Apple iPhone 7 Plus' optical zoom vs iPhone 7's digital zoom: here's why optical is usually superior


Being the first dual-camera warrior in Apple's portfolio, the iPhone 7 Plus is undoubtedly an intriguing beast that introduced Apple's new dual-camera setup. One of the cameras is a 'regular' wide-angle one, whereas the other is a telephoto one. Unlike other smartphones that use their dual cameras to capture depth information and blur the background or capture monochrome image info for better clarity, the iPhone 7 Plus uses its second 12MP camera to deliver lossless, up to 2x optical zoom. However, the telephoto camera does not let in as much light as the regular one - they have f/2.8 and f/1.8 apertures, respectively.

Okay, it is already clear that at least on paper the telephoto camera of the iPhone 7 Plus should perform better than the regular iSight camera, but is this necessarily the case in real life? Well, to say that we are curious would be a major understatement -- actually, we were quite intrigued to find out which camera snaps better photos when zooming is involved, though we somehow knew the answer beforehand. One thing led to another and we came up a nifty comparison that will show just that.

So, what did we do? Long story short, we took an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 7 Plus out on a stroll and shot some pics. We zoomed in on all scenes -- on the iPhone 7, we utilized 2x digital zoom, while the iPhone 7 Plus snapped pictures at 2x optical zoom. This will let us compare just how good the latter is in comparison with the regular iSight camera in terms of retaining details and general image quality in a surplus of lighting scenarios. 

Right below, you will be able to see samples from both devices shot at either 2x digital or optical zoom, with 100% area crops to help you easily discern which camera performed better in each scene. Okay, buckle up, it's comparison time.

Scene 1: A humble house

In our first scenario, we decided to pit the iPhone 7 versus the iPhone 7 Plus in a rather favorable lighting scenario, which was starring a rather charming local house. Although both photos seem pretty similar, zooming in clearly shows that the iPhone 7 Plus has done a much better job at retaining the general detail of the house's wooden wall as well as in the foliage to the left of the house. 

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Scene 2: The local waterway

Moving along, we happened to stumble upon a river and a family of jolly geese. Phones out, ready, set, go... and the iPhone 7 Plus once again proves the superiority of optical zoom. Zooming in on the foliage at the right bank of this serene watercourse clearly shows that the iPhone 7 simply can't match the level of detail the iPhone 7 Plus delivers with its telephoto lens. With the latter, bushes and leaves don't appear like smudges of oil paint on canvas but are better-defined and generally look way better.

Scene 3: Chilling on the patio

There's nothing better than having a short break after a long stroll. However, before we succumb to 'smartphoning' and chill, we simply couldn't resist snapping a picture of our patio seating. Again, upon a closer inspection it became clear that the optical zoom of the iPhone 7 Plus simply can't be beaten -- zooming in on the iPhone 7 picture reveals that something blurry and quite washed-out has happened to the leaves and the grass details. Not good. In the meantime, the iPhone 7 Plus delivers a way clearer and sharper image.

Scene 4: A suburban home

This house simply oozes coziness - we wouldn't mind living in that one, not at all! Inspired by the architecture, we quickly snapped two pictures for further reference. Lo and behold, the iPhone 7 Plus has once again done a way better job at capturing details and treating us to a sharper image overall. Check out just how much more detail you can discern on the Halloween decorations on the porch, on the flower stack, and finally, on the foliage in the background.

Scene 5: A victorian tower

The sun had already begun its descent towards the horizon when we stumbled upon this neat piece of architecture. This time, however, the lead of the iPhone 7 Plus is not that much pronounced. Yes, there are more details, but the iPhone 7 does not lag behind either.

Scene 6: The bakery at night

The sun had already set when we decided to pay a visit to the local bakery. With the less favoring lighting in this exact scenario, the iPhone 7 Plus defaulted to its regular f/1.8 camera, which let more light to hit the camera sensor. Had it used the f/2.8 telephoto lens, the photo would have turned out way under-exposed and unusable. It seems that in such low-light scenarios you wouldn't be able to benefit from the optical zoom -- both devices would use the wider regular lens. Hence, the pics from the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus came out almost identical to one another, which clearly visible in the 100% crops down below.

Scene 7: At the library

What's a better way to fall asleep than trying to read a heavy old book? We hit the library afterward, where the artificial lighting gave us another excuse to take photos with the two iPhones. We were kind of expecting that, but in this scenario the iPhone 7 Plus once again decided to shoot with the wider iSight camera -- the light was just too insufficient for the telephoto camera to do its optical magic.


Unsurprisingly, optical zoom beats its digital alternative almost always. Using the largest and most advanced iPhone at the moment delivers more details, sharper images, and generally better-looking pictures when zooming is required. In the few scenarios where the iPhone 7 Plus couldn't use its telephoto camera, it performed pretty much on par with the iPhone 7, which was expected and does not surprise us at all.

Moral of the story? The dual camera of the iPhone 7 Plus is not a gimmicky addition to Apple's latest larger phone, it's much more than that - a well-thought and useful system that can improve your smartphone photography by a wide margin. We can't wait to see how Apple will improve this dual-camera system in the future, because we are more than certain iPhones with lossless optical zoom capabilities are here to stay. 

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