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At long last, pet portraits with background blur are possible on the iPhone XR

The new iPhones have some great new photography features, but the XR lacks a couple, for instance portrait mode for non-people subjects, owing to its sadly having only the one camera. So last year! Fortunately third party camera app Halide is here to help you get that professional-looking bokeh in your doggo shots.

There’s more to this than simply the lack of a second camera. As you know, since you read my article, the future of photography is code — and the present too, really. What’s great about this is that features that might otherwise rely on specific hardware, a chip or sensor, can often be added in software. Not always, but sometimes.

The future of photography is code

In the case of the iPhone XR, the lack of a second camera means depth data is very limited, meaning the slack has to be taken up with code. The problem was that Apple’s machine learning systems on there are only trained to recognize and create high quality depth maps of people. Not dogs, cats, plants, or toy robots.

People would be frustrated if the artificial background blur inexplicably got way worse when it was pointed at something that wasn’t a person, so the effect just doesn’t trigger unless someone’s in the shot.

The Halide team, not bound by Apple’s qualms, added the capability back in by essentially taking the raw depth data produced by the XR’s “focus pixels,” and applying their own processing and blur effect to make sure it doesn’t do weird things. It works on anything that can realistically be separated from the background — pets, toy robots, etc — because it isn’t a system specific to human faces.

As they write in a blog post explaining some of this at length, the effect isn’t perfect and because of how depth data is sent from the camera to the OS, you can’t preview the function. But it’s better than nothing at all, and maybe people on Instagram will think you shelled out for the XS instead of the XR (though you probably made the right choice).

The update (1.11) is awaiting Apple approval and should be available soon. If you don’t already own Halide, it costs $6. Small price to pay for a velvety background blur in your chinchilla pics.

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