One way to add some drama to your photos is to give them a cinematic look. And an easy way to do that is by creating a cinematic color grade in Photoshop.
Photographer and Photoshop expert Eli Infante shows you how in the simple but effective Photoshop tutorial below. In the video at the bottom of this post, Infante explains his color grading process to achieve cinematic colors in portraits using Photoshop.
He also shows you how three different adjustment layers can improve your editing: Curves, Blend If, and Gradient Maps. Then, at the end of the video he explains how to create a LUT (Look Up Table) based on the cinematic color grade that you can apply to multiple photographs in a series for faster post-processing.
“One of the first things we want to do is make sure we analyze the colors in the photograph before we start color grading,” he says. “And before we start the color grading, remember that it’s always a great idea to do your skin retouching first.”
After those preliminary steps, the first thing you do to create a cinematic color grade for your image in Photoshop is go into Curves and make a base color grade. The second major step is to work with the Blend If tool in Photoshop to make adjustments to the mid-tones of your image. And then finally, you’ll want to create a Gradient Map for your image to tweak contrast and toning to finish off the cinematic look for your photo.
In the 18-minute free video below, Infante shares his extremely detailed but clear process for cinematic color grading. So rather than go over every step in his tutorial, it’s better to see for yourself and try his Photoshop tips on your own images.
Infante is also an expert at making complicated photography lighting sound easy. You can check out his earlier tutorial on a fast four-light setup that produces stunning studio portraits here.
The video specs, both software and hardware, of the new iPhone have caused a bit of a stir as we have seen some impressive upgrades. It is clearly gearing more towards, if not professional videographers, then professional quality and features. But, how good is it really?
It usually is met with some confusion when I say it, but I’m not Apple’s biggest fan. I have never owned an iPad or a Mac and have never come close to buying one. However, earlier this year I was offered an iPhone 12 Pro Max for a better price than an Android equivalent and I went for it. After all, much of my distaste for Apple products was financial. I’m still not an Apple disciple, though I am certainly impressed with the phone and do not regret the purchase in the slightest.
One particular highlight is the camera, which for a phone, is superb. Now, through the release of iOS 15 and the launch of the iPhone 13, there is even more reason to shoot with it. The question remains, however: how good is it at filmmaking and higher-end shooting of video? This video, by Tyler Stalman, is a good exploration of that.
There are a lot of positives and negatives for me. The positives are the Cinematic mode which allows you to change focus and aperture in post, ProRes video, and the f/1.6 fastest aperture to name a few. The negatives are the Cinematic mode taking finesse to make it look realistic, Cinematic mode only offering 30 fps, and a lot of unwanted artefacts for example.
My opinion on the iPhone and its filmmaking capabilities is generally that it would be excellent for behind-the-scenes footage, perhaps some b-roll, and for an extreme run and gun setup, but it isn’t in the league of dedicated cameras quite yet. What do you think?
Real estate photography can be a great way of getting started in architectural photography, and depending on where you’re located, it could be a lucrative option for someone looking to become a professional. But if you really want to get paid good money for real estate work, then you need to consider offering video packages to your clients too.
While video walkthroughs with branding and graphics that describe the features of a house are a mainstay of many real estate video professionals, this tutorial is a little different. In this video, real estate photographer and videographer Taylor Brown explains how he shoots cinematic-style guided tours of houses with realtors.
Considering the distances people might have to travel to view a property and, of course, possible issues with social distancing inside a house, having a realtor take you around the house via video is a great way to make things easier for the client and any potential buyers.
It could also attract potential buyers that wouldn’t even consider buying a property if they have to travel too far to view it. While walkthroughs are extremely helpful and informative, having a human element along with a good script could swing a sale for some clients, so it would be a good investment for most realtors.
Brown’s video is thorough and will hopefully give someone food for thought if they’re looking to make more money by offering this kind of service, so be sure to watch the whole thing for some great tips.
If you want to learn how to photograph luxury architecture and real estate, be sure to check out our new tutorial with Mike Kelley.
For the past decade modern cinema has opted for the orange and teal color grade to provide a wonderfully cinematic feel, and thanks to the new tools in Lightroom you can turn your shots into cinematic masterpieces, too.
In photography, many of us are trying to achieve an image that resonates with audiences. We want something atmospheric that stands apart from the run-of-the-mill snaps that so many people take. One way to create that moody, cinematic effect is through the use of color grading.
Color grading refers to the technique used to stylize colors in particular images or videos. That is, to impart specific colors onto an image to alter its original make-up. That’s what I’ll be doing today in Lightroom Classic. Using the Color Grading tool in the Develop module I’ll be adding an orange and teal grading scheme that is so commonplace in contemporary movies. If you’re unsure of what that looks like, just think of films like Iron Man, Transformers, or Tron Legacy. If you still don’t believe me, have a read of this Guardian piece on the color grading craze.
