Tips for taking better iPhone photos

“iPhoneography”—iPhone photography—is a real thing, people. Photographers are shooting weddings solely with iPhones. The Houston Center for Photography is offering an iPhoneography course. There are about a dozen published books on the subject. And while I hate the term itself, I am now firmly on board with the iPhoneography movement. Why? Because when I’m hanging out with Quinn and I see him doing something cute (which, to be honest, is pretty much all of the time), I don’t have time to run and get my DSLR—instead I grab my iPhone, which is almost always nearby. And the iPhone—because it is so small and close to hand—is the perfect tool for achieving my goal in those situations: capturing the moment and preserving that memory. As they say, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”

And while an iPhone photo will probably never compete with a DSLR photo in terms of technical quality, I think the gap between the two is narrowing significantly. With the iPhone camera’s technical abilities improving with each new generation of the phone and the quality of post-processing apps likewise getting better, I now consider my iPhone to be a viable alternative to my DSLR in almost every situation. In fact, I took one of my favorite photos of Quinn and Ben on my iPhone and I had it blown up and printed at 16×20—and it looks great on the wall!

So in the interest of encouraging everyone to embrace iPhoneography (while shuddering at the term, of course), today I thought I’d share a few tips that will help you take better photos with your iPhone. I should preface them by saying that I always shoot with the iPhone’s standard “Camera” app—the one that comes pre-installed on the phone…

1. Turn off the flash. Never, ever shoot with the iPhone flash. Trust me, there is no shot that will be improved by a head-on, uncontrolled blast of light. The “auto” setting is even more pernicious than “on,” because then the iPhone surprises you with a blinding strobe whenever it feels like it, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. So the best thing to do is to turn that flash off. Forever. You do that by clicking on the lightning bolt button in the top left corner of your viewfinder and choosing “off.”

2. Clean your lens. Maybe it’s just because Quinn likes to chew on my iPhone, but for some reason there always seem to be fingerprints on my camera lens. So this probably seems obvious, but if you can remember to buff your camera lens (you know the one, on the back side of your phone) every once in awhile—I just use my shirt sleeve—your images will turn out sharper. And sharper = better!

3. Get creative with composition. Taking a moment to think about composition—how you are composing the shot—is one of the best ways to improve all of your photography, not just your iPhone photos. If you’re taking a portrait, does your subject fill the frame nicely, or are you cutting her off at the waist while simultaneously leaving a bunch of uninteresting dead space above her head? Or worse, does a tree appear to be growing out of her skull? Then get closer to your subject and recompose your shot. If you’re taking a photo of someone across the table at a restaurant, are there a bunch of water or wine glasses cluttering up the bottom of the frame? Then move your camera in closer or take a moment to move the glasses. There are treatises out there on photography composition (the “rule of thirds” and all that), but two basic principles that will improve your photography immediately are (1) get in closer to your subject, and (2) cut out visual clutter.

Once you have these basic principles down, the iPhone really allows you to get creative with composition. Why? Because it’s so small and light! It can squeeze into places and shoot at angles that would never be possible with a bulky DSLR. Hold it up as high as you can and shoot straight down on your subject for a bird’s eye view. Hold the iPhone down near the ground and shoot a portrait at an upward angle to make the subject look seriously imposing. Hold your iPhone out a car window or stick it through a fence for some really daring shots—just be sure to hold on tight! Notice how dramatically the composition of a photo can be changed just by tilting the top of your iPhone towards or away from your subject, or by moving the phone from eye-level down to waist-level. If you are thoughtful about composition and willing to experiment with your iPhone, you’ll get some really great results.

4. Expose purposefully. Exposure is another technical term that refers to the amount of light your camera allows in, which controls how light or dark your photo appears. Again, there are countless resources out there dealing with the nuances of exposure, but here’s what you need to know when shooting with your iPhone: Your iPhone camera (like any camera not set on “manual” mode) will automatically decide how to expose your photo based on the amount of light in the frame. If you’re taking a photo outdoors on a bright, sunny day, for example, your iPhone will automatically adjust the camera settings so that your subject is properly exposed and not “blown out.” At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re taking a photo in a dimly lit room, your iPhone camera will adjust its settings so that your subject is properly exposed and not just a black blob.

