What even is “portrait mode”?

The other day, someone asked my photographer husband to take his photo in “horizontal portrait.” Naturally, my husband asked for clarification.

The guy explained, with some prompting, that he meant horizontal orientation but with the background blown out — in other words, with a shallow depth of field like you get when you use “Portrait Mode” on the iPhone.

That, of course, is not what “portrait” means to a photographer. Leaving aside the broader topic of portrait photography, when you’re giving specifications to a photographer, “portrait” means an upright or vertical orientation assuming a rectangular composition. (The other orientation, as you probably know, is “landscape.”)

But you are probably way ahead of me because you know that in 2016, Apple launched a now-wildly-popular photo mode for the iPhone called “Portrait Mode.” At least that’s what their product teams call it; all it says on the label for “Portrait Mode” is “Portrait.”

Which means that users who aren’t as familiar with camera lingo are left to guess at understanding what aspect of the photograph the word “portrait” is describing. And I would imagine for most casual users who aren’t familiar with photography terminology, it’s not unreasonable to associate the bokeh-like blur effect with the portrait mode.

Which means that to this person that’s what “portrait” means. Whether a photographer considers that a correct usage or not.

Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Apple has changed the meaning of the word “portrait.”

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