The Main Quirk With iPhone X’s Portrait Mode

I was one of the crazy ones that woke up at 3AM on October 27th, 2017 to pre-order a 256GB iPhone X. I was preparing for an upcoming trip to Israel and I wanted to take this camera (I mean phone) along to help capture some of the amazing locations in that beautiful land. I knew I would be shooting tons of video with the iPhone X running on a gimbal (the DJI OSMO Mobile) and wanted access to the best iPhone camera I could get. What I wasn’t thinking much about in my planning was how amazing Portrait Mode would be on the new phone for still images and how much this feature would distract me from shooting video, nor did I realize one of the major quirks I would experience with it.

The iPhone X arrived about a week before I left for Israel, so I didn’t have a lot of time to put it through it’s paces. My attention was consumed with making sure I could get the iPhone X properly balanced on the OSMO and that I had a way of capturing good, clean audio with my RODE mic. Again, my focus was on the video capabilities of the new device and not on the stills. I had upgraded from an iPhone 6, so I was new to Portrait Mode. I took a few shots with it prior to leaving for my trip, and was impressed with it’s quality, but I didn’t shoot in enough situations, nor study the images closely enough to see some of the quirks that would appear in the field.

My trip to Israel was a pilgrimage of sorts with about 70 team-members on two buses. The entire trip I was the dork running around with the gimbal and slowing the team down because I always needed “one more shot”. We were rushed most of the time, because there are far too many amazing sights to see in Israel. As one of our tour guides put it, “you get to run where Jesus walked!” With my focus being on the video, I would try to take as many still pictures as possible, but since we were always in a hurry to get back on the bus, I was not always in a position to look at and study the images in the field. I got the occasional glance to see if something looked decent, but I was never really able to check the details until I returned to my hotel room and backed up all my footage and images. And that’s when I started to notice the interesting quirk about Portrait Mode on the iPhone X. It tends to over-choke the mask on the foreground object and sometimes confuses foreground for background data (and vice versa).

Let me say first, that I love, love, love shallow depth of field. Soft backgrounds and crisp subjects are magical. That’s the thing I’ve disliked about most phone photography in the past is that images tend to be flat with relatively no separation between foreground and background. As a matter of fact, for nearly 30 years of shooting video I have always preferred under-lighting a scene to force my iris wide open to capture that shallow depth of field. With the iPhone, Portrait Mode has become my “go to” setting for stills. That said, it doesn’t work the way a traditional DSLR camera and lens works.

I don’t know how the magic is made in Portrait Mode on the iPhone, but somehow the geniuses at Apple have pulled it off. The two lens camera is able to distinguish subject from background and somehow it softens the background while keeping the subject crisp. Now “Portrait” Mode implies capturing the image of a person, but since I’m the guy who loves a shallow depth of field I use it to shoot anything and everything, from Israeli plant life, to beer bottles, to Corinthian column capitals and what I noticed is that sometimes Portrait Mode has a hard time distinguishing the subject from the background and on occasion parts of the image get blurred that should be sharp. This can be very aggravating and can ruin a great image.

Olives in the Jerusalem Market — This animated GIF image clearly shows the problem. Notice the blurred green olives in the foreground at the bottom of the pile. Those should be crisp like the rest of green olives. This would only require a simple Photoshop fix, but an extra step none-the-less.

The good news I learned is that when you shoot in Portrait Mode the iPhone actually saves two images; one soft-focus and one entirely crisp, and this may just be Apple’s safety net for us pros. For most shots, someone with a few Photoshop skills should be able to quickly fix an image by replacing or rebuilding some of the foreground. An extra step indeed, but definitely worth it to save that important shot.

A few years ago I stopped carrying my DSLR in favor of the iPhone’s camera in my pocket. The lens on my iPhone 6 was extremely limiting, the flat images were disappointing, but the convenience of a camera with me at all times was fantastic. I tell people continually,“the absolute best camera in the world is the one in your pocket when you need it.” It’s always better to capture the moment with an old grainy flip phone, than to miss the moment altogether. Now with the iPhone X and Portrait Mode’s shallow depth of field, my pocket just got a lot happier and my photos just got a lot better!