Below I’ll walk you through every step to achieve the orange and teal effect in Lightroom and then show you how to refine the processing so that it feels even more cinematic, setting things apart from the everyday snap. This process works best with raw files so try your best to shoot in raw in order to make this effect work effectively. If not, JPEGs will do fine you just may not have as much versatility when it comes to color correction. I chose this shot of downtown Tokyo because of the bright lights, the gorgeous reflections, and the ton of color that appears all throughout the frame.
Start by Adjusting the Shadows
After importing my photo into Lightroom Classic I headed to the Develop module and scrolled down to the Color Grading panel. From here there are three color wheels that display in a triangle. The top wheel controls the midtones, and the bottom two control shadows and highlights respectively. To make changes to the wheels all you have to do is click and drag the selector within the wheel to change hue and color saturation.
I started with the shadows as I find it’s easier to build up a foundation of color before tweaking highlights. This works especially well in this image because my photo is mainly dark because it was shot at night. I clicked and dragged in the shadows color wheel until I reached a sufficient teal hue to the shadows, I didn’t want to saturate the shadows too much though because I still needed to apply my other color grades.
Next, Warm up the Highlights
Since the other prominent part of my scene was bright highlights I decided to affect this next. In the highlights color wheel, I clicked and dragged until my selector was far in the orange, towards the most saturated corner in the top-right. I did this because the highlights were a little weaker than the shadows and so to get the orange hue I needed to make them very saturated.
Control Those Midtones
I felt that the teal hue in the shadows was overpowering the image a little, so in order to correct this, I decided to add a little red and orange to the midtone color wheel. This lifted slightly brighter areas without subtracting from the cooler shadow tones in the frame. Notice how little I’m adding here, that’s because in this scene it has a big effect on how warm the over image is. By pushing it much further the frame would be mainly orange, so striking a good balance between the colors now will help achieve the best final result.
Blend and Balance
Now that I’ve got my color hues and saturation amount set in the color wheels it’s time to move to the sliders underneath. The blending slider will control the overlap between the three color wheels. The lower the slider amount (down to 0) the harsher the cut-off between the three color bandwidths, though it never becomes entirely harsh as there is still some residual overlap built into the tool. Throw the slider all the way to the right (100) and all three wheels overlap entirely, which provides a good soft blend but can become a little muddy for some scenes. In my photo I found a blending setting of 21 to be the best, it provided a good separation of tones between each wheel yet was still soft enough to make the scene look natural
The balance slider simply controls where the midtone range lies. Push it to the left and the midtones will be marked in the darker portions of your scene, and slid to the right it will control lighter tones. This balance is useful to manipulate the boundary between shadows and highlights as it is moved left or right. Since the shadows were already quite overpowering in this scene I moved the balance slider to 14.
Add a Final Curves Adjustment
Just as you would polish a piece of wood to finish it, so too must we finish our photograph to give the desired look. I decided that I wanted to enhance that cinematic, atmospheric effect even further by lifting the darkest sections of my scene so that the shadows were muted, giving it a matte effect.
To do this I scrolled up to the Tone Curve panel and raised the shadows point in the bottom-left of the histogram up slightly, held against the left wall of the graph. This changed the darkest blacks to a more muted gray but it’s important to remember that any change you make to the histogram’s control line will have a knock-on effect throughout the shot. My highlights were a little underwhelming now so I brightened them slightly by dragging the highlights control point in the top-right corner of the box to the left so that the line now fell more or less parallel to the original baseline in the box.
Once you have some experience with the color grading panel in Lightroom it’s relatively straightforward to recreate the orange and teal effect across almost any image. It can be a little tricky to stylize a selection of photographs together though, especially if they have very different lighting. But with a little tweaking and some careful balancing, it can be done quite quickly. Of course, it’s not just the orange/teal effect that color grading is great for, it’s also useful for some fantastic stylized effects for any number of color combinations.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to have great-looking lighting in your images and videos, you just need to know what sort of light you want and how to create it. In this video, learn how to put together a DIY overhead light, perfect for dramatic scenes.
Light is light. That tautology is an oddly helpful reminder at times when you gaze lovingly at some gargantuan lighting rig that costs the same as a car. While those lights will be effective and useful, if you’re on a tighter budget, don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re priced out of the sort of cinematic light you have seen on screen.
This video is by a fantastic videographer, Rob Ellis, whose YouTube channel is a criminally underrated resource for those interested in filmmaking, especially on a budget. Ellis has created some stunning work with seemingly minimal equipment, time and time again. This particular video shows you how to make an overhead light by combining canvas frames to create a large cube, black cloth to control light bouncing around, and then white muslin to act as a reflector. The result is akin to a modifier and Ellis bounces a focused beam of light off of the muslin inside the cube which is placed directly over the subject.
