iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, f/16, Stage Light Mono

Are the New iPhones all They’re Cracked Up to Be?

Camera & Technology

October 22, 2018 ·

Rad Drew
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, SnapSeed

When news of the new iPhones – the XS Max, XS, and XR – was announced last month, I wasn’t all that excited. Compared with previous years, there didn’t seem to be that much to get excited about and the dial seemed to be turned way down on the hype.

But, as I slowly learned more about these phones, especially the XS and the XS Max, I began to pay closer attention. (I quickly ruled out the iPhone XR since it doesn’t have the dual lenses. If upgrading, I want the capabilities that come with a dual lens system!)

The devices that caught my attention and, more importantly, captured my imagination, are the iPhone XS and the XS Max. They are almost identical except that the XS Max is larger and reportedly has better battery life. (I can’t attest to the XS Max having longer battery life than the XS, but it is better than the iPhone X that I’ve shot with for the past year.)

iPhone XS Max, partial Pano, Finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, partial Pano, Finished in SnapSeed

Having had the 6 Plus and the 7 Plus models, the first of the larger size iPhones, I knew size would be important to me. The 6 Plus and 7 Plus, although I liked the larger screen size, were just too large for my taste; put them in a case, especially something like a Mophie case for extended battery life, and it was like carrying a brick!

The larger size of the XS Max is somewhere between the size of the iPhone 7 Plus and the smaller iPhone X. That middle ground is the best of both worlds: a larger screen for aging eyes and still small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

Aside from the physical size of the phone, the features that really sold me on the XS Max are:

  1. Its extended battery life (It’s the best of any iPhone yet!)
  2. Its lightning fast A12 Bionic Processor
  3. The new Smart HDR system
  4. Advances in the Portrait feature with depth-of-field control both before and after taking the shot.
  5. And let’s not forget the option for 512GB of storage space! (I remember when the 5.25 floppy disk held only 160 KB on each side!) Why is 512 GB attractive? If you’re shooting video or shooting more RAW images which can be huge, this extra space is very useful.
  6. Within the first day of using the XS Max, I noticed the improvements in battery life, and I noticed that opening apps and processing images was so much faster than with the X!
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, finished in SnapSeed

Portrait Mode and Depth Effect

But, it was the native camera’s Portrait Mode with depth effect that got me excited! The dual lens camera that was first introduced with the iPhone 7 Plus, is, IMHO, the most significant advancement in mobile cameras that we’ve seen in years, and Apple has steadily improved on that original 7 Plus with advancements in the 8 Plus, then the X, and now the XS phones. With the XS and XS Max, it’s taken another step toward higher quality.

So, what’s the big deal about the dual lens system? Well, until the introduction of the dual lens cameras, creating a narrow depth of field (where only a select segment of the image, such as a face or a flower, is in focus) was not possible. That desirable look, especially for portraits, was something that could only be done with traditional cameras that allow you to open the aperture. With the introduction of the dual lens system, the iPhone could now focus on a face (or other subject), while creating a beautiful, soft background and foreground (aka, “bokeh”), depending on the focal point.

The iPhone X improved on this system making it possible to select various lighting styles when taking the shot and, remarkably, to change the selection after taking the shot.

The iPhone XS cameras do all these things, but, they’ve raised the bar even farther. The XS phones also have the ability not only to create a narrow depth-of-field and make lighting choices, but also to determine how blurry to make the blurred parts of the image. Using a control that simulates the f-stops on a traditional camera, the XS cameras let us choose a wide-open shutter (f/1.4 for a very blurry background), or a smaller aperture (f/16, for an image that is sharp from the foreground through the background). And, if that’s not enough, we can make these changes to the blur after the photo has been made!

The image below shows three screen shots of a Portrait image being edited on the iPhone XS Max.

The image on the left has the f-stop set to f/16 and the entire image, foreground through background, is in focus.

The center image has the f-stop set to f/4.5 and the sign is sharp while the background is slightly out of focus.

In the image on the right, the f/stop is set to f/1.4 and the sign is sharp while the background is very soft and out of focus.

Here’s another example using the Portrait feature on an actual portrait, well of sorts; this Teddy Bear is a family member. The image was shot in Portrait mode using the Natural Light setting and this is the result.

iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, Natural Light, f/4.5
iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, Natural Light, f/4.5

All portrait images default to the f/4.5 f/stop producing a mild background blur, but can be changed in the Edit mode to increase or decrease the blur.

