iPhone 11 portrait mode vs plain-old digital camera: Love or hate all the photo fakery?

Most people’s spontaneous photographs these days are taken with a smartphone, and that’s been the case for many years now. Because the smartphone is so ubiquitous, most of us may not be aware of how it has changed, and continues to change, the way we capture memories.

Apple’s iPhone 11, which went on sale last month, is an amazing technical achievement, and I was interested to examine just how it is changing the way that we see. 

I performed an experiment: I took a series of shots with an iPhone 11 and a digital still camera at the same time. The set-up for the test was a photo shoot with my friend Natalia. The camera loves Natalia — every camera loves this lady — so she was a perfect choice as the model for the experiment. 

I took all the iPhone pictures with Apple’s top-of-the-line device, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the model that starts at $1,099. It has three different cameras so it gives you three different options for depth of field. It also has all kinds of new software capabilities to dress up your photos. 

For comparison, I used a five-year-old digital camera called the “Quattro DP3,” from Japan’s Sigma Corp. It has a couple of good attributes for this kind of experiment. It has an excellent sensor, made by Silicon Valley chip company Foveon (owned by Sigma) that can capture lots of nuances of light and texture, and a lens that never lies about the lines or curves in a scene. And it’s a very straightforward camera: It gives you hardly any fancy options to dress-up photos. In a sense, it’s very truthful.

Look at this first picture of Natalia from the iPhone 11. This is using all the basic settings in “Portrait” mode, with no attempt to adjust anything. Nothing has been edited after the fact. You can see immediately that the picture captures a lot of light, and colors pop, and there’s a nice job of blurring the background, the “bokeh” effect that mimics the effect of a professional lens. 

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This picture uses all the basic settings in the iPhone 11 “Portrait” mode, with no attempt to adjust anything. 

Now look at the iPhone picture set next to the DP3 picture. The iPhone is on the left, the DP3 on the right. Again, nothing has been edited in the case of either shot, they both come straight out of the camera. The DP3 doesn’t pop, and it doesn’t have a lot of light in it. I could have done some things to capture more light, but I decided to leave the DP3 with the gloom of the actual environment. So it actually captures the scene pretty accurately. It’s at an Apple store, the artificial light isn’t great, and the outside light coming through the windows of the store wasn’t very bright because it was a gray, rainy day. 

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The iPhone is on the left, the DP3 on the right. Nothing has been edited in the case of either shot.

The iPhone photo floods the scene with light but it also does some weird other things. It makes the colors rather artificial. The colors in the DP3 are more true to life. The iPhone makes Natalia’s lips more pink, it makes her skin oddly rosy when she has a Mediterranean complexion that has more olive tones in it. The iPhone turns her dress and hat and coat from the dark blue-black they are in life, which are pretty closely captured by the DP3, to a kind of cobalt blue. Not a bad blue, but not accurate. 

Natalia and I looked at the results after the first few shots. “Fake,” we said in unison. The iPhone version is Instagram-ready, we both realized. It creates an effect that is easier to read, in the sense of seeing what’s there. Natalia’s earrings, the lace of her top, her eyeglass frames — all of it is “documented” in the sense that it’s all visible in the shot. And the iPhone version creates aspects that people value on Instagram, such as colors and shapes that pop and catch the eye and are kind-of candy colors. 

The next shots show some interesting extra items. Natalia’s skin has a kind of  sheen to it, a luminescence that is more than what you’d see in real life. It’s not just a smoothing of skin texture, it’s a kind of weird, glossy shine.

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With the DP3 [right], there’s detail only in the area of focus, which in this case would be Natalia’s face. The iPhone photo has detail throughout.

You can also see an odd thing going on with detail. With a digital camera, such as the DP3, there’s detail only in the area of focus, which in this case would be Natalia’s face. The iPhone photo has detail throughout. It’s almost as if every part of the picture is screaming for attention. Her lace top is intricate, her hair is detailed down to the individual strands. You might call it “photorealist.” Even though Natalia’s face is still the focus, it’s as if all parts of the picture are equally important, except, perhaps, for the blurred background. There’s something flat about the picture because every part of it is given equal emphasis in terms of detail. 

Lastly, we come to a stark contrast. As I said, the light in the store was terrible for a photo shoot. The DP3, on the right, captures the shadow effects of the situation. Not only is it a kind of interesting, dramatic effect, it places Natalia at a definite place in time. A shadowy corner of an industrial space on an overcast morning. There’s a record here, in light and shadow, of what it was like for this one person to be at this place in the universe at this unique moment.

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The DP3, on the right, captures the shadow effects of the situation. The iPhone brings in a large amount of light to the scene, more than was actually evident at the time.

The iPhone once again brought a large amount of light to the scene, more than was actually evident at the time. The colors pop, again. Surfaces are somewhat flat, because shadows never get deeper than a certain threshold. 

What you see from the iPhone consistently is a fakeness. Colors are dramatically altered, incidental light is boosted beyond anything that existed in the actual field of view. And detail is consistent throughout the picture in a way that isn’t really the case when you focus on something in the world in real life. 

You can look at it another way. The iPhone is about information more than anything else. The pictures it produces don’t have much mood or tone. They aren’t really faithful to the moment in time. But they have tons of information. You’ll know everything about the design of the person’s earrings, everything about the pattern of her dress, everything about the highlights of her hair, the contours of her body. Etc., etc. etc. Rather than a picture, it creates a visual collection of data, an abundance of info.

I imagine people can feel lots of different ways about this. Some might not be crazy about the fake aspects. However, a lot of people will probably be pretty delighted at the kind of instant Photoshop, Instagram-ready aspects of the iPhone. One thing is certain: as computing power increases on the phone, there will be even more of an ability for the device to modify and alter pictures as they’re taken. 

It’s interesting to ponder whether the iPhone may someday grow up and decide to stop producing brilliantly lit pictures that are heavy on info and instead seek to create more mood, more tone and “feeling,” for lack of a better word. 

Do you like the new fakery? Do you long for the natural look in digital photos? Tell me what you think in the comments section.

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