You no longer need to buy a big and expensive DSLR with a insanely large lens to get “professional-quality” photos with shallow depth of field.
If you have an iPhone (7 Plus, 8 Plus, or X), Google Pixel 2 or 2 XL, or Samsung Galaxy Note 8, you can already get great pro-level shots with minimal effort thanks to their “portrait modes” (“Live focus” on the Samsung).
Made popular by the iPhone Plus models in recent years, portrait mode is what’s responsible for those pics where the the foreground (usually a person) is super-sharp, but the background is blurred out, giving that dramatic effect you usually only get from pros with seriously good camera gear. Smartphones have been doing the trick since at least the HTC One M8, and it’s almost a standard feature now on flagships.
But first, you should understand what bokeh is. Bokeh is the out-of-focus portion of a photo that’s achieved when a camera captures light through a large aperture (smaller f-stop number; i.e. f/1.8).
Though apertures on smartphone cameras have gotten better, they still can’t produce the same kind of bokeh a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a fast lens could.
So they cheat. Many of today’s smartphones use dual cameras, which offer slightly different perspectives of anything in the field of view. Using some fancy math, the phone can then measure the distance of objects and isolate the background. This is what the iPhone X and Galaxy Note 8 do.
On the Pixel 2 XL, there’s only a single camera, so Google’s using machine learning to identify what’s in an image to figure out what’s the foreground and background.
It’s ultra-nerdy stuff, and none of them replicate a DSLR’s bokeh perfectly, but it’s good enough to fool most people who are looking at such photos on Instagram or Facebook.
Generally, the creamier or blurrier the background is, the better. But the photos that phones produce can vary greatly in sharpness around the edges and color.
We put the three phones through various scenarios and here’s what we got:
The iPhone X uses the 2x telephoto lens to zoom in on a subject and blur out the background. We shot this photo on Mashable’s rooftop at around 2:30 p.m. ET. It was a cloudy day and the sun wasn’t too harsh.
Notice how the iPhone X’s camera overexposes the background and blows out all the details, while the AI-based Pixel 2 doesn’t. Google’s image processing also retains greater sharpness in the face, although the overall image is slightly darker.
The Note 8 is unique because its “Live Focus” mode lets you adjust the intensity of the bokeh after the shot’s taken. Above we have the background set to the default (about 75 percent) compared to 100 percent. You could say the Note 8 is more versatile since it’s possible to dial the bokeh up and down as you’d like.
There’s no better photo. If you prefer less bokeh, that’s great. And if you want more, that’s also fine.
Both the iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL have Portrait modes for selfies. Once again, the iPhone X struggles to properly expose the background without blowing all the highlights, whereas the Pixel 2 XL’s software-based bokeh has no such issues.
The Pixel 2 also isolates the background much better. Look at the right ear and you’ll see how the iPhone X’s background isn’t as clean.
The Note 8 has no “Live Focus” mode for selfies, so it was automatically out of the running in this test.
The transparency test is always a fun one to test on these phone cameras. In the past, the iPhone 8 Plus and Note 8’s dual cameras have usually failed to properly see through transparent objects like glass. They usually get confused pretty easily.
They’re still pretty bad (see how they blur out the handle on the shoe-shaped glass in the middle). While the Pixel 2 XL’s not flawless, it does a much better job recognizing the handle is part of the body.
These aren’t portraits, but it’s fun to experiment with depth of field for shots. They draw your eyes to an in-focus subject and make close-up shots pop. The iPhone X does a great job in this indoor close-up shot of this lovely overpriced salad. The background is blurred just right.
The Pixel 2 XL’s color is simply too dark. On the other hand, the Note 8’s adjustable focus is quite nice. It’s really a tossup which one shot it best. You decide.
And lastly, we had to do an outdoor close-up test. Like the photo of the salad, the results are mixed. All phones took great shots with different levels of bokeh. It’s impossible to pick our favorite. It’s really a matter of personal preference.
A+’s for everyone on this round.
Ultimately, all phones performed really well. These new portrait modes are so good now we can confidently tell most non-professionals they don’t need a real camera anymore.
But we have to really give it up to Google and the Pixel 2 XL. Whereas software-based solutions used to be garbage — they were crap on the Nexus phones when the feature was called “Lens Blur” — Google’s machine learning in the Pixel 2 XL shows it’s possible to replicate bokeh to great effect without dual cameras.
The Pixel 2 XL took the best portrait mode shots in almost all tests.
While the Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode photos were darker than on iPhone X and the Note 8, it took the best shots in almost all tests. Details are sharp and the outlines where the blurred background meets the foreground are better than the competition.
Sure, the photos need a little retouching (the brightness needs to be bumped up just a smidge), but that’s really easy to do in an app like Google Photos.