To make changes to the f/stop and lighting style, open the image in the camera role and select Edit. Now select a different type of light and/or a different f/stop. The f/stop for the image below was set to f/1.4 for maximum background blur and the light style selected is Studio Light

iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, Studio Light, adjusted to f/1.4
iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, Studio Light, adjusted to f/1.4

Return to edit mode as much as you’d like to change the f/stop or the lighting style.

An image taken in portrait mode will display the light choice options and f/stop slider when opened for editing.
An image taken in portrait mode will display the light choice options and f/stop slider when opened for editing.

When Stage Light is selected, (above) the background drops out, and the subject appears spotlighted as if by a stage light.

Tap Done to produce the result and save it to the camera role.

Resulting iPhone XS Max image shot in portrait mode with Stage Light selected during Edit.
Resulting iPhone XS Max image shot in portrait mode with Stage Light selected during Edit.

This feature, although it works great for portraits, is not justfor portraits. Try it on flowers or other subjects that you want isolate in an image.

iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, f/1.4, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, f/1.4, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, f/16, Stage Light Mono
iPhone XS Max, Portrait Mode, f/16, Stage Light Mono

Smart HDR

Add to these capabilities one more great feature – Smart HDR – and the iPhone XS phones are looking pretty good!

HDR, or “high dynamic range” photography, has been around since the early digital days, but back then it was strictly the domain of the most technical of photographers. Simply put, it involves taking two or more photos of the exact same scene but with different light readings, then combining these two images for a result with a superior exposure throughout both the shadows and the bright areas of the image.

Not long after the introduction of the iPhone, app developers created apps that allowed iPhone users to create HDR images with the click of a button. HDR was no longer difficult or complicated, and thus, became a common way for anyone to create a very well exposed image even when there are very bright and very dark areas in the scene.

The two examples below show the fundamental concept of HDR. There are two images, one taken so the light areas are well exposed and the shadows are too dark, and another where the shadows are well exposed but the bright areas are too bright or “blown out.” The third image in each group shows what happens when the two images are combined, resulting in the best exposure for both bright and dark areas in one image.

The image on the left has no detail in the bright area outside the greenhouse, while the flowers are nicely exposed. The second image is exposed well for the blue sky outside the greenhouse, but the flowers in the foreground are too dark. The image on the right is the result of combining the two previous images, producing a well exposed image with the highlights recovered and more detail in the flowers and in the shadow areas.

The image on the left is exposed well for the colorful tile walls, but the area at the end of the hallway is too bright and lacks detail. The image in the center is exposed well for the bright area at the end of the hallway, but the wall on the right is in shadow. The image on the right is the result of combining the two previous images, producing a well exposed image with the highlights recovered and more detail at the end of the hall, and in the shadow areas.

All this today is known as “computational photography,” and as phones have become more technologically advanced and their computing power enhanced, they now can perform trillions (that’s not a typo!) of computations to create the final image.

iPhone XS Max, Partial Pano, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Partial Pano, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, finished in SnapSeed
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR, finished in SnapSeed

Smart HDR takes advantage of this computing power made possible by the new A12 Bionic processor to create remarkable HDR images. Where it really struts its stuff, is when making an image of a moving subject in a high-contrast scene. With past HDR, shooting moving subjects often created ghosting or blur because there’s movement between the shots. With this high-tech computing power, the camera is able to eliminate shutter lag and freeze motion even while producing an HDR result without shadow or blur.

The images of the skateboarders below are sharp with no motion blur and they are both in mid-air or in motion, moving very fast. I’m looking forward to using Smart HDR more, but from what I can see with these shots, it does great job and is markedly improved over the iPhone X.

iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDR
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDRs
iPhone XS Max, Smart HDRs

I’ve really enjoyed these enhancements offered in the new XS iPhones, and the larger size of the iPhone XS Max has been a great choice for me.

All that said, this may be a good time to remind ourselves that the creative side of photography is not about the camera. We don’t need the latest and best to continue to do creative work. And, I think, regardless which camera you use today, they are all so close in what they can do that much of what we choose boils down to personal preference.

Luminous Landscape recently featured a great video by photographer, Ted Forbes, A Fun Chat with Ted, in which he talks about working within limitations. You can check it out here.

