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iPhone 8 Plus vs. 7 Plus: How much better is the new camera?

I toured San Francisco to test out the dual rear shooters on the new 8 Plus and last year's 7 Plus.

Josh Miller/CNET

The iPhone 7 Plus takes great photos and video. But now it has a new younger sibling, the iPhone 8 Plus, with larger camera sensors, a faster processor and new software tricks including Portrait Lighting Mode.

But just how much better is the 8 Plus at shooting pchotos and videos? Can you even really tell the difference between them? To find out, I took them out and around San Francisco for ice cream, surf guitar and city views in an good old-fashioned iPhone camera shootout.

A little bit better photos

My first stop was Dolores Park in the Mission. Overall photos from the 8 Plus had a touch more detail, saturation and handled highlights better than pictures from the 7 Plus.

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Dolores Park just before sunset taken on the iPhone 8 Plus.

Patrick Holland/CNET

I should note that for this comparison I left the settings on both phones on auto (focus, exposure, HDR).

The iPhone 8 Plus like the Google Pixel and Pixel 2 is designed to be operated in HDR all the time. In fact, the controls for turning HDR on or off has moved from the camera app to the iPhone's Settings app because Apple claims that HDR has been perfected enough to always use it. I would have to agree.

Check out this picture of Stella the cat taken with the 7 Plus and another one taken with the 8 Plus.

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Stella the cat photographed with the 7 Plus (left) and 8 Plus (right).

Patrick Holland/CNET

Both photos are good, but the one from the 8 Plus has a more detail in her fur and a slightly wider dynamic color range.

Here's a shot of a Cable Car on California street.

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The Van Ness cable car taken by the 8 Plus (left) and 7 Plus (right).

Patrick Holland/CNET

The photo from the 8 Plus has a tad more contrast than the one from the 7 Plus.

The headliner: Portrait Mode

Then there's Portrait Mode. It was first introduced on the 7 Plus and uses the two rear cameras to simulate an artistic blurry background also known as bokeh.

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A Portrait Mode photo taken with the 7 Plus (left) and 8 Plus (right).

Patrick Holland/CNET

The 8 Plus has a new Portrait Lighting Mode which adds lighting effects to portraits. The combination of background blur and lighting effects makes Portrait Mode photos taken with the 8 Plus pop a bit more.

There are five lighting effects on the 8 plus:

  • Natural Light - Makes lighting look softer, less harsh
  • Studio Light - Adds an even, soft spread of light across your subject
  • Contour Light - Adds shadows to contour the face
  • Stage Light - Drops the background to black
  • Stage Light Mono - The same as Stage Light, but in black and white
iphone-8-plus-portrait-lighting-mode-effects

Here are the 5 lighting effects possible on the 8 Plus in Portrait Lighting Mode.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Natural Light, Studio Light and Contour Light effects seem to work the best. Stage Light and Stage Light Mono are difficult for the 8 Plus to execute perfectly. I had a bunch of examples of it not working. It cut out glasses from the background oddly or made people's hair look a bit Picasso-like -- and not in a good way.

I should note that Portrait Lighting Mode is still in Beta and will hopefully improve over time as did the original Portrait Mode on the 7 Plus.

When Portrait Lighting Mode worked, especially in Stage Light Mono, the pictures looked stunning.

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Two pictures of singer Xiomara both taken with the 8 Plus. The one on the left is without Portrait Lighting Mode. The one on the right has it turned on and set to Stage Light Mono.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

It's safe to use the flash again

My next stop was a post "Blade Runner 2049" beer with friends. Look, I don't like using a flash on any phone. It's distracting, and your subject turns into a glowing white light zombie against a dark shadowy background.

But Apple addressed this on the 8 and 8 Plus with a feature called Slow Sync Flash. Basically the camera's shutter stays open longer to take in more light, making the background look less dark.

Check out these photos below taken with the flash inside a bar. The one from the 7 Plus has a darker background and lots of nasty harsh light on the subject. There's even a little red-eye happening. The 8 Plus blends the light from the flash better with the background and the image overall looks pretty good.

