Bokeh comes to cameraphones

By Andrew Hudson Published: September 13, 2016 Updated: November 14, 2016

Bokeh —the beautiful blurred backgrounds, previously the domain of high-end cameras with quality lenses — is coming to cameraphones.

Shipping on 9/16/16, the iPhone 7 Plus features a dual-camera system, which can be used for optical zoom and computer-processed bokeh effects (with a software update due later).

“When you take a shot with iPhone 7 Plus, the dual-camera system uses both cameras and advanced machine learning to make your subject sharp while creating the same out-of-focus blur in the background — known as the bokeh effect — previously reserved for DSLR cameras.”
Apple, September 2016

Getting those cinema-like blurred backgrounds for portraits is a major benefit of DSLR camera over smartphones. Now that it can be replicated in software, instead of bulky and expensive optics, another distinction between DSLRs and smartphones is blurred.

Bokeh from a supercomputer

“The iPhone 7 Plus will be many people‘s first encounter with a new technology called ‘computational photography,’ which uses data from multiple cameras working together to build richer, better images on smaller devices.”
Business Insider

Apple’s custom-designed signal processor improves the camera image with sophisticated technology including Machine Learning.

“[The iPhone processor performs] 100 billion operations in 25 milliseconds. This truly is a supercomputer for photos.”
— Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple


The iPhone 7 Plus simulates a blurred backround by recognizing faces, separating them from the rest of the picture, and blurring the background while keeping the people in sharp focus. A similar effect can be done in Photoshop or other image-editing software in post production.

However, a DSLR is still superior as the bokeh is produced optically and can be controlled by the user.

“... We are not saying ... that iPhone replaces all of the DSLRs. What we are saying is this is the best camera we have ever made in an iPhone.”
— Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple

Instant zoom

The Apple iPhone 7 Plus offers two 12MP cameras with optical image stabilisation, one with a 23mm wide-angle lens and the other with a 56mm natural-angle lens. Both lense are a wide f/1.8 aperture, capturing 50% more light than the iPhone 6’s f/2.2 lens. Touching “2x” on the phone’s screen switches from the wide-angle to the natural-angle camera. This is effectively an optical zoom. Further zoom is achieved digitally.

Timeline of dual-lens cameraphones

“[The] dual-camera setup ... has been done before by other phone-makers with varying results. But this is the first time it’s being done in an iPhone, which gives it a new kind of legitimacy and pace-car status in the industry.”
Wired, 9/8/16

  • 2011: LG Optimus 3D and HTC Evo 3D made 3D images from two identical cameras.
  • 2014: HTC One M8 coupled a 4MP main camera with a 2MP secondary camera to capture depth information and create bokeh/background blur effects.
  • 2016: LG G5 pairs a wide-angle 16MP camera with a wider-angle (135’) 8MP camera.
  • 2016: Huawei P9 makes photos using two 12MP Leica cameras, one for RGB color and one for monochrome detail.
  • 2016: Apple iPhone 7 Plus features two 12MP cameras with different lenses for optical zoom, combined image processing, and bokeh effects.

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Images by Apple.

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