Below you’ll find several more animated GIF samples showing the some of the issues I came across in the field:

Notice the top of the beer bottle gets blurred with the background and the sides of the bottle get choked in too far.
Notice the yarmulke on the shopkeepers head gets blurred into the background.
The trees in the far distance between me and my wife are seen as foreground data and are kept crisp. Most examples are of foreground info being seen as background, but this is one where background info was seen as foreground.
Granted this is a hard shot to distinguish foreground from background, but it’s the worst case I experienced on my trip to Israel.
I added the wide shot to this sequnce for perspective, but notice the brim of the artists hat above his nose on the close-ups.
When we arrived in Jerusalem we took communion at an overlook above the city. Notice how the top of the cup at the bottom of the frame registers as background data.
In this one, notice how the coke logo on the can in the foreground is blurred.

Please share this with anyone who needs it and comment below about your experiences with Portrait Mode.

Film Review: A Separation — 4 stars


SUMMARY: An Iranian man’s wife leaves him to care for their daughter and his aging father. The woman he hires to help brings a new set of problems that may just ruin his family and his good name.

DETAILS: A Separation is an Iranian film (The Separation of Nader and Simin) that won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards. Also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, A Separation tells the story of the tragic breakup of an Iranian middle class couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), and explores the consequences of their decision that includes lies, deceit, miscarriage/murder, child custody, and ultimately a quest for justice. The story begins with Simin attempting to divorce her husband who refuses to leave the country with her in order to stay and care for his aging father who suffers with Alzheimer’s. Their separation forces Nader to find a caregiver for his father and this is where their troubles begin. Nader hires a woman from a lower class who desperately needs work, but who (due to the intimate nature of care-giving involved) is forced to lie about her employment. A Separation beautifully explores the issues of class, marriage, parental care, sin, love, and the tragedy of a couple splitting up. The film is a slow and steady, beautifully shot, dramatic piece that I highly recommend for anyone desiring a glimpse into modern day Islamic life. The aging, nearly silent, grandfather in the film is wonderfully played by Ali-Asghar Shahbazi whose actions, mannerisms, and portrayal of a man with Alzheimers should have earned him a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. This film proves that the power of storytelling is truly a universal gift.

SCORE: 4.0 out of 5 stars
ACADEMY AWARD: Best Foreign Language Film

Film Review: Intimate Stranger — 3 stars


SUMMARY: The compelling, tragic, global story of Joseph Cassuto, a man who loved his work more than his family.

DETAILS: Intimate Stranger is the story of Joseph Cassuto, an average, hardworking Jewish man whose life changed drastically due to WWII. Living in Egypt prior to the war, Joseph had a lovely wife and four children and a very successful career exporting Egyptian cotton to Japan, but following Pearl Harbor his life and career would take a drastic turn. His American wife and his two youngest children were able to return to America just prior to the war breaking out with the thought that Dad and the others would soon join them. But as fate would have it, it would be several years before they would arrive in Brooklyn, and in America, their successful father was a nobody. Mr. Cassuto soon started rebuilding his relationships with the Japanese and he eventually would live in Japan, away from his family, for 11 months of the year. As he became more loved by the Japanese, he became more hated by his own family. The best quote of the film is by one of his own sons who said, “I never met anybody who disliked him, other than the immediate family.” Intimate Stranger was made by Cassuto’s grandson Alan Berliner and is a great look at a man who busied himself too much with his career at the expense of those who should have loved him the most.

SCORE: 3 out of 5 stars

Film Review: The Sapphires — 3.5 stars


SUMMARY: Based on a true story, an Indigenous girls band from Australia earns the opportunity to travel to Vietnam to entertain the American troops during the war.

DETAILS: The Sapphires is That Thing You Do meets soul music and the Vietnam War. A group of Indigenous singers in Australia catch the attention of a makeshift music promoter (Chris O’Dowd) who helps them transition from country to soul music and take their show to Vietnam. Loosely based on a true story, their new manager secures an audition in Melbourne that will change their lives. The girl singers (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell) change their name to The Sapphires, and head to war-torn Vietnam to entertain the American servicemen. The Sapphires contains romance, laughter, and a fantastic soundtrack of 1960’s soulful music. The film deals with issues of race, belonging, and the universal language of music. Although I mentioned That Thing You Do to create a mental picture, this film doesn’t quite reach the same mark as that Tom Hanks classic. Ultimately, The Sapphires wants to soar at great heights, but instead settles for a low, but elegant glide across the screen… but regardless, this film does have a great soundtrack and is worth watching.

