Most modern smartphones are capable of great portrait photography, with specialist modes and multiple lenses. Amy Davies rounds-up the best on the market.

Photographs of people – (even excluding oneself) – are surely among the most common things captured on a smartphone. Indeed, pretty much every manufacturer includes some kind of portrait mode, designed to recreate a classic shallow depth of field effect you might normally expect to see when shooting with a standard camera and wide-aperture lens.

In recent years, the quality of these on-board portrait modes, as well as the overall prowess of phones in general, has improved dramatically, and you can get some excellent results – particularly if you pick up one of the flagship models listed here.

The smartphone has made spontaneous photographers of most people who have one – the novelty of a decent camera always at hand lends itself to spotting and shooting candid portraits of friends and family. These cameras, however, are now good enough for a dedicated portrait session in their own right. You might just be surprised by the results – and if you don’t own specific portrait gear yet, it’s a good way to approach the genre before investing in any.

The phones listed here are the best currently available, and as such are on the expensive side. But, if you’re thinking of upgrading anyway, it can be a good investment for enthusiast photographers. Remember to shop around for various contract deals, and you may also already be able to find some of these models second-hand. Skipping back a generation or two is also a savvy way to save some cash.

How does portrait mode work on a smartphone?

Although you can take portraits with the standard shooting setting on your smartphone, many will choose to use the dedicated Portrait mode (sometimes it will be called something else).

It’s only with these modes that you’ll be able to recreate the effect of shooting with a wide-aperture lens. How this essentially works is the phone will take data from two or more of its lenses to create a depth map and using edge detection to figure out what should be in focus and what shouldn’t.

Machine learning and computational photography helps create the end result, which isn’t as reliably smooth as using real hardware, but can create pretty convincing effects – especially when you’re only viewing images at small sizes or on social media sites such as Instagram. Sometimes fussy outlines can prove to be a problem – such as if someone has fairly fine hair. Sometimes you might also see some features, such as ears, disappear when they shouldn’t.

It tends to work best with humans and animals (pets especially) that smartphones have been trained to recognise easily, while still life subjects can be a bit more hit-and-miss. That said, results have on-the-whole improved a huge amount since portrait modes were first introduced, with smartphones better able to understand they’re looking at as time progresses. As technology continues to advance, we can only assume they’ll continue to get even better.

Continuing reading to find out more:

Best smartphones for portrait photography

Samsung S23 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, Photo: Amy Davies

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra with S-Pen Stylus, Photo: Amy Davies

So far nothing has quite managed to topple the Samsung S23 Ultra as our pick for the best overall smartphone this year. With its multiple lenses, comprehensive camera app and excellent screen it’s a fantastic all-rounder.

It has a dedicated Portrait mode which you can use to either take headshots or leave a little more context. It puts in a good job with portraits here, creating fairly natural outlines and also works well with other non-human subjects such as pets.

You don’t have to shoot in Portrait mode if you don’t want to, with the standard setting also producing excellent results – albeit without the same kind of shallow depth of field effect you might wish to have. If you want to shoot in raw format, you can, but again not in Portrait mode – head to the Pro mode and enable DNG recording to do that. You can shoot with the 3x telephoto lens in Pro mode to get a typical portrait focal length, while also taking advantage of the flexibility of raw shooting.

Samsung S23 Ultra Night Portrait mode smartphone

Samsung S23 Ultra Night Portrait. Image credit: Amy Davies

One of the key headlines of the S23 Ultra is its 200 megapixel main sensor. Images are only actually output in 200MP if you choose a specific mode, otherwise the standard output is 12MP. In theory this sounds useful for portraits, but in practice, extra detail isn’t hugely obvious and unless you want to print your portraits at a huge size, 200MP is overkill.

If you’re shooting after dark, Night and Portrait mode can be combined together to great effect, though here it’s the 1x setting, rather than the closer 3x setting, which produces the best results.

One last useful specification here for portraits is the inclusion of an “S-Pen” stylus, which can be used to remotely trigger the camera shutter. That’s helpful for self-portraits and group-portraits, where you can frame from a distance.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review – the ultimate camera phone?

Samsung S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: which smartphone is best for photographers?

iPhone 14 Pro

iPhone 14 Pro

iPhone 14 Pro. Credit: Amy Davies.

