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:
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.
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:
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.