iPhone 7 Portrait Mode review: Magic in its imperfections

Update: Pro photographers have shared their tips on how to get the most out of Portrait Mode on iPhone 7 on apple.com (opens in new tab):

In a short time, Portrait mode has become a favorite feature for iPhone 7 Plus users, with people capturing a range of subjects with the stunning depth-of-field effect, bringing them closer to the subjects they love. iPhone is the most popular camera in the world. And its popularity increased among photographers in 2016, according to Flickr. Below are a few photos and tips from photographers who are finding creative ways to use Portrait mode everyday.

When I first downloaded the iOS 10.1 beta and began experimenting with Portrait mode, Apple's DSLR-inspired depth of field option for the iPhone 7 Plus telephoto camera, I did so with pretty low expectations. Software-based background blur is hard — and even though the iPhone 7 Plus has optical assistance thanks to its wide-angle and telephoto lenses working in concert to create a depth map, it's incredibly difficult to deliver the same kind of results you might see from high-end cameras and lenses.

But, as I discovered, the more you explore the world around you with Portrait Mode, the less that all matters. I started testing Portrait mode by doing a comparison against an entry-level DSLR, which gave me a good baseline for its photographs: It's not about whether the Portrait camera result was technically better than its DSLR counterpart, but whether the recipients of the photographs believed it was.

Because when it comes down to it, we take photographs to capture memories. To evoke feelings. We take pictures of our animals, our kids, and our friends to freeze-frame a moment in time. And what matters most about those images is that they properly capture that emotion — unless you're into photography for the art of the craft, chances are you're not going to care if you snap a perfect "bokeh" blur behind your pet.

I've taken 22 car and plane trips in 2016. I use my photographs to remember events, trips, and exciting moments in time that might otherwise fall into the abyss. Without my cameras, I don't know if I'd have remembered the exact taste of hot chicken in Nashville, or the feeling I got when a bobcat crossed my path in Yosemite. Images have become memory aids for the mundane and the fantastic, giving its recipients a smile when they sometimes need it most.

This is why Portrait mode works as well as it does: A depth of field effect allows you to focus your viewer's attention on part of an image. A portrait of a family member amidst a chaotic background might be unremarkable without that focus, but racking in gives us an essential snapshot of their personality.

Portrait mode does so with a dreamlike, fuzzy quality that doesn't compare to DSLRs so much as past boutique film cameras: Ricoh, Leica, Polaroid, Kodachrome film — all of these produce specific looks, giving memories a tint and emphasis they may not have otherwise had. The same goes for the iPhone 7 Plus. It's not a replacement for a DSLR in your pocket. But in some ways, it might be better.

The iPhone's telephoto lens is the primary capture for Portrait mode photos, and it ships with a f/2.8 aperture that prefers portraits to macros, and well-lit shots to evening snaps. Portrait mode won't fire if the iPhone doesn't think it can get a good shot at 1/30 shutter speed or better, though you can still take a non-blurred shot with the telephoto lens using this mode (unlike regular Photo mode, which will automatically switch to a 2x zoom of the wide-angle lens). It's also not really built for object-based shots just yet, and has particular trouble with mirrored surfaces like glass. And when you shoot with it, your iPhone 7 Plus gets hot — not to trigger temperature warnings or make you want to set it down, but certainly enough to make it a great hand warmer in the winter (and less fun in the summer).

But I've rather grown to love the mode's limitations: It forces me to think about what I'm looking for in my shot in a way that most mobile "point, shoot, forget" photography doesn't these days. For me, shooting Portrait almost feels more like shooting with an old 24-exposure one-use film camera than a traditional digital machine. Yes, I still have endless room for shots (depending on my iCloud and local storage), but I think more about the composition for photos I take in Portrait mode. And, often enough, those shots have ended up being my favorites of the day.

