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.