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.
See it here.
I forgot to mention this last month! Earlier in the Summer, in July/ August, during Colombia’s Feria de las Flores, 2 more of my iPhone images were up on billboards! They are the following 2 images, shot on my iPhone6s Plus, with my macro Olloclip, and edited with VSCO Cam for iPhone. It was such an honor to once again be included in an iPhone campaign.
I don’t know how they do it, but Apple finds the nicest, smartest, most fun people to work for them, and my experience hosting the photo walk last Wednesday evening was so great! Not only was I supported by an amazing team of talented individuals, the community members who joined us for the walk were such interesting and talented people.
Right off the bat, a gentleman who attended the photo walk, came up and told me that he had read my reviews on here, on both the Fujifilm X100T, and the iPhone6s+, and went and bought both! He’s been a photographer for decades, and felt that my insight was valuable. I was floored, flattered, and so happy he came to the photo walk. (Jim, if you’re reading, email me so we can keep in touch! Also, I’ll have a Fujifilm XT-1 review for you soon.)
I had the complete honor of getting to know so many great people, photograph them, and even be photographed a few times. We had 3 activities planned for everyone to really learn to focus on light and how to capture beautiful portraits. It felt like, as we walked around together looking for the perfect places to complete each assignment, that we were all in it together: not only did I try and teach everyone my own techniques, I learned so much from everyone else. It reminded me of the thing I love most about photography: each person has his and her own way of seeing the world, and a unique way of capturing it. Having insight into that process is so valuable as a photographer, to continue to learn and grow.
I only wish that we would have had more time at the end for more editing, but we had so much fun out shooting in Yerba Buena Gardens that we ran a little short on time. I know that seeing how others edit their shots is helpful, so I’ll give a play-by-play below of how I edited some of my favorite shots from the photo walk:
Laurie is a pediatrician with curly teal hair, beautiful blue eyes, and a fabulous personality. I so enjoyed snapping her portrait in the dramatic, dappled sunlight of the late evening. I made sure to have her turn her head just enough toward me, to get her eye in a little pocket of light, and I waited for an in-between moment to catch a soft, genuine expression. The wind blew her hair across her face, and over to the side, and the trees in the background continued the line of her hair, splaying out to the right, and it was a perfect, natural, dynamic, yet soft moment.
To edit this image, I first uploaded it into VSCO Cam, and used my favorite color filter in there, Preset A6. A6 lends a very natural, beautifully-toned, not-overdone look. I used it at full strength, and then added just a touch of sharpening, by going up +1. I also upped the exposure by +1 because she had been in the shadows, and I wanted to make sure to have some visible detail in those shadows. The filter also darkened the image a bit, and I wanted to counteract that.
Lastly, I opened the image up in Snapseed and used the brush tool to up the exposure at +.3 strength, to slightly brighten the iris of her eye and make it pop just a touch more.
Caitlin is a girlfriend from high school who surprised me by attending the photo walk. She also was kind enough to model her gorgeous self for me to snap a portrait. I noticed the lines on the side of a building made a really cool grid, and had some light hitting it from the side. I had Caitlin line up specifically next to the line vertically cutting a third of the photo, making sure to include the horizontal line above her head to frame her, and had her turn her face to the sun.
To edit, I used my trusty A6 filter in VSCO, and sharpened +1. The light was so perfect on her genuine, smiling face, and her black jacket contrasted so beautifully with the light gray wall, that I didn’t have to do much at all to make this photo dynamic.
At one point, we all went behind the waterfall and found some awesome light streaming through the cascading water. Beautiful Khadijah was kind enough to model for quite a while, as a ton of us snapped her portrait. I tried to wait for other people to not be in the background of my shot, but it wasn’t happening, and I didn’t want to lose the little sun light in the top right corner, so I shot the photo anyway. I loved how there were flecks of water crossing between Khadijah and my lens.
To edit, first I wanted to remove the distracting person walking in the background, and the waterfall light in the bottom of the frame. To do this, I used Pixelmator’s repair tool.
Next, I used RNI Flashback to apply a filter. RNI Flashback is such a special app, and I’ll write an entire review dedicated to it soon, but basically it mimics what it thinks real film chemicals would do to your photo, and it never recreates the same filter twice, ever. It brings out such amazing tones, and it did so with this shot. Once I applied the RNI Flashback processing, I opened the photo in Snapseed to very gently brighten up her face just a touch, by using the dodge and burn tool at +5, and swiping over her face just once. I also used the saturation brush at +10 strength and painted over the orange light in the photo to make the light stand out. I cropped the photo just a touch, because the background behind her to the left of the image, was distracting.
This lovely lady, Chelsea, let me borrow her ExoLens with a Zeiss telephoto lens that isn’t even out yet, and it was gorgeous! I loved the way it made it possible for me have such a lovely out-of-focus background, for a portrait taken with iPhone. I think the result is so high-quality. I want one of these lenses now!
Because of the cool, retro vibe of Chelsea’s round sunnies, I thought a film look would be perfect. I used RNI Flashback, lowered the grain and dust to halfway, and sharpened just a little bit.
