The iPhone X camera is like a photo studio in your pocket

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iPhone x camera
Are your iPhone apps watching you?
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

Just calling the cameras in the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 plus “cameras” is like mistaking the iPhone itself for a phone. The combination of hardware and software in these new machines could better be likened to a movie FX or photography studio in the extent of their capabilities. The standout feature on these new iPhone X camera is Portrait Lighting, and today I want to take a look at why it’s so amazing.

3D cameras, but not that kind of 3D

There are two kinds of camera in the new iPhones. Both the 8 Plus and the X share a dual-lens rear camera design, combining a wide-angle and a telephoto lens. Apart from allowing optical zooming, these cameras can be used in concert to determine the depth in a scene, which allows the iPhone to know how far away everything is. This lets it build a depth-map of the scene, which is the basis of the new cameras’ magic.

The iPhone X also has a font-facing TrueDepth camera. That’s the camera used for Face ID, which means that, too, is capable of building a 3D map of the scene before it.

Depth

Until now, the depth maps produced by the iPhones Plus have been used for one thing — to blur the background in portraits, and make the subject pop against it. This mimics the same effect in regular cameras, only there the background blurs thanks to properties of the lens, and of its longer distance from the camera sensor.

Now, though, Apple is using the combination of the depth info from the two lenses, and the power of the new A11 Bionic chip, to do some crazy special effects. The new Portrait Lighting is my favorite example.

iPhone X camera Portrait Lighting

Portrait Lighting can re-light the blandest image into a dramatic masterpiece.
Portrait Lighting can re-light the blandest image into a dramatic masterpiece.
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

Portrait lighting makes a 3D model of the scene in your photo, and re-lights it on-the-fly. The iPhone takes the depth-map generated by the two cameras, and then uses fancy algorithms to identify faces and other elements in the picture. Then, it takes virtual lights and shines them into this 3D scene.

It’s powerful stuff. Instead of having to set up complex lighting rigs, you can just slide controls on the screen. The effects can go from subtle — making sure the subject’s face is well-lit when they are in shadow — to dramatic — the Stage Light filter makes your subject look like they are spotlit against a dark background.

It’s all about the light

At a technical level, photography is about nothing but light. And well-lit photos are what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Portrait Lighting may not replace a studio full of strobes, but it doesn’t have to. The stunning promo photos already show what a difference the effects can make, improving our everyday pictures beyond what is possible with any other kind of camera — even the best DSLR with a Photoshop expert behind it wouldn’t be able to do what the new iPhone cameras do. Not without repainting the whole scene by hand at least.

The future

Portrait Lighting, and the existing Portrait Mode, are already amazing features, and are good enough on their own to sell a lot of iPhones X and 8 Plus. But the 3D maps could have an even crazier impact on your photography. For instance, it’s easier to pull people out of images and put them on new backgrounds, or combine multiple photos into perfect group shots. This certainly won’t be the last time the 3D depth map is used to augment our iPhone photographs, but in the future, perhaps we’ll see special effects that are not only photographically valid, but are impossible to do with conventional cameras, no matter how good your setup.

  • I guess it was a matter of time before somebody would use depth maps to relight photos; hope it spreads to real cameras soon :-)