Portrait mode's poor low-light tolerance actually makes for some beautifully textured shots when you get a low-light subject with bright lights in the background — shooting carnivals at night, my fiancé in our kitchen, and my friend skating at sunset resulted in some of the most beautiful grain I've seen in iPhone photographs. It's the kind of grain that the wide-angle camera usually smooths out when the iPhone's image signal processor processes a picture, but smartly has chosen to leave in for the telephoto lens.

Going back to my point earlier: Why is that grain really important, if we're not taking photographs for the art, but for the memories? To me, that texture makes memories feel real in a way that many hyper-smoothed mobile shots don't. It's a grain we associate with, again, old school film memories — a time when every snapped shot was special, because we took time to compose them.

I've had the most success with truly special Portrait mode shots when it comes to people — the only officially supported subject in this mode — but I've still managed to grab a wide variety of beautiful object-and-pet-related shots. The mode won't automatically grab and focus the subject like it will with Portrait's face detection, but you can still manually focus by tapping anywhere on the viewfinder.

Doing so, I've gotten some of my favorite shots of our dogs and cat, as well as some gorgeous fall atmosphere and product shots. Again, this mode won't perfectly replicate a DSLR — and it still has many issues to figure out when it comes to cutting out fur, glass, and similarly-colored objects to its forefront. (Fences, leaves, and other patterned surfaces remain a challenge for the mode, though it's certainly improved since its initial beta release.) But it doesn't need to be perfect for me to love the results — nor does it seemingly matter to folks on Twitter or Instagram, who have wowed over some of the iPhone 7 Plus images I've put out over the last week.

There are going to be people who don't like the iPhone 7 Plus's effect — who label it cheesy, or "unreal," or awkward. There are also going to be people whose entire Instagram is suddenly full of Portrait mode shots of their children, or dogs. And there are going to be budding photographers who use this as a stepping stone for learning composition and depth.

But at the end of the day, all great photographs come down to this: Does it catch your eye? Does it tell a story? Does it evoke emotion?

And for all three, Portrait mode is a resounding yes. It's a new generation of specialty camera, and has made carrying an iPhone 7 Plus as my daily driver completely worth it. I can't wait to see how Apple improves both the mode and future hardware, but in the meantime, I'm looking forward to a year of Portrait mode photography — the experiments, the mistakes, and the beauty in both.

You can experiment yourself with Portrait mode by downloading iOS 10.1, which is available now, and browse through many of my images below.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