It goes without saying that Apple’s smartphones are incredibly popular. The latest flagship sees a 3x lens setup, with the main offering a 48 megapixel resolution. It’s available in two sizes, the standard Pro and the larger Pro Max, without sacrificing on camera quality if you opt for the smaller device. This is something other manufacturers don’t offer, with smaller devices tending to come with a camera sacrifice of some sort. This may mean that the iPhone 14 Pro better suits those with smaller hands or who don’t want a cumbersome smartphone to fit in their pocket.

In terms of portraits, the iPhone 14 Pro/Max has a dedicated Portrait mode which gives you the opportunity to shoot at 1x, 2x or 3x, depending on how you want to frame your shot, while also creating a blurred backgrounds. A couple of generations ago, Apple announced it had been training its smartphones to better recognise pets and other common objects, so it’s good for a multitude of subjects other than humans.

iphone 14 pro portrait with 2x zoom

iPhone 14 Pro Portrait with 2x camera. Image credit: Amy Davies

Critics of the iPhone often point to its relatively simple native camera app, with no Pro or Advanced mode available. However, you can shoot in Apple’s ProRAW format if you want some increased flexibility – though as with other smartphones, not in the Portrait mode. Again, shooting with the telephoto lens and raw switched on is a way to get around that somewhat.

We again here have a Night mode which can be combined with the Portrait mode for good portrait shots after dark, but, here again it’s the 1x setting which produces the best results in such conditions.

If you want to save some cash, skipping back to the iPhone 13 Pro/Max or even the iPhone 12 Pro/Max will see very similar portrait results, so it’s worth looking into those too.

iPhone 14 Pro Review: is this the best iPhone for photographers?

Xiaomi 13 Pro

Xiaomi 13 Pro, Amy Davies

Xiaomi 13 Pro. Image credit: Amy Davies

One of the newest models on the list, here’s another smartphone which has been made in collaboration with a traditional camera manufacturer – this time Leica. An interesting specification here is also the 50MP one-inch main sensor, which is much bigger than you’ll traditionally find on most smartphones. There are three lenses, most notably for portrait shooters a 50MP 75mm equivalent lens, which uses a “floating” element for focusing.

We’ve got some standard marketing speak about how the lens have been “inspired” by the Leica Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH, but the results are pretty good, creating natural outlines in the vast majority of cases.

The 13 Pro’s Portrait Mode takes strong advantage of that Leica collaboration too, offering a range of different “lenses” to experiment with. In essence, these give a variety of different effects including Black & White (35mm), Swirly Bokeh (50mm), Portrait (75mm) and Soft Focus (90mm). Some of these are better than others, but this is largely down to personal preference – we particularly like the 35mm option. You can also shoot in standard colour with standard out of focus areas at either full-body length or standard headshot.

Xiaomi 13 pro black and white smartphone portrait

Black and White Portrait on Xiaomi 13 Pro. Image credit: Amy Davies

This is another smartphone which offers a Pro mode with raw shooting, but once again, you can’t shoot with Portrait mode activated. Selecting the tele lens while in Pro mode is a good way to get around this.

Leica also steps in again with the ability to switch between “Authentic” and “Vibrant” colour in Portrait, Photo and Pro mode, as well as a set of other filters including “BW Natural” and “BW High Contrast” which can be used in Pro and Photo mode – but are worth trying out for portraits too.

Xiaomi 13 Pro Review

Google Pixel 7 Pro

Google Pixel 7 Pro camera bar, photo: Joshua Waller / AP

Google Pixel 7 Pro camera bar, photo: Joshua Waller / AP

Pixel phones were early exponents of excellent portrait modes, with the company working with machine learning to produce fantastic results for some time. It’s worth mentioning that Google has made a point of building its training set with a multitude of nationalities and skin-tones for what it says is better face-recognition and tone-processing than some of its rivals for non-white subjects, which is something other manufacturers can sometimes struggle with.

With the latest flagship, the 7 Pro, you get a triple lens setup, with the main sensor offering 50MP and the telephoto option having 48MP. Again, images are output as standard at 12MP. There’s a dedicated Portrait mode, within which you can shoot at 1x or 2x depending on how much context you want to include. The Pixel is similar to the iPhone in its simplicity, with no option to shoot in an advanced or Professional mode. You can shoot in RAW in the main Photo setting if you wish, though again not in the Portrait mode. You can shoot using the telephoto lenses with raw switched on, so again here you can work that way. A Night Mode is available which can be mixed with the Portrait mode, too.

portrait on google pixel 7 pro

Portrait on Google Pixel 7 Pro. Image credit: Amy Davies

Other facets of Google’s love of machine learning comes with interesting tools, including things like Magic Eraser, which remove unwanted objects (and people) from your shots after you’ve taken them, “Frequent Faces”, where the phone recognises people you photograph often to recommend the best shots you’ve taken of them, and “Face Unblur” to help create sharper images where the subject or the photographer is moving.

