A few weeks ago, a friend texted me, asking for my tech editor take on what phone she should buy: the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus. My answer came easily. If you don't care about portrait mode, I said, go for the 8.
Her hasty response, Of course I care about portrait mode!!!, confirmed what I already knew from looking at the photos filling my Instagram feed: Portrait mode — the camera technique made possible by the dual lenses on the iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, and X — is a big (add expletive of your choice) deal. By automatically putting a foreground subject or object in focus and blurring the background, portrait mode makes anyone look like an advanced photographer. It turns a bouquet of flowers or cocktail into something that looks truly next level. This was, after all, the stuff once reserved for those with mastery of a DSLR costing thousands of dollars.
There's just one problem with portrait mode: You need the right phone to get the effect, specifically the aforementioned iPhones, the Pixel 2, or recent Samsung Galaxy models, each of which offers their own version of the feature at a price. Until now, that is. Instagram is democratizing portrait mode with a new camera mode within Stories called "Focus". It aims to solve the FOMO experienced by those who have suffered without portrait mode.
Rumors of the new function started popping up in March when some users noticed tests in the app and Instagram confirmed them today. In addition to those with an iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, and X, the new mode will roll out to anyone with an iPhone 6S, 6S Plus, 7, and 8 as well as select Android users. You'll be able to use Focus, which is located in the Stories camera next to Superzoom, when taking a selfie or using the back-facing camera for both photos and videos, the latter of which is not currently available with the iPhone cameras alone. Simply position your subject in the shot and let the software go to work, putting them in focus and blurring the background.
Overall, Focus performs pretty well. The photos shown at left were shot with portrait mode in the iPhone camera; the images on the right were shot with Focus in Instagram Stories. The scale is different, with the Instagram image showing more of the background, but it's otherwise tough to tell the two apart unless you look very hard.
In this pairing, taken in a sunny indoor space, the photo taken in Instagram looks slightly less washed out and you can see more of the background.
The photos here, shot in a darker space, look almost indistinguishable. However, you'll notice that some parts of the subject's hair in the Instagram image (right) are blurred along with the background, instead of staying in focus.
The same goes for her hair in this Instagram Focus selfie (right). Also, you can see from these shots that the subject captured in portrait mode is much sharper compared with Instagram. All in all though, it's a pretty good fake.
In addition to Focus, Instagram is rolling out a new @mention sticker, which it says will make it easier to tag friends. Snapchat rolled this out last week, and it made sense as there was previously no way to tag friends in Stories. But on Instagram it feels a little pointless, since this capability has been there all along with the text tool. If anything, this is bound to spur the "who's copycatting who?" debate again.
Still, Focus is the exciting part of today's launch and one that's sure to take over Stories, in addition to your Feed.
This post has been updated with additional photos.