Portrait mode is boring, and a bad reason to buy an iPhone 7 Plus

The iPhone 7 Plus has a new feature, rolled out via a software update Monday. It’s called portrait mode, and gives users the option of artificially adding bokeh to the background of their shots. (Bokeh is the word for that fuzzy, out-of-focus texture you’re used to seeing in the background of images from expensive cameras.)

Apple seems to think this is the most exciting thing about its 2016 smartphones. The company went so far as to sprinkle some fake bokeh across its iPhone 7 launch event invitations.

That’s a heavy burden for a single feature to bear on an otherwise somewhat uninspired smartphone. (The iPhone 7 Plus’s camera quality is very good, but not amazing. It does feature a telephoto lens, which is very cool.)

Some people, including my colleague Melia Robinson, love portrait mode.

Melia portrait modeCourtesy of Melia RobinsonBoth photos are great, but I prefer the one where I can see the beach.

I spent some time with it this week and…it’s fine. Adequate. Good enough. Seems to do the job, as long as the job is “digitally fuzz some smartphone photo backgrounds.”

But I’m not entirely clear as to why you should care, if you’re a consumer.

I don’t see why background fuzz would improve anyone’s photography, and I’m not sure I understand why people think it would.

Portrait mode rafi selfieRafi Letzter/Business InsiderA mirror selfie taken in portrait mode

Do the images look like they came from a wide-aperture lens on a DSLR? Not even a little bit. The texture has neither the richness nor depth of bokeh from an honest-to-god DSLR lens. It reminds me more of a thin film of a spilled milk.

Love wedding marriage photography cameraRafi Letzter/Tech InsiderThe bokeh from a Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 lens is rich and textured, the product of real light passing through real glass.

The texture can’t even match the natural bokeh of an iPhone 7 lens without any software enhancement. 

The natural bokeh of an iPhone 7 close-focus shot.Rafi Letzter/Business InsiderNatural bokeh in an iPhone 7 close-up shot has a textured look, and grows steadily more intense as the image recedes into the background.

But the deeper issue here is that the iPhone is (poorly) mimicking the wrong feature of DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

The point of a fancy camera isn’t to fuzz your background out of focus. A DSLR or mirrorless camera exists to offer you a level of control over your framing and exposures impossible with a device you stick in your pocket.

That kind of camera lets you change up your lens, and fine-tune your focal length and exposures to make precise, careful shots. Depth of field is just one of the many things you can play with  — impacting the degree and intensity of the bokeh in your image. But it’s not the point of the camera.

Photo groom wedding laughingRafi Letzter/Business InsiderBuy an expensive camera if it will help you nail your exposure and framing at the perfect moment, not because it will fuzz up your background.

And portrait mode isn’t about offering you control. Instead, it takes control away. Flip over from regular shooting into portrait mode and your camera will only work if the light’s just right, if you stand just so, and if you’re the right distance from your subject. Plus, the autofocus slows way down, so everything in the scene has to freeze while it works.

Your reward on the other side of that process? A more or less successful effort to apply a flat surface blur to everything the camera thinks is behind your subject. It’s a completely binary setting. There’s no tweaking or adjustment to be done. And the result, as often as not, looks more than a little unnatural.

(Two big tells: Nothing in front of the subject gets fuzzed up, only the background. And the line between the bokeh and the in-focus region of the image is unnaturally sharp.)

Portrait mode coffee cup starbucksRafi Letzter/Business InsiderPortrait mode slaps a surface blur on everything behind a sharp line in the air.

To Apple’s credit, portrait mode doesn’t often make massive errors either. That isn’t something you can say about the Chinese Huawei P9, the last phone to attempt this feat with a dual lens. And there are some idealised situations where it could almost fool you.

But mostly, portrait mode seems to feed the same desire that drives sales of the crummy, overpriced, low-end DSLRs that crowd the consumer market: Not to make better photos, but to make fancier photos.

Portrait mode images are, if nothing else, recognisably different from the photos you’d get from any other major smartphone (excluding the more regional P9). Throw them on your Instagram, and you’ll benefit from an Oooh! factor next to everyone else’s photos. But it’s the Oooh! factor of a high-end lifestyle product, not a more interesting or higher-quality image.

The effect’s value then is as a class signifier. It’s basically an Instagram filter available only to people willing and able to hand over at least $769 for an Apple phone. And that cache will inevitably erode away as more and more people buy in and swamp each other’s social feeds with bad digital bokeh.

This is too bad, because the technique behind portrait mode is incredibly exciting. For many people, the iPhone 7 Plus will be their first encounter with computational photography, a technology I wrote back in April will change the world. Computational cameras use multiple lenses and sensors to build images that are greater than the sum of their parts.

The 16-eyed, computational Light L16 has the body of a thick smartphone but promises to offer users the opportunity to intuitively create images as interesting and varied as a mid-range DSLR with a pack of lenses. When that power shows up in the back of smartphones in a big way, it could really change the way normal people shoot photos.

But this overblown filter effect will get stale and boring fast, and it’s not a good reason to shell out for a smartphone.


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