How to use Portrait Mode on an older iPhone

Bokeh and blur effects apps have been available for the iPhone for practically as long as the iPhone has been in existence. However, when Apple launched the iPhone 7 Plus with Portrait Mode – which creates a faux depth-of-field so your photos look more like DSLR quality – developers have focused more on, well, focusing. That is, blur effects photo apps have started popping up that feature some kind of depth effect similar to Apple's Portrait Mode for the iPhone 7 Plus.

A few apps recently launched in the App Store that feature background blurring software, which produce a similar effect as Portrait Mode. So, if you're feeling depth effect envy, but don't want to buy an iPhone 7 Plus, you can make your photos pop with your current model phone.

There's an app for that

The two apps I'm focusing on right now are called Depth Effects (opens in new tab) and Patch: Smart Portrait Editor (opens in new tab). The former costs $3.99, while the latter is free to download with a $1.99 in-app purchase to unlock the ability to remove the watermark. Both have unique features that make it possible to create depth effect on your photos.

Depth Effects

Depth Effects lets you take photos using the in-app camera or select a picture from your photo library. Once a photo is loaded, you can tap the Blur feature, and then tap Mask to get started. You can select a brush style, either round or square, and increase or decrease the brush opacity and adjust the size.

Then, use your finger to select an area that you want to apply the blur effect and "paint" it. You can zoom in on the photo to get more details.

Because you can adjust the blur opacity, you can start with a strong blur in the background, and lighten the effect as you get closer to the subject of your photo.

If you make a mistake, you can tap the reverse tool to erase an area you've painted. Tap the View tool to see where the mask is applied on the picture.

In addition to the blur feature, Depth Effects includes a set of lens flare filters and glare filters, as well as typical color filters, all of which have fine-tuning adjustments.

The masking tool is a little weird. When you place your finger on the screen, the mark is applied about a half-inch above it. It's great for being able to see where the tool is being applied, but is hard to get used to. I think I'd prefer the tool to apply directly under my finger.

I love the flare and glare effects. They are well made and look more realistic than most flare and glare filters I've used in other apps. I wouldn't use them with a depth effect photo, though. That would distract from the overall look.

Patch: Smart Portrait Editor

Patch starts off by automatically rendering background blur for you. It pretty much never works completely right, but the good news is, you can manually make adjustments.

You can't take a picture from inside Patch, you'll have to select a picture from your photo library. After the automatic blur is rendered, you can tap the editing tool at the top of the screen and add or erase the effect on different areas. You can increase or decrease the size of the tool, and adjust the strength of the effect. You can't apply different strengths to different areas, though. The entire image will apply the same blur effect.

I really like how Patch automatically applies the background blur. It makes it much easier to simply clean up the mistakes instead of having to start from scratch and blur the entire background. It may only have one feature, but the developers spent a lot of time working on making that feature work well.

But how do they compare to Portrait Mode?

I tested both Depth Effects and Patch against the iPhone 7 Plus's Portrait Mode. I must admit, I was surprised at how good the two apps performed. Other than my own minor painting errors, the depth effect looked nearly as good as the effect in Portrait Mode.

One thing I like about using the apps over using Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus is that you don't have to set up the shot so meticulously. When taking a picture with the iPhone 7 Plus, you have to be a certain distance away and the lighting has to be good. Using Depth Effects or Patch, you can take an action shot in the dark from very close range and still be able to produce depth effect.

The thing that makes Portrait mode better than using an effects app is that all you have to do is take the picture and the software produces a near-perfect background blur that you don't have to put any work into. It is much easier to use, which is great because, it's not that often that I feel like sitting down to paint a picture after I've taken a snapshot.

In the end, I prefer using Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus to using an app, but if you don't have this particular model, Depth Effects and Patch are good alternatives.

I prefer Patch over Depth Effects simply because I love how it automatically renders the background blur. Even though you still have to fix some of the masking errors, it works fairly well. Some may prefer having the options available in Depth Effects, though. There are more tools and more customizations available.

How about you?

Do you use an app to reproduce the depth effect that Portrait Mode offers on the iPhone 7 Plus? Which is your favorite and why? Stay tuned for our Battle of the 'fauxtrait' mode apps review.

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).

  • I usually do it using Facetune. It offers a blur effect as well as a defocus effect. Works really well.
  • Does any of these apps save the picture with meta data? I mean location and time of the original?
  • Notable exceptions that FabFocus is not in the list (has a mode to do it automatically for you) and also there is another one I used in the past called Tadaa SLR but the later is not iOS 10 optimized.
  • This isn't a list of the best apps for depth effect. That's coming soon. FabFocus is on it!