iPhone’s Portrait mode just keeps getting better


High-Key Mono setting
You could go into the studio – or tap High-Key Mono on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro.
Photo: Apple

Fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon produced a legendary body of black-and-white work, much of which involved isolating subjects against a pure, shadowless white backdrop.

He shot many of his photos in a studio, where assistants would carefully position large studio lights. Search this technique online and you will find scores of articles and videos on how to light both subject and background for the Avedon look.

The iPhone now lets you do this with a single finger tap, thanks to Portrait mode advances.

High-Key Mono, which transforms a photo taken anywhere into an Avedon-like masterpiece, is a new setting in Portrait mode introduced Tuesday as part of the camera system on the iPhone 11 line and iOS 13.

Portrait mode started as a software-generated blurred background and a telephoto lens on the iPhone 7 Plus. It is now like working in a growing photo studio, with lots of expensive lights and modifiers to style portraits with a variety of looks.

Each new iPhone and iOS update adds or refines features once considered sophisticated techniques. The devices deliver results previously limited to well-educated and well-funded photo professionals.

Portrait mode puts a photo studio at your disposal

Messy background? Just use High-Key Mono in Portrait Mode and viola.
Messy background? Viola.
Photo: Apple

Creating a studio look with smartphone software is still no match for photographic know-how in a real studio. But the growing power of computational photography is yielding some pretty amazing results.

A look at Apple’s Portrait mode starts with improvements made to the depth-of-field controls.

Remember bokeh, the out-of-focus parts of an image that makes the subject pop? Users who bought the more-affordable iPhone XR last year complained they could not apply bokeh to pictures of objects or pets. Portrait mode on its budget-friendly successor, the iPhone 11, now lets users apply the depth control to any photo.

New photo settings in iPhone 11

Apple limited the iPhone XR to three light control settings. All three iPhone 11 models benefit from the same six settings: Natural, Studio, Contour, Stage Mono (black background) and the new High-Key Mono.

High-Key Mono will turn any background all-white and add a contrasty, contoured light as it converts the subject to black and white.

How good it looks will be revealed in the weeks ahead as people get their hands on new iPhones. However, the sample images Apple showed off Tuesday during the By Innovation Only event look stunning.

Of course, professional photographers made the eye-catching demo photos. These pros will search out good light for the subjects to begin with. And, as always with photography, the better the available light, the better the result.


Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.