Archive for September 29, 2018

Saturday, September 29, 2018

iPhone XS Users Complain About Skin-Smoothing Selfie Camera

Juli Clover (via Dominik Wagner):

Over the course of the last week, the front-facing camera in the iPhone XS and XS Max has been receiving a lot of attention because the selfies captured on the new devices are drastically different from those captured with the iPhone X or earlier iPhone models.

In a MacRumors forum thread and on Reddit, Apple has been accused of using a skin-smoothing feature or a “beauty filter” for prettier selfies from the front-facing camera.

This looks exactly like what HDR does to some pictures of faces. It’s why I have HDR enabled but set to keep both the HDR and non-HDR versions. Sometimes HDR really helps, and sometimes it produces unnatural, plasticky results like this. I frequently have to choose between the photo where the background looks detailed instead of blown out and the one where the face looks detailed and natural.

I was initially willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt that Smart HDR was smart enough to prevent this from happening. Clearly, it is not, so there needs to be an option to turn off Smart HDR. There are reports that Apple is working on a software fix. I don’t want to see just a tweak to the Smart HDR algorithm. I want a way to disable it entirely.

The camera is one of the most important features of iPhone. If it’s not trustworthy, I will have to look into switching to Android. I don’t say this lightly, as I have little interest in Android, otherwise, and depend on some excellent iOS-only apps.

Previously: The iPhone XS and Its Camera.

Update (2018-09-29): I rarely use the front-facing camera, but I’m concerned because there are reports that the rear-facing camera is also affected (which would make sense if it’s a Smart HDR software issue.)

Update (2018-09-29): I do not have access to an iPhone XS to test this. I was writing based on reports like John Gruber’s:

The way I understand it, Smart HDR is basically applied to all images from the iPhone XS.

and Juli Clover’s:

Turning off HDR does not remove the smoothing effect, nor does tweaking any other camera setting, so if the ultra skin smoothing is a result of something like unintentional excessive noise reduction, it needs to be tweaked on Apple’s end through a software update.

However commenters below say that there is a switch in Settings to turn off Smart HDR. Christian Zibreg makes it sound like Smart HDR is on by default but can be disabled, though he also writes that it “is always on.”

So it’s not clear to me (a) whether one can fully turn off Smart HDR, or (b) whether the smoothing is in fact related to HDR.


iPhone XS does not apply a skin smoothing or beautification filter. What people see is an artifact of how differently the XS camera takes photos. We’re working on a detailed article explaining it in depth which will be out soon.

Update (2018-10-02): John Gruber and Nilay Patel talk about how Apple and Google’s phones shoot more natural looking photos.

Matthew Panzarino:

I apparently totally missed that there was a conspiracy theory about iPhone XS smoothing skin tones. That’s not what’s happening.

I explained it a bit in my review and to other people that have asked, but Apple is using a new (for the last couple of generations) type of noise reduction. I MUCH prefer this to the last iteration which I felt was too ham fisted.

Sebastiaan de With (MacRumors):

The only way to circumvent the laws of physics is with something known as ‘computational photography’. With the powerful chips in modern iPhones, Apple can take a whole bunch of photos—some of them before you even pressed the shutter—and merge them into one perfect shot.


People feel the iPhone XS ‘smoothens’ things for two reasons:

  • Better and more aggressive noise reduction due to merged exposures, and
  • Merged exposures reducing sharpness by eliminating sharp light/dark contrasts where light hits parts of the skin


The iPhone XS merges exposures and reduces the brightness of the bright areas and reduces the darkness of the shadows. The detail remains, but we can perceive it as less sharp because it lost local contrast. In the photo above, the skin looks smoother simply because the light isn’t as harsh.

Still unexplained: why the skin color looks so unnatural (as with HDR, sometimes) and what exactly happens when you turn off Smart HDR.

Nick Heer:

The rear cameras have large enough sensors and lenses that they are able to compensate for the higher noise created by faster shutter speeds through more intense noise reduction while preserving detail. When it comes to the front-facing camera’s much smaller sensor, though, it appears that the noise reduction is tuned to be a little more aggressive than expected, and it sounds like Apple is tweaking it.

Update (2018-10-03): John Gruber:

One fascinating development: RAW images are way noisier than they are on an iPhone X. Halide has a pretty good solution they’re calling “Smart RAW”.

