With the releases of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro, Apple introduced Cinematic Mode, a new means of shooting video that allows you to smoothly rack focus and track subjects both during and after filming.

Is this the iPhone video revolution we’ve been waiting for? Maybe.

What Does Cinematic Mode Do?

Cinematic Mode provides smooth control over depth of field either while shooting a video or after the fact. In filmmaking, the term “racking focus” or “pulling focus” means that focus is shifted to one subject or object in the frame to divert the viewer’s attention.

Large view of the new iPhone cameras.
Apple

The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro models (including mini and Max versions) are able to use this mode to capture up to 1080p at up to 30 frames per second, in Dolby Vision HDR. Since the vast majority of cinematic productions use 24 frames per second (24p), the frame rate limitation shouldn’t be a huge concern, but higher resolution footage would have been nice.

Once you’ve shot your video you can use keyframes to add focus pulls at set intervals, effectively allowing you to focus on any object in frame that was acceptably in focus for the duration of the shot.

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Apple states that it has adjusted its autofocus algorithms to be able to intelligently identify and track subjects you might want to focus on too. You can take control of the feature simply by tapping on a subject or object in the frame. Tap again and the camera will track that object, with an “AF Tracking Lock” notification appearing on-screen.

Apple says the iPhone 13 will even anticipate subjects entering the screen, and automatically racks focus away from a subject when they perform certain actions like looking away from the camera.

RELATED: Why the iPhone 12's Dolby Vision HDR Recording Is a Big Deal

How Cinematic Mode Works

Apple has produced a short film called Whodunnit they shot using Cinematic Mode and that shows off how well the technology works. The results are promising, with fluid focus pulls that don’t seem to suffer from overzealous racking where the camera overshoots the focus point before pulling back and settling down.

This fluidity is likely due to the way Apple has implemented the feature using some software wizardry. Cinematic Mode makes use of both cameras on the back of the iPhone 13 (and two of the three cameras on the back of the iPhone 13 Pro) to create a depth map of the scene.

The iPhone then uses this data to simulate the desired aperture, creating a shallow depth of field effect provided you have enough depth in the shot in the first place.

Since the distance between the sensor and the lens in the iPhone is so small (known as the flange focal distance in interchangeable lens cameras), creating significant depth in the shot is much harder than with a comparable mirrorless or digital SLR. Cinematic Mode will hopefully help budding filmmakers get more convincing footage out of their smartphones.

RELATED: What Is Aperture?

Limited to iPhone 13 Models

Since Cinematic Mode is dependent on the diagonal camera layout seen in the iPhone 13 family, the feature won’t be making its way into older devices. As is the case with Night Mode in the iPhone 11, third-party apps may attempt to bring this feature to older handsets. In fact, the app Focus Live has been doing something like this since 2020.

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Missed the iPhone 13 announcement? Find out what else is new in Apple’s lineup.

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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