XS Computation

Oh, hello! How about we take a moment today to talk about the state of mobile photography as it pertains to the iPhone XS because it seems like its on the tip of everyones tongue as of late. Advances in computational, machine learning, super HDR, photography have certainly been blowing a lot of smoke as Apple and other mobile phone companies are trying to mimic, lets call them, full bodied, cameras using technology to overcome very clear and obvious limitations in size and physical ability.

First off, it’s worth noting, as of this writing I have only had a few days behind this camera, though what I’m going to discuss here I feel confident in my initial takes on the tech, I did want to mention this. Also, let me say up front, it’s nothing short of incredible how far these tiny sensored cameras have come through the years. Using technology and tricks to mimic and in some cases enhance the behavior and capabilities of full bodied cameras is brilliant and one can take truly delightful photographs with an iPhone, yet, and heres a key point I’m poking my head in today to address, under the right conditions.

After finally jumping in with the rest of you lot and moving to an iPhone with two lenses I am able to try and see what all this fuss is about.

I knew what to expect going in and figured I could simply take a few straightforward portraits right off the bat just to see how things faired with this selective virtual “aperture” post photo, so while at the park with my daughter I set off with my natural instincts behind a camera and went to work as though I had a 5D in hand. This is where things quickly fell apart and I had a firm realization that I had maybe slightly overestimated its abilities.

As we approached the playground little Milla was super excited to head straight for the swing and as luck would have it the afternoon sun was giving us its last several minutes of lovely golden backlight, my favorite! I knelt down low to capture the first scattered fallen leaves of the fall as she darted across to the swing set and upon an initial cursory glance at the results I thought to myself, cool! This could be pretty fun.

Next up she was loaded up on her swing and was kind of patient enough for me to snap a couple of shots before it was time to start pushing her along so I popped the phone into portrait mode and had at it. Again, at first glance, results seemed kind of nice but quickly I realized what felt so off about the shot, the chains in the swing had vanished into the backgrounds emulated blur. This and the lovely lens flare I chose to try and incorporate into the shot was totally lost to the effect.

At this point I gave her a push or two and purposefully pushed my luck trying to capture her in portrait mode while she was in motion swinging but that was far and away beyond possible. The phone made some weird attempts at capturing something but it automatically cropped it in strange ways to make the best of what I was trying to push it into and I quickly decided to give up forcing portrait mode to work with a moving subject.

A short while later she had made her way up to the top of the slide platform, another chance to have a little creative fun by framing her face using the safety bars around the top of the slide but again was quickly denied as my attempts and curiosity lead to a confused and messy algorithmic mask attempt, even with a relatively still subject, because of the shots vaguely complex nature. (See photos above and notice the confusing “focus” on the bars.)

I did this because I was curious if I could use objects in the foreground to frame my subject but because the technology is simply masking out what it thinks is in the foreground I was left in the cold as the bars and Milla’s face were sort of awkwardly stitched together into what it thought was the subject.

So then I figured I would move on to more of a softball shot, she was at the top of the slide hanging about, being as cute as ever, and i simply snapped a few shots that I figured it could handle easily. Still again the masking attempts were confused by the busy leafy green background and the bars which left a number of weird looking spots the mask didn’t quite cut out properly (on the right below). This was compounded by the failure of this tech to fully measure the distance from the camera lens to different parts of the frame leaving bits of the playground bars in and out of focus in seemingly random fashion (also seen above) as the software simply made its beat guess at what it should do. There was also one shot that left strange artifacts on her face from what I assume was mismatched layers from the auto HDR attempt (on the left).

So I gave up taking photos and simply enjoyed taking orders from a giggling Milla as she pushed me down a slide I was way to big for and left the shots to check back on later.

Using the new camera in portrait mode during this short time in a park was a pretty quick and clear reminder that while it’s a cool idea at its heart, it is a marketing gimmick and in a way a more advanced set of the same concepts brought on since the dawn of apps being on the app store which layered effects and post processing onto photos to hide and enhance the shortcomings of the cameras physical limitations. I also tried to use a couple of simple objects on my desk at work, again to see what I could accomplish with this mode or not and if you look at the corners of the book and the area around the glasses you may notice what I would call a failure. Close… but not really.

