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. 



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.


Conclusion


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. 


Related phones

iPhone 7
  • Display 4.7" 750 x 1334 pixels
  • Camera 12 MP / 7 MP front
  • Processor Apple A10 Fusion, Quad-core, 2340 MHz
  • Storage 256 GB
  • Battery 1960 mAh(14h 3G talk time)
iPhone 7 Plus
  • Display 5.5" 1080 x 1920 pixels
  • Camera 12 MP / 7 MP front
  • Processor Apple A10 Fusion, Quad-core, 2340 MHz
  • Storage 256 GB
  • Battery 2900 mAh(21h 3G talk time)

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19 Comments

1. Modest_Moze

Posts: 184; Member since: Mar 23, 2015

7 plus is better, but who uses ZOOM these days anyway?

5. Nathan_ingx

Posts: 4769; Member since: Mar 07, 2012

If there's optical zoom on my phone i will definitely use it.

8. combatmedic870

Posts: 986; Member since: Sep 02, 2015

It's not optical zoom!!! It's 2 different cameras!

34. JC557

Posts: 1925; Member since: Dec 07, 2011

I actually used the optical zoom on my old Samsung SCH-A970 and the photos were quite acceptable for such old tech.

35. DigitalBoy05

Posts: 279; Member since: Jun 04, 2011

I do haha. My 7 plus came in handy at a concert where I couldn't get very close to the stage. Having that little extra boost in zooming made my pictures decent enough to post instead of getting deleted.

2. Carl3000

Posts: 240; Member since: Oct 11, 2014

But what's better between the Pixel, S7, and I7+?

24. Bankz

Posts: 2550; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

Its pretty much clear that the pixel is probably the best smartphone camera of all time by now. As for your question, the pixel is better than the ip and gs7 and by some distance even and that's saying something tbh

3. Lenny86

Posts: 301; Member since: Sep 20, 2012

Take 2-3 photos and the battery dies. An awesome phone but the battery kills it! Go for the pixel!

31. AlikMalix unregistered

Wow, you're able to take 2-3 photos with yours? You're probably using a power bank. At 100% I can open my camera app - but the phone uses up the battery so quick that it dies before I can take a photo. /s

4. Carbo

Posts: 42; Member since: Aug 07, 2015

Another problem is that the software is choosing digital zoom x2 most of the time when shooting with the iPhone 7 Plus. The optical X2 works on very rare occasion...

6. donrox

Posts: 203; Member since: Jul 18, 2014

I don't understand why people refer to the iPhone 7 plus as having optical zoom. I does not have optical zoom. it has 2 lenses each with a different focal length. You cannot optically zoom in/out. You can only switch between these 2 focal lengths. SMH

7. Macready

Posts: 1830; Member since: Dec 08, 2014

The difference in light gathering capabilities between the 2 modules doesn't just come from the difference in indicated F stops (1 and a third stop), because the difference in physical apertures is more than a factor 2.5 (which translates to ~1.3 EV). Explained by the fact that the image sensor in the wider angle module is about 44% larger too. Thus the total difference in total light gathering is about a factor 3.6, almost 2 stops. Similar to the difference between a 1 inch Sony sensor and the one in a Sony Z5 using the same F stop.

9. deewinc

Posts: 455; Member since: Feb 21, 2013

Let me just say that I did not read this article.

10. cnour

Posts: 2305; Member since: Sep 11, 2014

Important and good article. Keep it up PA.

17. ebilcake

Posts: 1231; Member since: Jul 16, 2016

iPhone 7 has a larger sensor than the iPhone 7 Plus, less noise in low light conditions. Apple had to compromise for the dual camera setup. Just saying.

21. mi7chy

Posts: 53; Member since: Apr 18, 2016

f/2.8 is useless in anything but perfect lighting. f/1.8 with OIS is all I need and I'll zoom with my feet.

23. sachouba

Posts: 267; Member since: Jun 08, 2014

Zooming on photos was completely useless when the iPhone had an 8 MP camera, right ? Now, it as a killer feature for Apple fans !

32. AlikMalix unregistered

What? Digital zoom is garbage on any device - even standalone cameras. It's just cropping the images. iPhone 7+ actually has a second lens that is zoomed in 2x optically.

26. PrYmCHGOan

Posts: 335; Member since: Sep 28, 2016

Because hardware zoom is better than software zoom. But I like cameras that actually have moving lenses, that move to actually take a better shot. The "telephoto" lens on the 7 Plus, doesn't take a very sharp photo. Way to much noise in the shot. If the sensor moved, it could adjust itself for a better fucus, based on where you are standing vs how far the object is from you. That is what makes optical zoom better. The lens moved to adjust its own focus. Since Apple's telephoto lens is stationary, its not adjusting for distance. Its just firing up the lens at 2X zoom and shooting a photo. It isn't adjusting for distance to give better focus. Which means you need to physically move to get a better focus. That's garbage. A real lens with optical zoom with a moving sensor, will continue to adjust the lens for distance to insure a clean sharp photo. The S8 is going to have the best dual camera. Watch!

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