How to master portrait photography on iPhone

In this detailed guide, we will show you how to take the best portrait photos on your iPhone or iPad. We will also help you convert non-portrait images into portrait shots by blurring the background behind the main subject.

Portrait photo of Starbucks cup

Shoot in portrait mode

Portrait mode is available on all newer iPhone models. It lets you take DSLR-like pictures that add background blur while keeping the main subject in focus.

  1. Open the Camera app on your iPhone or iPad.
  2. Swipe to PORTRAIT mode.
  3. Frame your shot properly. Make sure the portrait effect label, like Natural Light, is yellow. If it’s not yellow, follow the on-screen suggestion to move farther away.
  4. Tap the shutter button to take the picture with its background blurred.
Taking portrait photo in iPhone Camera

You can also adjust the background blur when taking portrait images or afterward to achieve the perfect bokeh effect.

Tips to take the best portrait photos

From experience, portrait shots can turn out real gems that will absolutely reaffirm your decision to go large, while at other times, the camera setting can also prove agonizingly unreliable.

Regardless of your personal success rate with Portrait mode as yet, there are a handful of tricks to take into account when trying to nail that depth effect.

Follow the on-screen distance indicators

Follow the on-screen distance indicators when taking portrait mode photos on iPhone

Once Portrait mode has been launched, pay attention to the on-screen advice regarding the optimal distance between the lens and the article you want to capture.

If you are too distant, the text will ask you to reposition yourself and ‘Place subject within 8 ft (or 2.5 meters)‘. On newer versions of iOS, it will simply say, “Move father away.”

Place the subject inside the circle

Place subject within Stage Light during Portrait photography on iPhone

If you want to use Portrait effects like STAGE LIGHT, STAGE LIGHT MONO, or HIGH-KEY LIGHT MONO, make sure to place the main subject inside the circle shown on the camera interface.

Manually tap for depth effect

Manually tap for depth effect during portrait photo on iPhone

Similar to selecting a specific area on your screen for manual focus, you can also tap the subject intended to pop out in Portrait mode if the lens loses the plot.

You can tap the main subject to make it sharp and blur the background. Conversely, you can also tap the background to keep it sharp and blur the forward subject.

Use 2x or 5x lens

Using 2x or 5x camera lens during portrait mode on iPhone

If your iPhone has multiple cameras on the back, you can tap the 1x button and zoom into 2x or 5x. In most cases, zooming in on the subject using 2x or 5x adds a gorgeous background blur that is otherwise unachievable in normal 1x.

Main subject size matters

Take main subject size in account when shooting portrait photo on iPhone

Having shot a variety of objects, I always go back to the coffee mug to describe the correlation between the quality of Portrait photos and the corresponding object size. This is more likely than anything a software quirk, as it appears to me that the bigger an object (read: the more space it takes in the overall photo), the better the final product. That is to say, if the object really takes center stage in the photo, the lines skirting around it are going to be right on the money.

On the other hand, if you step away from the subject and the camera still manages to apply depth effect to the right object (sometimes it will not, asking you to step closer although you are in fair range), the end product often is riddled with distortions or fuzzy lines around your subject. You might not spot it straight away, but when pulled on the big screen, trust me, it is going to be eye-catching for all the wrong reasons.

Use Auto Exposure/Auto Focus Lock

Auto Exposure or Auto Focus Lock in Portrait mode on iPhone

AE/AF Lock functionality might be the one feature Apple included to throw a lifeline to the segment of users clamoring for more professional tools within the camera app. Its scope of application is identical to what it offers in the default photo mode, meaning you can lock in the object you want the depth effect to center around by holding down your finger long enough and waiting for a slightly bigger square to attune to the target.

This is neat in that it means just because you want a certain object to pop out in front of a blurred layer, it does not mandate the same object has to be in the center of your photo. If you are pointing at multiple blossoms by way of example and would like to have one stick out in particular while the remainder provides the backdrop, it does not by necessity have to be the central one.

This gesture is just as relevant for normal iPhone photography, obviously, but it’s all the more powerful here because it not only locks in focus but in addition creates a perception of depth behind the desired object.

Related: How to lock focus and exposure separately in the Camera app on iPhone

Two caveats

Situations when Portrait photography does not work properly

Whenever I have attempted to take a vertical portrait shot, be that pointing the phone down to the ground or up to the sky (not trying to single out the sky obviously, but for example, a branch), the phone struggles to enact the depth effect.

This has nothing to do with good or bad contrast (silver on green should be unmistakable enough) but again brings us back to the software behind Portrait mode. It looks as if, irrespective of the algorithms running under the hood, if there is no actual real-life depth in the photo, computer depth cannot be applied either. It sounds like stating the obvious; then again, I would have assumed the mode could blur out the lawn under the MacBook all the same. I have tried it multiple times now, however, to no avail.

Secondly, it is best to shy away from portrait photography in twilight or low-light situations. Not only does the success rate of motive detection really suffer under these circumstances, but even if it comes off, the end product is likely to be imprecise, fuzzy, and just nothing to flaunt.

Bonus: Tips from pro photographers

  • JerSean Golatt: “Get up close to your subject to bring out the details.”
  • Jeremy Cowart: “Minimize the background, cut out the distractions from your subject and try to find the shade, and put the sun behind your subject as a nice backlight. Pulling the exposure down just a hair really makes the images look more cinematic.”
  • Pei Ketron: “When taking photos of pets and animals, give your pup some space. Portrait mode uses the telephoto lens, so a distance of about eight feet away is recommended. Have treats ready. You’ll get the best results when your subject isn’t moving.”
  • Benj Haisch: “Having soft, diffused lighting will help with keeping the photo flattering to your subject. Find a space that isn’t too busy or distracting, as Portrait mode will create a photo that really pops.”

