Ever since Apple introduced portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus in late 2016, other companies have been copying the feature and now, nearly two and a half years after the launch, all major flagship smartphones support portrait mode under one name or another.
To give you a short summary, portrait mode refers to the emulation of a DSLR-like background blur on a smartphone, something that allows your subject to "pop" against that background. Since smartphones have wide-angle lenses and small camera sensors, you cannot get enough background blur intrinsically and you need software to help with an artificial blur to selective parts of the image. The big challenge is to correctly separate the parts of an image that should be in sharp focus and the parts of the image that should be blurred. And then there are the usual questions around image quality, colors, detail, dynamic range and so on.
To see which phone does better and what are the differences, we got six of the hottest new phones in 2019 and started shooting. Here is the list of the devices we used:
So... which one takes the best portrait mode photos? Let's take a look.
In this first test, we had the perfect conditions for a great portrait photo: soft light, no harsh shadows, background way behind the subject (that's our Peter K, in case you're wondering!), and just everything set for a great picture.
It's no surprise that we got good-looking photos from all of the phones here.
Some things do stand out, however. The thing that makes or breaks a portrait is the way the person is portrayed and this depends hugely on the physical properties of the lens. In the DSLR world, the pros usually go with a telephoto lens for portraits (that would usually be 85mm or longer). Such a lens is crucial to getting the proportions of the human face in their most flattering form. If you use a wider lens, you risk getting certain parts of the face to look disproportionately big: an unnaturally big nose or a comically big head are side effects of using a wide lens.
So this is why using the telephoto lens on your smartphone is the best way to capture a portrait photo that looks good. Unfortunately, out of all 2019 flagships, only the iPhone XS series use their telephoto (52mm) lens for portraits and all other phones rely on the wide-angle lens. And while all images look good in terms of technicalities like color reproduction and dynamic range in this shot, the one that looks best is the one with the most flattering proportions, which is the iPhone image. The second best here is the Google Pixel which uses software to crop in and simulate a slightly longer lens. On all other phones, you can notice some slight disproportions.
Apart from the afore-mentioned issues of "lens compression", the other important factor for a portrait mode photo to look "natural" is to have proper separation between the subject and the background. All phones do this via software, leaving the focus sharp on the face and adding blur to the backdrop.
Unfortunately, the phone that started it all, the iPhone XS does the worst job separating subject from background. You can notice the nasty artifacts around the edges of the face on the photo how parts of the background are incorrectly merged with the face.
Pretty much all other phones do a decent job, but Apple really has some catching up to do in this regard.
In this next set of images, you can again see the difference in perspective between the iPhone which uses its telephoto lens and the remaining phones that use their regular cameras.
The Google Pixel may go a bit overboard with sharpness, but in both this and the first example, it delivers pleasing colors and accurate background separation, and overall does a very good job.
The Huawei P30 Pro does a decent job too.
It's interesting that the LG here completely missed it and could not properly focus on my face, despite giving it a few tries. It was also the only phone that requires you to get uncomfortably close to the person you are photographing, or the portrait effect simply will not register!
The OnePlus captures a decent photo, but colors are a bit too pale and dull for our taste.
To get a close-up portrait with most of these phones you really need to get up and close quite literally. The iPhone is the only device that uses the telephoto lens and allows you to get at a more comfortable distance and the proportions really look best on it, but it seems that all the greenery has fooled the iPhone and colors way too green/yellow-ish. The Google Pixel uses a crop so it keeps nice proportions to the portrait as well, but it also captures much better colors here.
The other devices do a decent job, but you see that for those up-close portraits, my face and particularly the nose looks disproportionately large. If you look in the details to the photos, you see that the Galaxy does not do a great job here as it severely overexposes the photo and does not have much detail. The OnePlus, however, is the worst: the photo from it looks blurry and colors appear dull.
Switching to this pictures corner of a seaside cafe, you once again see the huge role that the lens has in creating a portrait shot. The telephoto lens on the iPhone stands out with pleasing, proportionate image, while the rest of the phone, and especially the LG look downright comical.