You can get an affordable alternative for creating bokeh in your images here. It is for iPhone only.

If you’re not ready to make the commitment to one of the new XS phones, and you currently have one of the other dual lens phones like the 7 Plus, 8 Plus, or X, you’ll be interested to know that you can achieve some of the same depth-of-field results with software available in the app Focos. This remarkable app will use your dual lens camera to capture images, then allows for some of the same depth-of-field and blur adjustment found on the XS iPhones.

Here’s an example of what is possible. See the screen shots of the Focos interface below. The image on the left shows the image with the f/stop set to f/20. Notice that the entire image from the shoes in the foreground to the wall in the background is in focus.

Focos Camera Interface, left, f/20, all in focus; right, f/1.4, shoes in foreground in focus, all else blurred.
Focos Camera Interface, left, f/20, all in focus; right, f/1.4, shoes in foreground in focus, all else blurred.

The image on the right has the f-stop dialed to f/1.4. In this image, the shoes in the foreground are sharp, while the background is quite blurred. Furthermore, you can reassign a focal point in the edit mode by tapping anywhere on the screen, even after taking the shot. Focos also shows the image in 3D and provides additional depth filters.

Whether you’re ready for an upgrade, or choose to continue to shoot within the limitations of your current tools, remember: It’s not about the camera! The most important part of any camera is that loose nut behind the lens! Whether upgrading or staying with what you have, there are options that let you explore some new ways to make photographs.

A Word about my Preference for the iPhone

The iPhone 4 in 2010 was my first smart phone and I didn’t even know it had a camera in it until after buying it. Since that first phone, I’ve shot with nearly every iPhone made. Today, the flagship phones from all the top developers are all extremely good and the differences are often so minuscule that it’s not valid to claim one is “better” than the other – although we often hear those claims. Today’s phones are essentially different in ways that make us choose what we like and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My choice of iPhone is not necessarily because I believe it is better than its competitors. I don’t! I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with the Samsung S9 and the Google Pixel, and I find them both to have extraordinary cameras.

So why do I stick with and continue to advocate for the iPhone as a mobile camera choice? Some might argue that it’s because of the familiarity I now have with it after eight years of iPhones, and there’s probably some truth to that. But, the main reason I’ve stayed with the iPhone is because of the number and quality of post-processing apps and camera apps available for it that simply aren’t available for android phones.

That is changing, and rapidly. Today we have camera apps like Lightroom CC that allow us to shoot and process RAW files on both iPhone and android, and we have the powerful editing apps, SnapSeed and PS Express, both of which offer great editing and stylizing options, and run on both platforms.

There will come a time when the available tools for each operating system will either be the same or the differences simply will not matter anymore. Until that time, though, I’ll likely stick with the iPhone. I’m very happy with it and the tools available. If you’re an android user, here is a link to my article on Luminous Landscape which includes apps for android.

Thanks for reading and until next time, keep on shooting!


Rad Drew
October 2018

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Rad Drew

Rad A. Drew (http://www.raddrewphotography.com) is a professional photographer who lives in historic Irvington on the east side of Indianapolis with his wife, metalsmith, Nancy Lee (http://www.ndesignsmetal.com). His creative iPhone images have received numerous international awards and have made their way into galleries and juried international shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Texas, Vermont, New York, Toronto, Collingwood, Seattle, and Melbourne. He is author of the fine art books, In Good Light, Images of the Circle City and Rural Indiana, A Beauty all its Own, and is a contributor to today’s most comprehensive volume of iPhone instruction, The Art of iPhone Photography: Creating Great Photos and Art on Your iPhone. Rad is a frequent speaker at photography conferences and camera clubs throughout the U.S. His destination workshops to Cuba, France, Ireland, and points throughout the U.S. including Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, PA, and Provincetown on Cape Cod, are great ways to learn while photographing beautiful areas of the world. In his popular webinar series, How I Did It!™ Rad demonstrates the apps and processes he uses to create award-winning images with the iPhone. As a webinar presenter for Topaz Labs, Rad shares his processing techniques using Topaz products to process digital images from traditional cameras as well as the iPhone. Contact Rad or visit his website for more information on art purchases, workshops, books, tours, exhibits, speaking engagements, and the How I Did It!™ webinar series. Rad, as an associate editor for Luminous-Landscape (https://luminous-landscape.com), writes a periodic iPhoneography column, covers special events, and writes product reviews.

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