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What Makes the iPhone 13’s Cinematic Mode Cinematic?

Jourdan Aldredge

Let’s explore what the iPhone 13’s cinematic mode actually offers, and discuss how it might be suitable for your film and video project needs.

Not to bury the lede here too much, but it might be essential to get this out of the way. No, the iPhone 13 (regular or Pro) isn’t going to be a better camera option than the majority of the digital cinema cameras currently on the market.

If you have a Panasonic LUMIX GH5, a dated Canon C300, or even the first iteration of the Sony A7s, please do not throw them away in favor of this new smartphone in your pocket *Insert smiley emoji*.

However, now that we’ve gotten that big, bold statement out of the way, there are certain situations in which this new iPhone 13 can rival using some other older (or more prosumer model) digital cameras—especially when you start utilizing the iPhone 13‘s new cinematic mode.

But, what is this cinematic mode, and how does it work? Let’s take a look . . .


The iPhone 13

Speaking personally, it’s been over a month since I upgraded from my iPhone 8 to an iPhone 13. It was time for an upgrade since my last smartphone was a refurbished purchase to begin with, but also because I precisely wanted to try out this iPhone 13 cinematic mode.

I, like everyone else, had seen the media blitz of commercial spots announcing this new phone’s cinematic capabilities.

You know, videos like this one:

There’s one thing to note about commercials like this, especially when it’s a product promoting cinematic imagery from a mobile phone. While the commercial, to a degree, looks more cinematic than you’d expect on most mobile devices, it’s essential to acknowledge that a content creator didn’t produce this for YouTube. This ad had an entire production team behind it with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Once you bring in professional lighting technicians and set designers, even what we’d consider the lowest quality DSLR footage in 2022 will look decent.

For example, this short film was from 2010 and was one of the pioneering shorts that helped kick-start the DSLR revolution. It was directed by Po Chan and photographed by Shane Hurlbut, ASC.

It’s hard to believe that this was filmed on the 5D Mk II and not a camera used for TV. However, professional craftsmanship will do that for you.

Therefore, take the iPhone cinematic commercials with this knowledge in hand.

Anyway, back to the iPhone.

As with every new iPhone version before it, the iPhone 13 also introduced several new video improvements and functions that are worth mentioning, including:

  • New design (and smaller camera notch)
  • HDR video recording with Dolby Vision up to 4K at 60fps
  • 4K video recording at 24 fps, 25 fps, 30 fps, or 60fps
  • Slo‑mo video support for 1080p at 120fps or 240fps
  • Dual optical image stabilization for video (telephoto and wide)
  • 28% brighter screen and Super Retina XDR display
  • New 6-core CPU with two performance cores and four efficiency cores
  • New diagonal dual-lens rear camera (with improved aperture)
  • Longer battery life

All of which basically culminated in this new cinematic mode offering, which Apple has marketed as “Hollywood in your pocket.”

But, what does that actually mean?


Recording with Selective Focus Control

Let’s start with the most “cinematic” part of the iPhone 13’s cinematic mode. By getting the most out of its A15 Bionic chip, and new and advanced algorithms, the iPhone 13’s cinematic mode basically brings selective focus and depth of field effect controls to your video production.

It’s essentially the photography portrait mode come to life in video form as you can either automatically or manually change the object of your focus while recording. You can either let the iPhone 13 auto-detect faces and objects, or you can tap on the person or thing (on the screen) you want to rack-focus to.

The effect, overall, is pretty cool, but also feels like just that—an effect. It’s not real, and it’s certainly not perfect. However, if this is something you really want to work with, I did find that the more I messed with it, the more valuable it became.


Working with the Cinematic Footage

Not only can you use this cinematic mode in real-time while recording video footage, you can also add it in after recording is done by changing your aperture after the fact.

I personally found the low f-stops to be a bit fuzzy around the edges and look quite synthetic, but if you keep your aperture around f/6 or above, it looks a bit more organic.

It’s also worth noting that when recording cinematic footage on the iPhone 13, you’re also not able to get the full 4K video footage. However, even with a cap at 1080p, it’s undoubtedly more “cinematic” and still looks fine when working with any online project.


Recording in Low-Light

I will say, though, of all the quirks and perks to the iPhone 13, it does actually shine the most when used in the darkest of places. (OK, maybe not the darkest of dark places for filming, but you get the point.)

With Apple’s new LiDAR Scanner for night mode, you can actually get quite useful footage at dawn or dusk, or in other typical subpar low-light situations—like shooting at a nice restaurant or in a dimly-lit apartment.

And, as another plus, when bringing the footage into your NLE of choice, the footage and colors hold up pretty darn well compared to cameras that I’ve used in the past.


Cinematic Thoughts Overall

At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m laying out any groundbreaking information by saying that the iPhone 13’s cinematic mode isn’t replacing your favorite digital camera anytime soon.

This topic has been well-tested by YouTubers a-plenty and most seem to agree that it’s a cool phone trick, but not quite where it needs to be for any serious video production.

That being said, and perhaps where I might differ a bit in my opinion of the iPhone 13’s cinematic capabilities, it has more to do with the cinematic possibilities. I think that we’ve certainly seen a shift in Apple’s marketing of their iPhone line from regular consumers towards more of a prosumer-focused approach.

Consider this: At sixteen, I was creating short films with a DV camcorder. I’d have killed for a device that shot anything remotely like the footage produced from the iPhone 13 on cinematic mode. So, while it’s easy to scoff at from a professional standpoint, it has its merits in that regard.

As you can see in these ad campaigns, and how they talk about the phone’s “cinematic” features, it certainly feels like this is a direction they’re serious about. And, while the iPhone 13’s cinematic focus and low-light features are a solid start, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple make even greater breakthroughs in these areas in future versions that might actually challenge your GH5s, C300s, or ALEXA Minis one day . . .


For more filmmaking advice, reviews, and insights, check out these additional articles:

Cover image via Apple.