Complete guide to capturing depth in iPhone photography

Complete guide to capturing depth in iPhone photography

Caucasian girl doing a hair flip. - depth in iPhone
Photos with depth are undeniably captivating.

Portrait? TrueDepth? Bokeh? These terms can intimidate any new iPhone photography enthusiast who wants to capture depth in iPhone photography.

Although, it’s understandable because to get around those features, you have to familiarize these photography basics, first—aperture, depth of field, and bokeh. 

Don’t know those either? 

Don’t fret. We compiled a guide about capturing depth on your iPhone. This post is divided into three main sections: digging deeper into depth in photography, depth of field on iPhone, and how to capture with a depth of field on your iPhone. 

Important terms to know 


The space or opening in a camera where the light enters.

Depth or the Depth of Field (DOF)

The distance between two objects in a photo. 

Depth control 

The term for adjusting the range of depth in a photo by changing the aperture’s size, focal length, and your distance from the focal point. 

Bokeh effect 

Bokeh is the attractive aesthetic in photography where only one subject is in focus and the background is blurred. 

Digging deeper into depth

Capturing with depth or the Depth of Field (DOF) on your iPhone is not a difficult technique to master. And some features in newer iPhone models has made it easier for users like you to practice it. 

Nevertheless, just like any other photography technique, you still have to educate yourself about it, so you can execute it effectively.

Ready to learn? Let’s dig deeper into depth…

Depth of Field (DOF): Explained

This is a good example of a photo with a clear depth of field.

We explained earlier that the DOF is the distance between two objects in a scene. 

Going beyond that simplified explanation, DOF is the distance between a focused object and another object that’s out of focus. 

In capturing the DOF, your camera focuses on one object in your photograph. As a result, the latter is sharp and clear, while its background/foreground is blurry and out of focus. 

When your camera is capturing the depth of field in a scene, you can liken it to your eyes focusing on one person, while their background blurs.

For instance, in the photo above (taken with the iPhone 11 Pro), the cat is clear and in focus, while the background is blurred. It has a shallow depth of field. Meanwhile, if the cat’s background was also sharp, it would have a deep focus.

Bokeh effect: What is it?

Bokeh city roads at night. - depth in iPhone
You appreciate the bokeh effect better at night.

Some say it’s overrated; others claim it never goes out of style. The bokeh effect is probably the most recognizable photography technique. 

In professional photography, capturing with depth means you’re making a division between the object in focus and the other one not in focus. The latter can either be the foreground or the background. 

The quality of that effect is called bokeh. The latter is derived from the Japanese word “boke”, which means blur or haze.

In any photography groups, it’s almost impossible to miss a photo with a gentle, sweet aesthetic of blurred orbs. However, don’t let its appearance fool you—bokeh is apparently not so simple to accomplish. 

How do you execute bokeh? 

Girl holding an iPhone with bokeh background. - depth in iPhone
The key here is focusing on the subject.

To capture a shallow depth of field, you have to adjust the camera’s aperture to a wide-open setting. That means you should set the opening to any lower f stop number (ex. f1.4, f1.8, f2, f2.8, or f4).

Smaller f stop numbers indicate the lens has a larger opening, which allows more light to enter the camera. Moreover, a smaller f stop number means your shutter speed will also be faster.

Besides the f stop number, some factors can also affect the bokeh’s execution, such as:

  1. The quality of the camera’s lens
  2. The setting of the camera’s aperture
  3. The distance of the focused object from the camera.
  4. The distance of the object in focus from the other objects in the scene
  5. The camera app’s range of depth control, if you’re shooting on an iPhone. 

Why is the depth of field important in a photo?

Asian girl with glasses with a colorful bokeh background.  - depth in iPhone
Capturing the depth of field is more than just aesthetics.

Capturing with the depth of field is all about focus. 

When a photo has a shallow depth, you’re making the viewer focus on one object and it alone. You’re implying that everything else is less important except the object in focus. 

Nevertheless, capturing with a shallow depth doesn’t mean you’re hiding the other objects in the photo. The objects not in focus are still kind of important—after all, they give you a clue about the setting or the situation. This, in turn, helps you correlate it with the object in focus. 