Here are some of the best bokeh images that the above pro photographers have taken on their iPhone 7 Plus:

Bokeh images taken by pro photographers on iPhone
See these images in full resolution on Apple’s website.

Edit portrait mode photos

Open a portrait image in your iPhone’s Photos app and tap Edit. Next, use the Portrait depth slider to adjust the background blur.

Increase or decrease background blur after taking photo on iPhone

Blur the background of normal photos and turn them into portrait shots

If you have an iPhone 15 or newer

Photos of a person, dog, or cat you take using the normal PHOTO camera mode (and not the PORTRAIT mode) on an iPhone 15 series phone can automatically be converted to portrait photos later on. All you need to do is open the picture in the Photos app, tap the PORTRAIT label from the top left, and choose Portrait to turn on the background blur.

If you don’t have a newer iPhone

If you don’t have an iPhone 15 or newer, you will have to use dedicated third-party apps to add background blur to your existing non-portrait photos. These apps can differentiate between the photo subject and the background and help you blur it.

We will tell you about a couple of great options.

Use Focos to blur the background

This iOS app is feature-packed and lets you do a lot of things with your photos, including adding portrait effects and creating background blur.

While the app is free to download, the free version will only let you save the image in reduced resolution. Secondly, you can overwrite the original version of the image or save it to the Files app (from where you can resave it to Photos). You can unlock several features and remove these restrictions by making an in-app purchase.

Here’s how to blur the background of an image using the free version of the Focos app.

1) Download Focos on your iPhone or iPad and open it. You can wait a few seconds and tap X to go past the in-app purchase screen.

2) Next, open a photo inside the Focos app for editing.

3) Tap the Aperture icon from the left side.

4) Drag the Size and Focus sliders to blur the background. You can also tap the subject (or background) of the image and keep it in focus while blurring the other parts.

Blurring photo background using Focos app on iPhone
Please ignore the Focos watermark in the center of the image. The app adds this when you take a screenshot. However, the final exported image does not have the watermark, even in the free version.

5) Once you have achieved the right look, tap the share icon from the top. Tap the X icon if it shows the ‘Choose your plan’ screen. Now, select Share with > Save to Files > Save.

Save photo from Focos to Files app on iPhone

6) Go to the Apple Files app, open the image, and tap the share button. Now, tap Save Image to export this picture to your iPhone’s Photos app.

Save image from Files app to iOS Photos app

Replicate bokeh using Tadaa SLR

This is the photo we’re going to work from. That’s my daughter Chloé to the left and her friend Hazel to the right.

Chloe no bokeh

1) Purchase the Tadaa SLR app from the iPhone App Store for $3.99. After granting it access to your Camera roll, load up a photo you want to retouch. Make sure the Mask and the Edges options are enabled.

The Edges feature is what gives the app control over what it believes are edges in your photos. You can turn this off if you want to have a more granular control. I prefer leaving it on because that is how Tadaa can work its magic best.

2) With your finger, start drawing the mask on your photo. You basically want to draw on what you want to be in focus. As you remove your finger from the screen, you will notice Tadaa SLR adjusts the mask to the best of its ability.

Unfortunately, it is not always perfect, especially when you’re trying to add a mask over a person’s body. But the plus side is you can adjust your mask.

Chloe bokeh edges

3) To adjust your mask, you probably want to zoom in on your subject and then drag your finger on the screen to get a better masking of the edges.

For example, here I’m zooming in on my daughter’s arm to better control the masking. Note that Tadaa is smart to understand that when you zoom in, you’re basically trying to get a better mask, and it will adjust its automatic edge detection.

If you are adding masking where you don’t want to, you can always use the Erase tool or simply tap the Undo button.

chloe bokeh zoom in

4) Once you’re done masking and erasing, I suggest you zoom out a bit to have an overall view of what your photo looks like. This allows you to make sure you didn’t forget to mask part of the photo. When you’re done, tap the Next button in the upper right corner of the screen.

chloe bokeh perfect edge masking

5) This is where you can go crazy on the blur and bokeh effect. You can play a little bit with the various options at the bottom. You can switch between circular and linear blur or choose to go with the All option, which is what I usually use. It really depends on the subject and the effect you’re going after.

You can also play with the aperture and the range.

Finally, if you realize you messed up your mask, you can go back to fine-tuning that from that screen, too. If you’re happy with the results, tap Apply in the upper right corner.

chloe bokeh blur

6) You can now add filters, play with the basic brightness, contrast, and saturation of the photo, crop, and add vignetting. Tap Save when you’re done to save the photo to your Camera roll.

bokeh effect iphone effect brightness

This is the final image.

bokeh effect iphone

Tadaa SLR works great, but it does have some limitations. I have found that certain shapes are better than others when it comes to masking. For example, anything with straight edges and a stark background makes it easier for the app to detect the edges and add proper masking.

People are probably the hardest subjects to use with Tadaa because the shape of our bodies just isn’t a straight line. It gets even worse when you have long hair that gets in the picture. This being said, and as you can see in my example above if you do take some time to correct the masking on the edges, you can get some really nice results.

Another downside of Tadaa is how it reduces the picture size. Typically, those processed pictures look nice on an iPhone or iPad screen, but they don’t look all that great when printed out. But who prints out photos nowadays anyway?

In addition to the two apps mentioned above, you can also try the DSLR Blur section of the ReLens app or the Bokeh Lens app to blur your photo background.

On a related note: