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iPhone 7 Plus vs Honor 8: Battle of the (fake) Bokeh!

The iPhone 7 Plus has two camera sensors, one with a 28mm depth of field and the other 56mm, meant to take photos at a "telephoto" format. In reality, the second sensor provides a lot of extra data to the sensor, as proven by the iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait mode, which is available to all larger-iPhone users in iOS 10.1.

But such a Portrait mode, as Apple calls it, is not uncommon. It's been available in some Android phones for years. Specifically, the HTC One M8 added a second 2MP camera sensor for this very purpose, and while it was well-received, it never gained the adoption that HTC wanted to justify its addition to the phone's sequel the following year.

Some phones don't make a big deal over the second camera, utilizing it more for additional resolution than adding features. But there are a couple devices, such as the Honor 8, close cousin to the Huawei P9, that does both: like the iPhone 7 Plus, it uses a second 12MP sensor both to accrue additional data for regular wide-angle photos, and to aide with zoom — and it also uses the separation to measure depth, and apply artificial background blurring to photos.

The Tests

Before we begin the tests, it's worth noting a couple of things: the Honor 8's two 12MP sensors are arrayed very differently to the iPhone 7 Plus's. First, one is color and the other monochrome, which is meant to assist in detail, focus, and exposure accuracy. The other is that the focal lengths of the lenses at identical at 27mm, which means the portrait/background blur feature works quite differently to the iPhone's.

The Honor 8 instructs you stand considerably closer to the subject than the iPhone, and the 27mm field of view is not only wider, but not optimized for portraits. In my testing, I tried to frame the subjects are close to one another as possible, but it was difficult given that I needed to stand in different places. I did not want to crop the photos, as that would alter the resolution.

Finally, the iPhone 7 Plus directs you throughout the shooting experience — stand further back, move closer, get better light — which dramatically improves the overall quality of the shot. This is the most instructive Apple has ever been in its own camera app, and I'm happy to see the change.

iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode (left) / Honor 8 Portrait mode (right)

You can see from these photos that both phones struggle with fences, selectively blurring only certain parts of the chain that don't have objects obviously behind them. What's interesting is that they both blur the same part of the fence, to the left of the sign, and little else, though the iPhone 7 Plus does a far better job exposing for the available light utilizing HDR to ensure the foreground is as well-lit as the back.

Indoor lighting results in a great shot from both phones. The iPhone looks slightly grainier, since the narrower aperture is letting in less light than its Honor counterpart, but it does a better job gradually blurring the rear of the frame. You can see that in the second row of coffee cups, which have a slightly less severe blur than the true background; indeed, the iPhone implements a much more extreme effect than the Honor, from which it's easier to make out the details. Not sure which one I like better — the Honor saturates the scene more, but the iPhone really emphasizes that foreground.

Here, the iPhone is the clear winner. I mean, it's not even close. And here's what I want to emphasize about Apple's slow-but-steady rollout of this Portrait feature: it's really, really hard to get right. Look at these two photos; the Honor completely screws up the mid-section, blurring the top edges of the red flower, some of the leaves, and what appears like random portions of the foreground. There is no consistency at all.

The iPhone, while not perfect, tries to understand the layers of the photo. There's the main subject, the red flower, along with leaves at its side and immediately behind it, plus the true background. Every decision made by the ISP makes sense — well, most of them. The plant itself naturally blurs into the background, but there are problems: the purple flower jutting out to the left of the planter floats on its own, its lithe stem blurred with the rest of the background. And the camera has a difficult time deciding which portions of the planter's soil to blur, so it appears to do all of it, even though it shouldn't. But the evenness to which the ISP applies blurring to the wood fence behind is lovely, and far more intelligent than any Android-based implementation I've yet seen.

My apologies for the framing: the white of the sky in the Honor 8 is distracting, but as I said in the intro I needed to be physically closer to the subject so I did the best I could to line them up.

Both phones do pretty well here, since there is a clear foreground subject. Ignore the exposure, because the Honor 8 gets tricked up by the sky, but note how much clearer the iPhone's just-behind leaves are compared to the all-or-nothing approach taken by the Android phone. The iPhone tries to gradually blur the background in a way that appears natural; the Honor 8 identifies the foreground subject and applies a thick brush of gaussian blur to everything else. It's fine but the iPhone is great. This is an example of Apple measuring twice (or twenty times) and cutting once.

Also look at the droplets of water on the leaves in the iPhone shot. They're considerably clearer throughout, since the Honor 8 applies blur to portions of the leaves themselves, perhaps attempting to recreate a DSLR shot, but the application is haphazard and imprecise.

Finally, we get to an actual portrait. Here's my favorite barista at my favorite coffee shop in Toronto, who reluctantly agreed to be a subject for my experiment.

