With all the latest photo-centric smartphones including a form of Portrait mode, are interchangeable lens cameras still coming out on top?

It's safe to say that Portrait mode, the artificial blurry-background generator on modern smartphones, isn't going anywhere. And now that it's here, it's only going to get better. It's an incredibly handy feature to have, and for the vast majority of users, is easily good enough that they may rethink the need to purchase a so-called 'real' camera in the future.

But 'good enough' is a subjective assessment. So, we set up a tripod and grabbed an accessible entry-level camera that's specifically aimed at smartphone users, and did our own informal comparison. It turns out, though, that things aren't all that simple.

The first comparison

We found through our informal exercise that the iPhone X's built-in Portrait mode on its default camera app appears to roughly approximate the blur from shooting a 35mm F2.8 lens on an APS-C camera. In this case, we used the Canon EOS M100. The hair looks a little cut-out, but it's a fairly convincing result viewed at image level:

iPhone X in Portrait mode Canon EOS M100 w/ EF-S 35mm F2.8 @ F2.8

Zoom in to 100%, though, and the advantages of the larger sensor M100 are apparent. There's far more detail in the Canon's image (though you can generally extract more detail from iPhone Raws, you can't shoot Portrait in Raw).

Unfortunately, the tripod needed adjustment of an inch or two to make sure the iPhone image and the Canon image ended up a broadly similar positioning of the subject in the frame (there may be some distortion or other corrective effects at work that we don't have full insight into).

For this comparison, the iPhone X had HDR enabled in Portrait mode, and the M100 image was processed through Adobe Camera Raw using an adapted EF-S Macro 35mm F2.8 lens.

Apple also includes 'lighting modes,' so let's see if that makes a difference in your preference.

The second comparison

iPhone X in Portrait mode with Contour Light Canon EOS M100 w/ EF-S 35mm F2.8 @ F2.8

Here, we re-processed the iPhone's image to use the 'Contour Light' option. It gives the iPhone's image a much more 'purposed' look to the light, almost as if there is an umbrella off-camera left, instead of just a window, while the Canon image looks the same, because, well, it doesn't have 'portrait lighting' modes.

The third comparison

iPhone X in Portrait mode, Focos app set to F1.4 iPhone X in Portrait mode, Focos app set to F20 Canon EOS M100 w/ EF-S 35mm F2.8 @ F2.8

Lastly, there's a free app called 'Focos' that allows you further tweaks on images taken in Portrait mode. You can even specify the level of blur you want, measured in approximate f-number. Here, we see the two ends of the spectrum currently included in the app, from 'F1.4' to 'F20.'

What's the big deal?

We're approaching a time of reckoning for traditional camera manufacturers. Not only are computational cameras getting better, but they're increasingly in people's pockets, at the ready whenever they're needed.

There are, of course, aspects of traditional larger sensor cameras that phones can't currently replace. The iPhone will struggle to focus on moving subjects and experiences significant focus lag in low light, and Portrait mode image quality in particular suffers as light levels drop. And while pleasing when viewed at the image level, things start getting mushy at 100%. But phones like the Google Pixel 2 are showing us that even these limitations are beginning to be addressed computationally. Then there's the form factor, the controls, the feel of the thing. But those are increasingly diminishing requirements for a broad range of photographers (especially since, as you well know, everyone these days is a photographer).

To remain relevant, these sort of software 'tricks' are something that camera manufacturers are going to need to think more and more about. There may yet come a time when, finally, you don't absolutely need a bigger sensor for better results. And it's not necessarily a matter of 'if,' but a matter of 'when.'