SCORE: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Film Review: La Ragazza del Lago (The Girl by the Lake) — 2 stars

ONE WORD REVIEW: Disappointing

SUMMARY: The body of a woman who everyone knew is discovered near an Italian lake and the small town investigator must determine who is guilty of the crime… but no one is talking.

DETAILS: Alright, let it be known that the only reason I watched this film is because I wanted to see Toni Servillo’s performance. I had enjoyed his acting in La Grande Bellezza and wanted to see some of his other films, but La Ragazza del Lago (The Girl by the Lake) left me disappointed on several levels. It’s the story of a woman’s body who is discovered naked, covered with a coat, by the lake in a small town in the Italian alps. The film begins with mystery and intrigue and the web is spun, but by the story’s end, you realize that most of the web was irrelevant. It just didn’t come together like it could have. Servillo’s performance is not up to his screen presence in La Grande Bellezza, but ultimately, this story just falls flat. Spend your 95 minutes on something more worthwhile.

SCORE: 2 out of 5 stars

Film Review: Man with a Movie Camera — 5 stars


SUMMARY: A celebration of modernism as seen through the eyes of a 1929 Soviet Silent Filmmaker.

DETAILS: Man with a Movie Camera is the most magical display of early filmmaking and avant-garde editing I have ever seen. A Russian film made in 1929 by Dziga Vertov, this silent picture celebrates machinery, industry, ingenuity, and beauty in ways no other film ever has. From weddings and divorces to funerals and childbirth we see the juxtaposition of emotion and imagery. It is certainly the earliest film about the art of filmmaking that I’ve seen and perhaps the first one ever made. It showcases the work and creativity of the Camera Man throughout the picture, even making him superhuman in a god-like scene where he looms like a giant above the city and the populace. There is also a special section featuring the film editor and her critically creative work. Man with a Movie Camera is edited amazingly well, with quick cuts, fast pacing, a beautiful images. Director Dziga Vertov was lightyears ahead of his time. I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves movies and especially to any student of film or any filmmaker. You won’t be disappointed.

SCORE: 5 out of 5 stars

Film Review: The Silence of the Lambs — 3 stars


SUMMARY: A rookie FBI agent must trust her instincts and a locked up psychopathic cannibal in order to prevent a another psychopath from killing again.

DETAILS: It’s hard to believe that an entire generation has grown up since The Silence of the Lambs was originally released. The story was so unbelievably frightening back in 1991… a cannibal named Hannibal Lecter that gets inside your mind and literally under your skin (Anthony Hopkins), a novice FBI agent who is uncertain about herself (Jodie Foster), and a plot involving suspense, the skinning of kidnapped humans, and a transsexual antagonist who lodges sphinx moths in the throats of his deceased victims. I remember seeing this film with my wife back in the 90’s. For years I could make the rat-like noise that Hopkins makes with his tongue repeatedly striking his teeth and it would freak my wife out and of course it would typically be proceeded by my best Hannibal Lecter impersonation, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Unfortunately, time has passed and the world is literally a different place than it was in 1991. Perhaps the film was so shocking at the time, but we have all been so continually shocked since, that the film’s shock-factor has lost it’s punch. Perhaps there has been so much talk of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transvestites in recent years, that the antagonist is not nearly as “out there” any longer. Perhaps it’s that there are several scenes where the suspension of disbelief is not enough to justify the actions of the characters (i.e. how our heroine finds the murderer, how Lecter knows where to call her at graduation, etc.). Or perhaps it’s just simply because I knew how it was going to turn out. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards and winner of 5 including Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Hopkins), and Best Actress (Foster) this film is definitely worth watching… but it’s just not what it was back in 1991.

