iOS 11: Master Portrait Mode Photography With the iPhone

Starting with the iPhone 7 Plus, Apple brought DSLR-like effects to a billion iPhone users with Portrait Mode. Portrait Mode uses a dual camera system (as well as machine learning). It makes your subject stand out from the background with a blurry, shallow focus effect. While taking a Portrait Mode photo hasn’t significantly changed in iOS 11, it’s worthwhile to give a summary. Here’s how to use your iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8 Plus, or iPhone X to master Portrait Mode photography.


First, let’s talk about bokeh. It can be pronounced “bOH-kay” or “bOH-kuh.” It’s a Japanese word that refers to “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.” Bokeh isn’t just about blur; it’s an art form that captures light in an abstract way. In the image below, you can see how I created bokeh in the city.

Doing Portrait Mode photography by blurring city lights.
The bokeh effect on city lights

The way each point of light becomes softer, round, and translucent is what bokeh is. Blur is just the tool used to create bokeh. What makes Portrait Mode different than a DSLR is that the iPhone creates the blur using software. It’s computational bokeh. With a DSLR camera, it’s all about the hardware. There are special bokeh lenses you can buy, or create it manually by changing the focus to create a shallow depth-of-field.

Portrait Mode

To get started with Portrait Mode, open up the camera app. Swipe left once and you’ll see Portrait. As with any photo, portrait photos are best shot in full light. However, Apple has improved the low light capability of Portrait Mode with the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X.

You’ll want to position yourself about 2-3 feet from your subject. If you’re too close, you’ll see text appear on the screen that says to move further away. Once you take the picture, it will process for a second, then appear in camera roll. It happens effortlessly, with no additional tweaking.

Doing Portrait Mode photography with iPhone.

Depending on the subject, it won’t be perfect. There will sometimes be tiny points of areas around the edges of the subject that may not be blurred. This can happen if you use Portrait Mode on a person with curly or poofy hair.

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