You can see how differently the iPhone frames the photo, since you as a shooter need to be much further back than with the Honor 8 to account for the longer lens. Taking a photo from further back feels much more natural, since your phone physically isn't in the face of the person being photographed — I didn't realize how much of a difference this made until I started taking portraits with the 7 Plus.

When looking at the framing differences between these two phones, Apple's decision to add a 56mm lens makes a lot more sense.

Both phones do a good job with this scene, though the 27mm lens on the Honor 8 distorts the person within the scene — he is just one aspect of a wider shot, rather than the main subject.

Again, the iPhone's photo is grainier, given that it is indoors and taken with a lower-aperture lens, but the grain actually works here, since the colors, like his skin tone, are more accurate. The Honor 8 takes a much redder shot.

Conclusion

These five photos contrast the iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait mode to that of another implementation of the same idea. When looking at the framing differences between the iPhone 7 Plus and Honor 8, Apple's decision to add a 56mm lens make a lot more sense, since framing a person is considerably easier and more enjoyable when you're not right in his or her face.

And even though it is currently in beta, the ISP inside the A10 Fusion chip consistently makes better decisions in regards to what to blur, and how gradually to do so, than the Honor 8, which takes an all-or-nothing approach.

What do you think of the comparison? Which phone do you think wins?

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

28 Comments
  • You're awesome for this Daniel! Thanks! I have a Honor 8 so I found this to be additionally interesting, It's cool that there are some shots that pull ahead of each one. I think the 7+ wins but not by much.
  • The 7+ is slightly better but as someone who has the Honor 8 and is patiently waiting for his i7+, I must say that the manual mode on the Honor 8 is excellent and would like to find out if Daniel used that or not.
  • Thanks for all the photo shootouts! Anyone know when this 7 Plus feature will be out of Beta?
  • Probably later this month!
  • So the iPhone 7 plus bests (by a small margin) the Honor 8 which is (by a considerable margin) cheaper. Ummm, well done everyone? Posted via the iMore App
  • You are so desperate to bash Apple, that you need to misquote the author who never said it was by a small margin?? It must hurt that the iPhone has this very good capability and is only in beta, since it will only get better.
  • You're right, the author claims outright victory for the iPhone which to my eyeballs isn't the case. My point wasn't meant to criticise your religion - sorry, manufacturer of telephone of choice - more to point out that the comparison is between a midrange $399 device and a $769 flagship handset, something the article doesn't really make clear. Posted via the iMore App
  • Yet, if you're into photography, it's commonly understood, that you pay a lot of additional money for a lens, etc. that provides a fairly subtle difference... at least to the untrained eye. I would also add that the difference in photography quality is not the only difference between these devices. Clearly, the latest iPhone is top of the line performance as well. Like any product category, there is a premium for the best. That doesn't mean that a lesser device is necessarily a bad choice though. It just depends on what matters to you most.
  • I completely agree with you, but when one compares a product such as a smartphone or camera lens with another that is nearly half the price this should be a key point of the feature.
  • I don't see it as a bash. I own the IP7+ and spending pretty much a grand on this phone to see this makes me feel sad. Like maybe I could have gotten a mid range android phone for less than 1/2 the price. Anywho no big I guess I'm not hurting for cash.
  • not really believe all these photos see in real time. i like the iPhone 7 plus camera a lot.
  • It's a nice feature, but the iphone's blurring is just a bit too excessive in my opinion.
  • The honor 8 pictures look like when I focus on a object in my regular iPhone 6s Plus
  • Ecactly my thought!! Sent from the iMore App
  • Of course the iPhone 7 plus is going to be best in class, here, but for a device that represents a seperate, lower tier phone, the $400 Honor 8 represents itself quite well.
  • If the differences you see are only minor... the Honor is the right choice for you. I believe the way reds were processed by the iPhone is a stark difference. You can't even see pedals in the flower shot as an example in the shot taken by the Honor. With a camera you can often spend big money for small enhancements. The device you use is a personal choice. There is no right or wrong pick in what is best for you. We each can decide what is best for us. Honor the other guy's choice ; )
  • It looks like the iPhone 7+ shots were done with the 56 mm lens. What's nice about that is for portraits (which this mode is called), it distorts people's face less than a wide angle lens. People look more "normal." Most people won't notice, but it's a nice feature.
  • Good article - Thanks
    Both phones took interesting pictures. Sent from the iMore App
  • How much is the Honor 8 vs the 7+?
    I think this was a mistake to put these two phones head to head for photo. I'm just sayin...
  • $399 versus 749. The reason why they used both these phones is because they each have dual cameras. Sent from the iMore App
