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Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR

Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR

Something happened, folks. As if from nowhere, we've suddenly arrived at at a place where lens blurring techniques have suddenly shot up in popularity, particularly with Android manufacturers. Indeed, just a few months back, these techniques were seldom seen in the mobile industry, despite its deepening investment into the photographic capabilities of the devices it churns out. Regardless, now that it has caught on with the likes of HTC, Sony, and even Google, this trend has a pretty good chance of persevering and even proliferating. Or does it?

Bokeh: the fake kind, the real kind


So what does lens blurring have to do with words like UFocus, Background defocus, and bokeh, that you gleaned from the title? Everything, especially seeing as how they are one and the same thing. It's just a matter of speech (and branding). For those who are unaware of what a bokeh is -- fret not -- for no fancy explanation is required. Bokeh (or lens blurring) simply refers to the artistic quality of the blur produced in parts of an image that are not in focus. In other words, any parts of your composition that lie beyond the depth of field will appear blurred, and create the sometimes desired bokeh effect. That, at least, is how it works with traditional DSLRs (you can check out reference shots taken with the Canon EOS 6D at the very bottom).

By now you're probably wondering how that differs from the solutions available from HTC (UFocus), Sony (Background defocus), and even Google's Camera app (Lens Blur). Put simply, all of these produce what is known as a 'fake' bokeh effect, where software of varying intelligence attempts to mask (blur) the background while keeping the foreground in focus. In fact, it's very hard (but not impossible) to achieve a passable bokeh with a smartphone camera due to its technical limitations -- like the fixed and very wide aperture (no aperture blades here). They also have a very short focal length, resulting in a wide depth of field. All of this adds up to a set of very tough requirements, and often means that, for a chance at a proper bokeh, you'd need to focus on a subject very, very close to your camera, and have the background as far back as possible.

Now that we've glanced over the essentials, you'll be wanting results and some further explanation as to how each solution attempts to simulate a bokeh effect.

HTC's Duo Camera proves a notch above the rest, but still disappoints


We obviously have to start out with HTC and its brand new Duo Camera found on board its One M8 flagship. The entire premise of the Duo Camera is the promise of a more effective bokeh effect, in very large part thanks to that depth sensor above the camera. In fact, this singles out HTC as the only company to invest as heavily into the concept. With that in mind, and judging from the results, we have to admit that the One M8's Duo Camera disappoints in this regard, and hardly justifies the added costs that HTC inevitably incurred during R&D and, subsequently, production.

Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR
Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR

But let's start off with the implementation and UI. Where HTC far exceeds the capabilities of its competitors in this particular niche is ease of use -- you simply snap a photo just like you would normally, and each one of those has depth data attached to it, allowing you to use the UFocus feature in order to add background blur at any point in the future. The process is very quick and completely painless, and there are zero options for you to tinker with, unlike competing solutions. This is both a pro and a con. Unfortunately, things start going down hill from here. 

Indeed, the resulting 4-megapixel snaps are a mixed bag, and even the shiniest gems are not quite as shiny as we were hoping for them to be. In the four samples we chose to elect, we covered four of what we consider the most likely scenarios where you'd like to apply a bokeh effect. As you can see, however, the One M8's Duo camera handled neither of those perfectly, even though some were better than others. The software often leaves very visible pockets of space that is not blurred properly, and artifacts are sometimes quite unpleasant and very much visible. 

What's more, depending on the background, the software is prone to mistakes in identifying where the foreground ends and the background begins (look at my blurry hair!) and fails to arrive at a proper bokeh when the subject of your shot isn't far away enough from what background there is (very noticeable in the flower sample). Indeed, it would appear that the M8's depth sensor best understands portrait scenarios. On a tad brighter note, the circular bokeh effect itself is very pleasant to look at.


The Sony Xperia Z2's Background defocus mode is just nasty business all around!


We're not entirely sure as to whether the Xperia Z2's Background defocus mode disappoints more on count of its erratic, artifacts-heavy end results, or the fact that, in a way, it felt like Sony could have done much better if it spent more time fine-tuning the software.

Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR
Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR

Unlike the HTC One M8, you need to enter the special mode manually whenever you're in a more adventurous mood, focus on your subject, and sometimes wait around for a while until the rendering process is complete. That said, once the image is ready for processing, no other solution offers as many controls. You can choose the intensity of the blur, but also its type -- circular, vertical, or horizontal. 

As for the resulting 8-megapixel snaps, we are obviously quite disappointed. Not only does the software often complain that something went wrong and it couldn't apply its wizardry, but even when it does bless you with a "success!" message, you're left with unsatisfying results. As you can see with your own eyes, the Gaussian blur it applies is unattractive, and the software finds telling the foreground and background apart a difficult task. This sometimes results in some artifacts (look at flower petals, blurry hairline), but we do feel compelled to note that as apparent, non-blurry areas, are not as common as with the rest. Sometimes, however, these are worse than even the very worst the competition has to offer.


