Smartphone portrait mode shootout: Eight phones starting at $200 challenge the $1,000 Apple iPhone X

DSLR photographers have been shooting bokeh for years and in the last couple of years we have seen companies like Huawei, Google, Samsung, and Apple add functionality for the same, commonly labeled wide aperture, portrait, and depth effects.

Video: Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Portrait mode shooting is heavily promoted by Apple in the newest iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X devices, but there are other dual camera smartphones (and one single lens phone) that also have this capability. In 2014, HTC introduced the One M8 that had a second lens designed to capture depth of field data for interesting bokeh effects.

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Over the last several weeks I spent time with eight new smartphones that support portrait mode photography, ranging in price from $280 to $1,000. The phones include the Honor 7X, Moto X4, Essential Phone, OnePlus 5T, Huaweit Mate 10 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Google Pixel 2 XL, and Apple iPhone X.

All of these phones support bokeh effects through the rear cameras with four of the eight supporting portrait mode shots from the front-facing camera for selfies with bokeh. The Apple iPhone X, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, Honor 7X, and Google Pixel 2XL shoot portrait mode selfies with a single front camera.

While there is a representative portrait mode image from each of the eight candidates in my embedded image gallery and in the text below, make sure to visit my Flickr album for full resolution images comparing these eight phones and the portrait shots from the rear and front-facing camera.

Smartphones with portrait mode support

Honor 7X: The Honor 7X just launched last week and is rather stunning for just $200. It has an aluminum unibody design with rear dual cameras. One camera is 16 megapixels, while the other is only 2 megapixels and is used primarily for gathering data for the depth effects.

Huawei has been working with dual cameras for a couple of years and providing advanced functionality. The first dual camera phones I tested from Huawei had a wide aperture mode where you could actually adjust the level of blur and even the focal point after the image was already captured. A wide aperture mode button is still present and sometimes you will get better bokeh effects using this mode.

However, there is now a dedicated portrait-mode button as well. In addition to this mode button, on the bottom left you will find buttons for bokeh and beauty levels. With Honor, you can tweak the image in the viewfinder before capturing it in a number of ways.

Amazingly, the Honor 7X is also one of the four phones that supports front-facing camera portraits. The same portrait, bokeh, and beauty buttons are present in the interface and a single 8-megapixel camera is used to capture these portraits.

Moto X4: Motorola has had dual cameras on a few of the high-end phones, but it's now putting dual rear cameras on its mid-range devices. For instance, 12-megapixel and 8-megapixel cameras are found on the back of this $280 smartphone.

In order to enable portrait mode on the Moto X4, tap the three-dot menu button in the lower right and then select depth enabled from the list of shooting options. There is a slider on the display to adjust the amount of background blur, with results shown in real time on the viewfinder.

While Motorola has dual cameras to capture photos with depth effects, it also has advanced software. Tap the edit button and then select the depth editor to choose selective focus, selective black and white, and replace background options. It's cool to have monochrome photos with just select layers in color. The ability to move the focus around and also replace the background is fun too.

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Essential Phone: Essential promised regular software updates and one app that has been updated several times is the camera. We saw the price of the Essential Phone drop to $499, making it a fantastic deal for a solid Android phone and the camera is getting better.

One of the recent updates brought portrait mode support to this dual camera device. The Essential Phone has dual rear 13-megapixel cameras, one RGB and one mono, similar to the way Huawei sets up its dual rear cameras.

The Essential camera app feels like an iPhone app, with simple swipe actions to switch modes. The camera defaults to auto with one swipe from right to left launching portrait mode. You can use the timer in this mode, too, but otherwise just tap on the shutter button to capture a portrait photo.

OnePlus 5T: OnePlus changed its dual-camera setup in the $499 OnePlus 5T compared to the OnePlus 5 -- and one integrated feature is portrait mode. The camera launches in auto photo mode, so a swipe from right to left switches into portrait mode.

The box around the words depth effect turns green when conditions are acceptable for portrait mode. Other warnings include prompts for more light. There is also a button to enhance the look of people, primarily through skin smoothing and brightness adjustments.

Huawei Mate 10 Pro: The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has one of the most powerful dual rear camera configurations with a 20-megapixel monochrome lens and a 12-megapixel RGB lens. It also has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. The Mate 10 Pro is priced at €799, with a likely US release in early 2018.

