Fear, Love, and the iPhone's Simulated Bokeh

Fear, Love, and the iPhone's Simulated Bokeh

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:

Comparison of two portraits, one taken with an iPhone 7 Plus, the other with a Nikon D750 and Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G

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:

iPhone 7 with simulated bokeh wedding photo

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.

Images used with gracious permission. Thanks to Sam Hurd (FacebookTwitter, and Instagram), Jason Shelton (FacebookVimeo, and Instagram), and Ryan Brenizer (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).

Log in or register to post comments

42 Comments

Wow, I never knew background blur only appeared with digital sensors. I guess all those film images I captured at f1.4 were all in focus. Got to go back and check all those film images, I could have sworn all the backgrounds were also blurry, but maybe not since they were all 35mm and 120 format.

Sean Molin's picture

Literally, the first sentence and entire second paragraph addresses this.

I thought that bokeh was a function of aperture, focal length, and image format size (APS-C, 35mm 6x4.5, 6x6,4x5), regardless of whether the medium were film or digital.

Sean Molin's picture

Correct. I was merely suggesting that back in the film days, film smaller than 35mm was fairly uncommon. Mainstream digital cameras now now really just begun having somewhat larger sensors recently. They didn't even go mainstream for pros until the D700 in 2008, and it took another 5 years to be commonplace among all brands and more accessible pricing tiers.

Mmmm....no, it kind of does not Mr. Molin. And as a pro working for nearly 30 years full time, I have to say I was really struck by the comment about "Background blur has been the mark of the pro almost exclusively since the digital revolution began in the early 2000s."

Truett Ray's picture

I think the point is before, even compact cameras were using 35mm film. So the bokeh effect was more commonplace. With tiny digital sensors being the norm from 2000 onward, shallow DOF became pretty exclusive.

Your confusion stems from a misreading of the first paragraph. Maybe it is clearer if you rewrite it as "Since the digital revolution began in the early 2000s, background blur has almost exclusively been the mark of the pro". The meaning was pretty clear; Felix C's comment above is a rude troll post. Attempting to be a sarcastic smartalec when it is his reading comprehension at fault merely exposes him as a dick.

michael andrew's picture

you read it wrong.

Justin Berrington's picture

Palm to face please

Anonymous's picture

its not a DSLR but man I'm pretty impressed with those images from the iPhone.the wedding shot is great. gets me closer to my dream of shooting a wedding with just an iPhone.

You can pixel peep all you want but it's pretty awesome to have a camera that can produce great images in your pocket.

dred lew's picture

Exactly, it will make compact cameras obsolete, sooner rather than later. Unless you're looking for some crazy superzoom, this is the beginning of the end for compacts.

I'm actually surprised how well this feature works on the iPhone, having seen other phones that tried to emulate a bokeh (or rather blur) and it looked horrible. While this feature is not perfect either, it's still in beta and will likely improve a good deal in a year or two. Exciting times!

Adam Ottke's picture

I really think there are still so many other reasons overall that DSLRs (and better) will be important and relevant for professional photographers. Likewise, however, you can't deny that those iPhone shots look incredible. Maybe it's faked, maybe there's not that ultra-fine detail in the hair, but it's pretty amazing to see what these cameras can do. And thankfully, I can now look forward to a greater percentage of the general public's photos hurting my eyes just a little less ;-)

Graham Marley's picture

This makes me think about taking in-house printing way more seriously.

Pedro Livio Cedeño's picture

This is incredible, but the question is, how can this affect the photography business in a couple of months (or 1 year)? Example: What if this kind of clients say "Oh no, that's to expensive, I gonna use my iPhone to do this photoshoot or this food photography (which is one of my areas)

Sean Molin's picture

I guarantee there are some little mom-and-pop restaurants that are going to have their hand at doing their own food promo photography with their new iPhones at some point.

I can guarantee that many restaurants have been using phones to great effect for several years now.
Food bloggers led the way and photo fashion emphasizing available light, straight down imagery solidified it.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I was having coffee across the street form a nice Korean BBQ place in LA. They were taking photos of the food out on the patio in dappled sunlight...having shot restaurants and food for 3-4 years I moseyd on over to take a look-see and maybe snag a new client who could pay me in Korean BBQ!
Well they were doing pretty darn good job with an iPhone. Would my shots be better, yes. Did it matter them, no. They shot for free and had fun doing it as the manager, chefs and servers were all pitching in. I talked to them for minute and suggested they use a menu as a fill card which they appreciated.

Anonymous's picture

There are still plenty of errors in bokeh ... for example the couple on the beach and the gap between man`s beard and wife hair is not processed for bokeh or the first one where is not correctly proceed the transition between hair and the pole on the background ... And if you remember Google has some time ago in their photo app bokeh simulation but different way ,and with better results but they throw it away because no one was playing attention on to it ....
But still decent results ..... And i`m also using cell phone (before Lg G3 now LG G5) with snapseed where i can simulate bokeh (there you have to create mask, which is more time consuming) but i like it ... My D700 sits in the cabinet and wait for the planed opportunity ... but well most of photos are unplanned ... so it still sits there ... And now when G5 has this wide angle lens it will sit there much longer.

