Halide Does Deep Dive Into iPhone SE's Software-Based Portrait Mode

Though it is a budget device with a single-lens camera, the iPhone SE features support for Portrait Mode, enabled through the powerful A13 chip in the smartphone.


It is the first of Apple's smartphones to offer Portrait Mode photos created entirely with software techniques rather than hardware, which prompted the developers behind popular iOS camera app Halide to take a deep dive into how it works.

The ‌iPhone SE‌ is equipped the same camera sensor as the iPhone 8, based on a recent teardown done by iFixit, but its camera can do more because it's using "Single Image Monocular Depth Estimation," aka generating Portrait Mode effects using a 2D image.

As Halide developer Ben Sandofsky points out, the iPhone XR is also a single-lens camera with Portrait Mode support, but the ‌iPhone XR‌ gets depth information through hardware. That's not possible on the ‌iPhone SE‌ because the older camera sensor doesn't support the feature.

Halide has discovered that unlike other iPhones, the ‌iPhone SE‌ can take a picture of another picture to attempt to develop a depth map. The app was even able to take a photo of an old slide film, adding depth effects to a 50 year old photo.

A picture of a picture and the resulting depth map from the ‌iPhone SE‌

The ‌iPhone SE‌'s Portrait Mode is somewhat limited because it only works with people, which is due to the neural network that powers the feature. When a Portrait Mode image without a person is captured, it fails in various ways because it can't create an accurate estimated depth map.

The ‌iPhone XR‌ also limited Portrait Mode to people alone, and using Portrait Mode with other objects requires upgrading to one of Apple's more expensive phones.

According to Halide, depth maps on the ‌iPhone SE‌ (or any phone with Portrait Mode) can be viewed by using the Halide app and then shooting in Depth mode. Halide's full breakdown of the ‌iPhone SE‌'s Portrait Mode can be read over on the Halide website.

Related Roundup: iPhone SE 2020
Tag: Halide
Buyer's Guide: iPhone SE (Buy Now)

Top Rated Comments

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21 weeks ago


Could you have used a nicer pic? lol

She's probably the author's (Halide's) grandmother. Take a break, you'll be old too, sooner than you can imagine.
Score: 21 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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21 weeks ago


Could you have used a nicer pic? lol

As you wish. :)



Score: 18 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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21 weeks ago


This is wildly impressive.

Agreed - this is far more impressive than most people realize. The Pixel phones and the iPhone XR achieve this with a single lens by leveraging focus pixels to generate a depth map from available 3D information. The SE doesn’t have enough focus pixels for that, so it’s relying purely on machine learning, building a depth map from 2D information.

I’m surprised it was more cost effective to do it this way rather than just make the changes necessary to fit the XR rear camera module. That really speaks to the expense of retooling manufacturing.
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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21 weeks ago
Theoretically, you should be able to extract frames from a video, apply neural network from Portrait Mode on to each frame, and stitch it back into a video.

Highly likely iOS 14 will have Portrait Mode for video. Would be only enhanced with Lidar too. This will take cinematography on a smartphone to a whole new level.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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21 weeks ago


I had assumed the criticism was because the image is low resolution and blurry, making it a poor test image.

I‘d say the worse the quality of the photo (resolution and sharpness), the more impressive that it works.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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21 weeks ago


wonder if it works on pets... or if it will in the future

Hoping that no one minds a photo of me here, but I did a test photo when playing with my dog yesterday.

I'm not sure how the portrait mode works, but I was quite impressed that both myself and my dog are in focus.



Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)

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