Google's Camera app is no rose, either


In a way, we liked what Google's Camera app brings to the table, but there are some notable issues with it nevertheless. Taking shots in the so-called Lens Blur mode is simple enough -- focus, snap, and then slowly raise your phone an inch or so above your subject. Unique here is the fact that you can go back to even an already processed photo at any time and re-adjust the focus point or the blur's intensity.

Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR
Blurry affairs: UFocus (One M8) vs Background defocus (Xperia Z2) vs Google Camera vs a DSLR

On the down side, resulting snaps are just 3-megapixels large, and they're ailed by the same type of issues as the rest of our competitors today. For example, the software here also fails to tell apart the foreground from the background, though it's noticeably better at recognizing and eliminating tricky areas that the rest leave out of their bluring efforts. Artifacts are also on the lower side, though we definitely dislike the fact that the portion of the image you can set to be in focus is so tiny. This means that subjects that take up a big portion of the composition frame will be partially blurred out, which we consider a failure in regards to the concept.


Verdict: it matters not if you can talk the talk when you can't walk the walk


In conclusion, none of the above really stands out in a league of its own, though we do tend to like the HTC One M8's UFocus implementation the most -- it's simple, quick, and more reliable than the rest. That's not saying much, however, especially seeing as both Sony's and Google's implementation are nothing to write home about. Not to mention that HTC really invested itself into this particular feature and markets it actively. Still, a win is a win, and the M8 gets this one.

Surprisingly enough, while we expected the Z2 to snatch an easy victory from Google's Camera app, that isn't necessarily so. Yes, in a perfect scenario, the Z2 will produce a more error-free bokeh shot, but in anything other than that it occasionally fails to match Google's low-res solution, all the while the software tends to be way too picky about the composition it can work with. Moreover, the type of blur the software of the Z2 produces is certainly the least appealing of all, but that still beats the uneven and erratic blurring of shots with Google's Camera app.

Lastly, and as promised, we've taken reference bokeh shots with a Canon EOS 6D DSLR in order to exemplify what the end result should look like. Nowhere near a fair comparison, we know, though we do have to note that even without such a benchmark, the problems with software implementations of this camera features are quite obvious, and very much noticeable. So, if this feature is to ever reach any levels of popular adoption, hardware and software companies alike have a long road ahead of them. Until then, it's fair to label these as half-baked.

37 Comments
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posted on 03 Jun 2014, 07:48 3

1. akki20892 (Posts: 3255; Member since: 04 Feb 2013)


Canon EOS 6D for me. Oh yessss

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 07:57 1

2. ArtSim98 (Posts: 2261; Member since: 21 Dec 2012)


I think the Canon won! Krhmmmmmmmmmmm

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 07:58 4

3. azers07 (Posts: 27; Member since: 17 Aug 2013)


M8 camera is so awesome for a modern user... it takes very normal photos both in the day light and evening... =) Absolutely love it

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 23:02 2

31. fzacek (Posts: 1242; Member since: 26 Jan 2014)


4MP is just not okay in today's flagship world...

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:03

4. BaffledTruffle (Posts: 109; Member since: 07 Dec 2013)


This just shows that smartphone cameras have still long ways to go. Unless maybe you're Nokia, then you're imaging is leaps beyond the competition.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:05 1

5. bbblader (Posts: 575; Member since: 24 Oct 2011)


I know it won't do more than the others,but I'd still like to see how the Galaxy S5 compares to the competition too.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:10 9

6. Chris.P (Posts: 256; Member since: 27 Jun 2013)


The Galaxy S5 doesn't have that feature, though. :-'/

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:19 2

7. BaffledTruffle (Posts: 109; Member since: 07 Dec 2013)


It has a selective focus mode.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:30 5

10. Chris.P (Posts: 256; Member since: 27 Jun 2013)


Indeed it does. But that's not the same thing. :)

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:40 4

12. ArtSim98 (Posts: 2261; Member since: 21 Dec 2012)


What's the difference in them? Just wondering because you can add bokeh in the selective focus, right?

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:51

16. protozeloz (Posts: 5369; Member since: 16 Sep 2010)


I think its because most of these offer post shooting focus

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 09:03 7

19. Chris.P (Posts: 256; Member since: 27 Jun 2013)


What Selective Focus does is simply allow you to re-focus an image after it has already been shot (and, by the way, it's quirky as hell and refuses to work 80% of the time -- no joke), or set it to infinity (i.e. everything in the frame is in focus). That's much alike to the LG G Pro 2's Magic Focus feature, and, originally, Nokia Lumia phones.

In short, it does not create a bokeh effect like the ones you see in the comparison above.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 09:16

22. ArtSim98 (Posts: 2261; Member since: 21 Dec 2012)


Thanks!

