On the 7th September Apple unveiled the latest iteration of the their mobile phones, iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Amongst the usual speed boosts of a new processor, GPU and then the lack of headphone jack; one thing that interested myself and many in the photography world was the improvements in the iPhone 7's camera over previous generations.
The standard camera on both versions of the phone had been given a larger fixed aperture on the standard lens, now up to f1.8 (from f2.2 on the iPhone 6S), which would improve the low light capability of the camera, albeit marginally. In terms of the larger 'Plus' size phones, which have typically had camera advantages over the smaller iPhones, such as the optical stabilisation that was introduced with the iPhone 6. But with the iPhone 7 Plus there was the introduction of two lenses: one the standard 28mm, and the other, a longer 56mm (with an aperture of f2.8). This is arguably one of the biggest advances in mobile phone cameras since their inception, making your average point-and-shoot even less likely to be brought with you. Albeit the optical zoom is only 2x (with up to 10x digitally, which still looks as awful as ever), it gives many advantages and gives you more options than you may assume at first.
The dual-lens also introduced a feature called 'Portrait Mode' which uses both lenses to create a 'light map' of sorts to detect what subject you are shooting, and to blur the background around them; essentially emulating a longer lens and a wider aperture; this is still currently in beta and will improve in time. Currently Portrait Mode is ok, and works most of the time, it can have trouble but with the right subject in the right light and a bit of colour tweaking the results can look fantastic, especially some material floating around the Filmborn Facebook group.
The biggest change in terms of software, came with the introduction of RAW capability, which would allow third party apps (Lightroom Mobile, ProCam etc) to record a DNG file straight from the sensor without the phone compressing it into a JPEG; losing most of the information available.
The RAW image capture is available on the iPhone 6S too, as it also has a 12mpx sensor. The DNG isn't particularly simple to shoot with or copy off the phone, and feels sort of left to one side for others, outside of Apple, to work out. Essentially you need to shoot in a third party app, such as Lightroom or ProCam, then copy the file to a computer either using Apple's 'Photos' application or Image Capture; I'm unsure quite how to do this on a PC, but I imagine it's largely the same with a different application.
As a note, the Image Capture app shows the metadata wrongly such as frame size appearing much smaller than the full 12mpx; which is odd as Image Capture is an Apple product reading data from an Apple phone.
You can edit the DNGs on the phone using apps like Snapseed, where you are initially shown a 'RAW Develop' mode before you access the usual edit tools. For anyone truly trying to push the capabilities of the phone, they will likely want to come out the phone to a full desktop application, such as Lightroom or Capture One. Other iOS photo apps can access the DNG files as long as it has been modified for it, and currently I haven't had any issues: Instagram, VSCO and Filmborn all work.
I got my 7 Plus in late September and have been trying to push the camera where possible to see what it can do now. The first time I took the 7 Plus out to shoot RAW I used ProCam, as it has a full range of features, enabled shooting with both lenses and was fully manual; but I treated it like a DSLR. I didn't shoot lower than ISO100, as that to me is the bottom line and anything lower is digitally altered, but I was shocked to find the images horrendously noisy even in broad daylight at ISO100; this isn't all that obvious on a 5.5" screen at the time but very obvious on any laptop and especially the 27" iMac. I had shot other images at higher values and found them to be painfully noisy, with a very unappealing noise pattern which was colourful and blatantly digital. I also then tried out each capture setting in ProCam (HDR, TIFF, RAW and JPG) to see how each compression type faired at high ISO and I found the JPEG and HDR settings were the cleanest, and the DNG file to be the noisiest by quite a margin. After this test I looked into how others were fairing with the 7 Plus and I found the 'Real World Review' by Jared Polin of Fro Knows Photo and he had shot everything at ISO20, which is a very odd ISO to shoot when comparing to a DSLR, but it's the lowest the phone goes to and is much much cleaner; effectively it's the 7 Plus's Native ISO.
In terms of using the 7 Plus for shooting photos generally, there are definite improvements over the iPhone 6 I used to use. I haven't noticed that much in terms of low light improvements, but the choice of the two lenses is a huge advantage and personally I use the 2x lens more often than the 1x lens, I prefer it for shooting basically anything: people, objects, computer monitors, even the odd landscape can look better on a longer lens, you can at times get details out of an area more than with a super-wide angle. But this is my preference, the 1x isn't replaceable with the 2x, as I believe it would restrict your average user drastically, I just personally prefer a longer lens look. The 2x lens also gives you options when in bright sunshine, as both lenses have fixed apertures the only options you have to change your exposure is through the ISO and the shutter speed, and if you want to change your shutter speed to a lower figure for style, then the f1.8 can be too bright, dropping a stop in light to f2.8 can be a huge difference; allowing a change from 1/100th to 1/50th.
As for video improvement, I can't comment much, I barely used the iPhone 6 for video, and will likely barely use the 7 Plus for video, the boost to 4k for standard video is nice but I don't feel necessary, and the rise in slow-mo becoming 1080p for the 120fps is a nice addition but I felt this should have been the norm anyway; if you can push 240fps at 720p then 120fps at 1080p is the same data rate (half the frames but double the frame size) and should have been like this when the 240fps was introduced in the iPhone 6. For what I have used in terms of video, the quality is reasonable and sort of what you expect, but the audio has been good considering the wind I recorded some vlog style footage in, I was surprised how audible I was. In all fairness though anyone using the video app is likely not going to be worried about quality too much, and for anyone using their iPhone for filming, should be using Filmic Pro anyway to boost their data and quality far beyond what the standard app can do.
Overall if you do use a previous generation iPhone or another type of smartphone and are looking to change up or across, then i'd say the iPhone 7 Plus is a great addition; but only if you are looking at the camera primarily as your reason. If you are however using an iPhone 6S, or even an iPhone 6, and not sure if you want to move up and use the camera marginally, then I think you'll see little benefit. Quite often I find the noise is shockingly visible even at ISO20 which worries me a little, and shows just how different a tiny sensor in a phone is, in comparison to the 35mm sensors you find in fully fledged DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras. One thing the noise does prove to me is quite how good the HDR and JPG modes are in the iPhone and how good the algorithm must be to create such good images out of the RAW data, even in Lightroom you can't remove the amount of blue noise dancing around in the images that the regular JPGs don't show. If you do find yourself with a noisy DNG and want to salvage it, sometimes converting it to black and white is the way to do it, at least then the noise is less visible.
The above image grid is a mix of images taken with the iPhone 7 Plus, utilising both lenses and shot with the app 'ProCam'. They were then edited in Adobe Lightroom and above is each image before and after editing - no noise reduction has been applied.