Shallow Depth of Field: Smartphone Portrait Modes vs An $8,000 Hasselblad

Have you ever wondered how a smartphone's shallow focus or "portrait mode" worked? Or if it can really stack up to an $8,000 camera?

Well, that's what Marques Brownlee tried to figure out. So, he pitted the iPhone X, Note 8 and Pixel 2 against the $8000 (without a lens) Hasselblad X1D medium format camera.

Smartphones can't naturally replicate the sharp focus in the foreground with a soft focus background simply because they have such small sensor and tiny wide angle lens. When phones added dual lenses a few generations ago it enabled them to mix the image from a telephoto and the wide angle, but they still need software assistance for maximum effect.

Now, the lens on the Hasselblad is longer and it boasts one of the best image sensors on the market, so it's going to give you that giant sun western movie effect with the building which already helps the image stand out from the artificial ones. All that glass simply crushes the background like a Kurosawa movie.

Some of the phones use edge detection, like the Galaxy Note 8 and Pixel 2 while the iPhone tends to more focus on the face of a person and blur everything around it like in the photo below.

iphone x portrait mode.png
pixel 2 portrait mode.png
If you look at the Pixel 2, it has the most dramatic "portrait mode" effect, but it also looks like Mr. Brownlee was photoshopped over a blurred background. That edge detection just separates him and then blurs everything around him. It works, but there isn't a gradual fading of focus.

Here's a picture that I think really shows the difference between capturing the effect naturally or trying to replicate it.

portrait mode comparison hasselblad.png
The Hasselblad isn't just getting the blurred background from a larger sensor. Anyone who knows anything about cameras knows lens selection is the most important part of getting that look. You need a longer and/or faster lens. Something with a 50mm equivalent and/or below an F3 aperture. Smartphones clearly don't have the advantage of having all that glass. So, they have to cheat. The result is kind of artificial and you lose the most interesting thing about the photo... the lights in the background. The Hasselblad creates these beautiful soft focus balls of colored light in that dominate the background. You wouldn't even notice that they were lights in the other pictures. This again is about the lens more than anything, but it's still a real thing.

For more info and a complete breakdown of how this all works out check out the video at the top or Mr. Brownlee's Youtube page.

haselblad x1D 50c.jpg