24 Comments
  • Yeah, I'm really diggin the portrait mode when it's done right. Definitely processes the "bokeh" a lot faster than Samsungs Selective Focus mode. The Pixel XL version is faster than Samsungs but still a little slower to process than the iPhone.
  • Haven't tried it out yet. But I got to say those are some really great nature shots you took. Can't wait to try mine out. I'm regretting now I didn't bump up to 256gb. Sent from the iMore App
  • Digging the Portrait and double lens on the 7 plus, but other than that like the pictures taken from my Pixel XL more. Surprisingly, Google and Samsung have overtaken Apple in camera performance. Hope next year Apple takes a bigger leap in camera and again take the top spot by some distance.
  • Please elaborate on what you mean by "Google and Samsung have overtaken Apple in camera performance"... my understanding is the new Pixel phones use much slow processors compared to the iPhone.
  • Yeah, drop that Pixel XL in a toilet and see if it still works afterwards.
  • I do agree that the pixel is taking great JPEG with the HDR plus and Samsung colours and contrast are beautiful. I really don't like iPhone DSP and hopefully the raw files are better, from what I saw on YouTube iPhone 7 raw seems to be beautiful. I have access to an iPhone 7 maybe will try the raw sometime. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I just got my 7 plus and do not know anything about it yet. I am reading!!!
  • Great article! I'm wondering Serenity, do you shoot a majority of your Portrait mode shots with the actual iPhone in portrait orientation? Or landscape?
  • Landscape, primarily (I prefer it).
  • That was very well said, Serenity. For most of my working life I was involved with commercial photography. First, as a fashion and product photographer and Tv commercial shooter (Clairol Summer Blond), then running a commercial film lab. What Apple is trying to do here, and we need to remember that even with 10.1 this is still in beta, is something that's real easy with a lens, but very difficult with software. One reason it does work as well as it does is because of the zones of focus and depth Apple is using to blur more as the object is further away. Other systems on smartphones that do blurring just use one zone, and it's pretty obvious. One thing that's interesting is the objections to this removing stray hair. Yes, it does, much of the time. But I doubt that people are aware of how much retouching time, at first, manually with a fine brush, and later digitally, that we would spend doing that very thing! So we didn't do it all the time, but often, for a properly manicured look, we did. It will be interesting to see how Apple handles this very tough thing in software. Of course, right now, it blurs edges and doesn't blur areas that should be. But that's why it's still in beta. Quite frankly, it does a much better job than I thought it would. I hope that Apple will be able to speed the lens a half stop to f 2.5 next year, and possibly use the same wide angle sensor. That would make a big difference. I do wonder if Apple is stabilizing the tele lens electronically now.
  • Ahh, what a different viewpoint on the portrait mode. There's such a big focus on the technical quality and capability (and lack there-of) and I am guilty of thinking in this manner toward this new functionality. It's refreshing to see it in the manner you have expressed here Serenity. I have the 7+ and have been using the 10.1 beta for this mode. I have captured some really great shots with it and others have been just terrible. One time it didn't even do the 'depth effect' on an outdoor, sun-to-start-setting-soon shot of a toddler which I am super bummed about, it was perfect and the live preview showed it but captured it without the effect and is now just a decent shot with everything in the frame in focus, not just the toddler.
    However it is usually really good and am looking forward to improvements and in the meantime, work with what I have. It offers some really great potential. For a device in our pocket, it is a really great feature. Also, I really love photo #5, of that lady against the orange tree. It is a really captivating photo and the normal photo wouldn't be nearly so good, because of the background blur.red done by portrait mode.
  • Hero image at the top is amazing. And those puppy pictures, so cute (especially #9 in the slideshow!).
  • Interesting. Is there away to adjust the amount of the effect? It seems to only blur so much and then stop. For example I was expecting the ship in the seashore shot to be a complete blur.
  • Depends on the distance and the lighting. The two lenses can only map so many distances, and a complete hyper-focus effect would look odd so far away.
  • look pretty awesome to me I got the 7 and not the plus gotta say I am a little jelly :)
  • Handy sometimes. Wait till it's the most overused technique of the year. Doesn't look real to me and I shoot blurred backgrounds all the time with Pro equipment.
  • I'd frequently use wider apertures and faster shutter speeds to control depth of field on certain shots. I've always liked the 'focusing' on the subject effect. I haven't see this as used on other phones, but it's a nice start for the iPhone. I'd like to see it trickle down to the 7, as the Plus phones are more than I'll carry. Select software focus blue isn't easy, and I appreciate manufacturers working to that end. Hm. It looks like this is a product of the two lenses of the Plus?
  • That's software *and* the two lenses of the Plus, yes?
  • The 7 plus' portrait mode is very impressive . Very happy customer here
  • I think it's a handy feature in certain scenarios, but I don't see how it's any different than some of the other phone cameras that produce a blurred effect - even the 7 can do it if you have a distinct subject in the foreground. And I'm not normally a troll like this, but all of a sudden the grain in low-light is artistic and intentional, instead of looking poor? Sounds very apologetic to me, to be honest.
  • I apologize in advance but the title is a little misleading. Does the regular iPhone 7 have this Portrait mode feature?
  • No, only the plus and it's dual lenses. It is funny they can do this with single cameras on android but can't on the iPhone. All about that upsell.
  • Would be awesome if they bring this to the smaller model iPhone 8. Unless they trim down those huge bezels so it is not so monstrous for it's screen size.
  • This can be done with the regular 7 too. Apple just uses this to get more plus buyers. Simple app creates the same image Sent from the iMore App