How To Add Bokeh On An iPhone : The Art and Science Behind Apple's New Portrait Mode

iphone 7 plus portrait mode bokeh An image from Apple's keynote introducing Portrait mode for iPhone 7+.

Ever wondered how to get that beautiful bokeh effect with your iPhone 7 Plus? Ever wondered what exactly "bokeh" is? For all of us out there who aren't professional photographers, join this journalist as she dives into the wonderful world of iPhone 7 Plus photography, the science and art of Bokeh, and learns how to take great iPhone 7 Plus pictures using Portrait mode.

A Primer On Bokeh And iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode

When I began to ask about bokeh and Apple's new Portrait Mode for the iPhone 7 Plus, the seasoned professional photographers in my life generally answered like this:

They were a bit nicer but it's true, I know just about nothing when it comes to photography. With the announcement of the iPhone 7 and 7+ from Apple, the internet became alight with discussions on the bigger storage capacity, water resistance, and Portrait Mode. I finally thought I could become like my professional photography friends, taking hipster pictures of my dog staring off into the sunset. Except that I knew absolutely nothing about bokeh or portrait mode and the internet was still raging about the loss of the headphone jack. Being the writer/know-it-all/nerd that I am, I figured the best way to figure out Portrait mode was to actually research what any of it actually meant.

Portrait mode, essentially, is using the photographic stylings of bokeh. A variation on a Japanese word that means ‘blur’, Bokeh centers on the quality of the background as it works to emphasize the subject. Good bokeh is identifiable by a softer, diffused image that accentuates the depth of field while not sacrificing the background by simply blurring it.

With the help of artificial intelligence and a dual camera system, Apple has created a program to mimic Bokeh using faster aperture settings and software that takes facial recognition, lighting and the depth of field into account to create an image that appears to use the traditional methods to create bokeh. But even with all this computer software being thrown around, most common users were still left wondering why bokeh was anything worth caring about. However, if years of art and science are worth following, Apple's foray into the world of bokeh is worth paying plenty of attention to.

The Science Behind Bokeh and iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode

The origin of bokeh The man. The myth. The legend. Joseph Petzval.

Now this is where we throw on our lab coats and go back to 1840 when Joseph Petzval created the Petzal lens and bokeh began to take shape as an identifiable, scientific idea. The camera contained a double lens that corrected for spherical aberrations and with a quicker f-number (f-stop), the subject appeared sharper while their background took on a swirly, softness.

Great bokeh photography An example of the Petzval lens at work.

While this sounds like a bit of mumbo jumbo to the average person (read:me), the science was ground-breaking. Creating a double lens system meant the background or anywhere outside the depth of field no longer appeared quite so blurry and instead appeared artistically driven. Imagine comparing a Monet to that one time your grandma tried to take a selfie. That was Petzval at its finest.

As mentioned above, spherical aberrations are a photographer's worst nightmare. Aberrations in photography simply refer to the blurry or distorted parts of a photo, generally seen to be in poor form either from a crap lens or terrible photographer. When an image is completely blurry, the subject or camera moved, shifting the light refractions leading to the blur. Fast cameras quickly capture the light with faster aperture settings and wide lens, creating clearer and cripser photos.

aberrations in light bokeh effect As witnessed here, aberrations make points of light take on unique characteristics when refracted through a camera lens.

The Petzal lens and others began to use aberrations in their favor. By doubling lenses, widening angles and rendering out of focus points of light favorably, spherical aberrations were no longer to be abhorred. By letting in plenty of light and focusing the subject in a shallow depth, a skilled photographer could make a subject stand out even more through a soft and composed background. In 1977, Mike Johnston officially named this skill as "bokeh" and it has evolved from there ever since.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Bokeh

Good bokeh requires practice and skill. Bad bokeh simply requires the wrong movements at the wrong time. In good bokeh, the subject is further highlighted by a warm and welcoming background. Your eye should be drawn to the subject, and the background pushes you there even more. Their portrait is what matters.

Good bokeh. Good bokeh.

When bad bokeh occurs it doesn't mean the photo is  "bad", it just doesn't qualify under the standards of proper bokeh use. Bokeh aims to highlight a subject while still emphasizing a warm and enhanced background. A photo with bad bokeh distracts the eye away from the central subject.

In the photo above, the lighting and shot are excellent. The photo is following the rule of thirds and the depth of field is well placed. However, your eyes are consistently distracted by the colorful foliage in the background. There is a little too much definition, meaning that the subject is not the sole focus of the photo. Still pretty, yes. But blurring the background does not equate to instant bokeh.

Plenty of the best photos in the world excel at bokeh. Bokeh is just a unique art form that requires special skills to create. Even Apple's form of bokeh is not true bokeh. It is creating highlighted portraits but it doesn't allows follow the rules, hence the aptly named Portrait Mode.

How To Use Apple's Portrait Mode

Bokeh on iPhone 7 Plus Beta Testing Apple's Portrait Mode for iPhone 7+

Bokeh, with its soft creamy blur, circular light, and in-focus subject can create incredibly unique portraits. Apple decided to jump on the bandwagon with their iPhone 7+, bringing the phone’s camera one step closer to being up there with standard DSLR photography. While iPhone images still have a long way to go, introducing the artistic vision of bokeh into the mix, definitely gave them an edge.

Apple is using a mimicked bokeh effect and a computer algorithm that minimizes the years of practice and precision real bokeh takes to achieve. And it all can be attributed to artificial intelligence (AI).

No, this is not the beginning of the terminator apocalypse. This unique AI program is the sibling of the same programming that works to help Facebook tag faces and Google to find you that one specific image of a baby bonobo.

Remember, you share 98.7% of your DNA with this girl.

What makes this such a huge step for Apple is that AI works in numbers and code. It is incredibly difficult to teach a computer to see the difference between your friend Steve, and the active volcano he is standing in front of. The Image Signal Processor (ISP) looks through thousands of photos, determining what exactly a background and subject should look like. It can tell where the ocean begins and the sky ends. Pretty neat, right? Those two cameras that meant you had to say goodbye to your headphone jack? They work together to create a depth of field map so  your subject can be easily identified. The computer algorithm generates that photo-perfect blur a la bokeh with just a few taps on the screen.

iPhone 7 Plus Photographer = Instant Bokeh Master? Not Quite.

While other companies have taken steps to achieve the likes of bokeh, Apple has pulled off a unique take which gives the average user the ability to create unique pieces of art, or just really pretty pictures of avocado toast. Portrait mode is perfecting what other companies have not yet achieved success in.

While DSLRs can still sleep soundly at home, knowing that they still stand as the best of the best on the market, it no longer takes a small loan to achieve a top-notch picture. Bokeh will become available when Apple releases iOS 10.1 in late October. Meanwhile, you can become a beta tester and get snapping portraits of your pet, Fluffy, as soon as you'd like. You can find out how to do that via the Apple Beta Testing Program .

Special thanks to Lomography.com and Imaging Resource for breaking down the science and art of bokeh to a 'Jon Snow of Photography'!

One thought on “How To Add Bokeh On An iPhone : The Art and Science Behind Apple's New Portrait Mode”

  • Karl

    There's an app called Portrait Blur which achieves similar effect AUTOMATICALLY, and the blur is more beautiful IMHO iPhones with just one camera. It's FREE and really cool IMHO. Just search for Portrait Blur in the App store.

    Reply
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