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 12:47

24. maherk (Posts: 786; Member since: 10 Feb 2012)


True that, I gave up on trying to take a picture of my daughter with the selective focus, at first I thought I had a problem with my S5 but it turned out to be that most people have a tough time to get it to work, but once you get the shot it is quite impressive tbh. Other than that, I have no complaints what so ever regarding the camera, since I got the S5 I barely use my Galaxy Camera.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:21 3

8. elitewolverine (Posts: 1166; Member since: 28 Oct 2013)


Nokia 1020 with refocus

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:29

9. InspectorGadget80 (Posts: 6139; Member since: 26 Mar 2011)


Seriously you can't compared mobile phone camera to DSRL ones

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:53 3

17. protozeloz (Posts: 5369; Member since: 16 Sep 2010)


I think the idea is to see how much they have advanced

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 23:06

32. fzacek (Posts: 1242; Member since: 26 Jan 2014)


It's not like people actually expect the phones to compete with the DSLR, it's just there for a relative comparison...

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:38 4

11. jphillips63 (Posts: 160; Member since: 04 Jan 2012)


Hey PA anytime you wish to get froggy enough to think today's smart phone cameras will produce images as good as a DSLR I'll bring my equipment and we will do any shoot you like to compare against. As a photographer it's just plain asinine to even think today's smart phones will produce DSLR quality pics.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:44

14. Sauce (unregistered)


Exactly. People who even think Nokias phones can come close to competing with a DSLR are mental.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 09:08

21. Chris.P (Posts: 256; Member since: 27 Jun 2013)


TLDR, I suppose? I do that too sometimes. :b

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 13:23

27. elitewolverine (Posts: 1166; Member since: 28 Oct 2013)


On some entry level DSLR's they could come close.

Take a look at the pictures when a 1020 was compared to a dslr (youtube with flicker full photo sizes). This was before the amber update or any of the recent updates.

It was decent, sure with the lense ability of a dslr the camera is certainly more capable. But some people may never notice the difference. And since the 1020 has won every single blind camera test to the point its not even put into the race anymore...it shows why.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:43 1

13. SIGPRO (Posts: 393; Member since: 03 Oct 2012)


Nokia 1020 comes closer to DSLR! No other phone comes closer!

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 13:13 1

25. sip1995 (Posts: 660; Member since: 07 Feb 2014)


Nokia lumia 1020, nothing else comes close.....

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 14:48

28. Arte-8800 (Posts: 3086; Member since: 13 Mar 2014)


Take away the CarlZeiss optics and it's as normal as other's

posted on 04 Jun 2014, 05:34

35. SIGPRO (Posts: 393; Member since: 03 Oct 2012)


BS! it's not only the CarlZeiss optics but also software and sensortype!

posted on 04 Jun 2014, 09:54

36. preetmalhotra (Posts: 77; Member since: 27 Apr 2012)


Its good to have the latest, but facts remain facts!
Bigger sensor, Better depth!

1/1.5 is somewhat smaller than 1/1.2!

808 does it way better than 1020!!
No offence to you.. :D

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:46

15. R-vjn (Posts: 161; Member since: 07 Jan 2013)


I'm using a Nexus 4 and except for the Photosphere and HDR I completely hate it. Doesn't focus properly, and the new app doesn't have options to change white balance and some modes like action to stop fast moving subjects.
And the new blurring thing coming to these camera's are kinda Sh*t except for the M8, which seems okay.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 08:53

18. JulianGT (Posts: 81; Member since: 15 Oct 2012)


And the Nokia Refocus app?

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 13:14

26. sip1995 (Posts: 660; Member since: 07 Feb 2014)


What do you mean ?

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 09:06

20. karea12 (Posts: 2; Member since: 06 Nov 2013)


Hey PA team. I would like to know, if it is possible to extract the DoF information (on a image format) of Google Camera's Lens Blur images. I would like to manipulate the results in Photoshop to gather better results. Thanks in advance. Cheers from Brazil ;)

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 11:32

23. PBXtech (Posts: 966; Member since: 21 Oct 2013)


Image #4 only looks real on Google's shots, the rest are hideously blurred.

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 15:35 1

29. gigaraga (Posts: 495; Member since: 29 Mar 2013)


What phone was used for the Google Camera app?

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 23:08

33. fzacek (Posts: 1242; Member since: 26 Jan 2014)


Good question. I didn't think about that...

posted on 04 Jun 2014, 01:10

34. Chris.P (Posts: 256; Member since: 27 Jun 2013)


Nexus 5

posted on 03 Jun 2014, 19:48

30. NICEBOY_1373 (Posts: 5; Member since: 28 Mar 2013)


Add the iPhone 5s with an app named "Tadaa SLR" & then... iPhone is the winner definitely... .

posted on 05 Jun 2014, 11:29

37. refillable (Posts: 583; Member since: 10 Mar 2014)


No matter how hard they tried, It will not be as quick, as natural and as reliable as a full frame (or even more) sensor camera. Nothing comes close with Carl Zeiss 135mm f/2.

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