iPhone XS – How to take great portrait photos

Taking photos on the move, has been the photographic platform for my Instagram profile, where I’ve showed my running journey across the globe on various generations of the iPhone.

There’s a multitude of ways you can take great photos on the iPhone XS, in this article I’m focusing primarily on showing how to make the most of the new portrait mode.

Before I get into the fun stuff, after upgrading from the iPhone X to the XS here’s some brief technical specification facts:

  1. The XS and XS max share the same camera. Both have 12 megapixel cameras and have a new F1.8 aperture sensor. A lower f-number denotes a greater aperture opening which allows more light to reach the image sensor. In the real world this means better photos in low light conditions, and more vibrant colours.
  2. The rear camera is slighter larger from the iPhone X physically, due to the larger sensors, so this part of the external/fitted cases has been adapted.
  3. The camera is optically stabilised which minimises blurring caused by unsteady hands. And it helps you capture better quality photos in low light.
  4. The new smart HDR mode, takes lots of shots, then it takes the best parts and merges it into one photo providing the highest detail.

  1. Portrait photos now feature a more sophisticated and nuanced bokeh with all-new Depth Control to adjust the background blur effect.
  2. You can film 4K upto 60fps

How to take portrait photos:

Whilst the portrait effect was present in earlier iPhone editions, the new iPhone XS and XS Max allows you to edit the depth field (blur effect) as shown in the photos below.

Advanced bokeh and Depth Control:

Whilst it is an effect, what is does well is it doesn’t just do a flat/blanket blur effect to the background whilst excluding the foreground.

It divides the image into different layers. Which means that the background is blurred more, but as you move towards the foreground, the blur effect gradually reduces in a very discreet sweeping motion, which creates more of a gradual/natural effect.


The following principle is applicable to the regular shooting modes also.

You can manually select what areas of the screen to focus on. Obviously setting the focus on the wrong part of the scene can result in a blurred subject as shown below.

But once you focus on the right area you can get the right shot.

To do this properly, lock the exposure and auto focus, just hold on the screen for two seconds and you will see the AE/AF lock indication pop up to set your focus point.

Portrait mode in motion:

I discovered this technique whilst running. Using the portrait mode for the front camera in selfie mode, you can take a moving photo in portrait mode without any retrospective editing.

However the light has to be soft and neutral. If your running like Usain Bolt, or it’s too dark or your facing direct sun light, you’ll just get a messy and blurry photo.

Low light:

The camera takes great photos in low light, as shown by these photos at the London Aquarium. In this case look to change the exposure when needed. To do this, use the focus square, to the right is a slider option for exposure, either scroll up or down to adjust the light conditions.

Street light:

In this photo I took it at evening under a street light. Experiment with external lighting to create shadows/silhouettes to provide extra depth to your photos.

Reflection and surfaces:

Use different environment surface environments to shoot through or shoot off, to create different effects as shown below.

Photo Editing:

Using the iPhones photo app editing feature is simple and effective. One way to add pop or drama to use the vivid or dramatic options below.

Other great external photo editing apps are

  • Snapseed;
  • Adobe have a series of apps such as PS express and lightroom etc.

Additional items:

Typically I run solo and don’t have someone taking my photos. Using the self timer mode I use the Kenu Stance Tripod which fits directly into the iPhone XS’s Lightning port. It’s versatile as it’s positioning options allows me to take both portrait and landscape photos. It’s small enough to act as a keyring which means it’s easy to take out whilst running.

To add more depth to your photos experiment with the different lenses range by bitplay INC. They offer Wide Angle Lens, Ultra wide angle + Macro lens, Fish eye, circular polarising filter etc.


I’ve got upcoming races in NYC and Peru this year, so I’ll be capturing photos of these events. To see the future iPhone XS photos check my Instagram profile @themarathonmarcus

The most important thing is to experiment with the camera and see what works for you. To get more inspiration check out great photos under the hashtag:


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