How to take better portrait mode photos on any phone

Ah, portrait mode. Ever since Huawei pioneered the depth-sensing tech and Apple ran with it, it seems every other Instagram photo has that faux-DSLR look.

Unfortunately, our smartphones aren’t exactly perfect at imitating the shallow depth of field of a real large-sensor camera, so it’s important to help the tiny sensors out when we can. And even when things do go right, there are some basic photography tips can help you make the most of your images.

That’s what I’m here for; I’ve amassed some basic tips to get you started taking better portraits. Keep in mind that every phone is different so I’m not getting into device specifics, but these tips should get you on the path to taking better photos with any device.

Chase good light

Lighting is crucial to all cameras but moreso on our smartphones with their tiny sensors. Depth sensing is significantly less reliable in low light, leading to edge detection errors, in addition to the usual noise and detail issues with low light photos. On many phones, portrait mode uses a secondary sensor with worse optics, compounding the problem.

This goes both ways though; too much light can be a bad thing. I find beginner photographers often assume shooting direct sunlight is a good thing. It’s usually not.

This is especially true with clear skies during the high mid-day sun, the light will often be harsh and unpleasant. Unless you’re going for a particularly artsy effect, look for some even shade. There will still be enough light to take a good portrait without accentuating every pore on your face. And contrary to popular belief, cloudy days are some of the best days to take portraits thanks to the even, diffuse light – it’s the nature’s version of a softbox.

Get the exposure right

Now that you’ve found some good light, you want to make sure your phone is taking the best advantage of it. Phones have gotten a lot better at detecting people in an image and exposing the around them, but it doesn’t hurt to give your phone a hand.

For example, here’s an underexposed image:

And here it is with some exposure compensation (I went a little overboard, but it’s a better starting point):

A simple tap on your subject’s face from your phone’s screen – not their actual face – can noticeably improve your photo’s exposure. If this doesn’t work, you can try using the exposure slider for finer control until the subject is properly illuminated. And of course, you can brighten the shot after it’s been made, you just risk introducing additional noise.

Separate your subject from your background

Each phone’s Portrait mode generally works by measuring depth using something called parallax. Long story short, the further your subject is from the background, the easier it is for your phone to measure depth.