iPhone 7 Plus vs Google Pixel: Portrait shootout


It's no secret that both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, as well as some recent Android flagships — most notably the Galaxy S7 Edge and Google's brand new Pixels — take some pretty nice photos. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses, and discussing at length which one takes the overall better shots is not the topic of this article. We have plenty of those for you to check out, though, so feel free to get into the nitty-gritty if you feel like it.

This time around, we will be pitting the iPhone 7 Plus against the Google Pixel in a portrait shootout. Apple's latest 5.5-incher has a second telephoto lens on the back, which is cleverly employed in one of its new stand-out features – a dedicated portrait mode. It's probably nothing new to you at this point, but the iPhone 7 Plus can emulate (with varying degrees of success) the shallow depth of field produced by dedicated cameras when shooting at a wide aperture. However, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL also sport a similar feature in the form of the so-called “Lens Blur” mode in Google Camera.

Although the two methods of achieving the illusion of a shallow depth of field are quite different — the iPhone uses its two cameras together and your subject has to be at least 6 ft away, while Google Camera makes you tilt your device and your subject can be quite close to the lens — they serve very much the same core purpose. We are fully aware that Google never pushed this feature as dedicated to shooting portraits, but given that the Pixels are quite the capable pocket cameras, we thought we'd check out how they stack up against the big iPhone when it comes to portraits.

As I went about with my charming model, looking for the right places to take my shots at, it quickly became clear that this was not even a competition. Still, I pushed onward with my initial plan, albeit cutting my number of shots drastically, as the ones I had already taken were sufficient for the purposes of this article.

So, let's see which phone takes the better portraits pictures (with the oh-so-sought-after bokeh effect, of course) – the iPhone 7 Plus, or the Google Pixel?

As you can see right off the bat, the two photos look quite different perspective-wise. They were both taken from the same distance and at the same height, but the iPhone uses its telephoto lens at 2x zoom for portraits, hence the different look of the picture. Of course, I could have matched the zoom on the Pixel, but it would have been digital, not optical, which would have deteriorated the quality of the photos somewhat. I also could have moved in closer to take my shot with the Pixel, but what would be the point in that? We want to see how the two phones compare under the same circumstances.

As far as the shallow depth of field effect goes, the the Pixel obviously fares worse, as is evident from various different areas of the photo, most notably in the left portion of the models hair, right above her right (our left) shoulder. As you can see, the hair in this area appears quite blurry when viewing the photo in full size. Some of the branches in the background, on the other hand — the ones visible near the right edge of the frame, behind the tree — look completely in focus, while the others toward the center of the photo are nicely blurred.

However, to Google's credit, the actual bokeh simulation — i.e. how the light in the out-of-focus portions is rendered — looks better on the Pixel. Notice the smooth “orbs” of light in the photo on the right. They can be traced from all the way up in the branches above the model, to the ground behind here. Further, the Pixel has fared better in actually focusing on the model in this round. For some inexplicable reason, the iPhone 7 Plus did not feel like focusing squarely on the model's face in this shot (and it also left a nasty "seam" of along the length of the model's right arm).

Moving on, things are about to change for the Pixel:

The iPhone 7 Plus hands-down trumps it here. The close-up effect fits better and the foreground is isolated much more convincingly from the background, than on the Pixel. Here, the depth of field effect in Google camera struggles to separate subject and background, resulting in a blurry mess of a shot.

In my next test, Google's phone is yet again not quite up to snuff:

Right off the bat, despite shooting in its otherwise excellent HDR+ mode, the Pixel has decided to underexpose the result quite a bit. Other than that, the entire right portion of the shot is completely in focus, while the right side is very blurred. Our model's lush, curly hair has also fallen victim of the camera's inaccurate algorithms, as it fades into the background on one side. Further, the wider angle at which the Pixel is shooting results in some noticeable distortion around the edges, which is generally not sought-after when taking portraits.

On the other hand, the iPhone 7 Plus has mostly done a very adequate and convincing job at isolating the subject from the background, resulting in a consistent, good-looking picture. If only my finger weren't slightly in frame.

At this point, there was no point in pushing it any further. Besides, it was getting cold outside, so we decided to head back in for one last test. This time around, I decided not to torture the Pixel with any foliage, or other complex backgrounds, and went for the simplicity of the office hallway instead:

Here, unconcerned with any complex patterns in the background, the Pixel does and adequate job. In fact, in this particular case, the phone's wider camera lends itself perfectly to creating a better illusion of depth, as it pushes the backdrop further, while the simplicity of the scene allows the software to isolate the subject in a convincing manner.

The iPhone 7 Plus again handles the lush, curly hair of our model better, but its narrow telephoto lens flattens the image a bit. The result is noticeably grainier than what the shot from the Pixel, too. This can be chalked up to the fact that the telephoto lens on the iPhone has a smaller aperture than Pixel's shooter (f/2.8 vs f/2.0), so the iPhone has to up the ISO a bit in order to keep things well-exposed.

In closing, despite genuine glimmers of potential — especially when it comes to rendering the actual bokeh itself — Google's “Lens Blur” effect falls a long way short of the Portrait mode found on the iPhone 7 Plus. That's the current status quo, anyway. This year, we may see other phonemakers push the limits of software depth of field simulation further. Apple was not the first to do it, but it did it best with Portrait mode. Let's see what 2017 has in store for smartphone cameras!

Here are all the shots I took with both phones, in succession, for you to check out in their full size:

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