Video: How smartphone portrait mode compares to a $12,000 camera

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Up until recently, having control over depth of field was the one area where your camera had a clear advantage over your smartphone.

However smartphone hardware and software technology is moving incredibly quickly; seemingly much faster than camera technology has in recent years.

The result is the new generation of smartphones like the iPhone X, Huawei P10 and the Google Pixel 2 now all feature cameras and software that are able to replicate a shallow depth of field effect like the one you would get from a fast portrait lens.

In this new video, Marques Brownlee explains how it works, and also tests the Pixel 2, iPhone X and the Samsung Note 8 up against the medium format Hasselblad X1D.

Because a smartphone’s sensor is so small and the field of view is so wide, images taken with a smartphone in normal or auto mode are generally all in focus. In smartphones with dual lenses, edge detection and/or depth mapping are used to differentiate between the foreground and background. Software is then used to calculate the areas that should be in focus and out, before blurring occurs.

The iPhone X and Note 8 use depth mapping - the phone utilises both cameras to judge the distance between the subject and background, and the software blurs the areas that aren't the main subject. 

The Pixel 2 works differently— it doesn’t rely on two lenses like the iPhone X and Note 8, and as a result users can use the front mounted camera and still get shallow depth of field shots. The Pixel 2 creates a mask of the subject and then performs a depth mapping calculation on the subject and the background. 

The two methods achieve slightly different results. The iPhone X appears to prioritise the face of the subject, with the result that ears or hair are often out of focus - a bit like shooting at an extremely wide aperture. The Pixel 2 on the other hand creates a more natural blur, but does seem to rely on fairly dramatic sharpening at the edges. From Brownlee's tests, the Note 8 appears somewhere in the middle.

All the smartphones struggle when the subject is too far from the camera, ditching the shallow depth of field effect and just taking a 'regular' photograph.

“I think you and I will always be able to tell the difference if you pixel-peep enough between a smartphone camera and a big sensor just because of the physical constraints of trying to make such a small sensor do such big things,” Brownlee says in the video. “For that reason, the big cameras will always have their place — professionals will always buy that. But [smartphone] cameras are getting so good. The best camera is still the one you have with you."

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