The OnePlus is the other phone that does not look great: its colors lack vibrancy and kill the feeling, the vibe of the place.
The Huawei here captures a slightly underexposed photo that also does not quite look as good as the competition.
We also tried shooting at night on the streets. This is an extreme challenge for a smartphone camera that has a small sensor and requires additional processing (and you have little light to make it happen at night).
Not surprisingly, none of the phones did great here. The iPhone shows its weakness in low light: it captured a noisy photo with muddy detail and colors on this photo look too yellow-y. The Pixel did a much better job with white balance and sharpness, but the lamps in the background look very strange. The Huawei also did a decent job, slightly blowing the highlights out of proportion. The LG was clearly the worst: it provides a very strange distorted image because it requires you to be so close to your subject for portrait mode to kick in and the white balance is way too green-ish. The OnePlus and the Galaxy also capture mediocre-looking images, but still better than the LG.
Just for the fun of it, we tried shooting in basically no light. This is NOT something that you should even attempt with a camera, let alone a smartphone. But why not try and see what happens?
And yes, all images here look uninspiring, but what the heck happened to the iPhone?
Well, physics, this is what happened. The iPhone XS series use the telephoto lens which has an aperture of f/2.4, while the majority of phones in this comparison use the wide-angle lens which has a much wider aperture of f/1.8 (the Huawei has an even wider, f/1.6 aperture). What this means is that not only was it super dark, but the aperture on the iPhone does not let much light in and you end up with a picture you really should just throw to the garbage bin.
Let's be clear: in these pitch black conditions, no phone did a great job. The only picture that is decent comes from the Google Pixel which pulls enough light and color to make this a photo that you could share, but on pretty much all the rest the result is not great. It's not disastrous as on the iPhone, but definitely not great.
At the end of the day, can we point out to the single best phone for portrait mode photos?
The iPhone XS is the only phone in our 2019 round-up that still uses the 2x telephoto lens for portraits and this alone gives it a huge advantage: at 52mm focal distance, faces get the most flattering proportions that you simply cannot get on the wide-angle camera that the rest of the phones use for portraits. For this reason alone, the iPhone should be at the top of the list for anyone that takes portrait photos of people and cares deeply about the look. The ability to get a live preview of the effect is also a great extra and the option to edit the blur level after you have captured the shot are also tremendously useful. There are two things, however, that Apple does not get as well as the rest: the first one is object separation as you often get a bunch of artifacts and the phone cannot correctly distinguish a face from the background, and the second thing, is the poor low-light performance.
Our second-best choice in this comparison would probably be the Google Pixel 3. The Pixel excels at taking portraits in all sorts of different conditions, from nearly complete darkness to your regular daylight shots, it has strong, vibrant colors and detail is sharp (to be precise, detail is oversharpened and it often overemphasizes wrinkles and all sorts of human imperfections, so we definitely wish Google toned this down). It has its downsides: the wider lens does not look as flattering, and the background blur surprising often fails at the corners of an image where you least expect it to fail and you don't get a live preview of the effect.
The Huawei P30 Pro comes up as the third-best option. It captures decent looking images with a good amount of detail in various conditions.
The Samsung Galaxy S10+ feels like a disappointing downgrade from the S9 and the Note 9 that both use the telephoto lens to capture portraits. Here, on the S10, you can only capture photos with the regular camera and it's too wide for portraits. Neither the color reproduction, nor the amount of detail impressed us, but we would not say that the S10 captures bad-looking photos either.
The big issue with the OnePlus 6T are the dull colors that just do not inspire us in any way.
And finally, the LG G8 is the one that gets the lowest score. It requires you to stand uncomfortably close to the person you are photographing and being this close also means that photos actually look disproportionate, the head of the person you're shooting often looks unnaturally big, it's not a flattering look most of the time.
For our final scores, keep in mind that we put more weight on the daylight photos since this is where people shoot the overwhelming majority of portrait shots.
Which one is your personal favorite phone for portraits? And do you even use that mode as much as we do?