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The 7 Plus doesn't have Slow Sync Flash but the 8 Plus does and what a difference it makes.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Slow Sync Flash is hands down my favorite feature on the 8 Plus even more so than Portrait Lighting Mode. And there's nothing you need to do to set it up besides turn the flash on.

But what about 4K?

Next, I swung by Nourish Cafe for an espresso and to test out video and slow motion. As with the photos, videos I shot with the 8 Plus looked a bit better to my eyes. There was more detail, colors looked more saturated and highlights (the brightest areas) didn't blow out as easily as they did on the 7 Plus. 

iPhone 8 Plus slow motion shot at 240fps. See this clip at full resolution in the article's video.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Most of the improvement in video detail and dynamic range comes from a combination of software and hardware. The 8 and 8 Plus have a dedicated video encoder which does real-time analysis of the image you're filming and optimizes it for motion, textures and patterns resulting in better and more accurate detail.

Both phones can shoot at 4K. But the 8 Plus gives you a variety of frame rates: 24 frames per second (fps), 30fps and 60fps. The 7 Plus shoots 4K only at 30fps.

Slow motion video is another area where the 8 Plus outshines the 7 Pus. In 1080p video, the 7 Plus can shoot 120fps while the 8 Plus can shoot 240fps. Slow motion video from the 8 Plus looked sharper. The "slow motion effect" on movement seemed more buttery smooth and dramatic especially when someone was juggling potatoes.

Check out the video included with this article to see a variety of video footage shot with both phones.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone 8 Plus vs. 7 Plus: Dual rear camera shootout
3:54

How low can you go?

To test low-light photos and videos, I took the phones to Great American Music Hall to see Marshall Crenshaw and Los Straitjackets. The heavily saturated stage lights and fast moving surf guitar were a challenge to capture with either phone.

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Los Straitjackets play a surf rock cover of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from "Titanic'".

Patrick Holland/CNET

Photos and video taken in low light from both phones were noisy (the specks in the shadows) especially when shot on the telephoto lens. But the 8 Plus seemed to apply noise reduction smarter cleaning up textures and patterns better than on the 7 Plus.

When I played back the 8 Plus videos I shot on the phone's display they looked good. The same could be said for the 7 Plus. But once I got the videos onto my laptop, the 8 Plus videos looked like a painting from the noise reduction. The 7 Plus videos showed more noise.

Final verdict

It should come as no surprise that the 8 Plus is better at photos and videos than the 7 Plus. How much those improvements are worth will be up to you. But for me, the best iPhone for taking snaps and videos s definitely the 8 Plus.

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A shot from the top of Twin Peaks as the sunsets over San Francisco.

Patrick Holland/CNET

But, if you are trying to decide between the buying an 8 Plus or a 7 Plus, I'd actually recommend the 7 Plus. Image quality is really close to that of the 8 Plus and if you can live with a less storage, it's cheaper. See the chart below.

iPhone 8 Plus and 7 Plus camera specs compared


iPhone 8 Plus iPhone 7 Plus
Wide-angle resolution 12-megapixels 12-megapixels
Telephoto resolution 12-megapixels 12-megapixels
Wide-angle aperture f/1.8 f/1.8
Telephoto aperture f/2.8 f/2.8
Optical image stabilization Wide-angle only Wide-angle only
Cinematic video stablization 1080p, 720p 1080p, 720p
Optical zoom 2x 2x
Digital zoom 10x 10x
4K video fps 24, 30, 60 30
1080p video fps 30, 60, 120, 240 30, 60, 120
Video formats H.264, HEVC H.264, HEVC (on iOS 11)
Front camera resolution 7-megapixels 7-megapixels
Front camera aperture f/2.2 f/2.2
32GB price - $669, £669, AU$1,049
64GB price $799, £799, AU$1,229 -
128GB price - $769, £769, AU$1,199
256GB price $949, £949, AU$1,479 -

Of course, in November the iPhone X will be available. It has the same internals as the 8 Plus, but improves the rear telephoto camera with a faster f/2.4 lens and adds optical image stabilization. On paper it should be even better at photos and video than the 8 Plus. But is the iPhone X worth the extra money?

We'll have to see once we can pit both phones against each other in another iPhone camera shootout!