While this is aimed at videographers, photographers can really benefit from this sort of modifier. The light that results in using this setup is both dramatic and cinematic, opening up a lot of potential for darker shoots.
Cinematographer Lazar Bogdanovic creates still images with powerful movie atmosphere through harnessing the visual manipulation of cinema. Damien Demolder finds out more about the process.
Most of the photographers I’ve spoken to for this series have said that one of their principal aims is to convey some sense of emotion in their pictures. Their use of film is a key ingredient, but so too are colour, and the expression and body language of the person being photographed. In still photography we have to work quite hard to push our meaning, or the brave choose to leave the meaning open to the imagination of the viewer.
However hard we promote our ideas in our pictures we are, to some extent, reliant on the viewer picking up the signals, markers and hints that we lay out for them. If they miss those hints they may come to a conclusion wholly different to that which we hoped. Sometimes that matters, and other times it doesn’t.
In the cinema the same principles are applied to make the audience feel the way the director wants them to or to help them understand how the subject is feeling. The moving image however has the additional benefits of sound, music, subject movement and the movement of the camera to influence how the message is delivered.
In fact, with all these tools to hand, when they are used well, the captive audience can hardly fail to get the message, whether it’s a building sense of terror accompanied by pulsing baseline strings or a woodwind moment of airy romance bathed in a golden light.
Somewhere between stills and the movies sits the photography of Lazar Bogdanović, a cinematographer from Belgrade who has a passion for 35mm film and his Leica M6. Shooting his own stills on the sets of his movies, he employs all the manipulative techniques of the film director to encourage us to suspend belief and fall into the frame with his fictional characters.
Lazar takes care to find interesting locations with a strong narrative feel
‘There’s a big difference in the processes of shooting still images and of shooting for the cinema, but the basic ideas are the same. For both, you must plan how you will frame the shot, how you will create atmosphere and question whether the atmosphere you have created is appropriate to the story.
With movies though you can express emotions through the camera movements – but with stills you have only one frame. That’s a big difference. In cinema there’s a lot more to think about what with the movement of the camera and lighting that needs to work all over the set, but with stills you have to think harder to express the same emotion in a single frame.
In cinema there are three types of movement – the camera, the subject or actor as well as the way the shots flow together in the edit. In stills photography there is usually no movement at all.’
As a stills photographer I find shooting video difficult. I can imagine a picture in my head, think about how I’ll make that picture look the way I want it to, I can frame it up and I can shoot it. But that’s just one frame. What do I do next? I need 23 more frames like that to make just a single second of movie.
You have to think ahead for video – beyond that first moment, to the second, third and fourth moments, to how the clip will develop once you hit record. There is so much to think about.
‘One of the main differences in the process is that stills photographers are basically a one-man show and cinematographers work as a part of a team,’ Lazar says. ‘Gregory Crewdson is an exception, as he works like a director – with a director of photography and lighting technicians – so there is no absolute convention. Crewdson’s pictures look like movie stills as he shoots them that way and wants us to think that they are.
Mis-matching film types and lighting types can emphasise colours for effect
You can see this in the atmosphere he creates and the subject matter, but also in the approach to making the pictures. Some 99% of my pictures are taken on the set of my movies, so the art design, lighting and the actors are all prepared for a movie. I get my camera out and take my pictures on the set.
I find it very inspiring, and it’s interesting to compare my pictures with the way the film turned out. That’s when you can see the difference between the still pictures and the moving pictures. Because my approach is different, my pictures usually look very different to the movie. They are two different arts.’
A lot of photographers – and videographers for that matter – talk about ‘cinematic’ imagery, but it isn’t always very clear exactly what that means. ‘I try to emulate some cinematic ideas before I press the shutter,’ Lazar explains.
‘The picture must resemble a movie image, so you feel you are in a movie. I’m inspired by cinematic moments in real life – a rainy day, the magic hour, low sun – moments that are filled with atmosphere. My style is “documentary cinematic”, which is different from a straight picture – it can be the costume of the subject, the location, the lighting, but everything is stylised so it looks like a scene from the cinema.
The colours and atmosphere are really important, but it is also about recording a directed image that has intent. You must be saying something – the picture needs to have a message. You have to ask yourself ‘what do I want to say with these colours, with the way the actor’s eyes are looking, with this light in the background, with those people in the shot – what is the emotion I want to convey? And when I feel the answer in my heart I take the shot.’
Costume plays an important role here to give us a clue to the story
Film = cinema ‘Using film is a big part of my photography. Film is the only medium that tells the audience immediately “this looks a bit like cinema” – it conveys a sense of theatre and movie magic. It’s in our nature to associate film with cinema. I tried to experiment with film and digital side-by-side, but with digital photography I felt I lost the emotion that film brings. It’s hard to describe what is missing – it’s really hard to describe it. There’s a magic that happens when I use film that doesn’t happen otherwise.