SCORE: 3 out of 5 stars
ACADEMY AWARD WINNER: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress

Film Review: Monica & David — 4 stars


SUMMARY: In spite of them both having Down Syndrome, Monica & David marry and start their lives together.

DETAILS: Monica & David have Down Syndrome… and yet they won’t let that stop them from being happily married. Although dependent on Monica’s mother and step-father, Monica & David begin their lives together and show us that love is so much more than what we typically expect it to be. The film covers the stresses of the first year of marriage including a big family move, David’s adjustment to diabetes, and the thought of losing those you love. We also see the struggles of their parents who ultimately fear the day when they are dead and gone and can no longer care for and protect the children they love so much. I watched this film because I have a 6 year old daughter with Down Syndrome and I often look into her beautiful blue eyes and wonder what her future will hold. I have 5 other kids who I know will do okay out in the world, but it’s my youngest, the one with Down’s that I worry the most about… and she’s only 6. Monica & David is uplifting and inspiring. I highly recommend this film because it will show you that just because someone has Down Syndrome, it doesn’t mean they don’t have dreams and aspirations. Monica & David captures the humor, the resilience, and the heart that is Down Syndrome.

SCORE: 4 out of 5 stars

Film Review: All This Mayhem — 3.5 stars


SUMMARY: All This Mayhem showcases the rise and fall of the world’s best skateboarders; two brothers from Australia who launch from the vert into the limelight only to come crashing down under the weight of their own fame.

DETAILS: All This Mayhem is the most appropriate title this tragic documentary could have. It tells the story of the Pappas brothers (Tas and Ben) who grew up in Australia and started skateboarding as young kids. The motion of the skate ramp is very symbolic of the lives of Tas and Ben. Once they learned to ride the vert (half pipe) their careers and personal lives follow the same arc; fast motion, enormous energy, up the ramp, launch into the air, gravity kicks in, free falling back to the ramp… oh, and by the way, any error in timing the landing can and will be catastrophic. Soon after Tas and Ben learned to push the limits they took the skate world by storm and helped redefine the sport. As brothers, they went head to head with skate legend Tony Hawk… and they beat him, pushing the boundaries and creating new tricks every step of the way. But fame can lead to drugs, and drugs can lead to the downward spiral that would eventually wreck both Tas and Ben’s lives. Their tailspin includes arrests, drug abuse, physical abuse, and eventually murder, suicide, and prison. It’s a tragic story of two boys who couldn’t handle their own success. They had everything a skate kid could ask for… except the sense to handle it all.

SCORE: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Film Review: Boyhood — 4.5 stars


SUMMARY: Boyhood captures the growing up years of Mason Evans, Jr. and shows us how messy life can be… in a whole new way.

DETAILS: Boyhood is a coming of age story that is told in a whole new manner. One of the beautiful elements of this film is that it was shot over a twelve year period using the same actors throughout, so literally we watch our protagonist age before our very eyes. The film begins when Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is six and ends on his first day of college life. In those growing up years we see divorces, remarriages, family moves, the loss of friends and the making of new ones, teenage struggles, and the guts of what blended families can look like. It’s a sad story on many levels as father figures come and go from Mason’s life and yet his real father (Ethan Hawke) is always there for weekend visits, regardless of what disaster is going on in Mason’s homelife. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette – Academy Award Winner for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) does her best to better herself along the way through education and trying to marry good men, but the baggage they bring is always a new form of disfunction; drinking, rage, intolerance, control, etc. The film shows the ugly side of divorce, failed marriages, blended families, and broken homes in a powerful way and yet it also shows us that the bloodline that runs from mother and father to son is often the only thing that can hold us together. Nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes, but it didn’t feel long. We get to know our characters in ways that traditional motion pictures can only attempt to do through makeup and the artificial aging of characters. Boyhood shows hairstyles, weight gains, weight losses, growth spurts, pimples, and facial hair like no other film has ever done… because it’s what the actors brought with them to the set year after year of production on this epic film. Written and Directed by Richard Linklater, Boyhood is a well done, unique film that is truly one of a kind and worthy of viewing.

SCORE: 4.5 out of 5 stars
ACADEMY AWARD – Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Patricia Arquette)