Apple says the iPhone XS Max provides better bokeh on portrait mode photos, meaning the background blur is somehow improved and better-looking than before.
I couldn’t see a noticeable improvement in the portrait mode images I captured. However, I do think portrait mode in general is better than on previous phones. In the images above, the XS Max did a really nice job of not only creating clean edges around the flowers, but artfully blurring the background. Rather than just creating a uniform blur, the camera kept more of the foreground in focus.
I do think portrait mode photos look more natural and realistic than in the past, but I’m not sure if the “beautiful bokeh” is the reason.
Portrait mode works better on humans, not objects
I do have one caveat to the improvements to portrait mode, however: I found that the XS Max seemed to have a hard time capturing portrait mode images of objects. I tried on a few different subjects (a rubber ducky, a box of raisins) and had a really difficult time.
It was harder for the camera to find the sweet spot — it kept telling me to back up, and when I would, it immediately went out of focus — and the photos it was able to capture weren’t sharp, and often had missing edges or strange cut-outs.
This makes sense, to a point, since portrait mode is intended for human faces, not inanimate objects. And while Apple hasn’t specifically said anything about portrait mode on the XS, it has said that portrait mode will only work on the iPhone XR when you’re taking a photo of a face. Seriously — the feature won’t even be enabled until the phone senses a face.
And while the photos of the flowers turned out great, I seem to remember portrait mode working a bit better on objects on phones like the iPhone 8 Plus than it does now.