All four iPhone 13 models offer Cinematic mode. It’s easy to write this off as a cheap effect or just Portrait mode for video. But I have to say, after three days of intense testing, I am blown away by this feature.  

As a point of reference, I direct professional video projects and have access to a full production company and all of the equipment. That gear still has value, but for a camera in my pocket, this is some truly amazing technology.

Editor’s note: All this week, we’re taking a close look at the new iPhone 13 series of phones, focusing specifically on their photography and video capabilities. Click here to read our previous installments.

What is Cinematic mode?

At first glance, Cinematic mode is an effect applied to the footage that simulates the shallow depth of field effects of higher end lenses and cameras. That’s cool and useful. But Apple didn’t stop there.

The first thing to realize is that this is a live effect, so while you’re seeing it happen right on the camera viewfinder. Everything is fully editable. You can control the effect as it captures using multiple focus technologies.

Even more importantly, you can edit it after the fact. Yes, you can literally change the amount of the bokeh effect as well as where focus is set AFTER you shoot the footage. This is amazing stuff.

Are there any limitations? Sure. As of now, it works on 1080p video and at 30 fps only. Additionally you can’t use the ultra wide lens (only the standard wide or telephoto lenses). But to be honest, that’s not a big deal for most. Frame rates are easy to convert during the edit. And the flexibility to perfect the shot is going to make this a very popular tool.

Which iPhones support Cinematic mode?

Setting focus while shooting

It is incredibly easy to set focus while shooting. You can let the camera decide for you or easily choose between three different focus methods by how you tap on the screen.

Change the depth of field

In Cinematic mode, you can easily change the depth of field setting when you capture. This is very similar to portrait mode and you can use this option to have a shallow depth of field effect. Conversely, you can set a smaller aperture value and keep an extended depth of field with more in focus than the regular lens could often achieve.

  1. Open the Camera app
  2. Change to Cinematic mode by swiping the screen left or ride
  3. Tap the Aperture setting in the upper right corner
  4. Choose a value between f/2.0 and f/16.0
  5. Press the Depth Control (f) button again to close the setting and apply it

Remember, this is a fully editable effect so you can change it afterward. I tend to shoot at f/2.0 so I can really see the bokeh effect while shooting. But I can always edit it to taste afterward.

Leave it up to the camera

The iPhone is pretty darn smart when it comes to autofocus in Cinematic mode. It can recognize when a person looks toward a camera or away to focus between two subjects. It can also handle multiple people entering a frame and then intelligently guess where to focus. On the viewfinder the yellow boxes are what’s in focus and the white boxes are other options.

You can tap once to choose the initial object and let the camera try and auto follow the object. It will do well, unless the object leaves the frame. At that point the focus will likely stay set to the same distance and stay in a manual mode to avoid any unwanted changes.

You can also just take your chances and let the camera guess. It does a good job and you can see its decisions when you go into edit mode. Or just pay attention to the gold boxes on the screen. Plus if it gets it wrong, no big deal — you can fix it later.

Tap to focus

While you record, you’re in full control. You can simply touch the screen lightly to choose an object. Touch a new object and the focus smoothly changes. This is an easy way to shoot and lets you adjust on the fly. Again the focus changes are saved as editable keyframes in the video clip.

Lock focus

If you want to set the focus at a specific distance, just press and hold on the screen for the desired object or space. You’ll see a box appear and AF Lock to indicate a locked autofocus. This method is really useful when you want to pan around an object or scene and want to keep the focus set at the same distance. This can be useful when panning across an object or room. 

It can also be good in a really busy scene where the tracking becomes overloaded with too many choices.

Tracking Lock focus

The most amazing option is the AF Tracking Lock. This feature absolutely hands down is the best. Yes I’ve got options like this on some of my higher end cameras, but if it fails, the shot is ruined.

With the iPhone 13, the Autofocus Tracking lock is set by doubletapping a box or subject on screen. For best results double-tap an existing box to be more specific. Now as the subject moves, focus will follow them. To make this truly hard, I tested it under high contrast lights, at night, and with lots of motion. The iPhone 13 consistently delivered … with such accuracy that I found myself giggling for glee on a Friday night trip to the local outdoor mall.

On the chance that it failed, or I wanted to tweak things, the tracking is fully editable after the fact (stay tuned for my next installment). This edibility means there is no such thing as wrong or bad focus.