With the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, Apple introduced the ability to control the amount of blur in the background of its Portrait Mode photos. But what seems like a gimmicky tweak takes what was a gimmick and turns it into a pro feature.
Since the iPhone introduced dual cameras in its plus models back with the iPhone 7 Plus, Portrait Mode has always been a bit of a gimmick. To the untrained eye (and that is, to most eyes), it probably led to photos that were more than passable as professional shots. But likely to most of the photographers reading here on Fstoppers, too often did the feature fail to live up to the hype as it gave itself away in blurring hairs and faces’ edges. Occasionally, you might get a really fantastic implementation where everything was just right. But this was rare.
Now, the iPhone XR introduces this feature without the need for dual lenses, but that’s not the only amazing thing about Portrait Mode across this year’s lineup of super-bling phones. The new depth effects adjustment Apple calls Depth Control takes Portrait Mode and transforms it into something that is actually quite amazing — the way it always should have been.
While some will appreciate the ability to simply turn off or lessen the feature in post, the true grace of Depth Control can even be seen in Apple’s keynote earlier this month in which the company showed off the new effect for the first time. As Apple’s Phil Schiller pulled the effect in and pushed up the intensity, everything actually seemed to look pretty darn good. It was smooth, the effect was real-looking, and really was all done in true Apple fashion — until the last second. Right at the end, the Portrait Mode algorithm pulled the edge of the model’s shirt — otherwise perfectly crisp against the background — completely out of focus. This is the exact type of thing we’re used to in any company’s depth-effect features. Watch below on the way back down from f/16 to f/1.4.
But the important part is what happened right before that light shirt edge lifted off the model’s shoulder and smudged into the background. Because right before that happened, that background looked gorgeous. And right before that happened, that model looked sharp. And right before that happened, you could now hold off and stop the increased intensity of the effect. Look at the examples side-by-side below, where the left image at f/1.4 shows that glaring sign of Portrait Mode being used while that second image on the right with an effect-level increase of just half of a stop helps that shirt edge stay crisp on the right edge of the image.
This — Apple’s new Depth Control — is what will now give users the ability to create truly realistic Portrait Mode photos. And this is why the little things really do matter. This feature is the next best (probably better for ease of use) thing to being able to mask out an area to ignore. Having that power in a pocket-sized camera that’s always on you is incredible — when it works, which it now does. Thank you, Apple.