The Mate 10 Pro cameras work together the majority of the time, with the second monochrome lens providing contrast and detail to make your color photos even sharper. This second lens also works with the primary lens in wide aperture mode to provide you with variable depth of field photos. After a photo is captured with the wide aperture button enabled, you can selectively choose your focal point and even create photos with different focal points since all the data has been captured by both cameras.

In addition to wide aperture mode, been around now for a couple years, we have a dedicated portrait mode button with lower right buttons for bokeh and beauty just like the Honor 7X.

In addition, the Mate 10 Pro supports portrait mode photos with the front-facing camera. This is done through software thanks to its single 8-megapixel front shooter.

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Google Pixel 2 XL: The Google Pixel 2 XL, $849 and $949, is the only phone in this list of eight with a single rear camera. Google is able to provide rear camera portraits, as well as portrait selfies through the front-facing camera through its ability to develop advanced software algorithms.

The rear camera is a 12.2 megapixel camera with OIS, while the front-facing camera is 8 megapixels.

Tap the left menu button and then choose portrait mode. Options within the camera app include flash, lighting conditions, grid, and face retouching. All these same options and the same interface exist in portrait mode through the front-facing camera.

Unlike all of the dual-camera smartphones, you will not see a live preview of your portrait image while shooting with the camera. Since Google uses software to make this happen, the photo is adjusted after you capture the image. The cool thing is that you can view and use either the full image or the one with bokeh effects added to the image.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8: Samsung installed a dual camera in the Galaxy Note 8 and one of the main functions of this setup is Live Focus. Live Focus gives the user the ability to dynamically adjust the background blur in the viewfinder. In addition, you can adjust the background blur after the fact while also even viewing the full view of the captured image when dual focus is enabled. There is no dedicated portrait button or facial improvement functionality in the software.

Samsung has some of the highest end lenses in its rear dual camera setup, and I found you can capture decent close-up images with bokeh effects just through the regular lens, without the aid of Live Focus mode. One of these Lego bokeh effects is contained in my Flickr gallery.

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Apple iPhone X: Apple provides its users with a very basic camera interface, similar to what Google provides with its Pixel phones. Portrait mode is one swipe from right to left away from the default auto photo mode.

Apple stands out from all others with five lighting mode options on the iPhone X. These include natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light, and stage light mono. Stage light and stage light mono remove the entire background level and make it black while attempting to capture the person in the foreground.

These same five portrait modes are available on the mono front facing camera as well, which again means the iPhone X has the most capable of all of these portrait mode cameras. While there is only a single camera on the front, Apple calls it True Depth and it uses various IR and dot sensors to measure depth for pretty impressive portrait selfies.

Which did I prefer?

While optics are important, the software algorithms on smartphones are even more vital to success with portrait mode. The optics are limited by lens size and space available in phones, but as we have seen, companies like Google are able to provide portrait functionality with a single camera lens. Apple, Huawei, and Google also use front-facing cameras and sensors to add bokeh effects to selfies.

While low-cost smartphones are very capable and can help you do most things, the camera quality is one of the biggest differentiators between flagship smartphones, mid-tier phones, and the least expensive phones. We see in the portrait gallery that the Honor 7X and Moto X4 are easily the worst at portrait mode shots. The mid-tier phones, including the Essential Phone and OnePlus 5T, actually do very well and just have less options than the flagships.

The Google Pixel 2 XL produced my favorite portrait shots, followed closely by the iPhone X. The Galaxy Note 8, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and OnePlus 5T produced good results in most shots, with Huawei sometimes blowing out things with too much light. The Essential Phone was decent too. The Honor 7X and Moto X4 had backgrounds that were not that blurry and also some areas that were out of focus with missing detail.

When it comes to front-facing camera selfies, the Google Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X were the clear winners, with the iPhone X adding a bit too much yellow tint for me.

Overall, it is quite impressive that compact smartphone cameras can provide bokeh effects today. They are not going to beat any DSLR, but for social networks and quick sharing most of these are acceptable. I expect we will see a dedicated portrait button in the next Samsung Galaxy and even more work from Apple and Google in the future.

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