Despite its unique camera on the back, the iPhone XR offers a portrait mode, as the iPhone XS has two modules. Apple explained it by introducing the device, it’s a portrait mode simulated by the software, as Google does with its pixel. This implies important differences, such as the fact that it only works with human subjects and that it lacks two portrait lights, the two stage effects that completely darken the background.
However, when Phil Schiller presented this model on the Steve Jobs Theater stage, he showed a portrait photo taken with an iPhone XR and one of two stage lighting effects. Should we deduce that the manufacturer has changed his mind en route or failed to integrate this function, as suggested by a reader? In fact, no, it’s that Apple has presented things in a clever way, only talking about portrait lighting when she was talking about the camera before.
In fact, the portrait mode of the iPhone XR is very different depending on whether you use it with the rear camera, or the front camera. In front, the two ranges of iPhone 2018 are identical, they have the True Depth system essential to Face ID and makes it possible, at the same time, several functions such as animojis and portrait mode. Remember that Apple’s face identification is based on a three-dimensional point cloud, which is also useful for distinguishing the face from the background in a portrait selfie.
Because of this material proximity, both ranges have the same functions exactly with the front camera. The portrait mode is optimized for human faces, but it works with an animal or even an object. The five portrait mode lights are part of the game, as is the ability to change the depth of field a posteriori and soon live (it will be with iOS 12.1).
The rear camera in comparison is significantly poorer. Without a face detected in the field, the photo will be taken without portrait mode and therefore without the effect of blur on the background. In addition, the iPhone XR offers only three portrait mode lighting, it lacks two scenes that darken the background. However, it is also possible to change the level of blur and you can also do it directly with the next version of iOS 12.
This difference between the two cameras of the iPhone XR is explained by the rather conservative choices of Apple in terms of computer processing and artificial intelligence. Unlike Google, which is all about computer photography, the Cupertino company wants to combine hardware and software and has decided that the smartphone’s unique camera is not sufficient for certain functions. This is particularly the case for stage lighting, since this mode requires precise contouring of the face to give good results.
On the iPhone 8 Plus, X and XS, distances are calculated using the difference between wide-angle and telephoto. On the iPhone XR, it is at the sensor that this calculation is made: Apple uses Focus Pixels which are precisely more numerous on the sensor of its wide-angle. Incidentally, it is exactly the same technical solution adopted by Google on its pixels, and it makes it possible to distinguish the plans of an image, but the accuracy is much less good.
The designers of Halide, a handheld camera on the App Store, have managed to get a more flexible portrait mode on the iPhone XR. It is no longer limited to humans and works on everything, including a cat, as in this example. This mode is not yet integrated into the app, but it should be in a future release.
So, why does not Apple offer a full portrait mode in the default device? Probably because the calculation of distances is less good, in fact it is even four times less accurate and detailed than the iPhone XS. We see it well on the previous example, the map of the distances is bigger and the data are more detailed with the smartphone equipped with two cameras.
To compensate for this defect, Apple and Google rely on artificial intelligence to automatically detect what is in the foreground and the background, and apply only the blur to the right place. Nevertheless, Apple restricts the framework of this computer processing to only human subjects, where Google does it for everything, including static objects. It is also for this reason that the two stage lights are not offered on the rear camera, they require a precise trimming and Focus Pixel iPhone XR are not enough to bring it.
The advantage of computer photography, however, is that it can evolve with a simple software update. Apple has preferred to incorporate a system limited to the launch of the iPhone XR, but it would not be surprising that the portrait mode improves over time. Maybe with iOS 13, it will also work with pets?