As phones become more powerful, so grows the possibility for (and quality of) computationally enhanced photos. From 'Portrait Mode' with enhanced lighting effects to panorama and HDR images, clever software on the iPhone X makes the most of the cameras onboard.

Portrait mode

ISO 200 | 1/120 sec | F2.4
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

Apple's implementation of Portrait mode uses information (specifically, the difference in perspective, or stereo disparity, from both rear cameras) to get a sense of depth in a scene, and then artificially blurs the background behind whomever (or whatever) the iPhone X has identified as the subject. In practice, it works pretty reliably with people, and you can also trick the iPhone X into making 'portraits' of isolated objects that are reasonably distant from a background.

Unique to the iPhone X is the ability to use Portrait mode with its front-facing camera, for selfies with blurry backgrounds. This is possible thanks to the 'TrueDepth' technology that the iPhone X also uses for facial recognition, dubbed 'Face ID.' In a nutshell, this system works by projecting thousands of infrared dots onto your face, which are identified by an infrared camera as they reflect off of your skin.

Standard portrait mode Portrait mode with contour lighting

The iPhone can use depth information from either its front or rear cameras in tandem with some very clever scene analysis to effective alter the lighting in a scene. These lighting modes are 'natural light,' 'studio light,' 'contour light,' 'stage light' and 'stage light mono.'

The difference between the first three of these modes is subtle at first glance, but that's really part of what makes them impressive; drastic changes may be more likely to negatively impact a photo, rather than positively. Also, you can apply any of these lighting effects after your photo is taken, so long as it was taken in Portrait mode.

Here, 'studio lighting' selectively brightened and darkened parts of the scene, lending a vignetting effect that draws your eye to the subject.
ISO 50 | 1/120 sec | F2.4
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

The main sticking point of Portrait mode is that it can really struggle in situations where your subject is backlit. This is a special case, to be sure, and something that we hope can be improved upon in further iterations.

Panorama mode

The iPhone X's panorama mode may not offer quite as much dynamic range as you'd like for high-contrast scenes, but stitching errors are well-controlled - just be sure to keep the phone as level as you can while moving it across a scene.
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

Smartphone panorama modes are a fun feature that has historically performed better on these devices than options on dedicated cameras. The iPhone X has the ability to 'even out' exposure within panoramas, but it works with only varying degrees of success. Since it doesn't use HDR in panorama mode, high contrast scenes pose problems (far more highlights are preserved in the same scene shot by the Google Pixel 2). Expect some weirdness if the sun makes an appearance, but it remains an easy and fun way to capture the entire scene around you.

HDR images

The iPhone X's HDR mode is generally effective enough to warrant the fact that it's on 'Auto' by default. The HDR images do in fact retain more highlight detail than non-HDR versions, though sometimes colors can skew warmer than when HDR is disabled.

In this image, HDR mode saved some detail in the sky and background, while maintaining good exposure on the boats in the foreground.
ISO 32 | 1/120 sec | F1.8
Photo by Carey Rose

It's also worth noting that, even with moving subjects, HDR shooting in good light doesn't appear to result in blurring or ghosting of subjects, indicating some form of intelligent movement correction.

Lastly, while HDR does smooth out highlights, it can't quite keep a certain 'abruptness' of highlight clipping in really high contrast scenes. But, to smooth those out, you can always shoot in...

DNG mode

Although not supported with the native Apple camera app, the iPhone X can shoot in DNG mode with any number of third-party apps (as touched upon on the previous page).

This lets you, post-capture, freely adjust parameters such as white balance, brightness, highlights and shadows, and so forth. Of course, many will say you can do the same with a JPEG - but you can get even better results by doing this level of manipulation on a DNG.

We'll look at a more in-depth comparison on the image quality page.

IP67 water and dust resistance rating

We've done this so you don't have to. Really. We don't endorse pouring water on expensive electronic goods.

This is something that is (finally) becoming far more common on high-end smartphones (and is something we'd love to see on more cameras, as well). The rating breaks down as follows, and for those that are curious, 'IP' stands for 'Ingress Protection.'

The first of the two numbers refers to dust sealing, and 6 is the highest value - so the iPhone X is as sealed as it can be for this measurement against dust incursion. The second number, 7, refers to water sealing - it's the second-to-highest value, and indicates that the iPhone X has been tested to submersion in a maximum of one meter of water for 30 minutes.

Of course, Apple would prefer that you don't attempt to test those two ratings. They are, also, only relevant on a new, out-of-the-box phone. Months or years of wear and tear can, predictably, wear on the device's sealing.

HDR display and P3 color

The iPhone's display is an OLED unit that's HDR-capable due to its level of brightness, also comes with a P3 color gamut to boot. This color gamut is wider than the sRGB displays most of the viewing public is used to, and allows you to see finer color gradations in images you've taken. The HDR capability means that images and video toned for HDR display will exhibit brilliant whites and deep blacks, providing an overall more immersive viewing experience. Ideally, HDR display of HDR photos also means that one day those HDR captures won't have to be tonemapped into a flat HDR image but, instead, will retain something closer to the global contrast of the real world, contrasty scene.

We also had no real trouble with the quality of viewing the iPhone's images and videos on devices with non-HDR (SDR) displays, thankfully. Of course, this technology is still in its infancy, but that's one of the reasons we're really glad that it isn't having a negative impact on the overall experience. We're planning an HDR primer and greater in-depth analysis on HDR photography and video production in the near future, so stay tuned.