How to get extreme background blur in iPhone photos


What's the fastest cake in the world?
What's the fastest cake in the world?
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The Portrait Mode in iPhone XS is the best thing to happen to iPhone photography in quite a while. It uses the XS’ dual cameras, plus the A12 chip’s Neural Engine, to work out how far away everything is in your photos. Then, it blurs everything in the background, just as if you used a fancy big camera.

But what if you want even more blur? The iPhone XS’ Depth Control feature looks very realistic, but maybe it’s a bit too realistic? Maybe you want to really wipe out that background with some extra blur. The good news is, there are some great apps that do that.

How does iPhone XS Depth Control work?

A crochet cactus with a blurry background. Depth Control lets you dial in just the right amount of blur.
Depth Control lets you dial in just the right amount of blur.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Depth Control uses an on-screen slider to control the amount of blur in a photo’s background, while the subject remains pin-sharp. You’ll find the slider on the Photos app’s Edit screen. This blur really makes the subject stand out from busy backgrounds: cityscapes, crowded locales, etc. And because it knows how far away everything is, Depth Control blurs picture elements more, the further away they are.

Apple designed Depth Control and Portrait Mode to mimic the behavior of a DSLR-type camera, and the results look surprisingly accurate. The software-powered features can produce great, natural-looking photos with some real punch. But sometimes you just want more.

Halide, Slør and blur

An animated demo shows how the Slør app works for blur-editing.
A demo shows how Slør works.

The iPhone’s built-in Camera app isn’t the only app that has access to these amazing tools. Third-party apps can access the depth map of an existing photo in order to apply their own effects. Plus, they can use the depth camera when they shoot a photo.

Halide is one of our favorite camera apps, and it lets you capture Portrait Mode photos of anything. The iPhone’s built-in Camera app is fussy about Portrait Mode, only allowing it when it deems the results will be good. Halide just lets you go for it and deal with the results later. This lets you capture Portrait Mode photos you can’t get from the native app — photos when the subject is very close, for example.

Then, you can switch to the Photos app and use the regular Depth Control slider on the Halide photo.

Price: $6.99

Download: Halide from the App Store (iOS)

Slør macro mode

Slør does blur.
Slør does blur.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Slør goes Halide one better. Not only does it let you tap on any part of a photo — not just the subject — and focus on that. It also has a special mode to produce extra blur.

Slør can be used as a standalone photo-editing app, or it can be used inside the Photos app’s editing page. Even in standard mode, it gives way more blur than the standard Depth Control in Photos. But switch it to Macro Mode, and the blur is off the charts.

Take a look at these three images. The top one is the non-Portrait version, with no added blur. The middle one is the best that the native Photos app can manage. At the bottom is Slør’s maximum macro blur:

A photo of scones, with no depth blur.
No depth effect.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac
A photo of scones, with the iPhone's Photos app's best effort, blur at ƒ1.4.
Photos app’s best effort, at ƒ1.4.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac
A very blurry photo of scones produced using Slør's maximum blur.
Woah, WTF Slør?
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

That last one is clearly extreme. But unlike many filter apps, even the extreme effect proves quite pleasing, and usable in some situations. And yes, those scones are as delicious as they look.

Price: $3.99

Download: Slør from the App Store (iOS)

Conclusion: Depth Control in iPhone XS

Depth Control is more than just a fancy filter on the iPhone XS. It’s built into the camera at a fundamental level, and accessible to any app that wants to monkey with it. I hope to see even more creative apps in the future, but right now, I’m having a ton of fun with Slør, Halide and a few other blur-tastic apps


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