As a result, in a photo with shallow depth, you’re allowing the elements to work together in telling a story within the photo—without taking away the importance of the object in focus.

Guy in outdoors: What do you think of his personality?

For instance, in the photo above taken with an iPhone XR, the object in focus is the guy. From the look of the blurry background, you can figure out that he’s outdoors, where there’s a lot of foliage and greenery. No buildings in sight. He’s sporting a jacket with A metallic accent. 

All those clues imply that his guy is an adventurous loner. 

As you can see, if you want the viewer to get curious about an object, you can capture it with a shallow depth. 

In this way, they won’t be bothered to get curious about the wrong things such as what the object is doing outdoors. Instead, they’re only paying attention to the object in focus—his personality, his story, etc.

In other words, the purpose of a photo’s shallow depth is to help a photographer tell a story—without giving away too many clues. 

Don’t you agree?  

Depth of field on the iPhone 

With a DSLR camera, starting to learn bokeh photography would be a no-brainer. But is it possible to capture the depth of field on your iPhone?

Let’s find out below. 

Can you capture depth on iPhone?

shallow focus of a hand holding a leaf - depth in iPhone
The iPhone camera’s depth of field tech keeps on improving.

Yes, you can capture with a depth of field—given that you own an iPhone model with two cameras (telephoto lens and wide-angle lens) and/or the front-facing TrueDepth camera. If you have an older iPhone model, you can always get a clip-on macro lens for your iPhone so that you can capture depth.

What’s the difference between the older models’ DOF and the newer one? Well, the depth of field in the dual-camera iPhones and the iPhone XR is more dynamic and pronounced. 

How do they make this possible? Your iPhone’s two cameras, its Portrait Mode, and the depth map the wide-angle camera can create—these are the keys to the improved bokeh effect. 

These are all the iPhone models that allow you to capture the Depth of Field:

  • iPhone 7 Plus 
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max 

3 elements on your iPhone that make bokeh possible

Indeed, newer iPhones have more sophisticated technology than their predecessors. Sure, it’s far from perfect. However, the elements below mainly make it possible for you to take with photos with better, more gorgeous DOFs. 

1. Dual-camera system

rose gold iPhone with dual cameras - depth in iPhone
The bokeh magic all started with the dual-camera systems.

iPhone’s dual-camera system helps capture the color and the depth map data separately, executing the bokeh effectively. 

Moreover, because of the two camera sensors, your iPhone can generate more intricate image segmentation masks. 

The iOS photography algorithm in your iPhone needs those segmentation masks so it can separate the foreground and the background in a photo successfully. 

Therefore, with more detailed and accurate segmentation masks, your camera can efficiently capture a photo with smooth bokeh background, while sharpening the details and edges of the object in focus. 

2. Depth map

This is a demo of the multi-level depth map of the Portrait Mode.

The depth map contains the data that indicates the distance between objects in a photo. In your iPhone camera, 

In a dual-camera iPhone, the iOS camera uses the normal photo in color (captured using the Telephoto lens) and the depth map data (captured using the Wide-Angle lens) to create a photo with a shallow depth of focus.

3. Portrait Mode 

In low-light situations, you can definitely use Portrait Mode to improve the photo.

This is a feature on the iOS camera of the iPhone 7 Plus and certain later models. You tap on Portrait Mode if you want to capture a photo with a shallow depth. 

If you’re not contented with your shots easier, you can also adjust your photos’ blur intensity on the Photos app.

RELATED: How to capture 3d photos on your iPhone

What is Depth Control on the iPhone?

This is a demo of the iPhone’s Depth Control.

The iOS Depth Control is a relatively new feature available on your iPhone’s rear cameras and front camera. It’s also present on your iPhone’s Photos app. 

Basically, the Depth Control gives you more freedom to adjust your photo’s bokeh, whether in real-time or during post-processing. That means you can control the visibility of the Depth of Field while capturing a picture. You can also do it later when you edit it on your Photos app. 

