Portrait Mode is an arty photo format that first arrived with the iPhone 7 Plus. It uses the twin-lens camera that’s present on the back of some iPhones to create an artistic depth effect, whereby the subject is in focus and the background is blurred.
If you use Portrait Mode in conjunction with the new Portrait Lighting effects that arrived in iOS 11 you can get photos that are “Studio quality” (Apple’s right to say that has been confirmed in courts of law no less!)
While we’d be the first to admit that our Portrait Mode photos aren’t as stunning as the ones a professional photographer might take, the effect certainly can help you take some stunning photos of friends and family.
Before we start explaining how to use Portrait Mode and the lighting effects, an important question:
Which iPhones have Portrait Mode?
Sadly some people have purchased iPhones with the hope of using Portrait Mode only to discover that the mode isn’t an option on their handset.
Currently Portrait Mode is only available for the following iPhones:
The reason you can’t get Portrait Mode on the standard iPhone 6, iPhone 7, or iPhone 8 is because it depends on a twin-lens camera setup. Nor is it available on the iPhone 6 or 6s, or the Plus versions of those handsets. However, you can create a sort of Portrait Mode on those devices, we have a tutorial about doing just that: How to get Portrait Mode on iPhone 7 and iPhone 8.
We also have a collection of iPhone photo tips that you might like.
How to take Portrait Mode photos
Now that you know what Portrait Mode is and which iPhones have the effect, the next thing to address is where is Portrait Mode on the iPhone and how can you use it to take stunning photos.
- Open your camera app on the iPhone either by tapping the app icon, swiping left from the lock screen, or swiping up from the bottom of the handset and tapping the camera icon.
- You’ll see the list of modes below the viewfinder. These include Time-Lapse, Slow-Mo, Video, Photo, Portrait, Square and Pano. You want to select Portrait. When it’s selected the word Portrait will turn yellow.
- Ideally you’ll be positioned within eight feet, but not too close to your subject. You’ll see a warning to “Move Closer” or “Move Further Away” which should help you find the optimum distance to take your shot. Adjust your position as required. If you are too close, or too far away you will be able to take a photo, but it might not look as good.
- If the lighting conditions aren’t ideal you may also see the following warning: “More light required. Flash may help”. You don’t have to (we prefer natural lighting) but if you want to turn on the flash tap on the icon in the top left.
- There is also a timer, probably aimed at those who carry around a selfie stick. If you tap the clock icon at the top you’ll get the choice of either 3s or 10s (that’s a three- or ten-second timer). Select the delay, press the white shutter button, and wait for the photo to be taken.
- You can also apply preset filters before you take the shot. To do so, tap the three overlapping circles at the top right. Note that it’s a case of either or when it comes to combining these filters with the Portrait Lighting effects – you can’t use both at the same time. Also note that you can change these effects to your heart’s content after you’ve taken the snap, so you could skip this step.
- 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 various options, such as Studio Light and Stage Light. It’s another effect you can add after taking the photo. We’ll talk more about the Portrait Lighting effects later.
- Now, holding your iPhone at the optimum distance from your subject, frame your shot and tap the white shutter button (or either of the volume controls, which have the same effect), to take your photo.
Once you have taken your shot you can open it in the Photos app (you can find all your Portrait shots in the Portrait folder) and edit it. We’ll look at the edits, and specifically the Portrait Lighting effects you can use below.
But first, a few more tips so you can take truly stunning photos.
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).
(Portrait Mode itself will remind you of these basic principles if it senses 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.)
You can change the point of focus: tap the object on the 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 backlight.” 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 you switch to Portrait Mode on an iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X you will see the various Portrait Lighting effects, however, we’d recommend that you wait until after you’ve taken the shot to try them out because you won’t really get a feel for the final effect until you’ve taken the photo.
Here’s how to add the Portrait Lighting effect to your photo:
- Open the Photos app and find the photo you wish to edit with the Portrait Lighting effects. You can only add these effects to photos taken with the Portrait Mode. You will find all your Portrait shots in the Portrait folder.
- Tap Edit.
- Tap the hexagon at the bottom of the photo and a small dial will pop up.
- Swipe this dial to cycle through your options. There are five settings, we’ll run through each below.
- You can tap on each effect to see how it will transform your photo.
- When you are happy tap Done and wait for the photo to save.
- If you later decide you don’t like the effect you choose just tap Edit again and either tap Revert or choose a different Portrait Lighting effect.
Note, you can’t combine the other filters offered in Edit with Portrait Lighting effects. So if you were to tap the three overlapping circles and choose Vivid Warm, or Dramatic Cool, that effect would be lost as soon as you choose a Portrait Lighting effect (although the blurred background would remain).
On to the different effects you can choose and what you can expect to achieve…
Portrait Lighting effects
The default setting is called Natural Light, which delivers the photo as nature intended (but still blurs the background):
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 but right now it struggles a bit with hair (in Apple’s defence it is still in beta, but…)
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 turn off Portrait Mode
When you take a Portrait Mode photo iOS actually stores two versions of the photo, one with the depth effect applied, and one without. But it does this secretly: you only see one image in the Photos app.
However, if you want to see the image without the blurry background you can.
- Find the photo you want to edit – you’ll find all your Portrait Mode shots in the Portrait album in the Photos app.
- Tap Edit.
- Tap the yellow Portrait banner at the top.
- You’ll be able to return to the image and turn Portrait Mode back on again if you wish.
You can also 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.