It's funny that after reading a zillion times that good photography is not about the equipment but really about your skills, expertise and lighting techniques, it now is all about the camera. Any cheap consumer DSLR with an even cheaper 35mm f1.8 still beats the crap out of an iPhone camera!

Sean Molin's picture

Absolutely. Photographers and enthusiasts get that. Even educated clients get that. But most people just don't care. "Good enough" speaks to the masses.

Man, it sounds like you are really sweating it dude, the tone of the article, these replies, the "Lifestyle" section of your site that has the pretty amateur message of "Coming Soon...". I have an iphone 7+, I have no plans to use the bokeh feature and I am not in any way shape or form afraid of those who do. After all Mr. Molin, I am where I am at with my success today because of how my photos look, not marketing, not the service I am selling. Sounds like you are all about the instruments and not about the jams, I'm embarrassed for you.

Have you ever sat with anyone who is not a photo enthusiast and listened to their comments as they dash through Facebook or Instagram or... and every other shot, no matter how poorly conceived or crappy lighting gets the same comment... "Nice shot." To me those two words sounds like nails on a blackboard. "Nice shot." And as they swipe past the shot you planned for 2 years to make sure you were there during that special moment when the light was just right, spend thousands on your trip, used thousands of dollars of equipment, spent hours in front of your computer and... "Nice shot." Or even worse, during that same trip your significant other whips out their iPhone and snaps a shot over your shoulder and before you can say "my life has no meaning" posts it to Facebook and skips away to grab a drink at the local pub while you slave over your settings and... you get the picture (pun intended). But so does she, and as your friends and family swipe through your respective feeds in the coming months see both images, yours sprinkled with bits of your soul yearning for understanding at the poignancy of the situation, your significant others taken as an afterthought and both get the same reaction. "Nice shot." sigh. Yea, this is where my head goes when I read articles like this...

and why should a non-photo enthusiast bother with anything you just said?

when you compliment how someone looks in a suit do you go into great detail about the human touch of pick stitching, the artfully detailed working buttons, the appropriate amount of waist suppression with darts, the drape of 3/4 lined horse hair canvas? probably not. most people who look closely enough probably just say "nice suit" and get on with life

"Background blur has been the mark of the pro almost exclusively since the digital revolution began in the early 2000s."
Actually, it marked the resurrection of a fashion.

I started shooting in the late 60's and background blur was just another tool in the box.
Yes, we knew we could isolate the subject with.a larger aperture. However this was not the driving issue of photography technology of the day.

We were interested in fast lenses as they allowed us higher shutter speeds but with the DISadvantage of shallower DOF as we often needed more DOF for sharp results of two or more people.

We were preoccupied with sharp images.
We wanted sharp lenses.
We wanted high shutter speeds.
We wanted fast film with low grain and high sharpness.

We wanted OPTIMUM apertures because the images we were capturing needed reasonable DOF. Shallow DOF was the exception.

Even today the bulk of commercial photography is at smaller apertures.
The shallow DOF look is cool to a point but in the end it has become an overused trope that has dominated the amateur space, not the pro space.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

...and a back then fast film was maybe ASA 400.

Yeah, and we thought we were daredevils pushing it to 1600. My brother pushed a roll to what he hoped was 6400 (the max on his Minolta). He said he got images but it was rough.

Scott Martinez's picture

Mark, you must be old like me. Shooting shallow depth was a challenge with split screen focusing. Try shooting a face at f1.4, you know, with the ears and nose soft but tack sharp eyes. Nearly impossible when 36 exposures cost $7.

I get a kick showing photogs my old Nikon FM2, until later on when i reflect on how old I am too...

Scott, True. I started with a Pentax H3v and the accessory meter. It had a microprism screen and I envied my friend's Nikon F with a split screen.
When I moved to Leica (M4) I loved the sharpness and accuracy of focus but always stayed at about f5.6 or so to ensure my people were sharp.

A roll of Tri-X was $1.25 for 36 exposures. Processed in the school darkroom for free. 25 sheet pack of Agfa Brovira double weight 8x10 paper was $3.25. So my education was cheaper than digital. ;)

Sean Shimmel's picture

Looks mighty fine to me. Like most of us, I'm well aware of the differences between Apple's foray and the "real thing" via any pro lens.

But having said that, I'm happily tip-toeing past the fuss and picking one up soon.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

The shot from the second link of the girl in club clothes (heels and all) in the forest is hilarious! Sorry to laugh, but why would that ever make sense? "Before we go clubbing, you want to hang out in the woods?" :)

More comments