Update (2018-10-09): Mitchel Broussard:

In an effort to combat the BeautyGate claims, YouTuber Jonathan Morrison posted a series of selfies on Instagram and Twitter over the weekend. In captions, Morrison said these were captured on the Google Pixel 2’s Portrait Mode, and asked his fans their thoughts on how the images came out, particularly if they were better than the iPhone XS.

Commenters said that the images rivaled DSLR shots and that the Pixel 2 was still among the best smartphone cameras, based on the pictures. Some even commended Google for producing high-quality selfies without the need for having a so-called make-up effect, and argued that the Pixel 2 had the best Portrait Mode of any smartphone.

After all of this, Morrison on Sunday revealed that both images were not taken on a Pixel 2, but instead captured on an iPhone XS Max.

Matt Birchler:

First, I prefer Apple’s handling of dynamic range. Even last year when the iPhone wasn’t as good at this, I liked how shots taken with the iPhone camera maintained more shadow detail than the Pixel 2. As I’ve said many times at this point, the Pixel 2 camera optimizes for drama, which means it often loses detail in the lower end.

And the second reason I stick with the iPhone camera is that the RAW performance is just worlds better than the Pixel 2’s.

Update (2018-10-10): Nilay Patel:

The iPhone XS camera is the rookie tailback who flashes tons of potential but fumbles the handoff and falls down a little too often

The weird thing is that it saw the face, but then apparently decided to prioritize exposing the windows? Look at the printer on the shelf, this is an HDR merge gone totally sideways

Dan Masters:

I’ve heard from several people on here that the iPhone X camera software actually produces superior photos, with some considering switching back.

Update (2018-10-16): Jason Snell:

This animation may give you some idea of the difference in detail between Smart HDR and non-HDR shooting on the iPhone XS.

Update (2018-10-24): Jason Cross (MacRumors):

According to Apple, the Smart HDR system is choosing the wrong “base frame” from the several exposures it takes and composites into a single final picture. Instead of taking a sharper, shorter-exposure image as the base frame, it chooses one with a longer shutter time, thus making the final composite image less sharp. This explains why the strength of the effect varies from one test to the next (as the amount of blur on the longer-exposure shot would vary), and why we see the problem on the iPhone XS but not the iPhone X (which does not have the Smart HDR processing system).

Apple says this will be fixed in iOS 12.1; going forward, the Smart HDR system will choose the sharpest frame as its base image when using the selfie camera.

However, this doesn’t explain the issues with the rear-facing camera.

Update (2018-10-25): Erin Brook:

This shot above brings me to the next new feature: Smart HDR. I shot the above photo with it turned on, and I can’t say I love it. For me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of visual difference when I’m shooting, and that very well could be by default. I almost always underexpose my shots so I don’t blow out the highlights anyway, but I noticed it did weird things to highlighted, especially white, areas. Take a look at the SOOC version of the forest shot below, and look at her shirt collar.

It’s FREAKING BLUE. I underexposed to try and get it to stop doing that, but no matter what I did, it came out blue. It took a lot of correcting in Lightroom Mobile to fix it, and that was the last straw: I turned Smart HDR off. Even with Smart HDR off, I’m having trouble with other white or bright things, like my cat’s face. I underexposed the image below, and again, no matter what I did, his face was blown out (look at the bridge of his nose to see what I mean).


I’ve noticed that a lot with this new phone’s camera, I have to underexpose dramatically, far more than with previous phones, to get hot spots to go away, and by then the rest of the image is too dark to salvage.

Update (2018-10-29): Mike Rundle:

Forgot to shave? Don’t worry! Selfies taken with the new iPhone shave your face for you! X vs. XR comparison. This is hilarious

Update (2018-11-19): Ryan Jones:

I’m officially certain iPhone XS takes blurrier photos. ANY movement at all and it’s a blur. What is that – shutter speed? It sucks.

I’m hearing Smart HDR is causing this ridiculous blurring. I’ll test it, anyone else citing this. It’s not tolerable... so Smart HDR becomes inept.

Tim Ruhter:

It is smart HDR you can turn it off in settings. All of the photos my wife took with her XR were worse than her 7 until we turned it off. I think it’s because apple just isn’t as good with computational stuff as google/others.