Are Smartphone Portrait Modes for Photographers?

Are Smartphone Portrait Modes for Photographers?

I’ve been a stalwart defender of “real” cameras when it comes to shooting portraits. But a slew of phone cameras over the last few years have included portrait modes, and so has the time come to change perspectives?

I excitedly purchased the iPhone X when it came out because I was keen on trying out its portrait mode. I returned it after two weeks. The image quality out of the phone was nothing to write home about and the portrait mode, which used a combination of smart image processing and the dual-lens system on the back of the phone, frequently got things wrong.

So I tried Google’s take on the same mode with the Pixel 3a XL, and it’s surprising how much has changed and how much hasn’t.

First, that Google is able to replicate the same effect with only one lens on the back of the phone is pretty amazing. The iPhone didn’t gain that capability until last year’s XR, which makes me wonder how much of this is a battle of computational imaging rather than physical lenses at the back of the phone.

The raw image quality of the Pixel 3a XL is better too, which means that for me it’s a keeper, but for the purposes of this article, let’s take a look at that portrait mode.

Not Quite There

If you take a look at the image at the top of this post, at a quick glance it looks decent, with the depth of field falling off behind the subject of the photo (my son in this case). I suspect that phone manufacturers are only hoping you’ll take a glance, though. When you really take a look at it, the software gets confused by the collar of the shirt and the top of the hat and blurred out those elements in an unnatural way:

While it looks fine when viewed small (such as on a phone screen), the details don't hold up in this portrait mode photo.

This was a phenomenon that I saw whenever I had a photo that had a busy background. Here’s another example where the portrait mode came so close.

Trying to simulate shallow depth of field resulted in some objects being blurred that weren't intentional and others that didn't get blurred when they needed to.

In this photo of my daughter in our minivan, it looks OK, but upon closer inspection you can see where the software made some poor choices when it comes to Gaussian blur. It thought half of the decoration hanging off the mirror was part of the windshield and needed to be blurred, and the plant in the corner window cutout isn’t blurred as it is in the larger window sections. Oops.

It’s not always wonky, though. By comparison, here’s what it did when the background was more clear-cut:

Given an easy background, portrait mode can produce some good results.

It should be noted that, at least on the Pixel 3a XL, the photos take a second or two to process after they are taken, though you can access both the non-portrait and portrait versions by default, which is nice.

After a lot of trial and error, the real key I’ve found is that you have to give the portrait mode a fighting chance with a cooperative subject and a clean background that’s easy to isolate. Think about something that would work easily to mask in Photoshop while you’re shooting and you get the idea.

What Do You Think?

While portrait mode isn’t perfect, it’s not a bad thing to have it in the toolbox. Is it something that can stand in for a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a fast lens? Or is it best left as a gimmick for non-photographers to get that “bokehlicious” look that they think makes a great photo? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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The biggest thing lacking vis a vis smarphones and portraiture is proper implementation of off camera flash. Until that hurdle is leaped we're still talking taking snaps of people.

Seriously? You think the biggest issue is the need to shoot with off camera flash? If you have strobes and a softbox then you probably have your camera with you. Do you walk around with a flash unit in your pocket on a daily basis? If you could use off camera flash with your phone would you even want to? Why in earth would you use tour camera to take photos in a studio setting? Camera phones are great because they are the camera that is always with you but they are never going to be the camera you choose to use when you have your gear available.

Also, you dont need a flash to take great portraits if you know what youre doing. I love shooting portraits with ambient light and i find that it gives me the best results. You get the most natural look and best skinf tones when you shoot with ambient light. Plus you get more interesting portraits as you have to adapt to the lighting you have rather than thr same boring lighting setup.

But seriously, syncing with off camera flash is something you honestly believe is missing from phone photography?

Why so aggressive?

It's more of a versatility thing. I, too, shoot portraits with natural light. I also use strobes. So I won't get roped into a silly flash vs natural light argument; oy.

Keep in mind that I'm speaking from MY experience and how I typically use a camera. When I'm shooting portraits I want/need the flexibility of using strobes if I need or want to.

That flexibility is there with a real camera and it's not with a smartphone.

