Portrait Mode is an arty photo format added to the iOS Camera app as part of the iOS 10.1 update. It is currently available for the iPhone 7 Plus, the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X, because it depends on those devices' twin-lens camera setup.
Portrait Mode uses the twin-lens camera to create a much sought-after artistic depth effect, whereby the subject is in focus and the background is blurred. In photographic circles this effect is known as bokeh, and when done right it can look fantastic.
In this article we explain how to use Portrait Mode on the twin-lens iPhones, and offer a few tips that will help you take better shots using this feature. We also cover Portrait Lighting, an additional set of preset lighting filters available within Portrait Mode on the iPhone X and 8 Plus.
How to take Portrait Mode shots
Portrait Mode is accessed, like Photo, Video, Slo-Mo and the rest, via the rotating swipe menu at the bottom of the Camera app interface. (The full list of formats is now Time-Lapse, Slo-Mo, Video, Photo [default], Portrait, Square, Pano.)
Remember that Portrait Mode is only available if you've got a) a twin-lens iPhone and b) iOS 10.1 or later, so if the option isn't there then you need to either update your software or upgrade your phone.
Open the Camera app (remember you can just swipe in from the righthand edge of the Lock screen, or swipe up from the bottom of the Home screen and tap the camera icon in Control Centre), and swipe left one step in the rotating menu so that PORTRAIT is highlighted in yellow.
The app itself will offer a few tips on lighting, composition, position and so on, but you just need to tap the shutter button to take your portrait shot.
See that hexagon at the bottom, labelled Natural Light? That's the default setting for Portrait Lighting. Tap that and you'll be able to cycle through the other options - but more on Portrait Lighting later.
You can't create Live Photos with the Portrait effect, but the other options and settings are available. There is a timer: tap the clock icon at the top and tap either 3s or 10s, depending on whether you want to set a three- or ten-second timer. And you can turn flash on or off, and apply preset filters by pressing the three overlapping circles at the top right. (You can't apply these filters and Portrait Lighting effects at the same time.)
Portrait Mode tips
Portrait Mode is at heart an artistic effect, so we should probably be saying that there are no rules, experiment and be creative etc. But there are some rules, really.
You need the subject of the photo to be fairly close - the feature itself recommends 2.5 metres or less. The background, by contrast, needs to be significantly further away: the larger the gap between subject and background, the more pronounced the depth effect will be. If your subject is standing against a wall there will almost no effect at all.
Lighting is important, too. We found the effect struggles in artificial light indoors; in early morning sunlight the results were rather lovely. (We'll discuss how to add lighting effects digitally in the Portrait Lighting section, later.)
A normal shot (left) and the same shot with Portrait Mode's depth effect (right). By default iOS will keep both copies, although you can tell it not to
(Portrait Mode itself will remind you of these basic principles if it sense that the subject is too far away or there isn't enough light, although rest assured that you can happily ignore its advice and shoot anyway.)
As with other iPhone photos, you can change the point of focus: tap the object on screen.
Be aware of small items in the shot that may confuse or disrupt the depth effect. In this comprehensive test of the feature by Brian LW Moore, two ropes hanging across the front of a picture of a monkey caused the feature all kinds of confusion: it sensed that the thinner one was a foreground object so tried to place it in focus, but lost it in the background either side of the subject; and the thicker rope has a horrible error above it. (Here is the photo in question.)
In other words, simple compositions are generally best. Try to avoid stray bits and bobs that are liable to confuse the effect, particularly ones in front of the subject - or at least be aware that they may cause a few shots to come out as duds. Even loose strands of hair can confuse the feature, although it probably won't be noticeable.
Tips from the professionals
Those are the tips we've found from our experiences with Portrait Mode, but we're willing to concede that there are people out there who know even more about the subject than we do. We're talking about the professionals.
Happily, in a 6 December Newsroom article, Apple has collected a range of tips on using Portrait Mode from professional photographers that have tried out the feature. Here are some of the highlights.
