Capturing Photos with Depth

Get a depth map with a photo to create effects like the system camera’s Portrait mode (on compatible devices).


On iOS devices with a back-facing dual camera or a front-facing TrueDepth camera, the capture system can record depth information. A depth map is like an image; however, instead of each pixel providing a color, it indicates distance from the camera to that part of the image (either in absolute terms, or relative to other pixels in the depth map).

You can use a depth map together with a photo to create image-processing effects that treat foreground and background elements of a photo differently, like the Portrait mode in the iOS Camera app. By saving color and depth data separately, you can even apply and change these effects long after a photo has been captured.

Figure showing how iOS creates a Portrait photo effect using a color camera image and a depth map

You can add depth capture to many of the other photography workflows covered in Capturing Still and Live Photos by adding the following steps.

Prepare for Depth Photo Capture

To capture depth maps, you’ll need to first select a builtInDualCamera or builtInTrueDepthCamera capture device as your session’s video input. Even if an iOS device has a dual camera or TrueDepth camera, selecting the default back- or front-facing camera does not enable depth capture.

Capturing depth also requires an internal reconfiguration of the capture pipeline, briefly delaying capture and interrupting any in-progress captures. Before shooting your first depth photo, make sure you configure the pipeline appropriately by enabling depth capture on your AVCapturePhotoOutput object.

// Select a depth-capable capture device.
guard let videoDevice = AVCaptureDevice.default(.builtInWideAngleCamera,
    for: .video, position: .unspecified)
    else { fatalError("No dual camera.") }
guard let videoDeviceInput = try? AVCaptureDeviceInput(device: videoDevice),
    else { fatalError("Can't add video input.") }

// Set up photo output for depth data capture.
let photoOutput = AVCapturePhotoOutput()
photoOutput.isDepthDataDeliveryEnabled = photoOutput.isDepthDataDeliverySupported
guard self.captureSession.canAddOutput(photoOutput)
    else { fatalError("Can't add photo output.") }
self.captureSession.sessionPreset = .photo

Choose Settings

Once your photo output is ready for depth capture, you can request that any individual photos capture a depth map along with the color image. Create an AVCapturePhotoSettings object, choosing the format for the color image. Then, enable depth capture and depth output (and any other settings you’d like for that photo) and call the capturePhoto(with:delegate:) method.

let photoSettings = AVCapturePhotoSettings(format: [AVVideoCodecKey: AVVideoCodecType.hevc])
photoSettings.isDepthDataDeliveryEnabled = photoOutput.isDepthDataDeliverySupported

// Shoot the photo, using a custom class to handle capture delegate callbacks.
let captureProcessor = PhotoCaptureProcessor()
photoOutput.capturePhoto(with: photoSettings, delegate: captureProcessor)

Handle Results

After a capture, the photo output calls your delegate’s photoOutput(_:didFinishProcessingPhoto:error:) method, providing the photo and captured depth data as an AVCapturePhoto object.

If you plan to use the captured depth data immediately—for example, to display a preview of a depth-based image processing effect—you can find it in the photo object’s depthData property.

Otherwise, the capture output embeds depth data and depth-related metadata when you use the fileDataRepresentation() method to produce file data for saving the photo. If you add the resulting file to the Photos library, other apps (including the system Photos app) automatically recognize the depth data within and can apply depth-based image processing effects. (If you need to disable this option, see the embedsDepthDataInPhoto setting).

About Disparity, Depth, and Accuracy

When you enable depth capture with the back-facing dual camera on compatible devices (see iOS Device Compatibility Reference), the system captures imagery using both cameras. Because the two parallel cameras are a small distance apart on the back of the device, similar features found in both images show a parallax shift: objects that are closer to the camera shift by a greater distance between the two images. The capture system uses this difference, or disparity, to infer the relative distances from the camera to objects in the image, as shown below.

Figure showing how parallax differences between two photos create a depth map

Each point in a depth map captured by a dual camera device measures disparity in units of 1/meters, and offers AVDepthData.Accuracy.relative accuracy. That is, an individual point isn’t a good estimate of real-world distance, but the variation between points is consistent enough to use for depth-based image processing effects.

The TrueDepth camera projects an infrared light pattern in front of the camera and images that pattern with an infrared camera. By observing how the pattern is distorted by objects in the scene, the capture system can calculate the distance from the camera to each point in the image.

The TrueDepth camera produces disparity maps by default so that the resulting depth data is similar to that produced by a dual camera device. However, unlike a dual camera device, the TrueDepth camera can directly measure depth (in meters) with AVDepthData.Accuracy.absolute accuracy. To capture depth instead of disparity, set the activeDepthDataFormat of the capture device before starting your capture session:

// Select a depth (not disparity) format that works with the active color format.
let availableFormats = captureDevice.activeFormat.supportedDepthDataFormats

let depthFormat = availableFormats.filter { format in
    let pixelFormatType =
    return (pixelFormatType == kCVPixelFormatType_DepthFloat16 ||
            pixelFormatType == kCVPixelFormatType_DepthFloat32)

// Set the capture device to use that depth format.
captureDevice.activeDepthDataFormat = depthFormat

See Also

Depth Data Capture

AVCamFilter: Applying Filters to a Capture Stream

Render a capture stream with rose-colored filtering and depth effects.

Streaming Depth Data from the TrueDepth Camera

Visualize depth data in 2D and 3D from the TrueDepth camera.

Enhancing Live Video by Leveraging TrueDepth Camera Data

Apply your own background to a live capture feed streamed from the front-facing TrueDepth camera.

class AVCaptureDepthDataOutput

A capture output that records scene depth information on compatible camera devices.

class AVDepthData

A container for per-pixel distance or disparity information captured by compatible camera devices.

class AVPortraitEffectsMatte

An auxiliary image used to separate foreground from background with high resolution.

class AVSemanticSegmentationMatte

An object that wraps a matting image for a particular semantic segmentation.