How to take pro-looking portraits with your phone

How to take pro-looking portraits with your phone
Shot with a Huawei P7.  Edited using AfterFocus Pro and VSCO Cam.

Shot with a Huawei P7.  Edited using AfterFocus Pro and VSCO Cam.

It is no news that smartphones are taking over point-and-shoot cameras. Most phones nowadays will allow you to capture decent snapshots, but you still need a DSLR for that moody, artistic portrait with narrow depth of field, right? Well, not really.

DSLRs and MLCs certainly cannot be totally replaced by phones for many different reasons. The laws of physics play an important role here: larger sensors can capture more light (and thus provide better low light performance, among other benefits) and, coupled with the right lens, naturally produce images with shallow depth of field. Also, when talking about portraits, usually an 85mm equivalent lens can provide more flattering results than a wide angle lens, and all smartphones come equipped with the latter.

The good news is that computational photography is allowing us to compensate for some of the limitations above and, as you can see from the 2 images in this post, can help you to get comments such as: "wow, was this really shot using your phone?!".

Here are 3 steps that can help you achieve similar results:

1 - Take control over the exposure

Your default camera app will usually expose the scene evenly across the frame. In this example, I wanted to expose based on the light hitting the faces, naturally making the background dark. If you have an Android phone, there are many apps that will give you better controls over your exposure. I am currently using Camu, but Camera FV-5 is also a great alternative. Both iOS and Android are offering better manual control APIs in their latest versions, and we will see more and more alternatives soon. If you use Windows Phone, you are very well served with Lumia Camera.

2 - Blur the background

About one year ago, I wrote this post talking about tools and techniques that allow you to blur the background of your photos using your phone. Two relatively recent devices (the HTC One M8 and the Honor 6 plus) offer a dual camera setup to capture depth of field, but for most phones your options are still either using Google Camera or post-processing. In the top photo in this post (my daughter), I used AfterFocus Pro.  For the bottom one (my son), I used Snapseed's Lens Blur effect. Unfortunately, Google Camera doesn't offer exposure compensation controls, so for this use case I recommend adding blur after the photo was taken.

3 - Edit

At this point, both photos were close to their final stage. I cropped them on the square format (to get them ready for Instagram) and, as a final touch, I used VSCO Cam to apply the A6 filter (part of the Analog bundle), since I wanted to give the photos a high-contrast, film-like look. 

Shot with a Huawei P7.  Edited using Snapseed and VSCO Cam.

Shot with a Huawei P7.  Edited using Snapseed and VSCO Cam.

Pro tip: don't get too close to the person you are shooting. As I mentioned before, smartphones have wide angle lenses, and if you get too close, their faces can get distorted. Take advantage of the large resolution available from most phones (not much from the iPhone's 8MP) to crop it later for achieving better results.

I can certainly get better results in a more consistent manner using a "real" camera. It is not always that we are presented with such good light, and that really helped in this case. Also, the final files have relatively low resolution, so I couldn't make large prints if I wanted to. Finally, if you look closer, you will find that there are some imperfections from the process of blurring the background. But the bottom line is: since I didn't have my camera with me, I wouldn't have captured these portraits in the first place.

We live in exciting times for photography. I can't wait to see what we'll be able to do with our camera phones 5 years from now!

Brazilian, proud husband and father, photo geek, Beatlemaniac. Living in Dublin, Ireland. Leading Squarespace in EMEA.