Background blur has been the mark of the pro almost exclusively since the digital revolution began in the early 2000s. That polished and premium look is now coming to the world's most popular camera, which until now has been beholden to the physics of tiny sensors. Professional photographers may have more to fear than just fear itself.
With the advent of miniature camera sensors and the technological march toward putting said tiny sensors in every pocket, casual photography has exploded in popularity. The ubiquity of cell phones has all but destroyed the dedicated compact camera market after all. The technological barrier-to-entry has been steadily eroding in the craft of photography since the days of wet plates — a time when negatives were so large it was virtually impossible to have any significantly deep depth of field. Blurry backgrounds were a given, and for the majority of a century, the struggle was to achieve more depth of field. While there are a handful of factors that influence how much or how little background blur you will have, the most significant is the size of your capture medium. Whether it's film, photo paper, a plate, or a digital sensor, the larger the area of capture area, the shallower the depth of field, all else equal. The inverse of this is equally true, which explains why mobile phone cameras with their puny 1/3rd-inch sensors seem to have virtually infinite depth of field no matter what you do. It's just physics, and while Apple hasn't defied the laws of physics (the iPhone still has a small sensor with the same physical attributes as before), they have figured out a way to convincingly isolate the subject of mobile photography in a real time, easy-to-use, consumer-friendly way utilizing depth mapping and masking, entirely post-capture.
Visionary photographer and trendsetter extraordinaire Sam Hurd recently asked his peers to take a side-by-side look at portraits he took of Nessa Kessinger (a fine photographer in her own right) and determine which was taken with the new iPhone 7 utilizing its fancy new bokeh feature, and which was taken with a Nikon D750 and Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G, a full-frame 35mm DSLR coupled with a renowned bokeh-machine-of-a-lens that costs almost as much as the camera and coincidentally matches the new iPhone's focal length very closely. Here's the comparison:
Can you tell? I bet you can. Hurd's post garnered 135 comments, and not a single person "guessed" incorrectly. If you're passionate about photography, you'll likely immediately notice the difference in resolution. In the DSLR's image on the right, you can see every fine strands of hair, the lines in the subject's shirt, and overall details in complexion — all things that sorts of just mush together with the mobile phone's capture on the left. The finnesse with which the DSLR sensor handles contrast and contouring is also evident in the highlights and shadows of her face. There is just so much more detail in the transitions from light to dark, providing a much more three-dimensional and lifelike look.
Then there's the bokeh. First and foremost, the DSLR's bokeh has definition, edge transitions, and specular highlights. The iPhone background lacks defined detail, and it looks fake. It doesn't look much different than a standard Gaussian blur filter you may use in Photoshop (even though it is quite different on a technical level). And finally, while this is a pretty respectable and remarkable example of what the new bokeh technology is capable of, a big giveaway is the transition between areas of in-focus and out-of-focus in the hair. If you look very carefully, you can see fairly abrupt sharpness changes where the phone decided to add a mask level. These portraits also don't reveal another technical shortcoming of the iPhone's simulated bokeh, and that is its inability to blur subjects in front of the plane of focus. That will be a dead-giveaway in many photos you'll be seeing over the coming months.
So, it sucks, right? It's a total dud of a feature, Apple is doomed, and this iPhone "bokeh business" is a gimmick, right? Definitely not in the the slightest.
These shortcomings don't matter because the opinions of a professional photographer don't matter. We are the 1%. We are the ones who spend twice as much (or more) on equipment to gain less than 5% in performance benefit. Computational photography has arrived to the masses, and it is good enough. Frankly, it's more than good enough. For Apple's first iteration of this technology, it's so much better than it has any right to be. Take the comparison image away. Just look at the iPhone image for this article on its own. It's a solid portrait, because the rules of photography still apply. Lighting, composition, and exposure still make or break a photo. Few images ever go through the pointless scrutiny photography enthusiasts put them through. Seriously, look at this image from Jason Shelton:
That was taken at a wedding — a real wedding — with an iPhone. Sure, I can blow it up and read off the same problems I had with the portrait of Nessa above, but as a photograph, it's good. It's more than good; it's beautiful. It tells a story and it has those elements of lighting, composition, and exposure. That bokeh doesn't make or break the photo, but it sure does make the subject pop. And let's be real. This image is better than most DSLR wedding images you see on regular rotation in your Facebook news feed.
So, what does this all mean for professional photographers? It could potentially mean very little. It will be a while until the masses have and utilize this feature, and I think we'll see it's photography enthusiasts that are the ones taking advantage of it for the most part for a while anyway, or at least will continue to do so after the initial high wears off. Even once casual users adopt it en masse, they mostly may just look at it as a light, fun way to add some extra pizzazz and intrigue to photos of their lunch. Of course, even industry leaders like Ryan Brenizer want to push their casual food pics to the next level:
It could also mean a lot. Shallow depth of field has been a major part of "the professional look" that many people pay good money for, and remember, this fake bokeh effect is good enough. Even if you can tell the difference, most people can't — especially if there is no A-B comparison available. Of course, most professional photographers understand that gear isn't what makes a photographer and that a client is paying for our experience and the ability to craft images from many different sides of the equation. But how many average people know that? Remember that it isn't about you. Make sure you get outside your echo chamber from time to time and see what your client base thinks. It sounds silly at first, but you need to tell your prospective clients why they should spend their money on you when they can do it themselves. Client education is critical.
Certain genres of the photography industry are going to be pretty immune to all this. Wedding photography comes to mind first, since experience tends to be one of the most important attributes a bride and groom look for, and few would want their wedding captured on an iPhone anyway. But family and senior photographers? Be afraid, be very afraid. If you're high end and already well established, you'll be fine. You know that running a photography business isn't about the photography at all anyway. But if you like to churn out mini sessions and $199 senior packages, you're in trouble. Most of us have at some time or another lost sales because "a friend is going to do it." Having that "professional look" on a cell phone is just going to take that to an entirely new level. If you want to be a professional photographer, now more than ever, you will have to understand that you are selling service, not photos, at least if you want to make a living as a photographer. This world has no shortage of bad photographers doing good business and thriving, while great photographers are doing bad business and starving.
Ultimately, we're all along for the ride. It's virtually impossible to determine how technological shifts will actually affect industries in the real world, and that's a major part of the excitement of following technology. Whether simulated bokeh, light-field focus, and other aspects of computational photography will dramatically impact any of us in the short-term, it's important to embrace these technologies with love and understanding. Adapt and survive; see how you can use technology and new tools to better yourself or your business, or just remember how to have fun again if you've forgotten to do so.