Some of my favorite portraits over the years are those that I’ve taken with a narrow depth of field so that the subject is sharp and figural, while the area around the subject is a soft blur. That soft blur, or bokeh, tends to accentuate the subject’s face in a positive way and blurs elements that otherwise might distract the viewer.
When the iPhone 7 Plus came out last year, I was both excited and skeptical about the new Portrait feature with Depth Effect that was supposed to help create portraits with a blurred background. After a recent trip to Cuba where I used these features extensively, I’m a true believer! I love the performance of the iPhone 7 Plus and these effects for portraits, and when processed with SnapSeed’s Face filters, the results are remarkable.
Here’s how it works. First you want to make sure that you’re running at least the 10.1 operating system on the iPhone 7 Plus. The Portrait feature with Depth Effect was enabled with the iOS 10.1 release. These features are not available on the iPhone 7 and earlier iPhone models.
Open the iPhone native camera app, and select Portrait mode along the bottom of the screen. As you frame your subject, notice that you’ll get a yellow focus box showing that the face is the focal point. You can use the exposure controls if necessary, just as you do in the Photo camera mode. As you get within 8 feet of your subject, you’ll see the words DEPTH EFFECT in yellow across the bottom of the screen.
If you’re shooting a face, the camera will automatically focus on the face and show a yellow box around it. So long as DEPTH EFFECT appears at the bottom of the screen, you’ll get that great blur around your subject. If the yellow focus box doesn’t appear around the face in the image, you may need to tap on the face to cause it to focus there. When you depress the shutter button, hold the phone steady just as you would with any shot. Sometimes when shooting in low light, the DEPTH EFFECT feature will not have enough light to activate.
If you’ve selected the Portrait mode, focused on your subject, and successfully activated the DEPTH EFFECT feature, you’ll get an image with a sharp face and a softly blurred background like the ones shown below.
Tips for Composing and Making Your Portrait
Here are a few tips for composing great portraits and getting beautiful catch lights in your subject’s eyes.
- Move in close and try to have your subject’s face fill the frame. If you get too close, the DEPTH EFFECT may deactivate, so look for a sweet spot a few feet away from your subject.
- Position your subject’s dominant eye in the center of the frame. This will give the illusion that the subject’s eyes are following you, just like in the great paintings of the masters.
- Try to position your subject so that your light source is coming toward or to the side of your subject’s face. The light should be coming from behind you or at least at a 45-degree angle to your subject. If you are shooting in bright sun, look for a shady spot or a spot beneath an awning that will block the harsh light while allowing plenty of light to illuminate your subject. You don’t want your subject to have to squint or have brightness, that will create harsh shadows, but you do want the light hitting their eyes. By using the light in this way, you are more likely to get those lovely catch lights that make the eyes so expressive, like in the image below.
- As you photograph your subject, do your best to establish a rapport so that your subject is at ease. Take advantage of the unobtrusiveness of the iPhone to get close so your subject fills the frame. Don’t be afraid to ask your subject to reposition if the light changes or if you want a different angle of the light.
- Do your best to compose in the camera when you take the shot. Yes, we can always crop and adjust later, but it’s almost always better if you can compose your image at the time you’re taking it. Try to fill the frame, get the subject’s dominate eye in the center, and position your subject so that there is not too much space at the top, and so you don’t crop out part of the body.
Process your Portraits with SnapSeed’s Face Filters
Once you have a portrait you’re pleased with, you can improve it further by processing it in the app, SnapSeed. I’ve posted a number of workflow videos on my YouTube Channel for using SnapSeed and these workflows (see video below) are great for processing landscapes and architecture, but, when processing portraits, we need to adjust the workflow somewhat. For example, you may not want to use SnapSeed’s Detail tools (sharpen and structure) on the skin of a face because it has a tendency to call attention to skin textures and blemishes in unattractive ways. Instead, use just a little bit of Ambiance in SnapSeed’s Tune Image tool kit, and then move to SnapSeed’s Face filter collection of adjustments. Using these Face filters, you can select for pale, fare, medium, and dark skin, and you can smooth the skin, add a spotlight effect to brighten a face, and work wonders with the clarity in the eyes.
Experiment with SnapSeed’s Face filters and adjustments until you get the look you’re going for. If you change the tone behind the face icon in the Face Filters from NONE to PALE, FAIR, MEDIUM, or DARK, inspect your image carefully after. I’ve noticed that moving to medium and dark can add a purplish tint to the blacks in your image. I’ve had the best results with using NONE and then adjusting the Face Spotlight, Skin Smoothing, and Eye Clarity sliders to taste.
And, be careful not to use too much clarity in the eyes. It’s tempting to move this setting up too high and get an unnatural-looking result. I find that eye clarity over 30 needs to be checked carefully to make sure it’s not too much. See video below to watch a brief tutorial on how I’ve used SnapSeed to process some of the portraits shown in this article.
Give these techniques a try and I think you’ll really enjoy the results with the iPhone 7 Plus!
Getting that Blur in your Portraits without the iPhone 7 Plus
What if you don’t have the iPhone 7 Plus but would still like to get that beautiful bokeh in your portraits? There are two apps that claim to produce a similar blur effect on earlier iPhone models. I say “claim,” not because they don’t work, but because I’ve not yet tested them with an earlier iPhone to see how they work. I plan to put them through their paces eventually, but in the mean time, you may want to try them out yourself. One is Depth Effects for $3.99. The other, Patch: Smart Portrait Editor, is free but has an in-app purchase of $1.99 to eliminate the watermark.
An app that I know works for getting a great blur in your portrait is BlurFX. By applying a Gaussian blur to the entire image, then, carefully erasing the blur from the face, you can achieve a wonderful result. It can take a little time, but the result is worth the effort. For the image of the old woman below, she was too far away for me to get the DEPTH EFFECT feature to activate, so I couldn’t get the soft blur to happen “in camera.” Instead, I took a regular shot and used BlurFX to add the blur as shown in the image below.
Here’s the sequence for using BlurFX to blur the background of your portrait:
- Process your image in SnapSeed as suggested above.
- Open your image in BlurFX
- Tap Blur Type, select Gaussian Blur, and move the slider all the way to the right, blurring the entire image.
- Tap CLEAN and begin to wipe the blur from the woman’s face. You can tap BRUSH SIZE to adjust the size of your brush and choose a soft or hard edge. You may want to use a stylus to get close to the edges of the face.
- Use the spread finger motion to zoom in on the edges so you can see where the face stops and the background begins, carefully wiping the blur away from the face all the way to its edge.
Tap the SHOW MASK to see the areas you’ve cleaned of the blur
This is a great way to achieve an effect similar to that of the new iPhone 7 Plus, it just takes a little longer to achieve the desired results.
Here are some additional images created using the iPhone 7 Plus and SnapSeed.
Visit my website to see additional portraits created using these techniques.