iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode Impressions

How does the iPhone 7 Plus handle a natural light fashion shoot? I tested it.

My “day job” of being a full-time student has kept me incredibly busy in the few weeks since my iPhone 7 Plus arrived in the mail. I finally had an opening to get out and shoot, and set up a session with the insanely beautiful and talented Hanah Chang, first-timer and fellow Cal Bear.

Here are my current thoughts-
With the iPhone 7 Plus, the complete experience allows practicality to win. The 6s Plus changed the way I approach a shoot. Having a powerful pocket-device led me to ditch $1000s in gear. I cleaned my SLR setup down to one body and two lenses because I knew I could place my trust in the iPhone as necessary. On important trips, the camera bag would always come, though. The iPhone was the light-weight, practical solution, which would provide me with images I could toss in VSCO and feel satisfied with, but the need for the SLR to lead was typically present.

The iPhone 7 Plus looks to be changing that for me. The ability to capture raw images with the iPhone 7’s image processor is leaping me forward in cutting ties with my pro gear security blanket. No, the iPhone isn’t a competitor for a fast 50 or 35mm lens- it doesn’t replace Canon L glass. What the iPhone 7 Plus offers instead is a complete experience that begs to be matched in itself. It produces images that my creative vision craves that cannot be replicated with another device.

The iPhone 6s Plus as a photography tool occupied about 40% of my shooting time. The iPhone 7 Plus is on track to consume 80%. As I reminisce about the first photo I took with the original iPhone back in 2007, that concept is mind-blowing.

My second thought is my reminder that First-timers can steal the show. I always have this internal struggle with when I work with models. Do I take the seasoned vet who will nail everything and have me running to keep up? This is a sure thing. Or do I take a risk on the new talent? New talent could lead to an incredible discovery if I correctly read their aesthetic potential, but I also face the possibility of spending my rare free moments on a session that produces unusable content. Working with Hanah reminded me that the discoveries of raw talent are worth any risk.

The ability to capture raw images with the iPhone 7’s image processor is allowing me to leap forward in cutting ties with my pro gear security blanket.

So, how about the experience itself of using the iPhone 7 Plus?

The first thing to note is that if you plan on shooting raw, you’re going to have to find an app that allows for raw recording. If you’re like me and typically use the native Camera app, you’ll have to relearn the controls of a third party app, which can be a little more challenging than it sounds. It’s best to play around with an app before taking it into the field.

After you get the hang of the app, it there’s a bit of a learning curve to handle the metering points. When using CameraPro, I found that autoexposure didn’t always expose as desired (though it handled lighting much better than the native camera app). With a bright background, my subject was usually much too dark unless the metering point was set to darker point on the image. When photographing a model, facial metering is my go-to. I found that I would have to separate exposure and focal points, as autoexposure on a face would set the subject too dark. This is, however, something to be expected in general when shooting backlit subjects with automatic exposure settings. In non-backlit situations, ProCamera handled the lighting extremely well. Given the intuitive controls, ease of use, and superb raw files, I’ll be sticking with ProCamera.

Portrait mode is a really interesting feature. It does actually work. It reminds me of working with a 50mm F/1.8. But there are a few important things to note- first, portrait mode only works really well in the native Camera app, which means no raw images (let’s hope this changes in the future). Second, the feature requires lots of light- it’s not useful indoors where you can usually employ an F1/.8. Third, it requires somewhat precision distance from your subject, which makes framing different from how one would use a fast 30-35mm. The subject is required to be within 8 feet, which often creates really tight portraits. When I use the feature, I have to make sure I’m paying extra close attention to the negative space around my subject to ensure visual context is maintained. While I used the portrait mode minimally (since I chose to shoot in RAW), I was still very impressed by the feature and look forward to how it operates in the public release.

Lighting is much less of a worry with the faster lens and greater control in using a third party app. I was originally pretty nervous shooting in lowlight with the native Camera app because the jpegs are given a healthy dose of noise reduction. Shooting in RAW was eased the nerves, as it eliminates the in-camera noise reduction, leaving the grain as-is. The noise reduction feature is perfect for a typical user, but doesn’t work well in an application such as this. Being able to shoot in lower light in RAW easily extended my shoot by 30 minutes.
Lens switching was another really interesting feature. Having the ability to quickly switch lenses is killer. Having that ability and seeing the difference the switch makes in perspective is even better. The tight lens creates crisp images, and flattens things out just as expected. I didn’t give this feature enough of a workout this time around, but it will definitely be my area of focus during the next shoot.

Takeaways: Using an iPhone 7 Plus in a fashion shoot is the “complete experience” that I never expected from a camera phone. Given that it comes with an advanced feature set, shooting in this setting isn’t a quick snap and go like before. There’s a much greater level of control in every shot, giving extra weight to micro adjustments, just like I’m used to with an SLR. Image quality is as great as I expected after seeing the results from the 6s plus. It’s a practical, useful, and impressive as a standalone photography tool. No, the iPhone 7 Plus isn’t going to replace your SLR, but your SLR isn’t going to replace your iPhone.
Image formats available, to my understanding, are .dng and .tiff. Deciding which to use appears to come down to a personal preference and your needs in the file. I found the .dng to capture more data to handle LR adjustments just slightly better than .tiff.
All photos were taken from approximately 5:00pm – 7:00pm, which exercised a bit of the iPhone’s low-light skill.