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No, iPhone 7 Plus can't take Portrait Lighting photos, but...

iPhone X
iPhone X

I love the internet and social media. I really do. They let ideas spread like wildfire through the collective connected consciousness. But they also let misunderstandings spread just as fast. Especially about Apple and even more especially about iPhone. The latest: Portrait Lighting doesn't require iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X and Apple is — of course — artificially restricting it to drive the sales of new devices.

It started with this tweet:

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While Steve understands the context of that tweet, because even 280 character Twitter is a limited medium, other people have been misunderstanding it.

Here's the deal:

iPhone 7 Plus can't take Portrait Lighting photos in real-time the way iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X can. Taking Portrait Mode photos can already feel slow on iPhone 7 Plus and can peg the A10 Fusion processor. For Portrait Lighting, iPhone 7 Plus could try and take them, but the process would be even slower — to the point of being a bad user experience.

A11 Bionic, on the other hand, can take Portrait Mode photos with speed headroom to spare, and it can do Portrait Lighting fast enough for it to feel more than usable. At least for Studio and Contract. Stage Lighting is nowhere near real-time yet.

What Steve is referring to is something different. While iPhone 7 Plus and A10 Fusion can't take Portrait Lighting photos fast enough, they could apply the effect in post-production. (Though it may lose out on additional A11 Bionic-specific advantages, including those involving the face detection used to apply the effect.)

In other words, you could take a Portrait Mode photo with Camera, switch to Photos, hit Edit, and then add Portrait Lighting to it. You could also change or remove Portrait Lighting from a photo taken with iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X. But it might not be as good as it is on iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X.

Apple could have chosen to add Portrait Lighting to iPhone 7 Plus as an edit-only feature. It would have been fun for iPhone 7 Plus owners the same way animate-only Live Photos were fun for older iPhone and iPad users. But my guess is the company felt if it couldn't do Portrait Lighting fully and completely, it shouldn't do it at all.

Apple gets accused of artificially limiting features all the time. It was accused of making video recording iPhone 3GS-only to drive upgrades... until the feature was hacked onto iPhone 3G and ran at an unacceptable 15 fps. Most recently, Apple was accused of artificially limiting Animoji to iPhone X and that proved to be just as short-sighted.

Strangely, I think it's a testament to how many features Apple does push to older devices that sets expectations — and expectational debt — so high. When's the last time you heard or read anyone wondering if the new Samsung or Google or device feature would be pushed down to previous generation hardware? Me neither.

Apple engineers and product marketing people, by and large, have friends and family using older devices and the last thing they want to do is withhold cool new features from them. What they do want to do is avoid bad experiences. Because Apple artificially slowing down older iPhones with new features is something the company gets accused of even more frequently. (Damned if you do...)

And it's ok to disagree with those decisions. In this case, it's ok to think Apple should add Portrait Lighting as best as it can, in any way that it can, to iPhone 7 Plus. Even if it's edit-only. Radar and social the hell out of that if you want to.

Just understand the trade-offs when you do.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

2 Comments
  • In the tech world, Apple are exemplars at keeping old kit working. I've got a six year old iPad that still works enough to keep my five year old happy (even the battery still lasts a couple of hours). Anyone who thinks that limiting access to something as frivolous as portrait lighting photos to boost sales is utterly deluded.
  • I'd say if that was the case, then they should have demoed it on stage just to offer a great example of the power the A11 Bionic offers over the A10. That would clear up so much.