I really enjoyed the first activity we did as a group, which was shooting in square, because I rarely do that. It was cool to reframe my thinking and play with the symmetry of the shape, focusing on architectural lines to help me enhance my subjects. Usually I’m photographing my babies, in natural areas like fields, so it was very different and very fun to shoot adults next to buildings. I think it’s important to remember to try things that aren’t your usual style, and move a little bit out of your comfort zone. You may find you enjoy shooting more styles than you thought!
Overall, I want to thank Apple, Jeff, Mike, Ian, Tom, all of the Apple Store Union Square creatives, and everyone who came and made the photo walk experience valuable, memorable, and fun. It really was such an honor.
(If you enjoyed these step-by-step edits, I am wrapping up an ebook all about iPhone photography detailing how I shoot and edit. I’ll release it soon!)
I’ll be hosting a fun iPhone photography event in SF this next week, on Wednesday the 15th, at the brand new Union Square Apple Store. If you’re in town, come join me!
You can look at my review over on The Brooks Review, here.
I’m so excited and honored that 3 of my photos are included in Apple’s Shot on iPhone6s campaign that launched today! To read more about it, check out my quotes in this article on TIME, or read more about the campaign in this article on Mashable.
Please keep an eye out if you see any of them anywhere: magazines, billboards, in the Tube, etc.–I’d be so excited if you could snap a photo and send it my way!
I still can’t believe it, and am beyond grateful and excited about this entire campaign. I can’t wait to show Sloane her face on billboards: I’m sure she’ll think it’s only natural that every 3 year old has one!
Recently, when I posted my review of some iPhone photo editing apps I love, here, a guy (@daveday on Twitter) tweeted asking me if I’d ever heard of, or tried RNI Films. I hadn’t, but now it’s one of my absolute favorites. (Thanks, Dave!)
My usual go-to remains, VSCO, despite shorter-lived favorings of Litely and Mextures. I still love the latter 2 apps, and use them, but I love film-emulators, and VSCO just has so many options, beautifully-toned filters, and endless possible adjustments. I always go back.
However, this time, something is different. I had my usual obsession with RNI Films, went back to VSCO, and then something strange happened: I went back to RNI Films again, and use it at least 50% of the time. Previously, my go-to for black and white filters, especially when I wanted them to truly look like film, was BLACK App. I love it, and I’ve reviewed it before, but RNI has more black and white film filters, and they are beautiful.
RNI stands for Really Nice Images, and it’s true. Also, the app is free in the app store. I can’t even believe this beautiful app is free. With the free download, it offers a good amount of filter selections already, and allows you to purchase more selections via in-app purchases: 2 negative films packs, a black and white films pack, a vintage films pack, and an instant films pack. Each pack is $3.99, which I believe is well-worth it, yet you can get by without purchasing any of them, and still have plenty of nice choices. There’s also one pack, that you can get for free if you share it on Facebook. Initially, I only purchased the black and white pack and the negatives packs. It’s within the last week, after loving the app so much, I bought the rest.
The film filters truly look like film emulsions. The resulting images are richly-toned and beautifully-textured. It offers film stocks from Kodak, Ilford, Agfa, Rollei Digibase, and Fuji. There are 5 types of film presets divided up into categories: Negative, BW, Vintage, Slide and Instant. I use the Negative and Black and White packs the most often. My favorites of the filters for color in the Negative group are the Agfa Optima 200, the various Fuji Superia options, and the Kodak Portra options. My favorites for black and white in the BW group are Agfa Scala 200, Ilford Delta 100 HC, Ilford Delta 400, 800 and 3200.
The app is simple to use. First, upon opening it, you load your image, and it asks you whether you’d like to straighten or crop. Then you move to the next screen, where there are 4 simple icons to select from. Click on the little arrow to go back to the previous, first screen. Click on the film icon to select an emulsion, on the wrench and screwdriver icon to fine tune, or on the arrow to export back out to the photos folder. It’s intuitive and clean, no library of previously-edited images to wade though, gallery to publish to, or shop to accidentally click on, a la VSCO. It’s purely editing.
The fine-tuning features are similar to VSCO, with the ability to adjust brightness, contrast, clarity, grain, shadows, highlights, pre-warmth, post-warmth, pre-tint, post-tint, saturation, sharpen, vignette, fade, and dust, all on a sliding scale, which I appreciate, and prefer to VSCO’s tick scale. I rarely, if ever, use these features, and if I do, it’s mainly opting to up a little brightness, contrast, or sharpen a touch. I’d like to think it’s because my images don’t need it past the filters, but I think RNI just does a really great job with their emulsions as-is.
It would be easy to say that RNI makes my images look like film, because I shoot with a Fujifilm X100T that already makes my images look like film. But, even my iPhone photos end up looking like beautiful, authentic film. Every one of the images in this post, is shot with my iPhone 6S Plus, save for this last one, which was shot with my iPhone5.
Of all of the film-emulating apps so far, this is my favorite, and I believe it’s the best when it comes to capturing a true film look.
You can download RNI Films here in the app store.