How to get great Bokeh without Portrait Mode on Smartphones

It can be done...and is better!

by: - Last updated on: January 24th, 2021
Key Takeaways
  • For many people, bokeh – the beautifully blurred background – is almost synonymous with portrait mode. That’s because that’s how it is marketed.
  • The truth is that you do not need portrait mode for good bokeh.
  • Most modern camera phones can get you a sharply focused image with a blurred background. You just have to find the right place.

Ever seen a shot with great bokeh – that wonderfully blurry background around a sharply focused subject- only to discover on closer inspection, that part of the subject had been blurred out too? Congratulations, you have just discovered Portraitus Modus Perilus, a condition that afflicts most people who take pictures on their phone using Portrait Mode.

portrait mode

Portrait mode does not always work

Let’s blame Apple again. Before the iPhone 7 Plus came along, bokeh (those beautifully blurred backgrounds), was something that was mainly a feature of “real cameras” and some smartphones with dual cameras. Of course, once Apple made it a “thing” with “Portrait Mode” which was dedicated to blurring out the background and keeping the subject of a photograph in sharp focus. Today, almost every device comes with its own version of portrait mode, and you can even control the amount of blur you want in the background.

It is wonderful. And so simple. And so utterly inaccurate most of the time.

Because you see, unlike in most “real” cameras where the blurry background is actually caused by the camera itself, most portrait modes depend on software to get the effect. This can lead to some odd accidents, like some part of the background remaining in focus, or some part of the subject getting blurred out – what many call “edge detection” problems. Of course, you can fix them by getting into edit mode and moving things around.

Or maybe you can take shots that get perfect bokeh with no edge issues. It’s easy – just do NOT use portrait mode!

Yes, you read that right – you can get perhaps the best bokeh by NOT using the very mode that is designed to deliver bokeh. Allow us to explain.

So do not always use it!

Without getting too technical about it, bokeh or the background blurring depends mainly on three things, the focal length of the camera, the aperture, and the distance of the subject from the camera. Still too technical?

All right, I will simplify it. Check the aperture of your phone camera. If it is below f/2.0 – these figures are given in most tech specs – and if your phone is priced in the vicinity of Rs 12,000 and was released after 2018, there is a decent chance that you will be able to take shots with real bokeh without using portrait mode. The process requires you to use your phone’s camera just as you would use a normal camera – you move back and forth or move the subject until you get the effect you want.

normal vs portrait 4

Yes, it is actually that simple – you just move back and forth until the shot seems right. In the camera, you would have the option of moving the lens, but in phones, you generally do not have this, so well, you will have to do the moving. As you move closer to your subject, you will see the background beginning to blur. And this is a “real” blur, with no software involved. Once you feel happy enough with the way things appear – and yes, you can actually see it in front of your eyes – just hit the shutter. You will have a shot with the subject in clear focus and the background blurred out, generally without any edges getting blurred. And no, there is no insistence on a “human subject” (as some phone cameras do).

Bokeh wanted? No portrait mode needed.

normal vs portrait 1

The trick, of course, is knowing exactly where to take a picture from to achieve this level of bokeh. This depends on the size of the subject, the light conditions, and of course, the quality and size of the sensor in your camera. What we have generally observed is that one can get a decent amount of bokeh from a distance of about 6-8 inches to about a foot and a half, depending on the quality of the camera. Some people confuse this with macro, but no, it is not macro. Macro is from much closer up, often from a few centimeters.

Where you get bokeh in normal mode is the distance where the camera finds (jargon alert) the perfect depth of field.

normal vs portrait 2

No, you do not NEED to know what that is – just remember that when your subject is in focus and everything else is blurred out (bokeh-ed), it is called a “shallow depth of field” and if everything appears in focus, well, then you have a “deep depth of field.” Without complicating things, the smaller the denominator in the aperture size of your phone’s camera, the better bokeh you will get – so an aperture of f/1.8 will give better bokeh than f/2.0, and similarly f/1.6 will deliver better bokeh than f/1.8. Just remember to find the perfect distance – it can vary depending on the size and kind of sensor, as well as the lighting conditions. We generally found a distance of anything from half a foot to even a foot and half doing the trick – of course, a lot depends on the kind of lighting and the distance of the subject from the background (very closely crowded areas do not generate great bokeh shots).

Less convenient, but more accurate bokeh

normal vs portrait 3

Of course, Portrait Mode still has its own advantages. In it, you can blur out the background from a number of distances, “real” blurring out generally happens in certain conditions. And Portrait Mode also gives you the option of increasing or decreasing the level of blur, or adding effects like “studio lighting.” Most important of all, Portrait Mode gives you greater control – you can actually turn it on and take pictures with bokeh whenever you want. Getting bokeh in a normal snap can get a little more complicated. A lot depends on the lighting, and if you have surfaces off which a lot of light is reflecting, you will end up getting better bokeh, than if you have a very plain background. Low light snaps with bokeh in them are difficult, and well, there is a bit more fiddling involved. You do not have as much control.

What you DO have, however, is the assurance that your snap is going to have real bokeh and not one manufactured by supporting lenses and software. Just like in real cases. Fewer blurred edges, way sharper detail of the subject, more realistic colors. And bokeh that does not look like something that was created by the software. In simple terms: better pictures.

It just takes a little bit of getting into the right place.

As in normal photography.

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