There’s a good chance you use your smartphone to take pictures and capture video. There’s a relatively new feature a lot of smartphones have called portrait mode, and it can up your photography game big time if used properly. However, you might not know what portrait mode is or how it’s used. So what is portrait mode exactly? Good question.
Let’s examine portrait mode in an effort to separate the marketing jargon from the facts. We’ll also give you a list of current smartphones with portrait mode so you can make informed buying decisions.
Let’s get started!
Portrait mode is a term used to describe the artificial bokeh (BOH-kay) effect produced by smartphones. Bokeh is a photography effect where the subject of a picture is kept in focus while the background falls out of focus. By using portrait mode to create a bokeh effect, you can take dynamic photographs which look more professional.
Years ago, if you wanted to take pro-quality photographs, you’d need a DSLR or analog camera. Nowadays, even mid-range smartphones can deliver exceptional results.
However, one of the biggest historical limitations of smartphone photography had been the ability to simulate depth using bokeh. Without high focal lengths, large sensors, and control over focus, even high-end phones couldn’t create the blurred background effect.
Recently, though, advancements in computational photography — as well as the introduction of dual-lens smartphone cameras — have brought artificial bokeh to phones. Most smartphone manufacturers refer to this effect in marketing material as portrait mode. Additionally, the setting in most camera apps that creates bokeh is usually called “Portrait Mode” or simply “Portrait.”
You know what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, let’s check out some examples of photographs using portrait mode to create a bokeh effect. Below you’ll find a gallery of pictures captured with a variety of smartphones, all using the portrait mode setting.
As you scroll through the photos, pay attention to the backgrounds:
Portrait mode makes the subject of your photo really pop. Since the background is blurry, your eyes naturally gravitate towards the non-blurry section of the picture. It can be a powerful technique when used properly.
However, the images above are not “real.” The bokeh effect is not produced using just the smartphone’s lens (or lenses). Instead, the smartphone’s processor, software, and camera hardware work together to apply the bokeh effect to a non-bokeh image.
Because you’re relying on a computational algorithm to create portrait mode effects, results can vary. Check out the photo below where the phone’s portrait mode filter gets confused and can’t get the effect right:
For some reason, the algorithm determined the edge of Lanh’s glasses was part of the background and thus blurred it out. If you were using a DSLR to take this photo and produced the bokeh effect using the lens itself rather than software, this problem wouldn’t happen.
However, when you’re using a smartphone to create a bokeh image, you don’t have to lug around a large DSLR, which is certainly advantageous. With that in mind, don’t let a few faulty images deter you. The algorithms responsible for portrait mode are only getting better, so problems will become less and less of an issue going forward.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of portrait mode and how bokeh effects can make your photos better. However, how do you know if your smartphone supports the feature?
In general, most phones with at least two lenses paired together can produce portrait mode pictures. Some phones can produce the bokeh effect with just one rear lens (the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 3 being the most notable examples), and some dual-lens phones can’t do portrait mode (like the LG V30). However, if a new phone has two lenses on the back, it’s a safe bet it does portrait mode shooting.
Some smartphones are now shipping with two lenses on the front, too. This allows for portrait mode pics in selfie mode. However, there are phones with a single selfie lens that can also do portrait mode.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of recent smartphones that have portrait mode abilities with the rear camera at least. This list is not completely comprehensive in that there are likely other phones out there with portrait mode not included here, but we did include all the most popular releases.
There are also numerous ways to “hack” your phone to get portrait mode when it is not offered by the original OEM. However, we are not going to cover that here.
So now you know the answer to “what is portrait mode” as well as what phones currently offer it.
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