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How to take shallow depth-of-field shots on an iPhone

You can achieve SLR-like results on your iPhone with free app SynthCam.

Focus on Han and Chewie and blur out the rest.
Matt Elliott/CNET

Do you wish your iPhone could sometimes act as an SLR camera, with its ability to capture shallow depth-of-field shots, where an object in the foreground is in focus and the background is artistically out of focus? If you'd like to create this bokeh effect with your iPhone, then check out SynthCam, a free app that takes short a video and then synthesizes that video into a photograph.

To set up a shot, tap the focusing square in the middle of the screen to focus it on an object in the foreground. You can also drag the square to another spot on the screen if the subject of your shot is not in the center of the frame, and you can enlarge and shrink the square by pinching. If you would like more than one focus spot, tap the 1 in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen (you can have up to four focus spots). When you have your shot composed, tap the record button and slowly move the camera to the right, left, up and down. Small red dots will track your motion, and a circular reticle helps keep you on target. Hit the pause button to stop recording. If you like the result, hit the save button to save the image to your photo library. If you don't like what you see, hit the arrow button on the left to try again.

When you start recording and slowly and slightly move your iPhone, red dots track your progress. Matt Elliott/CNET

The instructions say to record a scene for 10 to 15 seconds. I found that 5 to 10 seconds sufficed, and the longer I let the video record, the more the background blurred. And a note on image quality: the bokeh effect is undoubtedly cool to achieve on an iPhone, but the background looks more blurred than out of focus. Instead of slightly fuzzy, out-of-focus backgrounds, my test photos had backgrounds that looked more smudged and blurred.

In the app's description in iTunes, it mentions it ability to excel in low-light conditions, letting in enough light to create a decent shot if you focus on an object and keep the camera still for a few seconds. In my admittedly limited experience, I found the iPhone's native camera app to take better low-light shots.

Also, the app description makes mention of tilt-shift shots, where you can make a building or another object appear to be miniature by lining up two or three focus points along a line. Unfortunately, with the recent snow fall in New England and the sun shining today, it was too bright out this afternoon for me to attempt a tilt-shift shot. If you have taken tilt-shift shots with SyncthCam, please let us know how they turned out in the comments below.