Which phone takes the best portrait mode photos so far in 2023?
Portrait Mode made it to the mainstream with the iPhone 7 Plus way back in 2016 and since then it has been adopted by pretty much every phone maker out there, but which phone does the best job with it today?
For those not sure what we refer to by Portrait Mode, it is the camera mode that separates the subject from the background and gives you a nice, creamy blurred background, much like what you get with a professional camera, using usually a prime lens with a fast aperture.
So in order to find out, we pit four of the most popular smartphones out there, taking portrait mode photos in various conditions. Just before we jump into the actual photos, first take a quick look at the different portrait mode options on each of the phones.
Portrait Mode Settings:
iPhone 14 Pro — 1X, 2X or 3X portrait mode, 1X and 3X use native cameras, 2X uses sensor crop
Pixel 7 Pro — 1X or 2X portrait mode*, both are crop modes from the main camera
OnePlus 11 — 1X or 2X portrait mode, using native cameras
*Pixel 7 Pro uses roughly 1.6X crops for portrait mode, so 1X in portrait mode is NOT equivalent to 1X with regular settings. 1X = 1.6X, and 2X = 3.2X.
Portrait Mode using the Main 1X Camera
Too wide for close-up portrait shots, but the main camera works far better in low light
As you can see, using the main 1X camera with portrait mode makes the most sense when you want to capture the full human body, or at least a large part of it. This is not really a “portrait” in the standard definition of the word, or at least these pictures a certainly not “face shots” if that’s your idea of a portrait.
You can also see how the Pixel captures a totally different perspective as it’s 1X mode is a misnomer and it actually captures a photo that is “1.6X” in smartphone terms, so that’s why you have a close-up shot. The default settings on the Pixel are the most extreme, with most aggressive background blur and since it’s a crop from the main camera detail is not as plentiful as on the other phones, so we would say that while it does a decent job, it’s not on the same level as the other phones.
The Galaxy and the OnePlus go for a very similar look and even colors. The OnePlus, however, is a bit more contrasty, loses a bit of detail in the highlights on my face and you can see how it makes an error with the background blur on the trees, while the Galaxy has none of those issues.
Finally, the iPhone with its colder colors is a different look. It’s a close call but we would give the iPhone the second place to the Galaxy in this round, while at third position comes the OnePlus, and Pixel ranks last.
Next up, we use the same 1X portrait mode, but at night, and again we go for nearly full-height shots which is the natural look in this mode.
In these challenging conditions, the Galaxy rises to the occasion and does an amazing job. You can see that it has recognized my face, brightened it up, preserved the color of the night scene and applied a proper background blur. The image does look a tiny bit artificial, but it’s generally what we want to see at night.
The iPhone and OnePlus go for a more “natural” look, and are split for the second spot, while the Pixel lacks the quality and the detail and ranks last again.
Portrait Mode using the Telephoto Camera
That’s what you should use most of the time
For that “true portrait” look, you probably want to use the telephoto camera, simply because shooting with a wide camera up close results in lots of distortion and faces look comical.
In the above shots, one phone stands out, but in a bad way, and that is the Pixel as it looks grainy and sorely lacks detail as it uses an even further crop of the main camera, while the other phones rely on their native 2X (OnePlus) or 3X lenses (Galaxy and iPhone).
The first shot out of the Galaxy looks amazing, colors are nice and lively, and the exposure is just right. The iPhone, on the other hand, has gone with a brighter exposure than needed, so my jacket looks a bit washed out, while the Pixel favors darker colors, so its picture looks a bit dull.
On the second shot, the iPhone and the Galaxy do an incredible job, and while there are some subtle differences, we like both equally. We also love the photo from the OnePlus, it is a bit wider because of that wider 2X lens, but we really don’t mind. The Pixel ranks last again.
Using a zoom camera at night used to be impossible just until recently, but we see that things have changed.
Quality is still not perfect, but those shots out of the Galaxy S23 Ultra really stand out with their comparative clarity at night. The iPhone looks very noisy, the Pixel looks incredibly dark and we probably wouldn’t even use that picture at all, and the OnePlus for some reason missed the focus a few times when shooting at night.
It’s an easy win for the Galaxy this round, followed by the iPhone, OnePlus, and far behind them comes the Pixel.
Does Portrait Mode work with Inanimate Objects?
Sometimes, probably, maybe
Portrait Mode is an effect that you associate with pictures of people and pets, but it also works with inanimate objects too.
The results, however, are really a mixed bag and depend a lot on the shape and form of what you are photographing. The first picture of this flower was easy to capture on all phones except for the iPhone. The photo you see is the fifth or sixth we had to capture, and it still looks quite terrible, and the others are even worse. The iPhone Portrait Mode just refuses to work well with many objects.
The Galaxy seems to be doing a way better job, however, you can still see on the second shot that it is far from ideal. The OnePlus does a bit worse than the Galaxy, and the Pixel is a bit of a mixed bag.
Who’s the winner?
So… do we have a winner? Do we have the one phone with the perfect portrait mode implementation?
Here are our conclusions:
- Galaxy S23 Ultra — while it is not quite perfect, we have seen that the Galaxy S23 Ultra stands noticeably above the competition. It does a superb job separating objects from their backgrounds, it has pleasing colors, its processing kicks in at just the right times to brighten up faces and slightly smoothen out details.
- iPhone 14 Pro — the iPhone has the most versatility as it has both a 2X and 3X option, but while it does a very good job during the day, it looks quite noisy at night and it rarely works with inanimate objects.
- OnePlus 11 — the OnePlus 11 ranks third for us in this comparison. We love having that 2X lens which is very versatile, but it lacks a 3X zoom mode or longer which would have worked better with pets, and its colors are occasionally a bit dull.
- Google Pixel 7 Pro — this phone does not really deserve to be in this Portrait Mode comparison, to be honest. It uses crops from the main camera and its quality is just bad all around. If you care about portrait mode photos, the other phones are a far better option.
But what do you think about these portrait mode shots? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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