A Closer Look at the iPhone 8 Plus's Killer Camera

Apple is sending mixed messages to would-be upgraders to its new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. On one hand it’s touting improved capabilities across the board, and on the other, it’s saying to wait for the new iPhone X, which comes out in early November. We’ve already given Apple the business over this odd selling strategy, but until we get the X to test for ourselves won’t have a definitive take on which phone is the way to go.

Meanwhile our initial take on 8 Plus vs. 7 Plus is fairly glowing, at least in terms of the onboard camera. 

Just to review, we’re still talking about a 12MP sensor, but the actual size of the sensor has increased. And while Apple didn’t go into everything that’s been upgraded, they did explain that sensor speed has been improved and that because Apple designs its own sensor, their so-called “deeper pixels” translates as less noise, which in our samples manifested itself as reduced color ghosting around the edges of different shapes in a shot. The 8 Plus, like the 7 Plus before it, has dual lenses, one a wider angle and one a 2x zoom. Apple says they’ve especially improved low-light sensitivity and reduced shutter lag (the delay between when you tap to snap a shot and when the shutter actually opens), and the camera now automatically defaults to HDR, taking several images at once and sandwiching them together, so that highlights are less blown out and shadows retain more detail. HDRs can look artificial but in our testing so far the defaults are rich, without odd color boosting.

Most importantly, the 8 Plus uses both lenses in Portrait mode, one to focus on the subject of the shot, and the other to sample and blur the background, to create the equivalent of short depth of field you’d get shooting with a DSLR. The 7 Plus also has this capability, but as you’ll see in our sample, because Apple has enabled fill flash on the 8 Plus, the detail level is greatly improved, with more natural skin tone. Portrait mode also gains several new settings ranging from Contour Light, which deepens shadows and highlights, Natural Light, which as the name implies, has the least artifice, studio light, which tends to warm up skin tones, and stage lighting, which is the trickiest to get just right, but as several of our samples show, can produce really interesting effects because it knocks out the background entirely (as if your subject was literally in a spotlight on a stage). Apple says each mode isn’t a filter, but a remapping of what the sensor actually captures, to reduce the sense of artifice that filters create.

Shoot in stage light mono, as we did, and you’ll see some startling clarity—or ultra soft focus, depending on your distance from the subject. We also saw some funky cutout effects, because the sensor is trying to make the background evaporate, and doesn’t always seem to read the exact edges perfectly.

Apple continues to push boundaries with its Live Photo functionality as well, with what they call Bounce (like Google Pixel’s Boomerang, this plays the footage backwards and forwards) and Loop, that just runs the same short video as a continuous GIF. Note that in our tests we found that the biggest limits of the dual cameras is strongly backlit scenes, where the subject might be hard to capture upon initial focus. We took sample bursts (just holding down the shutter button) while mountain biking and too frequently found faces blurred and backgrounds overly bright. Simple physics are hard to overcome, and we’re still talking about a tiny lens that can only capture so much light.

In some ways, beyond the Portrait capabilities, the the iPhone 8 Plus gains the most in video capabilities. It captures 4K video up to 60fps and 1080p slo-mo up to 240 fps. The latter is almost too slow (unless your subject is moving blindingly quick) though across-the-board in-camera video stabilization is especially welcome, because it smooths the shot-through-a-fishbowl jell-o effect that’s likely when you’re in the field taking handheld slo-mo footage. Note, however, that 4K eats a lot of memory, so remember that before you plan to shoot all your video at super high quality.

At a “mere” 60fps and 1080p we noticed exceptional clarity, especially for a phone camera, and also excellent audio dynamic range. A quick video of a friend’s bar band showcases not just clear video but excellent audio capture, too.

So grouse, if you like, that the 8 Plus isn’t all that, with the X forthcoming. Because, sure, technically Apple’s promising even more specialness for the X, including Portrait Mode for selfies.

Still, we’re pretty impressed with the 8 Plus, and believe Apple has already re-set the bar for what to expect from phone photography.