Dec 3, 2020 | iPhone

How Good Is Portrait Mode On The iPhone 12 Pro Max?



featured image red headscarf

How good is the portrait mode on the iPhone 12 Pro Max compared to the iPhone 11 Pro?  Let’s discuss!

Pro cameras versus iPhone cameras

The differences between the iPhone cameras and a professional DSLR or mirrorless camera are many.  One of the most obvious is that the pro camera is much larger than the iPhone.  Several times larger and with much more weight, the pro camera is a lot more to carry around than the iPhone.

The second most obvious difference is that the pro camera has interchangeable lenses.  Different lenses can be selected to serve different uses with a pro camera.  The iPhone gets around this by having multiple cameras to serve different purposes.

Other not so obvious differences are listed in the infographic below.  Chief among those differences are the processors, image sensors, and software.  While the pro camera might have the advantage in image sensor size and pixel density, the iPhone can make up the difference with multiple exposures, computational photography, and artificial intelligence.

Improved telephoto lens

With the iPhone 12 series, Apple has added or improved camera features that many of us will use.  At the top of the list is Smart HDR  3, which is improved from the Smart HDR in the iPhone 11 series.  That is largely a software improvement on the phone. Of interest to us in this article are the physical improvements made to the imaging system in the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The 2.5x telephoto lens found only on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, is a step toward a more proper portrait lens.  Measuring in at 65 mm focal length, the new telephoto lens comes closer to the “ideal” portrait focal length of 85 mm favored by many professional photographers for portrait work.  Jane over at has a great article on focal lengths for portraits.

I’d hope to see a telephoto lens of about 85 mm on the next generation of iPhone as I feel it would be the best compromise of portrait ability without having so much zoom as to be impractical for an iPhone camera.  In practical terms, the increased magnification to get to 85 mm would be just a little more than the increase from the iPhone 12 Pro to the iPhone 12 Pro Max (2x vs 2.5x).  An 85 mm shooter would put the telephoto lens at about 3.25x magnification.

Improved portrait mode software

One of the strongest points of the latest couple of generations of Apple iPhones has been computational photography.  Leveraging the insanely powerful processors in modern smartphones, the cameras in these phones don’t just take a photo, do some processing on it and spit it out.  No, that’s what your DSLR or mirrorless camera does.

A smartphone camera in the computational photography era will take a series of photos, combine them by taking the best parts of each exposure, and create a single image.  What is the best part of the image you say?  Well, that depends and is at the heart of computational photography.

Depth mapping and the parallax effect

Concerning portrait mode, the camera decides what to blur and what to keep in focus and the iPhone does this through a method called depth mapping.  Depth mapping is accomplished using the multiple cameras on the back of the iPhone.  Since the cameras are offset from each other, using images from any two cameras, the iPhone can determine what objects are close and what objects are far away and blur the objects that are far away.

The easiest way to explain depth mapping is that when you have two points of view, close objects will seem to move, while objects further away don’t.  If you hold your finger up and look at it through only your left eye, it will appear in one place against whatever background you have.  If you then view that same finger through only your right eye, its position against the background will appear to have changed.  This is called the parallax effect.  Your finger never moved, it just appeared to, and the effect is more pronounced the closer your finger gets to your eyes.

Depth mapping has been improved on the iPhone 12 compared to even the iPhone 11.  The iPhone 11 would sometimes miss areas inside the subject that should be blurred, such as between the fingers.  The iPhone 12 was able to pick up and blur the areas behind the facemask in the second photo.

iPhone 11 Pro portrait mode using 26 mm lens
iPhone 12 Pro Max portrait mode image using 26 mm lens


I really like the portrait mode on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, even over my outgoing iPhone 11 Pro.  The added focal length on the telephoto lens makes for a little more pleasing portraits when doing headshots or half shots of my subject.  The added focal length also allows for a little more natural blur in the background when not using portrait mode.

The computational strides made in software utilizing the power of the Apple iPhone 12 processor is nothing short of amazing.  To most people, an image captured in portrait mode on an iPhone 12 series will be largely indistinguishable from one taken with a pro camera, especially if the image is simply shared on social media.  Once social media sites compress the image, the ability to distinguish a good iPhone image from a pro camera image is largely gone.

If you were to take an iPhone 12 portrait image and zoom way, way into the image (pixel peeping) you might be able to tell that the image was produced with artificial intelligence and computational photography.  However, a non-professional photographer will likely never know the difference, nor would they likely care.  

To do better you will need to lug around a large camera and lens kit.  Most people will not do that, so the iPhone would be the camera they have on hand.  Better to have a portrait photo taken with an iPhone than none at all because the big camera is at home.

So go ahead and shoot nice portraits of your family and friends.  The iPhone 12 Pro Max is definitely up to the task of providing you will some beautiful images of your loved ones.  Sure there might be some small flaws if you look hard enough, but does it really matter?  I think not.

If you enjoyed the post be sure to leave a comment down below.  If you would like to suggest a topic for a future post, please use the suggestion form on the right.  Until next time, go take some pictures!



Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.


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