after* the image is recorded, after the camera has already clipped the highlights. So those white gaps between leaves have been recorded at level 255 when they really are at maybe level 1000, which means the bokeh balls will appear much darker than they should be. The DSLR has its bokeh applied by the lens, so in this case with the very bright sky, the entire bokeh ball will be recorded as a blown out highlight by the sensor.