In using Depth Control, can either strengthen your photo’s bokeh effect or make its background more detailed and in focus. You can do this by choosing any f stop number, starting with f 1.4 to f16. 

From a bigger picture perspective, technologies like Apple’s Depth Control is a brilliant leap not only in smartphone photography. Particularly, in iPhone photography, Depth Control will be handy if you want to blur other people or objects in the background. 

What is the TrueDepth on the iPhone?

smiling guy in red shirt taking a selfie. - depth in iPhone
The TrueDepth camera also lets you take a selfie with a blurred background.

The TrueDepth is the new camera system on iPhone X+ models and later. It replaced the technology of the front-facing camera of the previous models. 

The TrueDepth tech has a 7-megapixel camera, plus the new additions—infrared camera, a dot projector, and a flood illuminator.

Apple placed those recent extras for capturing 3D data, which your iPhone will use for creating Animojis and better Face ID detection. 

The TrueDepth tech also lets you take selfies with a bokeh background. It’s made possible by the infrared sensors, which creates the depth map data for that artificial but smooth and natural-looking bokeh. 

Some users even say that the TrueDepth camera is more efficient at capturing the depth of field than the dual-camera system at the back. However, this is subjective since the lighting situation and many other factors can also affect a photo’s bokeh quality. 

Portrait Lighting: What is it? 

cute kid with smiling, gaping mouth in black and white filter.
Want a professional studio-esque photo? Apply the Stage Mono effect on your portraits.

On your iPhone’s front and rear camera, you will see the option Portrait Lighting when you tap on the Portrait Mode. 

The Portrait Lighting mimics the quality of a professional photography studio lighting. This way, when the iPhone user takes portraits of a person or takes a bokeh selfie, their best facial features will be highlighted. 

With this effect, your portrait shots will appear as if they were captured by a seasoned photographer in a studio. 

Here are the 6 types of Portrait Lighting you can find on your iPhone’s camera: 

  • Natural Light. This will use the ambient light in the scene. 
  • Studio Light. Use this to brighten a person’s facial features. 
  • Contour Light. This will give you dramatic lighting. 
  • Stage Light. This one will isolate your subject with a black background and a spotlight effect.
  • Stage Mono. The same effect with the previous but in Black and White. 
  • High-Key Light Mono. Choose this if you want your subject to have a grayscale filter and a plain white background.

How to capture with a depth of field on your iPhone

We discussed a hefty amount of information about depth. Now, it’s time to learn how to capture different bokeh photos on your iPhone. 

How to take bokeh portraits using your rear cameras

The one who took this photo of the little girl and her dog is at the right distance.
  1. Find an area with good ambient lighting. 
  2. Open your camera app. 
  3. Swipe to Portrait mode. On the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, it will use the Telephoto lens. If you want to use the Wide camera for this, just tap the 2x button on the viewfinder.
  4. On an iPhone XR, the camera will need to find the subject’s face before you can take the photo. 
  5. Your iPhone camera will automatically zoom in on your subject. 
  6. Next, it will provide tips about the right distance of your subject from your camera on your viewfinder. Follow them. 
  7. Next, above the shutter button, check if the lighting icon turns yellow. That means you can now take the photo. 
  8. You can also choose any of the Portrait Lighting effects by swiping the slider at the top of the shutter button. 
  9. To adjust the bokeh effect, tap the F-stop number icon at the upper right corner of your camera.
  10. A slider for the depth intensity or the F-stop number will appear at the top of the shutter button. 
  11. If you want to intensify the bokeh effect or make the background blurrier, swipe the slider to a smaller number. Meanwhile, if you want to keep the background in focus, choose a higher number. 
  12. Satisfied with how your subject looks? Now, you can tap the shutter button. 

Take a bokeh selfie using the TrueDepth camera

This Portrait Mode photo has the Studio Lighting effect, High-Key Light Mono.
  1. Position yourself in a space where the light flatters your facial features. 
  2. Pleased with the lighting? Launch your camera app. 
  3. Swipe to Portrait mode. 
  4. Tap the TrueDepth camera button, which is on the right side of the shutter button. 
  5. If you want to add a Portrait Lighting, just swipe the icon at the bottom to choose any effect you prefer. 
  6. Capture your selfie using the shutter button or any of the volume buttons.