All that said, I don’t honestly think there is anything at all wrong with these results. It’s a ton of fun to shoot with the device you always have in your pocket and the more tricks they add to make it more enjoyable the better. It’s just that, like with any camera and lens ever made, there are compromises to be made in the way they can be used to the best of their ability and in this case there are a few takeaways I have from my early experience shooting with this camera that I will leave you with today as well as a few more of my attempts at finding ways to utilize the portrait mode in ways that weren’t as jarringly meh.

In general, I think its best to stick with the standard photo mode using one lens or the other, you won’t get to play with that aperture placebo slider but you will have a more stable image to work with in post work. On their own, depending on the distance from the focused subject, etcetera, there is some genuine potential for taking great photos with this alone. The way I see it (and a lot of others out there from what I’ve seen online), the smart HDR features really are the most clever and useful part of the newest advancements, not the portrait mode. Also, Live Photo’s after the fact are a really charming way to go back and revisit passing memories.

The portrait mode is really quite fun but to use the effect in a natural, realistic way its best to use it in places where the subject is in fact the singular visual focus of the photograph meaning, don’t place anything between the subject and the camera and keep a good healthy distance from the background of the subject as well for the best results. Minimizing other details and objects surrounding your subject helps quite a bit too and it’s also worth noting that the more visual contrast between your focus point and the background the better. If you have a light object or light edge on your subject and the background is also white or brightly lit, chances are that masking algorithm is going to get confused. Contrast is key here. In essence, put your subject front at center without anything else to distract at the closest distance away from the camera before the phone starts bugging you to back off and snap away.

Coming from years behind the prime lenses this technique emulates, it’s pretty easy to spot impossible depth added into photos using this kind of faked approach by looking at surrounding objects such as tables, chairs and the like but, does that really matter? Sometimes, when its really obviously wrong but usually its just a side effect that most will never notice is off. I do wonder though why they bothered to try and label the depth effect as aperture settings because its so far from being anywhere close to accurate, why not just have a slider with “more” on one end and “less” on the other?

Last but not least, it’s important to remember which mode suits the circumstance best! Don’t miss a great opportunity for a shot fiddling with portrait mode! Keep that ready for when its best use case scenarios line up and the modes namesake need is in play, a simple, well lit portrait.

Was I expecting the iPhone XS to match a full bodied camera? No, of course not, but even still, I was hopeful it could be used in quick, fun, creative ways while out and about in day to day life. Their marketing hyperbole would love you to believe otherwise but as I have been reminded here today, no matter which camera you shoot with there will always be compromises to be made and the value you extract from your camera of choice will depend on the balance between fitting your needs and the cameras ability to embody them.

I have a feeling that down the line, after a couple more years of this tech developing, we will start to see smarter and smarter realization of the portrait masking concept and the lines between full bodied cameras and mobile ones will continue to (pardon my pun) blur. For now, I for one know that I’m going to have a lot of fun playing around with a new set of tricks available but keep my full bodied cameras close for when I really want to dig in and take full control of a scene.

Also worth noting, all of the above photos were shot on an iPhone XS and edited with the built in photos app which I have never actually used much for editing on iOS and while it’s a little fiddly and limited can generate some nice, quick edits and is worth playing around with if you have not dug into it already. Can come in handy for simple little tonal adjustments on a snapshot. I look forward to seeing what else I can capture with the camera down the line and if your curious to see more mobile photo shots, my instagram feed is usually only fed with images from the iPhone. See you there!


  1. Alex MacK - October 2, 2018 at 1:07 am

    Comprehensive review as always.

    Your kid is getting so big too!!

  2. SoundMan - October 6, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    I see what you are saying about the camera’s smart flaws but the picture of Milla in the swing without chains is magic that I bet you wouldn’t have thought of taking.

  3. Tim - October 18, 2018 at 10:30 am

    I don’t have an XS (yet), so I don’t know how well it works, but there is apparently an adjustment slider of the type you’re looking for already built-in to the camera app:


    Not having much experience with ILCs myself, I’ve often wondered what it would look like/what would happen if a camera manufacturer were to combine the mechanical/electronic prowess that cameras are historically known for with the software/UI prowess of a company like Apple or Google. The latter more especially given that it seems rare from the feedback in reviews that any camera company has designed as good an on-screen UI as some of the better “camera” apps are. Ditto for automobiles as well. Hence, why I think analog controls (knobs, etc.) often work better in these contexts than on-screen ones.

    Anyhoo, love your photography and your writing! Your wallpapers are on my devices ~95% of the time. Thanks!

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