Most of the time you’ll probably be shooting where the light in your frame is pretty evenly distributed and your iPhone will make these exposure determinations without you ever having to think about them. But in a difficult exposure situation, when there are both very light and very dark areas in your frame—your subject is in front of a window, for example—then you may have to help your iPhone camera decide whether it needs to let in more light or less light. If you want the subject of your photo to appear brighter than what you see in your viewfinder, just tap the screen on an area that’s dark. Conversely, if you want the subject of your photo to be darker, then tap on a bright area of the screen. What you’re doing is telling the iPhone which part of the photo you’d like the camera to expose for. So now you have some exposure control over your images!

5. Stop camera-shake. We all know that to take a photo with your iPhone, you press the button that looks like a camera—the shutter button. But when you tap that button, you inevitably cause the phone to move a bit—maybe just a little, maybe a lot. In a good lighting situation, you might never notice the effects of that movement. But in a low light situation, or when your subject is already moving, any “camera-shake” at all can cause your photo to turn out blurry. But here’s a fun little fact about your iPhone camera that you can use to reduce camera-shake and get tack-sharp images: your iPhone camera snaps the photo not at the moment that you press the shutter button, but rather when you release it. So press and hold the shutter button for a second or two, compose your shot, and then when you’re ready to take the photo, just lift your finger! There’ll be a whole lot less shaking going on, I promise.

6. Take multiple shots. This is another tip that applies not just to iPhone photography, but all photography, and I’d say it’s probably the number one tip for getting great shots of kids. Don’t just snap one photo and call it quits—take several! And shoot them in quick succession. Facial expressions, especially children’s, change extraordinarily quickly and you don’t want to miss that heart-melting smile if it only appears for a moment. So always take a burst of photos. It doesn’t cost anything (that’s the beauty of digital photography) and you can always delete the duplicate or “bad” shots later. But when you have multiple shots to choose from, you’re more likely to have captured the truly great moment, and that’s what matters most—even more so than all the technical stuff. So shoot a bunch and pretty soon people will be wondering how you always manage to capture the perfect moment!

BONUS TIP: Look at good iPhone photography daily. This tip won’t turn you into an artiste overnight, but if you’re serious about wanting to take better iPhone photos, you should spend just a little bit of time every day looking at iPhone photography that you like—whose subjects or composition or lighting or post-processing or whatever appeals to you. You’ll then begin to emulate those qualities in your own photos—consciously or subconsciously—and your work will slowly improve. When I was just starting out with my DSLR, for example, I spent hours every day on Flickr, looking at others’ work. It not only gave me ideas for subjects to shoot, lighting situations to try, and post-processing techniques to apply, but it also helped me gravitate toward a particular style of photography that I eventually made my own. Flickr is still a great photo-sharing website, but the hands-down number one place to see today’s best iPhoneography (and share your own iPhone photos online) is Instagram. It’s a free app, so there’s nothing to stop you from joining, if you haven’t already. And to get you started down the wormhole of stellar iPhoneography out there, you may want to follow @theartofbasic, @cannellevanille, @arielealasko, @designmomblog, @nikyboomsnap, @stephmodo, @fawnandforest, @tarawhitney, and @sfgirlbybay—a few people whose Instagram feeds I find to be a constant source of inspiration. You can also follow me, @emilymccall, if you like!

I hope these tips inspire you to stop relegating your iPhone camera to second-class status and start treating it like a real, honest-to-goodness camera that is capable of taking great photographs. In a future post I’ll cover some of my favorite iPhone photo post-processing apps and settings, plus some cool things you can do with your pretty-fied iPhone photos to get them off of your phone and into your hot little hands. So if you have a specific question about post-processing iPhone photos that you’d like me to answer, let me know in the comments. Now get out there and shoot!

 

And check out the other posts in my iPhoneography series:
Part 2: The best apps for processing your iPhone photos

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