Photograph by Tim Kemple
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A hiker in Yosemite National Park takes a picture with her camera phone.

Photograph by Tim Kemple

Is the iPhone 7 Your New Adventure Partner?

Apple's latest model features upgrades that could take your photos and field reports to the next level.

Our smartphones have become indispensable not just to our daily lives, but also on our far-flung adventures, even when we’re far from a cell tower.

As a professional photographer, I have loads of camera gear. But my favorite images, the ones that mean the most to me, or that capture that special moment at just the right time? More often than not, those are shot with my iPhone, not with a massive DSLR. With a dizzying assortment of photo-editing apps such as Snapseed, VSCO, and Photoshop, it’s easy for anyone with camera phones to get reasonably professional-looking images, straight from their pockets.

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The newly released iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus

And it’s not just the camera. With a litany of technology, our phones serve as journals, personal trainers, motivational devices, and assistants ready to take dictation at a moment’s notice. Heck, without the GPS feature alone, many of us would be literally lost without them. At the forefront of these smart devices there are basically just two neck-and-neck flagships: Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S7, with the LG G5 and a couple of others in the distance. Thus, it’s a big deal when, like yesterday, Apple announces a new iteration of their device, the iPhone 7. But is it a necessary upgrade for those of us with a relatively new iPhone 5 or 6?

First, a quick sidebar about the other new product Apple announced today, their second-generation Apple Watch.

Now waterproof and featuring built-in GPS—and even a ceramic body option—you can seamlessly map your runs, rides, paddles, and swims, and find your way back when you get lost. All that is coupled with the same health features that are in the current watch. It won’t replace your smartphone, but it will definitely crush your FitBit or whatever other fitness tracker you’re carting around. There’s even a Nike Plus model geared specifically toward runners, but any of the new models will be a boon for outdoorsy types.

Now, the phone.

As is its custom with its whole number increments, Apple has changed up the physical design of the phone, meaning that you’re going to need a new case if you choose to upgrade. Or will you?

Drawing on a nearly seamless design, iPhone 7 features a much higher level of dust and splash resistance, meaning that you can now drop it in a creek and fish it out without panic. This is something that the Samsung Galaxy 7 brags about as well, claiming nearly full waterproofing. Apple does deserve a high five for not changing the way we charge our phones, which would send millions of people swarming to buy overpriced power cords. The new phone is also exponentially faster than its predecessors with an increased battery life. While not as good as the LG G5’s replaceable battery (and MicroSD card for expandable memory), Apple is promising up to two hours more run time than the last model.

Apple also killed off the headphone jack, opting instead for new earbuds that plug directly into the Lightning/charger hole at the bottom of the phone. They’re also introducing new wireless “AirPods,” which will work like the Bluetooth headphones you’re likely already using when you work out. There are also, for the first time, stereo speakers built in, which are twice as loud as the last model with an increased dynamic range, so your campfire sing-alongs just got even hotter.

You want to hear about the camera update? You won’t be disappointed.

Both the standard iPhone 7 and the larger “phablet” size 7 Plus now feature optical image stabilization, meaning that you can get sharper images while running down a bumpy road or bombing a hill. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With a new 28mm-equivalent 12-megapixel camera and sensor, it runs 60 percent faster and draws 30 percent less energy than its predecessor, with a “Trutone” flash that throws 50 percent more light. They’ve also caught up with the Galaxy S7 and its ability to shoot RAW files, offering a much wider gamut of editing opportunities.

The real technology jump, however, is only in the iPhone 7 Plus. Alongside the 28mm lens, the larger phone also has a second 12-megapixel camera, this one with a 56mm-equivalent telephoto lens. Jumping between the two cameras, you can now zoom up to 10x, with much smoother-looking images. Using depth-mapping technology, Apple has also delivered a new process of achieving background blur, like you’d get with a fast lens on a DSLR. How this will work in real life remains to be seen, but the examples Apple showed were stunning, to say the least. Will your iPhone replace a pro camera? No. But it’s going to make the big camera manufacturers sweat a little, which is always a good thing for consumers.

On the video side, an updated graphics engine and wide color display mean those 4k videos—which every top-tier phone has started to offer this year—will look even more stunning.

So should you upgrade? Is this a game changer? In a word, or two, it depends. For those of you who just want a decent camera on your phone and want to get out on the trail, maybe wait for your phone company to offer you a special deal and get an Apple Watch instead. If you’re a photo enthusiast, or a pro whose social media feeds are an important part of your self-marketing, then yes. The dual camera features alone are pretty exciting, and, considering it’s also your phone, personal assistant, music library, and whatever else, even buying one for full price may make it worth your while. At less than $1,000 for even the top-tier model, it’s less than a high-end point-and-shoot camera.

Of course, most modern digital cameras, pro or point-and-shoot, can also now beam their images directly to your phone, or be controlled via an app. As someone once said, “The best camera? It's the one you have.”