How to add or remove depth in your Portrait Mode photos

Removing the blur on this picture’s background is a no-brainer.

Didn’t like your bokeh photo? You can remove the effect or add it back. Just follow these steps. 

  1. Go to your Photos app. 
  2. Open your Portrait Mode photo. 
  3. Tap the Edit button, which is at the bottom of the photo.
  4. The depth slider will show. Adjust it until your photo has your desired depth. 
  5. You can also add filters if you want.
  6. Tap the Done button at the lower right corner to save your new photo.

Related: Your complete guide to iPhone camera filters

The imperfection of capturing depth on iPhone

The bokeh effect is a timeless feature any iPhone photographer would love to have on their devices. And Apple’s Portrait Mode and Depth Control made their wishes come true. 

Now, these may be significant features for iPhone photographers. However, they are not always perfect. It’s safe to say that there’s still room for improvement. 

The glaring imperfections of Portrait Mode are its detection and distortion of the subject’s edges. Sometimes, the bokeh effect on the Portrait Mode can make your photo as if it were photoshopped.

Just check out the photo from Reddit below. 

Cash the cat is perfect but his edges aren’t.

As you can see, the edges of the cat’s head and back have awry outlines. The edges are not as sharp as it should be. 

This glitch can happen to people and objects, and not just to pets. However, it doesn’t always happen. Moreover, it’s not noticeable right off the bat. But to the keen and expert eyes, it will be obvious right away.

What can you do to avoid that ugly effect? Well, we suggest you follow the tips that your iPhone camera displays on its viewfinder.

Moreover, we suggest you take note of the tips below when taking photos in Portrait Mode. 

Tips on capturing the depth with iPhone

Insane details on this cute doggo photo, right?
  • Always choose an area with good ambient lighting. 
  • Position yourself at the right distance from the subject, preferably no more than 8 inches.
  • For a beautiful, dreamy bokeh effect, try these F-stop numbers on your Depth Control slider are the most ideal: f/1.8 or f/1.4. 
  • Take photos during the earlier times in the morning, where the light isn’t so harsh yet. If you can, avoid taking photos during mid-day, as you might overexpose your subject.
  • Use a minimal amount of direct lighting if possible. If you’re taking photos inside the room, you can play around the sunlight by closing the curtains or using a stack of books to block the sunlight.
  • If you can, ask your subject to wear an outfit with a contrasting color or pattern to the background. 
  • Meanwhile, if you’re shooting an inanimate object, try different angles to make the portrait mode more interesting. 
  • It doesn’t happen all the time but the blur in some Portrait Mode photos can’t be edited. If this happens to your photo, you can “unlock” the blur on your photo by adding a built-in filter on your Photos app, such as the Dramatic Cool. 
  • Shooting bokeh photos at night? To capture those dreamy orbs, 
  • Try different styles. Don’t hesitate to apply the bokeh effect to your subject and not just to their background. 

What’s new in Portrait Mode? 

Guy with perfectly exposed skin tone in shallow focus
The latest iPhone models are apparently better at portraying the skin tone of the subject.

Like every first pancake, the first Portrait Mode was not that great. It was passable, but it was more like a meh compared to recent models’ Portrait Modes. 

The latest improvements in Portrait Mode, specifically on the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, are the following. 

  • Better backlighting for the subject in focus 
  • More accurate skin tones of humans 
  • The Ultra-Wide lens of the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max made the depth maps more accurate. That means the camera can better recognize the distance between the foreground and the background. 

Final thoughts

Photos with depth have, indeed, more depth. By capturing the depth of field, you can instantly add a different angle to a photo. 

If you have a dual-camera iPhone, then it shouldn’t be so hard for you to take photos with depth. After all, Portrait Mode’s features are very intuitive. 

Do you know other good techniques or tips in capturing depth on your iPhone? What do you think about the depth control feature?

Share them in the comments below!