The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are here, and if you believe Apple's claims, they pack the best smartphone cameras on the market.
Both phones have a newly designed 28mm wide-angle lens with a 6-element design and fixed f/1.8 aperture. The iPhone 7 Plus adds what Apple is calling a telephoto lens, but it's actually a standard-angle 56mm optic with a fixed f/2.8 aperture.
We just got the phones in for testing, and I was able to run some quick benchmarks to see how the new cameras compare to those of its predecessor, the iPhone 6s, and Samsung's flagship handset, the Galaxy S7.
For the purposes of this comparison, I tested the iPhone 7 Plus. If you're interested in an iPhone 7, understand that its main 28mm camera is identical to the 28mm lens on the 7 Plus. You just won't get the secondary 56mm camera.
The playing field is level in sensor resolution. Both rear cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus are backed by 12MP chips, as are the 6s and S7. But sensor sizes vary. Samsung has the largest sensor, a 1/2.3-inch form factor that matches the type you'll find in point-and-shoot cameras like the Panasonic ZS50. Additionally, the S7 lens is slightly wider than the main lens on the iPhone 6s and 7 series—it covers a 24mm field of view rather than a 28mm.
The iPhone 6s and 7 Plus's main camera is married to a smaller 1/3-inch image sensor, and the 56mm lens on the 7 Plus is backed by the smallest imager of the bunch, a 1/3.6-inch chip. It's also the only lens of the bunch that is not optically stabilized.
Since the sensor resolution is identical, the actual sharpness of images is determined by the quality of the lens and the image-processing techniques employed by the phones. The iPhone 7 series and 6s series support Raw image capture with iOS 10 loaded, but you'll need to use a third-party camera app to enable that feature. We performed all of the tests using the default camera app, which is limited to JPG capture for Samsung and Apple devices.
I used Imatest and our backlit high-resolution SFRPlus test chart to check the sharpness of each lens. It's a new chart that I can set to be brighter than the one we used for previous comparisons, so I was able to test all of the phones at their lowest ISO.
The iPhone 6s is the weakest performer in terms of sharpness. It resolves 2,055 lines per picture height, with even performance across the frame. That's a solid result for a 12MP sensor. But not quite as good as the iPhone 7 Plus's 28mm camera (2,454 lines) or the Galaxy S7 (2,717 lines). The 7 Plus's 56mm camera lags behind, notching 2,154 lines.
The S7 resolves the most detail, with the 7 Plus's main camera lagging just behind. And because all of the phones use 12MP 4:3 sensors, they can record 16:9 4K video.
If you're shooting outdoors during the day, the camera is going to default to its lowest ISO. For the iPhones that's ISO 20, and for the Galaxy it's ISO 50. As you can see from the pixel-level crops below (taken from our ISO test scene), each phone is at its best here. Images from the Samsung don't show as much color saturation or contrast as the iPhone, but it's easy enough to add a little bit of contrast using any phone image-editing app if you prefer photos to have a punchy look.
Normally I'd test each camera at full-stop ISOs from base all the way to the top for exact side-by-side comparisons. There's a problem with this when dealing with an iPhone: The iOS camera app does not support manual ISO control. I'm able to adjust the power of our studio lights in order to force the iPhones to use higher ISO settings.
For the ISO 100 test, that means the 7 Plus's main camera is shooting at a slightly higher setting, ISO 125, and the 56mm camera has dropped to ISO 64. Differences in real-world shutter speeds are modest when at these settings, especially between the main cameras. The Samsung shows the most detail here, with more smudging apparent in the iPhone 7 Plus 28mm camera. The 56mm camera lies somewhere in between. You're still looking at pretty good performance (for a phone camera) across the board here.
I was able to get everything a bit closer for the ISO 200 test, with only the 7 Plus's main camera not cooperating and dropping to ISO 160—a fairly negligible difference in terms of exposure metering. The three iPhone cameras are about equal in quality here, with the Galaxy S7 delivering crisper results.
The 7 Plus's 56mm camera is sitting out the ISO 400 test, and the iPhone 6s landed at ISO 500. The results from both iPhones are very similar, with 7 Plus showing a little more detail, just about matching the Galaxy S7. At ISO 400, you're looking at a tie between Apple's and Samsung's latest models.
The Galaxy S7 can be manually set to shoot at ISO 800. But even with our studio lights set to their dimmest setting, the highest ISO I could get out of the 7 Plus is ISO 500 for the main camera and ISO 640 for the 56mm camera. So they both show some detail than the S7 does at ISO 800. I'd prefer to see the S7 apply a bit less noise reduction here, but none of the phones do a great job when pushing the sensitivity this far.
One last image reveals a dirty little trick performed by the iPhone 7 Plus. In very dim light, you may think that's you're shooting with the 56mm camera if you've enabled the 2x setting. But in my lab tests with the studio lights set to their lowest setting, that shot indicated that the 28mm camera was used. In that specific situation the 7 Plus switches to the wide-angle camera, and utilizes digital zoom and upscaling to maintain the 12MP resolution, but at great harm to image quality. The image below is an example of that effect, shot at ISO 640.
When comparing the main cameras on the iPhone 6s, iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and Samsung Galaxy S7, the S7 wins out in our lab tests. Its larger sensor size gives it an edge as the ISO is pushed higher, and it scores the highest on our sharpness test. The iPhone 7 (and 7 Plus) come in a close second, with the older 6s trailing the pack.
But, you can't discount the flexibility of dual camera modules, which is a feature that Samsung doesn't offer in its Galaxy line. The iPhone 7 Plus gives you the option of shooting at 56mm, and while you won't be able to benefit from the second lens in very dim lighting, it's a boon for use in daylight, especially for shots where a wide-angle lens is just too wide.
It's early in the game. The 7 Plus's two-camera system is a work in progress. Apple is still working on the software required to capture images with a shallow depth of field using the dual cameras, and it will be interesting to see what other applications Apple and third parties cook up in the future.