Portrait mode, the newest addition to smartphone cameras that allows you to take pictures with a blurred background, just like on a DSLR camera, has taken the world by a storm.
Ever since Apple announced that it is adding Portrait Mode in the iPhone 7 Plus nearly two years ago, other companies have been rushing to bring the feature to their phones: the Samsung Galaxy S9+ was the first Galaxy S phone with a dedicated portrait shooting mode, the Google Pixel 2 series added it via software updates and now, the newest OnePlus 6 also has the feature.
But which phones takes the best-looking portrait shots? After all, some phones use a secondary, "telephoto" camera to get a more flattering perspective, others rely on the regular software, some use AI and deep research and on the list goes. But what will really determine which phone has the best camera for portrait shots will be... the photos themselves! That's why we took a bunch of pictures and look at them in closer detail below. Read on.
1. First take
From the very first image, you can easily see that there are some big differences in how well some phones separate your subject from the background, a key feature for a natural-looking portrait shot.
The OnePlus 6 has quite big problems in this first scene: it just could not properly separate my beautiful model from the background and there are cropping artifacts near the hand and an improperly applied blur that eats up a big part of the face. The Galaxy S9+ captures a much brighter and cheerful image and is able to do an almost perfect job with very few areas that are not properly separate (around the elbow). The iPhone X offers very similar results to the OnePlus 6 as both feature similar color reproduction and even similar errors in judgment about our model and the background. Finally, the Google Pixel 2 XL is clearly the worst of the bunch. It seems completely incapable of properly understanding what should be blurred and what should be in focus and the photo it took is a complete mess of blurry areas in random places. First round winner? The Galaxy S9+, by a long shot.
In our second shot, we have a full-body shot, which may prove even more challenging for these phones. How did they do?
The OnePlus does a good job here: the colors are very nice in a subtle, balanced way, the separation of the model from the background is fairly accurate with some slight artifacts, and the blur gradually increases as you look towards the horizon. Interestingly, the feet of our model are out of focus on the OnePlus, which might be a bit of an overkill. The Galaxy S9 again performs incredibly well: you have nearly perfect separation of the model from the background, everything is in sharp focus, colors are very pleasing and it's just an admirable shot. The iPhone X comes up with very strong, overstated colors with a lot of contrast and this is a look that we don't really like much in portraits. Everything is a bit darker as well, but the X separates the model well from the background and the image turns out okay. And then, the Pixel 2 XL is just tragic here. Once again, it seems completely unable to understand where is our model and where does the background starts. It has blurred big parts of the model, has disappointingly low level of detail and its picture just does not look good.
Winner: Galaxy S9+, but this time trailed closer by the OnePlus 6.
3: A Green Background
We see similar trends in the third scene, this time against a green background. Take a look at the photos to see the little details.
4: By the Sea
In the fourth image, we can once again see the same trends: a very good photo from the OnePlus, but still some slight issues with cropping artifacts, an excellent image with pleasing colors and a bright, cheerful tonality from the Galaxy, a likable, but slightly overly contrasty photo from the iPhone and a sorely disappointing portrait from the Pixel with no detail and poor understanding of model and background.
5: A Windy Day
Lastly, we took this picture in a windy spot where the wind would play crazy games with the hair of our model. Properly focusing on the flying bits of hair is 'mission impossible' for software, so we did not expect that any phone would do a perfect job. And of course, we were not surprised.
But still, we got decent photos, this time from all phones, even from the poorly performing Pixel 2 XL (it still had most issues of all, though). Take a look at the photos below.
One more curious thing: file size!
Another interesting little detail that we noticed while we were looking through the pictures is the sheer size of them. It was the Samsung Galaxy S9+ portrait shots (Live Focus) that stood out the most with their huge file size: while the average size of a portrait shot on the other three phones varied from around 2MB to 3MB, the average size of a shot from the S9+ weighed in at a whopping 12MB!
With modern phones having a ton of storage this is not really a dealbreaker, but still a curious detail to keep in mind. This could be due to the fact that you can later change the focus of an image with the Galaxy, a feature that other phones do not support, but it really results in much bigger file sizes.
So... which phone takes the best portrait photos?
While for other phone comparisons, we have had some very close calls, for portrait shots, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ stands tall above the competition. Samsung has really built an incredibly versatile photo camera. It has very pleasing colors with a balanced look and soft skin tones, it is able to accurately tell model from background and everything on its screen looks amazing.
The OnePlus 6 and the iPhone X are the two runner-ups. We were surprised by how well the OnePlus 6 did. OnePlus has really stepped up its game and we love the colors, and the 6 seems to have the highest amount of resolved detail in portraits. Good job, OnePlus! The iPhone, which started it all for portrait mode, captures good looking images, but has some catching up to do with the separation between model and background, and its strongly stated colors and contrasted look are similar to an Instagram feature and are not always flattering for portrait shots.
Finally, the Google Pixel 2 XL is the big loser here. This phone just can't tell our model from the background and produced the worst photos in all five scenes.
With this in mind, summer is around the corner and it's time to get those phone cameras out and shooting. If you pick the right phone, it might even replace a dedicated camera for those summer portrait photos.