Ever since the beta for Portrait Mode came out last Fall, I’ve been shooting a ton with it, and learning how to make the most of this amazing feature. I can get photos with it that I never thought possible with a phone, but it can be a little finicky to use. Here are my best tips to get great shots with Portrait Mode on the iPhone7+.
My first tip is make sure your light is really, really good. This seems obvious, because it’s true for all photography, but Portrait Mode is touchy, and if the light isn’t bright, the photos come out grainy. It’s extra weird-looking when this happens, because the blurred background has no grain, and is totally smooth, only the in-focus subject will show grain. To avoid this, shoot outside, or very close to a window, during early, strong daytime light.
Grain isn’t all bad though, and there are ways to disguise it if you capture a shot you love in which the subject is a little grainy. Converting to black and white seems to work well, because it feels natural for a black and white photo to have some grain.
Another trick to disguise grain is to add more grain in, when you edit. I like to add grain when I’m editing in Lightroom, and on my iPhone edits, I use apps like film-simulator RNI Flashback, and up the grain level and add some dust, to create texture all over the image, including on the blurred, smooth background.
Sometimes grain just isn’t a deal-breaker. Both of these shots below have a lot of grain on the subjects, because I shot straight into the sun, and my daughters were in the shadows. I still loved the images, grain and all. If you’re like me, and you like shooting into the sun to attempt to capture sun flare or rim light, just remember it will cause significant grain. You have to decide if that bothers you or not.
One of the biggest caveats of Portrait Mode, is that you have to be positioned within 8 feet of your subject for it to work, and you also can’t be too close. This makes it tough to get the effect, and also get a pulled-back, full-body portrait. One day it snowed, and I wanted to capture my girls, their snowman, and some of the falling snow. I had to be very careful to move back enough, without going too far, to remain able to use the depth effect.
I also made sure that my girls were positioned in a straight line, the same distance from the camera, so they were both in-focus. If one would have been farther back, she would have been caught in the depth effect blur. Below is an example of what the effect looks like when the subjects are not the same distance from the camera. It’s a great tool if you want to isolate one subject, but something to think about if you want everyone in the shot to be in-focus.
You’ll notice in the black and white shot above, the background blur is a little messy around my in-focus daughter’s back, where the pebbles are. The busier the background is, the harder it is for Portrait Mode to get a precise line around a subject.
For a crisper focus-to-blur transition in Portrait Mode, a simpler background works the best. Things like rocks, sticks, branches, and leaves, can be tough to get a precise line around your subject. The images above are a perfect example of this. The depth effect line is wavy around my daughter’s head, hair, profile, and the leaf in her hand. I ended up preferring the non-Portrait Mode version for this shot. (It’s a great feature that when using Portrait Mode, the iPhone7+ also snaps a non-Portrait Mode version at the same time.)
The depth effect, in front of a busy background is still worth shooting though, even if it isn’t always exactly perfect, it can still look wonderful. Take the shot below, in front of the Winter branches. The line around my model’s head, and her shoulders and arms, isn’t perfect, but the overall image is still beautiful, and I much prefer this version to the regular, non depth-effect version my phone also captured.
Because it works so much better in very bright light, another thing I’ve noticed with shooting Portrait Mode, is often, the light parts of my images will get blown out (i.e. the lightest spots are pure white and have no details). It’s important to use the exposure adjustment to avoid this. To do that, simply tap as you do when you’re ready to focus your shot, and when the yellow box pops up in the screen, slide your finger downward, to the right of the box, where the little sun icon is. That will darken the overall image, or underexpose it. Even if it seems a little dark, do this just until there aren’t any hot spots– you can always brighten the image when you edit it, but you can’t add missing details back in. Whenever I shoot in harsh sunlight, for example the lines that window blinds make, I am sure to underexpose the shot.
It seems to me, that it takes a little longer to lock in the focus when using Portrait Mode, and also, it takes the camera longer to snap the shot, especially if trying to take shots back-to-back. Be aware of this, and have patience: let the camera focus all the way, before snapping, or you’ll end up with nothing in-focus at all. Burst-mode is also not an option in PM, so if you really need to capture an exact moment like blowing candles out, and you want to use a burst, turn PM off.
Sometimes, I think people believe PM is magical and will immediately produce a better image. Be cautious of relying on gear, no matter which camera you shoot with. Utilize the effect only when it will add value to your image. If the background is completely plain, like flat against a plain wall background, or a baby laying on a blanket being shot from above, it may not be necessary to use PM at all, and could also cause unwanted grain. If the background contributes to the story, blurring it too much would take away from the image. If the lighting is dark, and you really want a clear shot, I wouldn’t use it, and would instead take advantage of the regular photo mode’s improved low light abilities. The best part is, the screen gives you a live-view of your shot, so if you’re unsure whether PM is beneficial to your shot, toggle back and forth and see, before you press the shutter button.
One thing I’ve loved doing that is specific to PM in mobile photography, is playing with shallow depth of field and varying perspectives to create that, within the confines of Portrait Mode’s capabilities. I like to shoot from above and just get a sweet, upturned face in-focus, while the rest of the body blurs away. Or, I’ll choose to focus on something unexpected, like little feet, or a treasure held in hands.
I love to take window reflection photos, but be careful when doing this using PM. Sometimes, especially when shooting a reflection from the side of a person, the reflection also gets blurred out, or partially/ fully disappears. Sometimes that works for the image, other times it weirdly looks like the person might be a ghost with no reflection! I either turn Portrait Mode off, or adjust my angles until the reflection is there. It’s easier to shoot reflections from above because it makes it less tricky to get both the person and her reflection the same distance away from the phone, so that they are both recognized by the camera as subjects, and I don’t lose one to the blur.
Below, you can see part of my daughter’s face is missing in her reflection. Portrait mode got a little confused about half of her face being background, but because I got an eye, and the deck created leading lines right into her face, I still like the shot.
For this one below, also shot from the side, I had to lean so close to the glass that my nose was almost touching it, to get both of “me” to be the same distance away from the lens, to let the depth effect recognize us both as subjects in the image. Otherwise my reflection was part of the blur effect and disappeared completely.
And lastly, Portrait Mode isn’t just for people! I’ve also had fun playing around and shooting all kinds of things, creating interesting perspectives, and adding visual interest.
Overall when using Portrait Mode, pay the most attention to your light. Learn when the feature will add to the image, and when it’s best not to use it. Play around, try new things, and test its limits. Don’t let its restrictions intimidate you, instead thrive by pushing those limits to see what you can do with them. With a little understanding and patience, using your “little” phone camera, you can create some strong, print-worthy images.