I believe that there are setups and small OCF setups, but not full strobes that you can use with modifiers and things like that.

I think. 😉 you can trigger with this other flashes

That is the flash I was trying to recall.

Yes, I've heard of them. It still doesn't negate the issue I'm talking about. It's a start, but it's a far cry from a flash solution. Like I said, "proper" implementation.

Godox make a smartphone trigger that I believe syncs with all of their lights

I know, but by the time you've done that, why not just bring a real camera?

"Is it something that can stand in for a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a fast lens?"
Are you seriously asking?

Fantastic for snapshots, and great for viewing on the phones. And that's where they should stay. Barely worth viewing 100%, the software's noise reduction even on current iPhones is a smeary appalling mess printing larger than 4x6.

So, in short, NO, they're not a stand in for anything. I enjoy mobile photography/videography, and it can have it's own category.

I think it's mainly been marketing buzz and article 'bait' that they've even had to ask the question every damn time a new smartphone hits with a camera update since about a decade ago.

100% agree on the smeary iPhone photos. I have no idea what Apple's doing with their processing, but it looks terrible. I find the best way to avoid this as an iPhone owner is to shoot raw DNG files with a third party app and process in Photoshop. But at that point might as well use a DSLR or Mirrorless.

One thing I am happy to report about the pixel, in the normal camera mode (non-portrait) the phone doesn't exhibit the typical iPhone smeariness and the built-in app supports RAW capture. Now if only Apple weren't actively trying to make it harder to import Android photos with each OS update, that would be great.

I'm confused at what's going on in the top photo. The boy is sharp, the background behind the boy is blurry, and then the far background is back in focus again? I can't figure out what effect the software is trying to replicate there.

Right? Me too. I think some more hardware solutions need to help the AI make some decisions here, maybe some extra lenses to gather that info.

I bought a Pixel when it first came out. Upgraded to the 3 XL last year and was thrilled with the improvements to portrait mode. Would I consider using it in a professional portrait shoot? No. As you pointed out, it can be hit or miss with the bokeh effect. Is it great when someone in my family is doing something that'd make a great shot and I don't have my Z6 with me because it doesn't fit in my pocket? ABSOLUTELY. I can't tell you how many really nice shots I've been able to capture because it was as easy as whipping out my pixel and popping off a few shots.

I think it's just a nice supplement for any photographer because who carries a DSLR/mirrorless with them at all times?

Yeah, that's fair. Thanks for the tip. 😋

Not for professional work. Machine learning may improve the portrait mode in future, but you are asking the app to deal with a nearly infinite number of scenes it needs to "understand."

For casual photography, even for pros and serious amateurs, it is nice not to drag around a larger camera. Good enough.

Now some will complain about carrying two devices, but my solution is a pocketable camera with a wide aperture. Just picked up a used Sony rx100 iii to replace the old canon g15. Rx100 has WiFi. The g15 has a WiFi sd card. I get, to a degree, what I get with my larger cameras, and is still mobile photography. Edit jpegs in the phone with Photoshop Express. If it is worth it, edit the raw file later with a full editor.


Good article. I see AI getting closer and closer at doing a good job at with portrait mode.
Honestly for a lot of people, they’re going to be happy, because of ease, marketing and it isn’t horrible. Plus it’s only going to get better.
But I’ll keep bringing my bulky Mirrorless T3 and huge Panasonic point and shoot, because I love geeking out with some raw pictures on lightroom. Since I still like to print out some pictures and give them as gifts I’m sure it will go a long way.

A rant:

I'm tired of all this. It has, for some reason, become de rigueur to automatically assume portrait=blurry background.


Look over the centuries of great painted portraits... background was very often PART of the composition. Frequently it was chosen to reflect something about the subject. Even during my own lifetime, back when I started taking pictures, using shallow depth of field was basically considered a 'special technique', to use occasionally for a required effect. Not something mindlessly applied to every 'portrait'. You can't thumb through a magazine without page after page of ad copy with pointlessly blurred background.

If you're taking a posed portrait, and feel the need to dissolve the background into blobs, you've chosen the wrong setting.

It's time to get over this.

Phone cameras are for regular people, not pixel peeping photo nerds lol. At least Google has Sony sensors.