‘I mentioned to the colourist who colour-grades my work that I couldn’t describe the magic that happens when I use film. He suggested we look at the technical aspects of film, and showed me a histogram from a film scan that we compared to a digital histogram. The film scan had much more sophisticated rendering of highlight and shadow areas – the trace was smooth, rounded and balanced.
With a digital image you get to see everything, every detail, but it looks like chaos – our mind just can’t render that much information. Digital images are made from 1s and 0s, but it is the process of how film images are recorded on the stock that makes it look different.
Of course, the photographer’s approach is far more important than the medium he is using, and I know other photographers who create cinematic images using digital cameras. The medium is just a tool, and it has to suit the purpose.
The double exposure effect suggests we can see what the girl is thinking
‘Average people can’t see what film stock you’ve used, or whether you have used film or digital cameras, but they can feel it. And that’s the catch. Normal people will know that they feel something. Digital cameras can show people what they would have seen, but film shows them what they would have felt.
There’s no doubt that you can shoot beautiful pictures with a digital sensor, but I think film gets you closer to the audience’s feelings and their heart. Human beings are analogue and we need to connect to analogue things for the sake of our body and soul.
‘We are familiar with old movies shot on film and we relate to that look – when we see it we know we are watching a movie. It’s the same in a way with vinyl records – the sound might not be as perfect as a digital music player, but we still like it and we make a connection with it. People find it easier to make a connection with these things.
That’s why there are labs opening up all over the world processing film. There are more movies being shot on 16mm and 35mm film now, and lots of music videos are recorded on film. When you see people shooting commercials with film stock you know the comeback is really serious! I’ve seen Lamborghini and Apple commercials shot on film.
‘Serbia isn’t part of the EU which makes film very expensive, so when I have meetings with producers they say “Come on man, no way” when I say I want to shoot on film. I ask them how much it costs to hire an Arri Alexa digital movie camera with some good lenses. Then we talk about how much film stock we can buy with that money. With that film stock we can make the same movie. There will be much less editing to do as we will shoot less, which is a good thing.
With film you have to think not twice but three or four times about each shot. Your mind is then forced to think more carefully about that shot and the chemistry begins to form the whole look of the movie. This is a great thing, because when you have expensive film stock you start to respect the value of production. You have to know what to shoot and what not to shoot, what shots you need and what shots you don’t need.’
Strong contrasting colours here make the subjects stand out
His pictures Lazar’s latest project really caught my eye. The shots are in a blue factory of a girl dressed in red. They’re astonishingly good and filled with atmosphere. ‘These were shot on the set of a short movie I am making that will come out at the end of the year. It is a passion project. The movie will be a music video with an element of retro/futuristic science-fiction.
It will be about ten minutes long, but has taken six months to shoot as we have to wait for good light and good weather. The set is an old factory in Belgrade that was abandoned after the war. It’s huge inside and very clean – and it makes a crazy location. It has conference rooms and its own theatre – all in the brutalist Soviet style, which dictated the look of my photography. It’s one of the best projects I’ve done.
Lazar’s team waited two days for the morning sun to fall in the right place
‘We wanted to create a kind of spooky scene that represents the underworld and we lit it with cool colours – to create a sense of darkness but without it being dark. We dressed the actress in a red dress to make her stand out from the cold blue background. The red also marks her out as the hero. The colours tell us a story – she is in an unpleasant place but she’s on the side of good.
‘The lighting for the background is all natural, which is the way I like to work. These pictures were taken early in the morning in the autumn when the light is cold and diffused. We shot only in the morning and the evening, and we waited for two days for the position of the sun to create the rays through the ceiling windows. We used a mist machine inside the building to catch the rays, and the effect was completely mind-blowing. The sun was in the right position for about 20 minutes, so we had to be ready and work really quickly.’
Lazar has similar themes in a lot of his work – depicting strong characters shot in a way to emphasise their strength. ‘The questions I ask myself are “How can I describe the feeling of that person with light and atmosphere? How can I show the audience what that person is feeling?” I do this with costumes, expressions, locations, atmosphere and body language.
As a photographer you must have some philosophy about what you want to say, but it is more important to think about what you are searching for and what you want to find. Whenever I shoot I always find something new.’
I’d never have thought to light someone outside in the daytime with a red light, but for one of Lazar’s pictures that’s exactly what he did. ‘I was always inspired by film noir when I was younger. Cinematographers in those days lit people outside with multiple lights as though they were in the studio, and in the studio they lit them naturally with bounced light.
Technically it’s hard to balance the exposure for the face with the background on a bright day, especially with a red light. So I made a tunnel of black cloth to shade the actress so the lights would show. I shot this on the Hasselblad with a slide film that has about 4EV of DR – just to make my life more difficult! But getting the exposure right means that the colour saturation is really strong. ‘Why is her face red? Because it makes the viewer think and instantly creates the thread of a story,’ Lazar explains.
