There are many reasons to buy a new iPhone. A new processor is good motivation. A sharper screen is also tempting. Every time Apple introduces a new model, we comb through the features, cataloging the improvements and discussing at length how to use them. But in reality, only one upgrade matters: the camera.
Most iPhone users are notoriously attached to the device’s camera. Apple raised the stakes even higher with Portrait Mode. The feature is available on the iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, and iPhone X with the introduction of dual cameras. The two cameras create a depth-of-field effect; with the 8 Plus and X, you can also add “portrait lighting” effects. The X makes these features available from the selfie cam as well. Once Portrait Mode became widely available on its flagship phones in fall 2017, users’ collective fixation was visible—specifically, on Instagram. Photos hashtagged #portraitmode (or the lesser-used but still significant #xselfies) have been piling up, and the feature has highlighted a new, upper echelon of iPhone photographers whose selfies and subjects look way, way better than the rest of ours.
I wanted to start out by apologizing to anyone I hurt by my recent post. I thought everyone felt the way I did about cheez-it’s but I realized I was wrong. To make up for my ignorance, here are some photos of @mengel_06 ’s famous chocolate chip cookies taken w portrait mode. You’re lying if you say this isn’t the most attractive thing you’ve seen all week. #apologeticchica #sexycookies #portraitmode #iwanttoalsoapologizetothecheezits #youareloved #iwaswrong
There have always been tiers of iPhone users, including early adopters who get each new release the moment it’s available and then immediately head to Instagram to show off their new device’s superior capabilities. To keen-eyed followers, the improvements show up in little ways. Photos are slightly less grainy, or the flash is better. But with Portrait Mode, the difference is far more obvious, setting the people who use it apart from those, like myself, who can’t.
As a lowly iPhone 8 user, I am increasingly seeing and becoming increasingly jealous of #portraitmode brags in my Insta feed. I suffer from Portrait Mode FOMO. Suddenly everyone’s cute dog photo isn’t just cute, it’s stunning (and cute). Selfies look like professional headshots; everyone is a model in their own right, without over-the-top editing apps or phone cases with special lighting.
I'll never forgive Apple for not putting the portrait camera mode on the regular iPhone 7 #FOMO— Shannon Elliott (@photogshan) April 19, 2017
I don’t even have portrait mode. Apple is mad smart because they play on Fomo— B. (@_MaZulu) October 15, 2017
Google Trends shows the search term “portrait mode” spiked in October 2016 (when the feature was originally announced), and then steadily climbed.
The term “portrait mode” had meaning before iOS 11, but Apple has given it new cachet (as it often does with new releases) as a term that stretches beyond its original definition, even for those outside the iPhone ecosystem. Google’s new Pixel 2 boasts a similar feature that also produces enviable photos, as does the Android Essential Phone. The words “portrait mode” are beginning to imply a singular technology, even though that’s not exactly true. Just as Apple made the term Retina Display imply something more than “super-good screen,” Portrait Mode implies more than a composition style—high-quality images taken with a much less complicated camera. This time, Apple didn’t invent a term, it co-opted one.
If you can’t justify or afford an iPhone upgrade (hello, it’s me again!), you can fake it. There are several apps that advertise themselves as substitutes for a fancier phone camera. One of them is PortraitCam, a $3.99 tool that existed before iOS 11. The app, formerly called Depth Effects, was redesigned after iOS 11 was released specifically to capitalize on Portrait Mode, creator James Grote told me.
“The biggest change this year was Apple opening up the Portrait Mode technology to developers,” he says. When Apple launched iOS 11 for developers, the company gave them access to the Camera API as it always does. This update included Portrait Mode (for the new phones) and the depth-of-field information the app leverages.
The more dynamic camera and its software allow third-party apps, in turn, to be more powerful. “This is what powers my app,” Grote said. “PortraitCam goes beyond Apple’s built-in Portrait Mode, giving the user more control of the blur style and amount.” Grote saw downloads increase with the release of the new iPhones.
Many apps and editing effects can fake common DSLR effects (bokeh is a common one) like PortraitCam does. VSCO and Adobe Lightroom are among the most popular and are responsible for many of Instagram’s most popular selfies. Searching “portrait mode” on the App Store reveals app after app to help you meticulously re-create what new iPhones can do in one snap. If you want the quickest, easiest (and least convincing) way to create a poor man’s version of the Apple Portrait Mode effect, you can always opt for Instagram’s built-in tilt shift tool.
I’ve tried a handful of these options, tinkering away with these digital toolboxes, trying to make a photo that’s #portraitmode passable. If someone were to scroll through Instagram and give my faked creation a cursory glance, the image from their phone screen might dupe them. But I would know the truth, and the potential shame of being called out for such a desperate move is enough to keep me from ever trying.
Someday I’ll upgrade my phone (which, at my current rate, will be in two years) and be able to post a real #portraitmode shot. Maybe by then Apple will have popularized another photography feature worthy of a hashtag that amplifies its relevance.