  • The Honor 8 is $399 (basically $400) for 32gb, $450 for 64gb (which isn't available yet at this time). To be fair, both of these phones are hot (and new) right now and they both have dual cameras, so I think it makes a lot to sense to do this. I loved this article.
  • This is really nice to read. I'm in line to buy a p9 or s7 whichever gets nougat fast. Anyway it's not surprising the iPhone will do better, 1st it's a portrait lens equivalent. 2nd It already exhibiting some bokeh without the mode. I'm wondering if the background blur on the honor is the f0.95 or higher aperture simulation? I find that on the p9 at anything below f4 it's wildly exaggerated and looks quite unnatural looking but the photos here looks good. Especially love the portrait of the barista from the iPhone. Looks like something you get out of a 50mm f4 or 5.6. I hope next year more phones will do this 2 lens set up more like the iPhone. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Well I certainly agree that the effect works better on the iPhone, and also agree that the design decisions are better there with the different specs on the two lenses. Overall, yeah, I'd give the win to the Apple, but there's one thing about the results that I'm liking better on the Android phone that sorta sucks a bit of the enthusiasm out of the [according to JaySeeDoubleYou] coronation of the Apple for me - and it's actually the color. I know, Daniel actually cites the color as a WEAKNESS of the Android, and indeed, the barista does look a little bit flushed on it, but to my eyes, everything just seems a tad too yellow on the iPhone at least as it renders on the screen of my original 6+ (and no, it's not a "night shift" thing). By contrast, the Android produced some brilliant white that seem much more neutrally balanced rather than ever so slightly "coffee stained", as well as colors that over all just seemed more vibrant. Daniel said that the colors on the iPhone are more true to life, and this may be so (and a big win that) since other than perhaps the barista, I can't say since I've never been where these are. However, I know which colors look better to my eyes in a contextual vacuum, and it's not the iPhone. So iPhone overall for sure, but definitely not a clean victory as far as I'm concerned.
  • Having used the P9 earlier, I found myself unable to accept single lense smartphone cameras anymore. I'm glad that the iPhone adopted it as well as it will definitely make every other manufacturers do the same. Slight win here for the iPhone. But whichever you choose to buy, you'll get a very capable mobile camera all the same. In the hands of anyone competent enough, the Honor 8 is more than capable of taking some stunning photos.
  • I had the Honor 8 -- about to purchase a new one (first one had a software glitch). REALLY NICE Phone. Now to my comment: The iPhone does accomplish the effect better than the honor 8 (barley so). The one problem that I am seeing, which will be noticed much more often than the Lovely Bokeh it creates, is the noise in low light and Indoor photos. I was expecting an improvement in indoor shots, but from the camera comparisons that I have seen and the one in this article, the Iphone still has some work to do. Look how much cleaner the Honor 8 shots are here (Barista and Cup Photos). The colors could use some work (small software tweaks) I'm not sure you can fix the noise without drastically slowing the shutter speed ( a no go if people are moving in low-light). I like the Iphone outdoor photos better... I find the Honor 8 indoor shots more consistent with what I would like to see. Bokeh is a win for Iphone but only by a slight margin. Good to see cheaper alternatives to Carrier flagships, like the Iphone and S7/Note 7, with little compromise.
  • Yes, this article is about the "fokeh", but taken as a whole, the iPhone 7+ images are far superior. The colors are far more natural on the iPhone. Reds are something digital photography has a lot of trouble capturing and replicating on screen because of less graduations of red in most digital color spectrums than other colors. Look at the difference in the reds of the flower between the two images or the difference in the red mugs. The difference is very clear. The bokeh effect is a slight win to the iPhone 7+ in this comparison, but, overall, the images of the iPhone 7+ the huge winner here. Sent from the iMore App
  • I should note, part of my reason for noting the difference in overall picture quality is to comment on the price difference that so many commenters here seem to be caught up on. It seems that some are saying that, for a slight difference in bokeh effect, the price difference is not worth it. As a photographer, I am accustomed to paying much more for that slightly better image, because all of those subtle differences add up to a much superior image at the end of the day and beat out my competitors that aren't willing to pay the difference (or simply can't see the difference). Helping to justify the additional cost of the iPhone are all of the other features of the camera that make it superior as well, not to mention the other features of the phone that are of premium quality. Are there phones that can match or surpass the iPhone on one or two features? Sure. But remember that, in pretty much all categories of smartphone comparisons, the iPhone is part of the conversation, something that can only be said about very few smartphones. And for those that are part of every comparison conversation, you are probably paying a premium for it, as in the case of the iPhone. Just my two cents. Sent from the iMore App
  • I love bokeh, but I'm not happy with the $1000 price tag of the iPhone 7 plus. However there's an app called Portrait Blur which acheives the same effect for OLDER iPhones with just one camera. It's FREE and really cool IMHO. Just search for Portrait Blur in the App store.