When a prominent YouTuber named Lewis Hilsenteger (aka “Unbox Therapy”) was testing out this fall’s new iPhone model, the XS, he noticed something: His skin was extra smooth in the device’s front-facing selfie cam, especially compared with older iPhone models. Hilsenteger compared it to a kind of digital makeup. “I do not look like that,” he said in a video demonstrating the phenomenon. “That’s weird … I look like I’m wearing foundation.”
He’s not the only one who has noticed the effect, either, though Apple has not acknowledged that it’s doing anything different than it has before. Speaking as a longtime iPhone user and amateur photographer, I find it undeniable that Portrait mode—a marquee technology in the latest edition of the most popular phones in the world—has gotten glowed up. Over weeks of taking photos with the device, I realized that the camera had crossed a threshold between photograph and fauxtograph. I wasn’t so much “taking pictures” as the phone was synthesizing them.
This isn’t a totally new phenomenon: Every digital camera uses algorithms to transform the different wavelengths of light that hit its sensor into an actual image. People have always sought out good light. In the smartphone era, apps from Snapchat to FaceApp to Beauty Plus have offered to upgrade your face. Other phones have a flaw-eliminating “beauty mode” you can turn on or off, too. What makes the iPhone XS’s skin-smoothing remarkable is that it is simply the default for the camera. Snap a selfie, and that’s what you get.
These images are not fake, exactly. But they are also not pictures as they were understood in the days before you took photographs with a computer.