iPhone XR camera review: Confessions of an Instagram star (wannabe)

I've spent over a month shooting with the iPhone XR, and let me tell you that I really don't know what I expected (cue Arrested Development theme song and chicken dances).

At first, I was hesitant about going back to a single lens camera: I've been shooting with the iPhone 7 Plus for the last two years without any issues whatsoever.

I'm not even being hyperbolic when I say the iPhone 7 Plus never once had me wanting a better iPhone camera, even when my boyfriend got his iPhone 8 Plus. I was super excited to see what the 8 Plus camera was like, but then I was all "Meh. Yeah. Mine does the same and if the quality isn't as hot, I can always use my favorite photo editing apps. Thank u, next".

Fast-forward to two years later and I was able to get my hands on a neon yellow iPhone XR. Not going to lie, when I saw the lineup for the new iPhones, my eyes instantly bugged out at the camera on the XS Max, but I'd be lying if I said the XR didn't pique my interest the most.

"So, wait…"

I began to process what I was seeing as the September iPhone event rolled on.

"It's a single lens camera… But I can shoot Portrait Mode? Is… is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?"

I was elated. Maybe I didn't have to lust after the iPhone XS Max (and thus it's massive price-tag…) and could pick up an iPhone that shot just as well! Maybe I didn't have to worry about Portrait mode limitations anymore! Maybe I could get similar quality photos to my DSLR!

Oh, was I wrong. Dead wrong.

… I mean, I was also a bit right, but let me be dramatic, please?

You'll understand what I mean if you read on.

First Impressions

After getting my iPhone XR, the first thing I did after setting up was to pull open the camera and turn on Portrait mode on the front-facing camera. While I loved my iPhone 7 Plus, one feature that drove me insane was the inability to take Portrait mode selfies. If I had a dollar for every single time I tried to set up my iPhone on a timer and take a Portrait mode selfie with the rear-facing camera, I'd be a millionaire.

I instantly fell in love with the selfie Portrait mode and played with all the settings. When I was done, I explored the camera a little bit more and snapped photos and videos in every mode. Turning on the grid helped even more than usual with a new little trick (I'll set into that in a sec!) and even video features like slo-mo and timelapse seemed more crisp and even.

Finally, I got to one of the camera modes I had been most excited for, which was Portrait Mode on the back. I quickly approached my boyfriend and snapped a few pictures of him through my ring light. I was thrilled! The photo quality was stunning. The control I had with the image settings before, during, and after my shot blew my mind.

The Good

While it looks like I'm about to lose my mind on the iPhone XR, please know that there are plenty of things I love about this phone when it comes to taking pictures.

The crisp, clear camera makes seeing your images on screen a total treat and allows you to adjust and tweak accordingly. When in Portrait mode, you can play with depth using a simple slider. This is super helpful if you're trying to grab a particular angle or blur a background into oblivion.

Portrait mode also allows you to play with things like natural, studio, and contour light. You can even set up a timer in Portrait mode if you want to run into frame for whatever reason. I particularly like layering filters over Portrait mode shots before snapping my photo, and after shooting, editing images overall feels the exact same as it was before, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Overall, if you're someone who likes to take pictures of friends and family with their iPhone effortlessly and edit them in a snap, whether it be with an app or the straightforward editing features Apple provides you, then the iPhone XR is perfect for you.

The Bad, and the Ugly

For a minute, I thought my iPhone was broken.

The day I got it, I had gone out to a restaurant to shoot some food for my Instagram account (OoOoOo I'm 25! OoOoOo a millennial! OoOoOo I rent a house! OoOOOO FEAR MY MEDIOCRE LIFESTYLE AND PESSIMISTIC PERSONALITY OoOoOoOOOooo!!!!! Ps you can follow my Instagram account right here you are welcome) and was super excited to shoot with my new iPhone XR.

When I got my plate of food and set up my shot, Portrait mode wasn't working. The background wasn't blurred as I aimed the camera at my falafel balls. It was just a regular picture. The hell?

It was when I saw the 'No Person Detected' note at the top of my screen that I remembered that iPhone XR doesn't support Portrait mode on anything but human faces. Stupid human faces. Not even my falafel ... or my cat ... or a plant. Not even my niece's stuffed dragon.

So yeah. -1,000 points from Apple because the iPhone XR's Portrait mode does not work with anything besides faces. Talk about a major, major bummer-and-a-half. Oh, and did I mention that the Google Pixel 2 — a phone that also has only one lens — can pull off Portrait mode on a variety of normal subjects and items?

My hope is that Apple is working on some fantastic computational software that will make it possible in the future for me to use Portrait Mode with my iPhone XR.

Another thing that I found super disappointing about the iPhone XR camera when it came to Portrait mode was its inability to shoot in burst mode. While it's not the biggest drawback, it would be nice to rapid-fire your shots of a subject and pick through the best ones possible for further editing.

Speaking of editing, I really wish that Apple would get on the same bandwagon as apps like VSCO that allow users more modern and aesthetically pleasing filters and edits. Even if Apple incorporated something like FaceTune into their editing format so people can tweak and manipulate their selfies hardcore because apparently that's all we can do with Portrait mode.

The Verdict

As much as I love the look of the iPhone XR's camera, the crispness of the photo quality, the effortless editing features and the ability to snap a front-facing selfie, I cannot get over the fact that I can only shoot faces in Portrait mode.

Luckily for me, I know how to edit and tweak my photos in Photoshop so they look like they have a depth of field, but for other people, Portrait mode may be a feature they rely on when it comes to shooting DSLR-quality images of pets, food, objects, and much, much more.

Would I recommend the iPhone XR to people who love iPhoneography? Probably not. While the camera quality is excellent, the limitations with Portrait mode have seriously sunk my ship when it comes to this little yellow phone.

One silver lining, though? I get to research and find new apps and ways to turn my non-Portrait mode images into Portrait mode worthy snapshots directly on my iPhone, so that'll be a fun new adventure.

What do you think?

Are you a big fan of the single-lens iPhone XR? Do you prefer something with a double lens when it comes to iPhoneography? Maybe you don't even really care at all about Portrait mode?

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments down below, which iPhone is your favorite for shooting, and which editing apps topped your list this year. Good luck, and may the Portrait mode be ever in your favor!

Cella Lao Rousseau

Cella writes for iMore on social and photography. She's a true crime enthusiast, bestselling horror author, lipstick collector, buzzkill, and Sicilian. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @hellorousseau