Some Notes on iPhone X’s Portrait Mode

As much as they’ve improved over the past decade—and they’ve come a long, long way—I’ve never been much of a fan of iPhone cameras. They’ve always produced images that, for me, come across as too flat and too harsh. To this day, if I want to capture a truly special moment, I’ll reach for my DSLR over my iPhone.

That said, I do find the camera in my new iPhone X to be quite impressive. Specifically, I find the dual-lens rear camera’s ability to take pictures in portrait mode to be a leap forward. It produces, by far, the warmest, most aesthetically pleasing images I’ve ever taken with a camera built into a phone. It does this by using its two lenses and advanced software to digitally emulate “bokeh,” the aesthetic quality that traditional cameras produce naturally when they focus on a foreground object and blur out the background. I’m not claiming that the example I shot below is great photography, but one look at the beautifully rendered background blur demonstrates that this iPhone is capable of shots that are far beyond the capabilities of any previous model.

This mode is optimized for, well, portraits of course, but I try to use it for everything because the output is dramatically more elegant than the iPhone’s standard camera mode. However, it is worth noting that portrait mode does come with limitations. For one, what you see “through the lens” is narrower in scope. Compare the view in the standard camera view, below, with what you see when you switch to portrait mode below it.

The result is of course that you often have to step backward in order to get your subject fully in frame. That’s actually fine with me; I prefer a prime lens on my DSLR and I’m accustomed to moving myself to get the shot I want.

There is a point though at which the illusion of digitally emulated bokeh begins to fall apart—usually anytime you closely examine a highly detailed shot taken in portrait mode. That’s where the camera is least able to distinguish between foreground and background, and sometimes its guesses are not fully accurate. You’ll notice this most often in silhouettes of a subject’s hair, which get smoothed out into what you might call “natural-ish” but not altogether convincing shapes. Here is a detail from such a shot where you can see an unnaturally definitive silhouette at the edge of one of my kids’ hair.

Sometimes too, the camera just gets it wrong. Notice the left edge of the left bottle and the right edge of the right bottle in this picture below. They’re unnecessarily blurred where other parts of the bottle shapes are sharp and crisp. A traditional camera would have produced uniform results around the bottles’ edges because the entire object is more or less at the same depth.

In fairness, there’s a specific reason Apple called this portrait mode and not something like “selective focus mode.” The software/hardware is purposely optimized for people’s faces, and it struggles with objects like the bottles above. This becomes really clear when you watch the camera try to figure out the right depth of field in real time. Watch in this video as the camera “hunts” for focus on this Lego figure, trying to figure out what’s in front and what’s in back. There’s a somewhat random “splotchy” effect that pops up repeatedly in different parts of the frame. After about ten seconds, it displays a prompt to the user to adjust position, as it needs more data, apparently, to decide what’s what.

I should be clear about my commentary here. On the one hand, it’s true that I do have (slight) objections to portrait mode. I personally find that the pictures are still not as good as what I get out of my DSLR. More haughtily, I do have reservations about the digital emulation of “natural” camera effects—there’s no denying that the results can be beautiful, but there’s just something about the fakery that offends my delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

However, I’m not even contending that any of this is ultimately bad, or should be considered a failure of technology. As I said, portrait mode produces the best phone camera photos I’ve ever seen, hands down. I would much rather than not have an iPhone X with portrait mode as an option for the many, many times it’s just impractical to carry my DSLR with me.

More to the point, quibbling over the finer points of photographic effects is somewhat (though not entirely) pointless. What really matters here is that there will be tens if not hundreds of millions of these cameras in the hands of countless people everywhere before too long, and those people will take billions of pictures with them. Only a vanishingly small number of these people will ever object to the details I’ve listed here; most will be incredibly pleased with how portrait mode performs and will share the fruits of their labors avidly.

Just on the merits of sheer volume alone, portrait mode will become a part of our collective visual vocabulary. If the history of photography has shown us anything, it’s that technological limitations that are unsightly at first come to be embraced by culture soon enough not as deficiencies but as legitimate aesthetic choices of their own. Look no further than Instagram’s filters for proof of that. There may come a day when we forget “real” bokeh entirely and hold up digitally generated bokeh of the sort that portrait mode creates as the real thing. Truth is going out of style anyway.