In this video, MKBHD tackles the phenomena that is cellphone camera “portrait mode.”
Whether its the latest offering from Google, Apple, Microsoft or Atari, the phrase “now with portrait mode” or, “now with a more advanced portrait mode” is certain to be found at least once in every press release, and is more likely than not to be featured prominently.
Long a staple of DSLRs, Apple first brought the “portrait”–a.k.a. one in-focus plane and a blurred back- and foreground–to the consumer cellphone market with the release of the iPhone 7. It was able to do so by arming the device with dual cameras, allowing it to perceive depth like a pair of human eyes.
Two iPhones and numerous software updates later, Apple is no longer the only one in town playing the blurred background game, with just about every other major producer adding dual cameras to the point that a phone being released without the feature needs to explain itself.
It is at this point in the hysteria where MKBHD comes in, amidst the hubbub, to separate truth from rumor and fantasy from fact. Without favor or allegiance, he runs the gamut on a few versions of the software, using, respectively, an iPhone X, a Note 8, and a Pixel 2, comparing them all to his beloved Hasselblad.
Unsurprisingly, the verdict is somewhat mixed. While the companies have made great strides since its first introduction, several difficulties remain, mostly due to the constraints of the phone’s sensor.
The iPhone, for example, isn’t so much a “portrait mode” in the sense that anything can be the focus of the portrait, but rather more like a “face” mode. Because the iPhone can not, like the Hasselblad, set a specific distance for a plane of focus–instead attempting to put everything in focus–it relies on technology to detect the focal point and blur the rest accordingly. However, due to how its sensors were trained, it is particularly reliable on human and animal faces, but not much else.
In the same vein, because it can not differentiate the distance between the focal point and the other figures in the photo–there being no focal plane–it simply blurs everything that falls outside of this central figure. This in contrast to the Hasselblad which does not blur evenly and indiscriminately, but according to the distance a point is from the plane of focus, giving the photo a more “natural” look akin to human eyesight.
For all of these difficulties, however, MKBDH remains optimistic. After all, he notes, these devices have come leaps forward in a minuscule amount of time, while a DSLR camera is unlikely to improve its portrait mode in any radical way–it doesn’t need to.
While the pro is still gonna lug around his DSLR, wary of the inaccuracies and distortions that Apple and Google’s software create and eager for the biggest sensor, these improvements should be taken seriously, without getting out of hand. Amidst all the white-guys-in-collared-shirt-with-black-backgrounds-and-people-clapping-while-he-displays-powerpoint-slides-and-rambles-technobabble nonsense, it’s important to be clear on what “portrait mode” currently lacks, saving our applause for the engineers who solve these problems, and not the showmen who ignore them.
All Stills Courtesy Marques Brownlee
Cover Photo Courtesy Alex Iby @unsplash