A dynamic contrast of warm and cool colours build the beginning of a story
Delving into kit ‘For stills I use a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens and a Hasselblad 500CM with the black 80mm lens. The 500CM is small for medium format, has good mechanics and a lovely viewfinder. I mostly use the M6 though. I’m a big fan of CineStill film. They’ve done a great job. Some people complain CineStill film has an anomaly with glowing reds, but I like that. It makes the film charming.
There are some guys in Germany who run a film company called Silbersalz35 too. They are spooling real Kodak Vision3 into 35mm film cassettes, and they develop it for you as well – the ECN-2 process is very different to regular C-41.
Lazar’s kit, including his Leica M6 and the Hasselblad 500C/M
‘I like to use LED panels to light my subjects, but I like to use tungsten light as well because a lot of film stock is designed to be used with tungsten lamps. The combination gives fantastic skin tones.
Sometimes I shoot with daylight film and light it with tungsten lights – it gives a great result. It feels completely different from the look you get with a digital sensor when you shoot with the “wrong” WB. On film it feels much more balanced.
‘Six or seven years ago I had four digital cameras, 5TB of files and zero good pictures. I couldn’t work out what was going wrong. I was shooting too much and shooting everything, so I decided I needed to change something. I sold my cameras and bought a Leica rangefinder.
When I was at university I shot a lot of film and considered myself a film photographer, but then digital came along and it was cheaper and I didn’t have the money for film.
Lighting his subject with a red light outside has created a really powerful image
‘When I switched back to film I had to think more about what I wanted to shoot, and it gave me more direction. I like film because you can’t see the result immediately. The wait is magic, as I spend time thinking about the shots I’ve taken and wondering if I should have done something different. It’s important to have that time, and to imagine the pictures. With digital photography everything happens very quickly and we don’t always have time to consider. We need to take time for our art.’
Tips for new film photographers: ‘Take your camera and go and shoot, experiment, try everything and break the rules. There are no rules in film photography, there are no bad cameras or bad lenses – only art. Think about your art and go and shoot. Be brave.’
Making your images more eye-catching and appealing is almost always a worthwhile goal, but how can you achieve that? One way is to take pointers from cinema where such metrics are crucial to the success of a picture.
I have written a number of times on cinematic photography — particularly in street photography — and while it has a cult following, with me deeply embedded in that pack, it also receives a lot of animosity. It seems that many photographers do not like the term “cinematic” for various reasons. Perhaps it’s too vague, perhaps it’s overused; whatever the reason, I’ll unpack why I like the term so much.
Cinema has prided itself on color theory, composition, themes, and keeping the viewer engaged, among many other things. While not everything translates from cinema to photography, much does, particularly when it comes to the theory side. In any decent cinematic production, there is a team of people working on different roles to ensure that the post-production, colors, lighting, and so on, are perfect for their intent. We, as photographer, can certainly take cues from this sort of scrutiny, and to me, if a photograph looks like a still from a high-end piece of cinema, I think it has been successful.
Here are three tricks from a street photographer on how to get your images to look more cinematic.
Lighting equipment can be expensive, confusing, and cumbersome, but it doesn’t have to be. Some of the most interesting and enjoyable lights to use are much cheaper than studio strobes and can unlock real creativity.
The first light I ever bought was a Chinese brand flash gun. I was impressed with everything it could do and I soon bought some modifiers for it. However, I eventually found some limitations. A few years later I bought some cheap studio lights and the same story happened. Eventually, once I was a professional full time, I spent far more on some well-known studio lights and have used them extensively ever since. That said, these lights were typically key lights, and other than attaching unusual modifiers, I didn’t really love using them; they just did a job and they did it well.
My favorite lights over the years haven’t been these one-size-fits-all, easily modified strobes, but niche lights that I don’t get to use for every shoot. I have only used tube lights a few times and have loved each and every use, but they aren’t alone in unconventional lighting. I would also recommend small RGB lights which can dramatically change a scene and dictate the mood.
NiSi is known for developing and manufacturing a vast range of optical products for photographeres and filmmakers, such as filters and associated holders, and has also entered the lens market after it announced its 15mm f/4 Sunstar lens in early 2021. While not perfect, the lens marked a “promising start” for the company’s foray into lenses.
The company’s latest product, the Circular Black Mist Filter has joined the growing range of NiSi Cinema products and is designed to lower overall contrast, while softening and enhancing highlights to create what NiSi describes as a more “cinematic” feel to both videos and stills. NiSI says the result is a soft, pastel-like quality of light. The effect of this filter is most prominent when a subject is backlit by a strong light source, such as afternoon sun or studio lighting.
