Photography tutorial: How to use the iPhone 7 Plus’s Portrait Mode

The iPhone 7's Portrait Mode lets you add a bokeh effect when shooting portraits (as seen on the right)

Apple claims the iPhone 7 Plus’s Portrait Mode takes professional-quality photos of people. Here pro photographer Tigz Rice shows what it’s capable of (and what it’s not) and when you can use it (and when you can’t).

The iPhone 7 Plus has a pretty impressive sounding cameras. As someone who carries a DSLR or mirrorless camera around with me most of the time, I was intrigued to find out if the new Portrait mode – and it’s recreation of the shallow depth-of-field effect – could live up to my expectations. Enlisting the help of vintage model and blogger Victory Violet and her iPhone 7 Plus, I also brought along my Canon 5D MK III for comparison images.

The aim wasn’t just to find out if the Portrait Mode is any good – but to go deeper to find what it’s good for (and what it’s not). Here you’ll learn when you can rely on the Mode to give you stunning shots – and when only a DSLR will do.

First off, I’ll take a peek at the science behind it. If you want to go straight to what we learned, click here.

How Portrait Mode works

The iPhone 7 Plus offers a 12MP camera with roughly a 28mm equivalent wide-angle lens at f1.8. The iPhone 7 Plus also has an additional roughly 56mm equivalent telephoto lens, offering f2.8 aperture. Along with optical image stabilisation, improved local tone mapping and noise reduction, both models also offer the ability to shoot DNG RAW capture through third party apps, which is brilliant news for serious iPhone photographers who want more power in their editing. The iPhone 7 Plus also feature Portrait mode, a software based feature designed to add more blur to the background of your images, as well the popular bokeh effect.

While most photographers are used to using apertures of f1.8 or similar to utilise this blurring effect - also referred to as a shallow depth of field - the the incredibly short focal length of the iPhone cameras means the range of distance that appears in focus in your images will be much greater.

My Canon 5D MK III, at the equivalent settings of the iPhone 7 Plus’s wide-angle lens, has a depth of field of 2.7 feet. The iPhone, which offers 4.14mm focal length at f1.8, comes up with an infinite depth of field. This is why images taken on your phone appear flatter and very seldom do you need to worry about any aspects of the image being out of focus.

To get the same amount of Depth of Field with an iPhone 7 Plus, you would need to be 2.2 feet away from your subject (ie: incredible close to your subject matter) or use Apple’s Portrait Mode software.

How I tested Portrait Mode

The example images shown on the Apple website for Portrait mode look impressive, showing some closely cropped headshots with the iPhone held quite close to the model, utilising the shorter camera to model distance versus a longer model to background distance ratio for better depth of field results. Susie and Adam previously did a fair chunk of experimentation on this here - however, Portrait mode claims to work at up to eight feet away from the subject, in this infinite Depth of Field zone I mentioned earlier.

As the majority of the images I shoot involve being a little further away from my subject matter to capture full outfits, I was really interested to see how Portrait mode would work at this kind of distance. Heading outside with Victory Violet and her beautiful vintage bicycle, we tested a couple of different scenarios and lighting conditions to see what Portrait mode is capable of a little further away from your subject.

Switching to Portrait mode within the camera settings, the iPhone 7 Plus pops up a yellow focus box as shown in the screenshot here when available, automatically working out the areas of the image, with the help of the wide-angle lens, to apply the blur effect to.

In this example, we were testing against a graduating background surface to test how well the blur effect would set in and capture Depth of Field. Setting the focus on Victory Violet and the overall exposure levels, I then clicked on the shutter button to take the photo. This then created two images in Camera Roll, the original image along with the Portrait mode version with Portrait Mode effect applied.

These were taken at six to seven feet away from the model.

Without the Depth Effect.

With the Depth Effect.

For comparison, here’s a DSLR shot against the same wall with similar settings at around the same focal length.

Granted, having the graduated background was definitely testing out the capabilities of the software, but I have to say it dealt with the task well, realising background and foreground content of the ivy covered wall and managing to separate the two. I’m especially impressed considering both foreground and background foliage are the same colour and texture.

In a close up, you can see that there are some slight inaccuracies around Victory Violet’s hand and the bokeh effect in the top right of the iPhone 7 Plus image is not quite as good. The blurring of the background also doesn’t kick in on the left side of Victory Violet’s hat as it does in the DSLR image and there is no gradual fade on the blurring as you would expect from a DSLR.

However, at iPhone screen viewing size, its done a pretty decent job and the effect of the blur is believable.

Wider shots

Moving out into a slightly more open area with Victory Violet, we shot against a different background, with a little more going on. It wasn’t possible to get a full shot of Victory Violet and her bicycle as Portrait Mode kept telling me to get closer. Unfortunately, this is one of the limitations of Portrait Mode, you do need to be pretty close in to utilise the effect. As such, I had to pull in closer for the shot, mostly missing out on the bicycle completely. 

Here’s the same shot captured on an SLR.

What I did love about this shot is Portrait Mode was detailed enough to in and work around the branches of the tree in the foreground, which in itself is an impressive feat and would take a fair while to reproduce in Photoshop with masking.

That being said, a closer inspection on the mask around Victory Violet shows some issues, having not done as good a job as the previous example on a dark, single colour background. This effect was also seen in several other shots as well.

On one hand, I find Portrait Mode impressive. The cameras in themselves are a huge upgrade and Portrait Mode’s ability to distinguish background and foreground is impressive, although it can be let down by it’s accuracy of masking. Then again, it depends on how big you plan on using the images.

If you’re going to be printing them out and putting them on your wall, its probably going to pick up the flaws, but if you’re posting to Instagram or other mobile based social platforms, would the inaccuracies even be noticeable?

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