If you’ve updated your iPhone 7 Plus to iOS 10.1, there’s a cool new tool you can take advantage of. In the camera app, a new ‘Portrait’ mode adds a faux bokeh effect to your images that can really make your images pop like never before. It’s a fun feature, but many are complaining the feature blurs parts of the image that shouldn’t be. It’s a fair criticism, but the real problem is that Portrait mode isn’t good for every circumstance, and there are some heavy caveats we’re not paying attention to.
First, Portrait mode is technically in beta. Even when you update to iOS 10.1 via Apple’s official over-the-air method, Portrait mode is still tagged as beta. It’s a fiddly footnote (official iOS, beta feature?), but worth note.
Second, it’s meant for pictures of faces. People are taking all sorts of imagery of animals and still-life items, and finding Portrait mode is a bit fussy. Heres’ a good example:
Portrait mode examines an image for depth to create the blurred background, so it’s reasonable to assume the tips of this plant should have been included in the foreground — but we’re talking about software. No smartphone has an adequate enough sensor to manage a ‘real’ bokeh effect.
That software is also highly subjective to environmental situations like lighting. If you attempt to take a Portrait mode image in low-light, it will flat-out refuse to do so.
Similarly, movement can throw it off. Like the name suggests, Portrait mode plays best when the focal subject is still. Even wispy hair can throw it off.
And it’s not great at examining finer points of the periphery of your subject. A main gripe users has is that the ‘fuzing’ around the edges of a subject for that bokeh effect sometimes encroach onto hair, ears or other outside boundaries.
Know your role
Portrait mode, however exciting and fun, isn’t good for every situation. That wind-swept picture of your significant other overlooking the harbor may be ideal for bokeh, but their flapping lapel or flowing hair may just throw it off.
Similarly, it’s unfair to take a picture of a non-human and criticize the results. However silly it seems (and it is), Portrait mode is framed (pun intended) by Apple as something we’ll use on other people.
And beta means it’s not perfect. That’s part of the reason that Portrait mode actually snaps two images: one with bokeh, and one without. If Portrait mode just plain screws up, you do have a non-blurry image in reserve.
And there’s a way to fix Portrait mode screw-up with a popular third-party photo editor. Pixelmator lets you take both of those images as layers, and cut the errors out of the Portrait mode image to let the untouched image shine through.
Another workaround would be to use an app like Pixelmator to apply a blurred effect to the background, but it’s not perfect. Apple’s Portrait mode applies a gradual blurred effect based on depth, so manual tools may be a bit blunt for your liking (but give it a shot anyway, because why not?).
For now, Apple is saddling the feature with a beta tag, which is as much an excuse for its imperfections as a notation it’s a work in progress. But even when Apple takes that moniker off of Portrait mode, it won’t be perfect. Probably ever.
It’s up to you to know when to use it, what it’s limitations are, and how to fix issues if you have your heart set on that perfect bokeh portrait — just like you would with a standalone DSLR.