Jeremy Cowart suggests you "cut out the distractions from your subject" and "try to find the shade and put the sun behind your subject as a nice back light." He adds that "pulling the exposure down just a hair really makes my images look more cinematic."
JerSean Golatt recommends that you "get up close to your subject to bring out the details".
Pei Ketron talked to Apple about the best ways of photographing animals with Portrait Mode. "Give your pup some space," she advises. "Portrait mode uses the telephoto lens, so a distance of about eight feet away is recommended. Have treats ready. You'll get the best results when your subject isn't moving."
Photo taken by Pei Ketron using Portrait Mode on iPhone 7 Plus, and used courtesy of the photographer and Apple
Finally, Benj Haisch spoke about the best conditions for Portrait Mode photography. "Having soft, diffused lighting will help with keeping the photo flattering to your subject," he explains. "Find a space that isn't too busy or distracting, as Portrait mode will create a photo that really pops."
For more advice from the professionals, take a look at How to use Portrait Mode (with professional results), by our colleagues on Digital Arts.
If you're using Portrait Mode on the iPhone 8 Plus or X (but not on the 7 Plus), there are some additional lighting filters to consider. These are collectively known as Portrait Lighting, a feature that's officially still in beta and can be rather unreliable, but occasionally produces nice results with very little effort.
When in Portrait Mode, tap the hexagon at the bottom and a small dial will pop. Swipe to cycle through your options.
There are five settings. The default is called Natural Light, which delivers the photo as nature intended (but still blurs the background, since it's still a Portrait Mode shot):
The second one is Studio Light, and is our favourite. This brightens up the highlights and under the right conditions can result in photos that look like they were taken in a studio. This one isn't quite at that level, but we'd still call it an improvement:
The third mode is Contour Light, and while less reliable than Studio Light it can sometimes improve a shot. It adds depth and shade to your subject's lowlights for improved definition. May result in the appearance of five o'clock shadows.
There are two more modes, and both work by cutting out the subject and putting them against a dark background, as if they're under dramatic stage lighting. The first is Stage Light, and as you'll see it's currently prone to messing up the cutting-out process. This will hopefully improve in the future.
Lastly, we've got Stage Light Mono, which is the same as Stage Light but puts the whole thing into black and white. As we've said we don't find the Stage Light effects at all reliable, but this last option occasionally produces nicely atmospheric renditions of barroom high-jinks.
How to manage Portrait Mode photos
Portrait Mode shots are stored in the Photos app, as normal. But it's possible to just view photos with the depth effect applied: go to the Albums section (the righthand icon in the bar at the bottom). Scroll down a bit and you'll see an album called Portrait (or Depth Effect, in older versions of iOS).
iOS 11 stores two versions of each photo you take in Portrait Mode: one with the depth effect applied, and one with conventional effects. But it does this secretly: you only see one image in the Photos app. If you want to see the original image on your iPhone you'll need to tap Edit and then tap the yellow Portrait banner at the top.
(It's easier to see the two photos if you plug your phone into a Mac and view the images via Image Capture or similar. You'll see the two versions stored separately.)
If you're still running iOS 10, you'll find that it does things a bit differently. It actually lets you decide whether to keep both versions or not, and it you do, it shows them side by side in the Photos app.
(You should be able to tell the photos apart, based on whether they have a blurry background or not. But if not, tap the photo in question so that the white borders appear at the top and bottom and you get all the interface 'furniture': the share, like, edit and delete icons at the bottom, and the date and time it was taken at the top. If it's a photo taken with the Portrait effect applied, you'll see a label telling you as much at the top lefthand corner of the image.)
If you'd rather iOS just kept the Portrait Mode shot when you're using Portrait Mode, open Settings, then scroll down to the sixth bank of options and tap Photos & Camera. Scroll down again and find the section headed Portrait Mode. Where it says Keep Normal Photo, tap the green slider so it turns white. (If running out of space is a problem for you generally, try our article How to make space on an iPhone.)