The company explains that the flaring of bright light sources creates an “ethereal” glow and softness which can be used to soften wrinkles or blemishes on the subject’s skin. The company argues that this characteristic of the Circular Black Mist Filter makes it a good addition to portrait or wedding photographers, cinematographers, street photographers, and even cityscape photographers.
During the manufacturing process, the NiSi says it has added a layer of “black specs” to the filter which are designed to diffuse and reduce the impact of highlights, while lightly brightening shadows which it claims delivers an overall balanced tonal range.
The exterior of the filter consists of a brass frame, which ensures that the filter is strong and also easily removable from lenses. NiSi has also applied its Nano Coating to the filter glass to make it easy to clean while adding an additional layer of scratch resistance to help protect it.
It comes as a circular filter with standard screw threads available in 49mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, and 82mm thread sizes. Effect densities are available in 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 for a choice of varying levels of diffusion and contrast reduction.
The company claims this filter provides little loss of detail across the image compared to traditional diffusion filters and, depending on the thread size, ranges in price from $65 to $109 on NiSi Optics USA website.
The iPhone 12 Pro is the smaller of Apple’s two new top-end phones. It’s built around the A14 processor and features a 6.1-inch Super Retina OLED screen protected by Apple’s new ceramic-enforced glass. There are three cameras plus a LiDAR sensor on the back. For selfies, there’s a camera with a 12 MP 1/3.6-inch sensor behind a 23 mm-equivalent f/2.2 lens, as well as a ToF sensor used for depth sensing to simulate background blur. This hardware appears to be shared across the iPhone 12 line. Read on to find out how the latest from Apple fared in our DXOMARK Selfie tests.
Key front camera specifications:
Dual front camera
12 MP 1/3.6-inch sensor with 23 mm-equivalent f/2.2-aperture lens
SL 3D ToF sensor for depth estimation
4K 2160p Dolby Vision HDR video at 24/30/60 fps, 1080p at up to 120 fps, gyro-EIS
Shooting selfies with the Apple iPhone 12 Pro
About DXOMARK Selfie tests: For scoring and analysis in our smartphone front camera reviews, DXOMARK engineers capture and evaluate over 1500 test images and more than 2 hours of video both in controlled lab environments and in natural indoor and outdoor scenes, using the camera’s default settings. This article is designed to highlight the most important results of our testing. For more information about the DXOMARK Selfie test protocol, click here.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro
With an overall score of 98 points, the iPhone 12 Pro lands just below the top five scorers in our selfie database. It’s a good performance and a significant improvement over the iPhone 11 Pro Max we tested last year.
Its Photo score of 101 results from fairly even performance across the board. Exposure is generally accurate, though dynamic range leaves a little to be desired. Skin tones are nicely rendered, despite the occasional color cast. Detail is high, though noise is a bit more present than ideal. The phone’s simulated bokeh mode works well with the help of the front-facing ToF sensor.
The iPhone 12 Pro captures plenty of detail and nice skin tones, though a slight green-yellow cast is visible here.
The lens is fixed-focus, with reasonably good depth of field, though subjects farther from the phone will look a little soft. The least impressive performance category is flash: whether in mixed lighting or darkness, photos lit by the phone’s screen are underexposed and have low detail.
Subjects farther from the phone are slightly out of focus.
The iPhone 12 Pro’s front camera scores a strong 93 in our video testing, only a few points off the pace from the best we’ve seen. Dynamic range is wide, exposure is accurate, white balance is generally correct, detail levels are high, and artifacts are minimal. Stabilization leaves a bit of room for improvement, as it introduces some residual movement, and noise is more visible than is ideal in lower lighting conditions, but none of this should be enough to dissuade mobile photographers interested in selfie videos.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, outdoor video
Photo scores explained
The iPhone 12 Pro achieves a Photo score of 101, a top-ten performance in our database. We calculate the Photo score from analyses of tests that examine different aspects of a device’s still-image performance under different lighting conditions. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at these image quality sub-scores, analyzing some aspects of the phone versus its key competition.
