iPhone 8 Plus and me: A 72-hour quest for beautiful images

Senior photographer James Martin put the iPhone 8 Plus camera through a workout in San Francisco. More than 2,000 photos later, he's impressed.

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The camera in your pocket is about to get better. Again. Apple has always packed serious photography power inside the iPhone, and the iPhone 8 Plus is no exception. With a new 12-megapixel sensor that captures color and texture in stunning detail and dual wide-angle and telephoto lenses, the iPhone 8 Plus delivers a serious camera.

In his review, Scott Stein rates the iPhone 8 Plus "the best iPhone you can buy" — at the moment — but calls its design "dated." I focused on how well it takes photographs.  

I set out on an adventure in and around San Francisco, CNET's hometown, to capture the city's eclectic mix of architecture, landmarks and natural beauty -- testing a range of lighting conditions, photography modes and filters. 

To do that, I boated on San Francisco Bay, fished on Ocean Beach, biked around Angel Island and walked through Chinatown with the soon-to-be-released iPhone 8 Plus in hand. More than 2,000 photos later, I feel like I have a good sense of what this new camera can do. I'm definitely impressed. 

The iPhone 8 Plus boasts a powerful new image signal processor, and I wanted to see how the sensor produces photos with better sharpness, less noise, and richer colors and textures. The photos here are pretty much straight out of the camera -- no additional image editing involved. 

Apple's new A11 Bionic chip contains a staggering 4.3 billion transistors. All this power means Apple can push the limits of computational photography, overcoming the hardware limitations of small sensors and small lenses to produce images that are extraordinary by smartphone standards. While these cameras and 12-megapixel sensors may not yet compete with the pure resolution of DSLRs, Apple's processing power is pushing photography in ways the traditional camera companies don't.

Texture and detail

Close-up detail of a saxophone player on the street in North Beach, San Francisco shot with the iPhone 8 Plus wide‑angle  ƒ/1.8 lens.

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The most dramatic and noticeable effect is the quality of textures, down to the most minute scale. 

The details of textures in this image of a saxophone player in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco jump out of the photograph. You see the fine etchings on the instrument on the right hand side, the wrinkles in the skin of his hand and the individual threads of his suit jacket.

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I took these photos (above) while walking along Grant Avenue in Chinatown. The color and detail of the neighborhood and its offerings -- from scarves to dried shrimp -- are crisp and vibrant.

Detail and architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

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I took these shots just as the sun started to rise above the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District. They're great examples of low-light photography. The iPhone 8 Plus picks up details, colors and textures hidden in the shadows -- from the ceiling of the rotunda to the broken nose on a statue.

Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach.

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The details of the architecture at Saints Peter and Paul Church stand out against a dramatic, rich blue sky.

Stained glass windows inside San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

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Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting

A Portrait Mode image using the iPhone 8 Plus' Stage Light Mono lighting effect.

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A new feature currently in beta is called Portrait Lighting. The dual cameras create a facial depth map that uses facial landmarks to change lighting effects in portraits. You simply swipe to pick the effects you want, and you can go back to edit photos in Portrait mode with blurred backgrounds. If you decide that your phone didn't get the lighting effect quite right, then you can kill the depth effect entirely. 

 I used Portrait Mode with natural lighting for the image on the left, and the Stage Light Mono lighting effect on the top right. I captured the image on the bottom right using Portrait Mode Contour Lighting.

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Portrait Mode -- not to be confused with Portrait Lighting -- is no longer in beta, and it shows. The Portrait Mode background blur, which is meant to mimic the shallow depth of field 'bokeh' of a DSLR, is noticeably improved. A more natural 'bokeh' blur effect produces a truer depth-of-field effect that's less gimmicky looking. The edge separation between the subject and the background is more refined and far less distracting than what you could get with the iPhone 7 Plus. 

Both the fisherman and the fish were shot in Portrait Mode on the iPhone 8 Plus.

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I shot both images above using Portrait Mode to blur out the background. Even on an overcast day at the beach, the iPhone 8 Plus delivered vibrant colors and fine detail. The blue jacket is bright and you can practically count the scales on the just-caught fish.

Wider dynamic range, lower noise 

One of San Franciscans' favorite burger joints. 

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The 12-megapixel sensor delivers better color saturation, a wider dynamic range and lower noise. I shot In-N-Out's neon sign at 8 p.m. on a walk along Fisherman's Wharf, and was surprised by how smoothly it rendered the range of tones in such low light. 

It was an overcast morning when I arrived at the edge of San Francisco to photograph the ruins of an old bathhouse called Sutro Baths (below). You can see the details of the waves crashing into the rocky shore and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance in the photo on the right. 

Sutro Baths at Land's End in San Francisco. 

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Notice the beautiful saturation and the tones of the water, the textures of the surf against the beach, and the brightness and clarity in the blacks of the rocks. Again, the iPhone 8 Plus captured the textures and information of the rock, even in the low light of an overcast day.

The beach on the island of Alameda as the sun sets.

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The sun has just set and I'm on the island of Alameda, just off the coast of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay. What little light is left is almost entirely gone. What's really noticeable to me  is the lack of visual distortion -- no graininess or splotches of discoloration in the blacks that's so common in low-light digital photography. These are remarkably crisp, true blacks.

With the iPhone 8 Plus, you don't have to stop shooting when the sun goes away. The combination of its 12-megapixel sensor, which captures more light, and an f/ 1.8 aperture produces usable photos even when only a little light is available.

Notice, too, the photo of the Golden Gate Bridge at the top of this story, which I took at sunrise from the Marin Headlands. Though shot in very low light, there's a distinct lack of noise and splotchiness.


A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from inside the ferry to Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay.

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The sun is out as I sail across San Francisco Bay to Angel Island State Park. I was happy to capture the vibrant blue sky and the deep golden tones of the rust near the ferry's deck light. Even in direct sunlight, the sensor properly rendered both the exposure of the lightbulb as well as the shadow it cast onto the side of the boat -- without blowing out the highlights or losing the shadow to complete darkness. 

Riding the ferry out to Angel Island State Park.

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Even my high-end DSLR can't achieve this kind of exposure, balancing lights and darks. Apple is using high dynamic range techniques in the background to expose everything properly -- producing the same image my eye sees.

With the new sensor, HDR delivered better details in highlights and shadows. HDR is always on, signaling Apple's deeper commitment to computational photography with the iPhone 8 Plus. That's different than the iPhone 7 Plus, which gave you the option to set HDR to auto, off or on. 

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My photos look just as my eye had seen them. The images are as detailed as I remember them.

The colors are vibrant and true to life, allowing the images to pop with the clarity of a good memory. San Francisco's natural beauty glows, the rust in abandoned buildings is warm with history, and the waters of the San Francisco Bay are blue and crisp. You can see more of the photos I shot with the iPhone 8 Plus here

The pictures really do tell the story.