TUTORIAL: Take Better Pictures with Your iPhone

4 years ago

The best camera is the one you have with you, a mentor once said to me, and I've heard it dozens of times since. It's the camera you have with you that you know how to use, and that you can easily share photos to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and your blog from. I mostly carry two cameras - my professional Canon DSLR and my iPhone 4S! I use both cameras for different reasons on the SAME day (at Disney World, anyone?) and I have to come to learn that using a smartphone camera is a photography learning experiment all on its own! Even though it doesn't have the same manual settings and complex lenses as a camera, you can still learn it to the best of your ability.

Here are my tips on how to get eye-catching photos from iPhone (or any other smartphone) photography.


Image: Tamara Bowman

Use your composition to tell a great story. Unless it's commercial work, people care a lot more about what the photo shows than what is technically imperfect about it. Taking an interesting image is mainly what photography is about! Use a simple composition without clutter. If you place your subject even slightly off center, it will enhance your photos. Give your photos some depth by moving off to one side instead of photographing your subject straight on. Get closer and look for details because when getting closer, you will have more control over the lighting of your subject. With smartphone photos, small details can be quite effective - make THEM your subject, and not their surroundings. Most importantly, the rules for photography don't switch from camera to phone. You can still use any knowledge you have of exposure, lighting and composition to take expressive photos. It's ultimately you, your eye, your knowledge and your skills that make photos worth looking at, and not the type of camera/lens.


Image: Tamara Bowman

When I touch on different areas of my phone's screen, the camera will meter the scene to determine the needed exposure. If I touch a bright area, the image becomes darker. If I touch a dark area, the image becomes brighter. Did you know you can lock the focus and exposure of your photo by pressing and holding a spot on the image? The little square will pulsate, and then an AE/AF lock indicator will appear on the screen. You can release when the pulsating stops and now the exposure and focus settings are LOCKED until you touch the screen again. The AE/AF locks allow you to manually pick one spot on your frame from which the phone's camera will take its exposure settings, and you can pick another part spot to specify which part of the photo will be the focus. If you are photographing a close up of a face, focus on the eyes!


Image: Tamara Bowman

Also, never use the digital zoom that activates with your fingers. Use your feet to move closer to a subject. If you use the zoom function, the quality of the image of your subject will greatly decrease. The image on the left was taken by moving closer to the stuffed animals. The image on the right was taken using the digital zoom. Which one looks better?


Image: Tamara Bowman

I remember the day I learned that I could connect my camera phone to my computer and import the photos into Lightroom and Photoshop, just the way I do from my camera. No editing can turn a bad photo into a good one, but your editing can enhance what is already good about a photo. If you are ever going to use a filter in your phone, make sure you adjust the strength. Most of the default filter strengths will be too strong and if you want your blog images to be unique, it won't help to edit them with the same filters that many other people are using. Get a full-on image editing app for your smartphone. Some great examples like: SnapSeed, Camera+, Photoshop Express, & VSCO Cam, will help you make reasonable adjustments to your contrast, sharpness and color. And if you dump your photos into an advanced editing software on your computer, it will help you begin or extend your own editing style. If your photo has too much grain or you are struggling to fix the color temperature, you can always make your photo black and white.


Image: Tamara Bowman

Stability is a pretty big challenge for iPhone photography. Use two hands, stand still, and tap to focus. Whether I'm shooting in landscape mode (more often) or portrait, I hold the phone with my left hand and release the shutter with my right thumb since the camera shutter isn't released until you remove your thumb from the touch screen. I also hold the phone out in front of me the same way I do my camera. If your phone has gridlines, turn them on! Also, did you know you can use your phone volume button as a shutter button? Try it! Not only that, you can use the volume buttons on your headphones as a remote shutter release, or to stay discreet when taking photos in public.


Image: Tamara Bowman

Smartphone cameras can be very frustrating if you're used to a "real" camera, or even if you aren't used to any cameras at all! The small sensors in an iPhone's camera cannot run at high ISO speeds the way a camera's sensor can without introducing a very large amount of noise, otherwise known as grain. You will certainly have clearer photos if you take them outside or in very well lit places. Avoid subjects in low light for photos on your blog. With the smartphone camera, you also want to avoid bright reflections, as they will force the camera to under-expose the entire shot or they will cause blown out highlights on the brightest parts of the frame. And it is nearly impossible to recover blown highlights in post-processing. You should also avoid taking photos that require tight focusing. Camera phones have very short focal lengths and are best for photos in which all of the scene is in focus.


Image: Erik Drost via Flickr

Lighting is key, with any form of photography. This absolutely includes phones, and in some cases, it's even more important with camera phones since you have less control over the settings. The quality of lighting can determine the success of a photo. When shooting portraits with your smartphone, avoid sun and direct light on faces because that can create harsh shadows and your subjects will be squinting. The small sensor in an iPhone (and many other smartphones) will handle the light of bright overcast, foggy, and open shadow day outside best. You can also use bright artificial light. An advantage to shooting with a phone -- and not a big camera -- is that it looks less intimidating and may cause your subjects to freeze less. Position them so that the light falls on them and not behind them. Bright colors show up best, and light and dark colors will lose details. Get close to your subjects with the camera and never, ever use flash! Using lens flare is a very popular trend and is definitely worth trying out. Silhouettes with flaring backgrounds can make for story-telling photos. The new iPhone 5 is prone to purple fringing, so you can cup your hand around the camera lens in order to make a "lens hood." This will cut down the amount of flare if the light source is out to the side of the frame.


Image: Tamara Bowman

Take great self portraits! Your blog readers want to see YOU, and not just what you write/craft/bake, etc. For the best "selfies" (as the kids say), try to avoid mirror shots, as well as taking your self portrait at arms-length. Mirrors can confuse the auto-focus mechanism in the camera phone. It's best to get outside for your self portrait and to get someone to take it for you! If you'd rather take it yourself, or no one else is around, most smartphones have an auto-timer feature so you can set the phone somewhere and get into the frame. Don't choose harsh or dark-lit spaces. Choose a clear and clean background. No clutter or distractions! Solid colored walls, skies, etc. Stay still and take a deep breath before taking your photo. Be confident and remember that you're in control, both as the model and the photographer. Hold the phone slightly above you as a very flattering angle, but try angles from all sides to find your best one. Be yourself!


Image: Simon Yeo via Flickr

Lastly, practice and practice some more. iPhone photography has a steep learning curve, whether you know nothing about photography or whether you're used to MUCH more complex and expensive cameras. Care for your phone and keep it dry. Clean your lens with a cloth because over time, it can collect lint and create a blurred image. Have fun! And blog those photos. They will turn out beautifully if you take some time to improve your "iPhoneography" skills.

Tell us any other iPhone camera tips you've discovered.

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