Exposure and Contrast
The iPhone 12 Pro generally delivers accurate exposure, although strong backlighting occasionally leads to some underexposure. Exposure remains fairly accurate in the lab down to very low light levels and is quite a bit better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s in the darkest testing conditions. The iPhone 12 Pro exposure is also very consistent across a series of shots of the same subject.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, accurate face exposure
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, accurate face exposure
Huawei P40 Pro, accurate face exposure
The only real complaint here is limited dynamic range when compared to the best of the competition, as you’re likely to see some highlight clipping in challenging scenes.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, highlight clipping in background
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, highlight clipping in background
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, no clipping in background
The iPhone 12 Pro’s color score is on the edge of the top ten performers in our database, and is an improvement over its predecessor. Skin tones are generally pleasant, and in the examples below, we see the improvement relative to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, with the 12 Pro providing a nicely saturated and somewhat healthier look to the subject’s skin. The Samsung S20 Ultra also does a very nice job.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, nice skin tones
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, slightly cooler skin tones
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, nice skin tones
Our testers noted some white balance casts, typically yellow-green in color, and occasional stumbles in skin tone rendering. This usually happens in scenes with strong backlighting, but in the example below it emerges under fairly unchallenging conditions. The Huawei and Samsung achieve a more natural look.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, yellowish cast
Huawei P40 Pro, more natural color
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, more natural color
The iPhone 12 Pro earns the second-highest score we’ve recorded for stills focus in a front camera. This is impressive, especially since the phone has a fixed-focus lens: clearly, Apple has done a good job of juggling the inherent tradeoffs in this design to deliver a strong performance. As we see in the chart below, the iPhone is optimized for the 30 to 90 cm range, and starts getting a little soft at 120 cm.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, acutance versus subject distance analysis, acceptable focus across all subject distances
Real-world results back up these measurements. Up close, the iPhone’s images are as sharp as the output of the two reference phones, both of which have autofocus.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, focus at 30 cm
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, crop, good detail
Huawei P40 Pro, focus at 30 cm
Huawei P40 Pro, crop, good detail
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, focus at 30 cm
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, crop, good detail
When using a selfie stick, sharpness drops a bit compared to the better implementations of autofocus. In group selfies, people farther from the camera may also be soft, but at least with the fixed-focus lens, there’s no question about which face an AF system has selected.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, selfie stick focus
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, crop, slightly soft
Huawei P40 Pro, selfie stick focus
Huawei P40 Pro, crop, in focus (but loss of detail)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, selfie stick focus
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, crop, sharp
The iPhone 12 Pro’s front camera captures a lot of detail, earning a very good texture score (though a few phones do exceed it). In our lab measurements, acutance results are remarkably flat from bright light down to near darkness — quite impressive, and much better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Texture comparison analysis by lighting condition
In the example below, it’s clear that the iPhone records at least as much detail as most people would want in a closeup of their face. It’s a noticeable improvement over the older iPhone, and roughly equivalent to the P40 Pro’s output (that phone also earned a 72 for this sub-score), although the Huawei’s rendition is quite different.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, outdoor detail
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, crop, very high detail
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, outoor detail
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, crop, very high detail
Huawei P40 Pro, outdoor detail
Huawei P40 Pro, crop, very high detail
Apparently all that detail is due to taking a light hand towards noise reduction, as the iPhone 12 Pro’s noise numbers are less impressive. In the chart below we see that while noise is fairly well controlled under the brightest conditions, the iPhone can‘t quite keep up with the class-leading Huawei, and noise jumps quite a bit below 100 lux (though under the dimmest condition, the new iPhone bests its predecessor). In general practice, though, noise is fine-grained and even, and not overly intrusive.
Visual noise comparison analysis by lighting condition
Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G
Image artifacts are well controlled on the iPhone 12 Pro. The selfie camera lost the most points in objective testing for ringing (from oversharpening) and for softness towards the edges of the frame. Perceptual testing flagged some anamorphic distortion, most noticeable when a face is near the edge of the frame and typical of wide-angle lenses. Our testers also noticed some color quantization and hue shift, but these issues shouldn’t be too problematic.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, outdoor group
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, crop, anamorphic distortion
Like nearly all phones, the iPhone 12 Pro can use its screen as a flash to light selfie shots, but its performance here leaves a lot to be desired. Exposure tends to be low and vignetting is extreme, with very strong light fall-off towards the edges of the frame. In both darkness and mixed lighting, detail is low and noise is high. Output is at least consistent, but this is not a mode of use well-suited to this phone. In the examples below, taken under 5 lux tungsten lighting to simulate dark indoor conditions, the iPhone’s shortcomings are evident.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, flash with 5 lux lighting, underexposure
Huawei P40 Pro, flash with 5 lux lighting, good exposure on face
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, flash with 5 lux lighting, good exposure on face
The iPhone 12 Pro does a very good job of simulating shallow depth of field with its portrait mode, tying the Huawei P40 Pro for first place in this sub-score. It seems that Apple is putting that front-facing ToF sensor to good use, since edge artifacts are sometimes visible but fairly minor. The blur effect is quite strong and natural-looking, with a realistic blur gradient. Skin tones are nicely rendered and there’s plenty of detail in the face — not a given even in some high-end phones. Noise is consistent across blurred and in-focus areas, which helps preserve the illusion. Background highlights aren’t quite as contrasty as they could be, but this is a minor quibble.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, bokeh in Portrait mode
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, crop, excellent depth estimation
Huawei P40 Pro, bokeh in Portrait mode
Huawei P40 Pro, crop, excellent depth estimation
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, bokeh in Portrait mode
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, crop, very good depth estimation
Video scores explained
The iPhone 12 Pro front camera achieves a Video score of 93 points, improving over the 11 Pro Max by three points and missing the top score (shared by the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and Asus ZenFone 7 Pro for now) by the same amount. It joins a scrum of competition with the same score: the Asus ZenFone 6, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 5G, and the Huawei Nova 6 5G. Its Video sub-scores are as follows: Exposure (79), Color (80), Focus (87), Texture (72), Noise (65), Artifacts (89), and Stabilization (78).