All very clever stuff – and available more affordably than the likes of Apple and Samsung. If portraits and people is your favoured subject, it’s hard to beat the vast array of tools that the Pixel offers.

Google Pixel 7 Pro Review – Premium camera performance

iPhone 14 Pro vs Google Pixel 7 Pro

OnePlus 11

OnePlus 11 in hand showing cameras

OnePlus 11 in hand showing cameras. Image credit: Amy Davies

The cheapest smartphone in our group, OnePlus prides itself on providing flagship specifications for mid-range pricing. Here we have a triple-lens array, which interestingly has been created in collaboration with Hasselblad.

You get a 50MP main sensor, a 48 MP ultrawide, and a 32MP 2x (48mm equivalent) lens, which has been specifically designed with portraits in mind – the relatively short focal length is designed to better photograph people, compared to distant subjects, something which OnePlus believes most consumers will find more important.

There is also a specific “Hasselblad Portrait Mode”, which is designed to recreate the look of Hasselblad XCD 30mm and 65mm lenses (1x and 2x, respectively). These are big words which are fairly hyperbolic, but they do produce reasonably pleasing results none-the-less, if sometimes struggling a little with slightly fussy outlines, particularly for non-human subjects.

OnePlus 11. Portrait mode. 2x camera selected. Image credit: Amy Davies

OnePlus 11. Portrait mode. 2x camera selected. Image credit: Amy Davies

We’ve got a very-well featured native camera app available here, which includes a Pro mode if you want to take greater control. While you can shoot in raw format here, you lose the ability to create shallow depth of field effects. Again, shooting with the 2x lens is a way around this somewhat. Although there is a Night mode, it’s not something which can be combined with the Portrait mode.

The OnePlus 11 offers fantastic value for money, but again, you might want to skip back a generation to the OnePlus 10 Pro (the company ditched the Pro moniker for the 11 range), where you’ll find another good portrait performer – if not quite as comprehensive as the 11 offers.

OnePlus 11 Full Review

iPhone 14 Pro vs OnePlus 11 comparison

Tips for shooting portraits with your smartphone

Try these ideas with your smartphone next time you’re giving portraits a go

Use portrait mode for non-human subjects

Remember that portrait mode can generally be used for non-human subjects. This is great for photographing pets to really bring out their character. You can also use it to create shallow depth of field effects with other subjects, such as still life too.

But don’t just use the dedicated portrait mode

As mentioned in our round-up, try using other modes, rather than just portrait mode. This way you can achieve other things, such as shooting in raw mode for example.

Try different lighting and blur effects

Lots of Portrait modes have different effects you can experiment with, including different levels of blur, different types of blur/bokeh and different lighting effects. It’s worth getting to know all of these so you can approach your portraits creatively. Digital filters, such as black and white, also come in handy too.

Give burst mode a go

When photographing fast-moving people (such as children), activating a burst mode can be a good way to get a candid portrait that occurs in a split second. Usuallly this involves holding down the shutter button to take several shots in quick succession. Most modern smartphones will even automatically choose the best result for you.

Include some context

Using some of your subject’s background is a good way to show more personality in your portraits rather than just a straightforward headshot. That’s especially true if you can include some kind of environment which means something to the sitter – such as a place of work or favourite location. Be sure to try switching to 1x mode and see what results you get.

Consider accessories such as reflectors and ring lights

There are a number of useful portrait accessories that can work very well with smartphones, including reflectors – to bounce light (including of different tones) back at your subject for more even coverage, and ring-lights, which work particularly well for selfies.

Treat the smartphone like any other camera

We can often get hung-up on thinking of a smartphone as not a “proper camera”. Remember it’s you that makes the pictures and approach a portrait sitting just as you would with anything else, remembering composition, direction, and even other elements such as costumes, make-up and props.

See more of our smartphone photography content:

iPhone vs Android: Which is better for photography? We’ve rounded up the best camera phones for photography and the best camera phones you can get on a budget here.

Read our smartphone reviews and find out how to take better smartphone photos.

How to edit your photos with Snapseed

How to take portraits on a smartphone

10 ways smartphones can help your photography

Related portrait content:

Featured image credit: FilippoBacci via Getty Images

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