The iPhone XR may only come with one camera, but it can still do portrait mode shots like dual-camera iPhones. The question is: are those portrait shots any good and is there any significant difference between photos from the XR and the more expensive phones like the XS and the XS Max?
To best see the difference, we went to shoot portraits at night, at a bar, one of the most fun places to be at night and also one of the worst places if you are trying to take pictures with a phone. It was a challenge.
Interestingly, the iPhone XR surprised us with its solid performance. While the XS uses its secondary, telephoto camera that has a slower aperture, the XR relies on the wider main shooter which has a much faster aperture and it consistently shot much brighter pictures. And sometimes the difference was that between a pitch dark photo that is practically unusable and one that you could actually share with your buddies. It was also easier to focus with the XR.
But enough spoiling, take a look at the pictures right below.
Right from the start, we have to stress that there is a very clear difference in exposure between portrait mode shots on the iPhone XR and XS. The lack of a telephoto camera and the fact that you have to shoot with the main one is actually quite beneficial for night-time images. The XR photo is brighter, you can see a bit of the background for added context, and this makes it a much better image.
The colorful bokeh balls on this picture show that you get a drastically different look between these two cameras: both are set at the same "aperture" for the portrait, yet the iPhone XS has much bigger bokeh balls. This, however, does not make it the better camera here, as the background is too dark and the whole image looks a bit unnatural. We've had to fire the flash on both phones here, since it was impossible to get portrait mode to even work when the environment was this dark. Notice how you can see the bar in the background on the photo from the XR, it's clearly the better image.
In this photo, the XS captured a pitch black photo that is not worth sharing, but we just wanted to show you how much more light you get when you shoot portraits with the iPhone XR. The XR photo is also very underexposed, but usable, unlike that XS photo. We have also captured the same scene with the flash on. Notice how the flash illuminates me much better when it fires from that close on the XR, while on the XS the illumination from the flash is very faint.
In this photo, we wanted to showcase the big difference in the perspective. Notice how the telephoto lens on the XS closes the background and makes it a much more intimate photo, focused on the subject, while the XR shows the background fully and provides much more context.
You can see this once again on this picture here: notice the trees in the background that is far wider on the iPhone XR. You simply cannot see them on the iPhone XS. Of course, the change in perspective also has a different angle and that is about the proportions of the person in the shot: facial features look much more flattering and symmetrical on the XS.
In conclusion, it is clear that there are big differences to the way portrait mode operates on the iPhone XR and the XS. In most cases during the night, we preferred the image from the XR over the XS simply because it was much better exposed, but also because it provides a lot more context.
We are puzzled why Apple has not allowed users on the iPhone XS and XS Max to use the main camera of the phone for portrait mode. This would clearly bring the best of both worlds to the XS series. Right now, the more expensive iPhones will often take worse portrait pictures at night than the cheaper iPhone XR simply because you don't have the option to shoot with the main camera on the XS family.