We tested the 12 Pro at 4K 30 fps with Dolby Vision HDR turned on, the settings that give the best results. Dolby Vision allows the phone to capture and display high dynamic range scenes more accurately, but it requires a compatible display to be viewed at best advantage.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, HDR video scene
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, HDR video scene
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, HDR video scene
The iPhone 12 Pro’s front video performance is generally strong. Dynamic range is indeed quite wide, nicely preserving highlights and shadows even in scenes with high brightness, though testers noted some instability in tone mapping. Exposure is accurate. Skin tones are nicely rendered and white balance is generally correct. Artifacts are well controlled. Detail levels are high in bright light, though they fall a bit when things get dim.
The chart below tells the story of the detail levels in the iPhone’s 4K front camera videos, which start at an excellent 90% acutance in bright light but have dropped precipitously by 100 lux (normal indoor conditions). From there the slope of degradation flattens a bit, so that at 10 lux the iPhone 12 Pro is comparable to the Huawei (itself an admirable video performer), and by a near-dark 1 lux actually betters it. The Samsung reference device remains above the fray as soon as the lights drop from bright 1000 lux levels.
As with stills, noise runs rather high in video output as soon as light levels drop. In the chart below we see that when the light dips, the iPhone’s noise levels climb and are generally higher than the reference devices down to 1 lux (just briefly undercutting the Huawei at 20 lux). The Samsung does a better job over most of the range after trading places with the Apple at 1000 lux, though the differences are not as stark perceptually as in the texture chart.
Given the camera’s fixed-focus lens, there are no problems with focusing stability or hunting. The electronic stabilization is reasonably effective but does introduce residual movement effects, especially when walking.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro, outdoor video
Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, outdoor video
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, outdoor video
The iPhone 12 Pro’s front camera holds its own, though it’s not quite in the same league as the best we’ve tested. There’s a lot of hardware innovation happening in front cameras, and with its fixed-focus lens and small sensor, the iPhone’s camera module does not look particularly cutting-edge on paper. However, that ToF sensor is an ace up its sleeve, and Apple has clearly done a lot to extract as much performance from the camera as possible, with largely satisfying results.
Shooting stills, the iPhone does well with the basics, with accurate exposure, nice colors, and lots of detail across all lighting conditions. Heavy users of portrait mode will appreciate the convincingly simulated shallow depth of field in portraits, helped by the ToF sensor. Noise is higher than ideal, though, and if you like to take selfies in extremely low light levels, you need to know that flash performance is poor.
Video is also strong, especially if you have a way to play back the Dolby HDR videos that the front camera can capture. Dynamic range is wide, exposure and color are accurate, and detail is excellent in bright light, though it drops quite a bit when the lights dim. Noise starts admirably low in bright light but rises sharply as the lights drop.
Overall, the iPhone 12 Pro features a very capable but not category-defining selfie camera. Considered as part of the whole, the great majority of users should be happy with it.
Exposure on faces generally accurate
Pleasant skin tone rendering
High detail in bright to normal indoor conditions
Noise on in-focus subjects well controlled in bright light
Accurate depth estimation in bokeh mode
Wide dynamic range in videos
Accurate white balance in videos
Highly detailed videos in bright light
Few artifacts in videos
Noise visible in background
Occasional white balance casts
Clipping in high dynamic range scenes for stills
Fixed focus leaves more distant subjects blurry
Exposure is low in flash mode
Residual motion effects when walking
High noise in videos at lower light levels
A note about image formats for this review: The Apple iPhone 12 Pro records photographs in the DCI-P3 color space, which Apple displays also use. DCI-P3 is newer and larger than the sRGB color space that most devices use, so to ensure that the images we used in the review display properly on a wide variety of browsers and devices, we converted the originals from DCI-P3 to sRGB. This can slightly reduce the richness of color in some cases from what you would see when viewing the original images on a DCI-P3-calibrated display with appropriate software. We also captured the original images using the new HEIF (High-Efficiency Image Format), but then converted them to very high-quality JPEGs for viewing in standard browsers and image editing software. (HEIF is very similar to JPEG, but provides better compression for similar image quality, so the conversion makes the sample image file sizes larger than they were when shot.)
We uploaded the iPhone 12 Pro HDR videos that use HLG Dolby Vision technology to Youtube without alteration. We recommend watching them on a compatible display for the best experience. This said, YouTube processing may alter the video quality, which is out of our control.
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