Sorry, iPhone 7 Plus Does Not Have a Telephoto Lens

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I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Apple user. I've been using an iPhone since the first version was released, and as a photographer I love OS X (although now I'll have to get used to calling it macOS). While I never embraced the Aperture workflow, I feel right at home editing my images using the Mac versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

But after years of using Apple products, and more importantly watching Steve Jobs and Tim Cook deliver perfectly staged presentations that make the latest Apple gadget seem like something I absolutely, positively must own, it's time to exit the reality distortion field and look at this week's announcements from a more measured perspective. As the resident camera guy at PCMag, it falls upon me to evaluate those on the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Brighter, Stabilized
The iPhone 7 has a single rear camera with a moderate wide-angle field of view—about equivalent to a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera. That's standard for a modern, premium smartphone. Some are a little bit wider—a lot of Android phones tout 24mm or 25mm lenses, which are a bit more versatile for capturing images in tight spaces. Landscape photographers often crave these wider angles, but since you can simply sweep your phone in a line in order to capture a panoramic shot, that minor difference is moot.

The camera has a new lens, which is an f1/.8 design. The iPhone 6s has an f/2.2 lens. If you're not a shutterbug, that means that the iPhone 7 camera captures about 50 percent more light. That's a plus for shooting in dim conditions, as it helps to keep the ISO down at a reasonable level. Cameras with very small image sensors struggle when you push the ISO to 800 and beyond.

The 7 now has optical image stabilization, a feature that used to be reserved for the larger Plus series. That's also a boon for shooting in dim light. You can get images with little blur from the natural shakiness of your hand. It won't do you any good for candid shots, because stabilization won't keep your subject still. But for posed shots it'll help.

A brighter lens and image stabilization are welcome additions. But don't expect them to work miracles. Modern smartphones compare well with low-end and midrange compact cameras with 1/2.3-inch CMOS image sensors. You'll get a stop or two more useable ISO from the pocket camera, but it's probably going to have an f/3.3 lens at the wide angle, which negates that advantage. The real reason to carry a point-and-shoot is for optical zoom.

If that's what you crave, our favorite affordable superzoom is the Panasonic ZS50, which costs just a bit more than an Apple Watch Series 2 and has Wi-Fi to transfer images to the iPhone. And, in a world where high megapixel counts nab headlines, the ZS50 touts a modest 12MP sensor.

That's the same resolution of the iPhone 7 sensor. And it is absolutely sufficient for a smartphone. Android and (especially) Windows Phone owners love to tout high megapixel superiority. But a 4:3 format 12MB chip provides enough resolution to capture 16:9 4K video simply by cropping the frame down to the wider ratio, and it's plenty of pixels for sharing images online. You can talk about cropping all you want, but the tiny lenses on any smartphone limit your ability to do that more than the sensor resolution. Leave the high pixel counts to cameras with image sensors that are closer in size to an iPhone's screen, like the 100MP Phase One XF 100MP that we reviewed recently.

Telephoto? No.
The iPhone 7 Plus has the same camera as the iPhone 7. And it's got another rear camera. Apple kept referring to it as a telephoto camera. But it's not. Its field of view is roughly half that of the standard camera, delivering a full-frame equivalent of 56mm. If you're old enough to have shot with a manual focus 35mm SLR, there's a very good chance that your first lens was a 50mm or 55mm prime. Both fall into the standard-angle category. Apple can call the lens telephoto all it wants, but it ain't.

That's not to say it's useless. I'm just cranky about the naming choice. The 7 Plus isn't the first phone we've seen with two lenses. The Huawei Honor 8 has two—one color and one monochrome—but they both cover the same angle of view. (It has a few more tricks up its sleeve than simply shooting in black and white—it isn't likely that Huawei will run laughing to the bank by courting Tri-X diehards.) Other Android handsets to sport dual lenses include the ZTE Grand X Max 2, the LG G5, and LG V20. The ZTE's second lens is a low-res sensor that promises to deliver shallow depth of field, and both LG models feature ultra-wide (think GoPro-wide) secondary lenses.

That makes the 7 Plus's approach unique among phones, at least until someone decides to copy it. Oddly enough, it's not a new idea. Old 8mm and 16mm movie cameras often had three-lens turrets that let you quickly change between focal lengths. And the idea was tried in a digital camera at least once—a decade ago Kodak released the EasyShare V570, which sported a dedicated 23mm wide-angle prime and a 39-117mm zoom.

The 7 Plus's dual-lens configuration doesn't cover as much of a focal range as that old Kodak. Apple says the phone has a 2x optical zoom. Well, that's about as true as it having a telephoto lens. It has a wide-angle setting and a standard-angle setting. Neither lens is a zoom. You can choose between the 1x (28mm) setting and the 2x (56mm) setting, but you can't set it in between without resorting to digital zoom. And, for the most part, digital zoom is fairly useless. It's no different than cropping a shot in the Photos app. You just won't have to crop as much when using the 56mm lens.

One spec that Apple didn't tout was the f-stop of the 56mm lens. It has a fixed f/2.8 aperture, capturing less than half the light as its wide-angle partner. So, stick to shooting wide in dim light. At this point in time, I am not clear on whether or not the 56mm lens is stabilized.

Bokeh? Sort of.
In addition to getting you closer to your subject, the 7 Plus's big trick is shallow depth of field photography. It shifts the focus of one of the lenses to capture a blur, and uses facial recognition and techniques to capture a photo with a blurred background.

Apple showed a few shots during the announcement event using this technique. It's early, and I haven't touched an iPhone 7 Plus, but I'm a bit skeptical on how effective this is going to be in the real world. Apple is able to cherry pick the best-of-the-best examples, and even the image that it's showing on its retail site (above) to show off the tech doesn't quite look right to my eye. Large apertures and image sensors are typically required to blur backgrounds—the Panasonic CM1 is the only phone that I can think of able to pull off the look without software tricks thanks to its (comparatively) massive 1-inch image sensor, and the effect is only visible in macro shots.

The look of "good" bokeh—what photographers call that out-of-focus blur—is very subjective. But whether your like your backgrounds to be smooth and buttery, like you get with modern glass, or if you're more of a fan of the busier look delivered by vintage optics, one of the big keys is a gradual transition between crisp focus and blur. I'm seeing more of a sudden change in focus with the sample images that Apple showed during the presentation, which is jarring. But I'll reserve final judgement until I get to try out the feature myself.

Other Stuff
But wait! There's more! The flash is more powerful now. LED flashes aren't that strong to begin with, and I don't expect the improvement to be as drastic as Apple makes it out to be. But we'll see. I can think of some technical trips to improve flash photography on 7 Plus—if the phone is able to use a flash to illuminate a subject using the 56mm lens and merge it with a long exposure snapped with the 28mm lens, to eliminate the bright subject/dark background look that you often get with smartphone flashes, that would be something. But it's not something that was touched on during the announcement.

Finally, Phil Schiller hit wide color gamut capabilities pretty hard. This isn't a hardware feature, however. To date, iPhones have saved JPG images using the common sRGB color space, which any photographer will tell you is limited. iOS 10 is adding a new colorspace that can capture and display more colors than sRGB can manage. The new display used by the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus can display these extra colors as well. We'll have to do some side-by-side tests with scenes that really challenge the sRGB space—sunsets, flowers, and very bright textiles are trouble points for sRGB—in order to see just how much of a difference this makes. iOS 10 is also adding Raw support, which is what photographers who really want to control color output will want to use.

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