iPhone 7 Plus vs DSLR photo shootout - can you do a fashion shoot with an iPhone?

We pushed the iPhone 7 Plus' new Portrait mode – which comes with the just released iOS 10.1 – to the limit and compared the results to a DSLR. The results surprised even our photographer.

We shot indoors in low lighting as well as full light, then took the show on the road for outdoor shots in a couple of locations near our San Francisco office. Our model, Alina Lee, did a wonderful job, and Adam came away more than a little impressed with what Portrait mode could do.

Now, we must note here we tested the Portrait mode while it was still in beta, so this is just an experiment for us. We wanted to see how Portrait mode (this first version of it, anyway) would react to different lighting conditions, and how its method of keeping your subject in focus while blurring the background would compare to a full-frame DSLR.

Let's start by comparing Portrait mode (on the right) to standard iPhone photo capture (on the left).

We started in low light, indoors. This is barely enough light to trigger the depth effect—you’ll see a yellow “Depth Effect” label appear on the screen when you’re at the right distance and lighting level to make it work.

In this shot, we’re pushing the distance a little bit too - typically, Adam says, a portrait would be a little tighter on her face. Since Portrait mode uses the 6.6m 'telephoto' lens on the iPhone 7 Plus, which has a f/2.8 aperture and no optical image stabilization, you can see some noise, but all in all this isn’t too bad for an indoor photo.

Another low-light, indoor shot. In the depth effect shot on the right, you can see how some of the fine pieces of hair around her head get completely blurred out, but the blur effect also smooths out some of the noise on her arms.

Again, we’re pushing what Portrait mode is intended to do - this isn’t enough light for the best result, but it still looks interesting. And since the mode defaults to keeping both the original and blurred versions of each photo, you really don’t have much to lose by experimenting.

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For our next set of photos, we stayed indoors but cranked up the lighting. In this shot, Adam was once again experimenting with how far he could get from Alina and still get the depth effect. It seems like we got the best results inside of 8 feet, but it was possible to push it up to 12 feet and still get it to work. The blurring is pretty minimal in this image because she’s relatively close to the background.

Once we got close up, we started to see how Portrait mode works to isolate Alina’s face. In this image, you can see how her entire face is kept perfectly in focus, like it would be if you masked it in Photoshop, while her hair (seen on the left side of the photo) is immediately very blurred even right next to the face.

Taking this same shot with a DSLR, we wouldn’t expect her entire face to be in the same plane of focus. Her left eye, for example, and her nose are angled closer to the camera lens than her right eye, but the iPhone 7 Plus keeps them in the same focus. The strap on her dress is even closer to the camera lens, but it’s blurred because the camera didn’t isolate it to stay sharp along with her face. It’s an interesting effect, just not what we would expect from a full-frame DSLR

Then we went outside, where we found an alley illuminated with beautiful afternoon light reflecting off the windows of the building behind us, almost like we’d planned it that way.

In this shot, you can see Portrait mode having some problems with the very outer edges of Alina’s hair. (Sometimes you can control for that, if it’s less windy or you load up on hair products, but for this experiment, the flyaways are our friends.) It does OK with the larger pieces, and it’s understandable that it couldn’t isolate every strand.

The depth effect also blurs the texture of her shirt a little, and it’s slightly odd how the background is equally blurred right behind her as it is all the way back. With a DSLR, the amount of blur would increase as you approach the horizon. Adam says that a talented Photoshop user could reproduce this blur effect with software, but it’s pretty remarkable that the iPhone 7 Plus camera can do it for you, in real time as you’re taking the photo.

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During the shoot, we started seeing a lens flare leaking in, but that actually lets us point out the way Portrait mode isolates just a person’s face and blurs everything else. In this image, the flare appears in the foreground, but since it doesn’t cross her face, Portrait mode still applies the blur effect.

In this shot, Adam managed to catch the flare across Alina’s face. On the right, you can really see how Portrait mode masks her face. The flare actually widens on the top of her head, then snaps back to its original shape as it crosses her face.

The blur on her shirt is pretty noticeable in this pair too. Since it’s just a texture, it’s not a big deal here, but another time when I used Portrait mode to photograph my husband wearing a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt, it was a little odd to see the type in the logo become harder to read.

In this shot, Adam included a couple of distracting elements in the background - the speed limit sign in the alley along with a couple of guys drinking beer or something. Portrait mode did a great job keeping the focus on Alina. We like how the brick wall on the photo’s right side doesn’t blur out too much, and her hair looks great. But we did lose a little bit of sharpness in her clothes - check out the bit of zipper and the two snaps you can see on her jacket, for example

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Mostly we think of portraits being taken in portrait orientation, but it’s worth mentioning that iOS 10.1’s Portrait mode works in landscape orientation too. This is one of our favorite shots from the day.

While iOS 10 does support capturing and exporting RAW images, Apple’s own Camera app sticks with JPEGs as a rule. In fact, Adam noticed that the Portrait versions are about half the file size as the untouched photos, so the Camera app is already making all the decisions about what data to keep and what to discard.

So it’s unlikely that we’ll see RAW support added to the Portrait mode anytime soon, but it sure would make Adam happy. He exported the Portrait photo and edited the JPEG to get the result above, but naturally, a JPEG is already compressed and doesn’t offer the editing flexibility that a RAW file would.

Sometimes, we found we liked the sharp image better than the depth effect version. This shot in front of the Bay Bridge is one of those times, but maybe we just don’t have the heart to blur out such a notable landmark.

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Adam did some edits on the Portrait version of the bridge photo (here on the left), to attempt to bring some sharpness back to Alina’s sweater and the stitching on her jeans (results on the right).

For a few images, Adam put an edited Portrait photo taken with the iPhone 7 Plus next to a photo taken with his Sony a7R II. Can you guess which is which?

This pairing, showing the edited Portrait mode photo on the left, and a similar shot taken with the Sony a7R on the right, impressed everyone we showed it to. In fact, even a fellow camera geek on our video team was fooled, identifying the iPhone 7 Plus shot as being taken by a DSLR. If you know to look at the fine flyaways around her head, you might get it right. But otherwise, these are delightfully close.

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This is that same Portrait mode shot, against the same shot without the iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait mode.

In conclusion then, the iPhone 7 Plus is capable of taking some amazing professional-level shots - but for the best results under a wide range of lighting conditions, you'll need a DSLR.