The iPhone is known for its simple and straightforward user interface. In fact, Steve Jobs took great pride in the fact that Apple products never ship with a user manual. And while anyone can pick up the iPhone and start taking photos, there are some essential, but not necessarily obvious tricks, inside the camera app that every iPhone photographer should know. If you’re serious about improving your iPhone photography, you should definitely master these nine great features.
There are a lot of features in the iPhone camera app and some are more useful than others. The goal of this post is not to provide a complete overview of the camera app features, but to highlight some key functionality that every serious iPhone photographer should know about.
1. Swipe Up For Quick Access
How often have you seen a great moment unfold in front of your eyes, only to realize that it’s gone by the time you’re ready to take a picture? While that happens to all of us, you can improve your chances of taking the perfect shot if you know how to access the camera quickly.
The fastest and most convenient way to access the camera is from lock screen. Do you see the camera icon at the bottom right corner in the screenshot above?
Just swipe up from there and you’ll open the camera immediately – you don’t even need to enter your passcode if the iPhone is locked! With this trick you can literally start shooting in less than a second!
But what if you’re already using the iPhone and you need to quickly access the camera? Just swipe up from the bottom of the screen, which will open the control center as shown below.
From here all you need to do is tap the camera icon and you’re ready to shoot!
2. Turn On The Grid
The grid – which consists of two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the screen into three equal parts – is one of the most useful photography tools on the iPhone.
To turn on the grid, go to the Settings app, scroll down to Photos & Camera, and make sure the Grid slider is turned on.
3. Shoot In Burst Mode
The burst mode is one of the most useful shooting features inside the iPhone’s camera app. To activate burst mode simply hold down the shutter button for half a second or longer, and the iPhone will start taking photos one after another.
On iPhone 6 and 5s you can get as many as 10 photos per second, while on the other iPhones you’ll get slightly less.
The burst mode is useful whenever there’s any movement or unpredictability inside the scene. It’s nearly impossible to catch the perfect moment of a child playing or a flock of seagulls surrounding a person, which is why the burst mode is a great tool for getting the moment exactly right.
I also like to use burst mode to capture the movement of people. As humans walk they go through different stages, and the brief moment when the forward foot is about to hit the ground usually looks best in photos.
Since your subjects move their feet rather quickly, burst mode can be a great tool for capturing that magical moment.
4. Set Focus and Exposure
If you don’t set focus and exposure, the iPhone will do that for you. Most of the time it does a fairly good job. After all, that’s how most iPhone users take all their photos.
However, there are times when autofocus fails and your photos end up blurred. For this reason I almost always set focus and exposure manually to make sure that my photos are sharp. Let me show you how that works!
This shot of a ping-pong table has a very distinct foreground and background, and the foreground has significantly less light than the background.
In this case I tapped the screen where the pingpong ball is, which set the focus and exposure on the ball. The background is now overexposed (too bright) and out of focus.
Now, what happens if you set focus and exposure for the background? The background is now in focus and properly exposed, while the foreground is underexposed and out of focus.
Do you see how big of a difference that is? Get in the habit of setting focus and exposure to take full control of the photos you take. In most cases tapping the screen where your main subject is will do the trick, but feel free to experiment!
Sometimes, when you set focus and exposure by tapping on the screen, the exposure doesn’t look quite right. The image may appear under-exposed (too dark) or over-exposed (too bright). In these cases you can manually adjust the exposure before taking the photo.
After you’ve tapped on the screen to set focus and exposure, simply swipe up or down to alter the exposure manually. You’ll see the exposure slider with a sun icon appear. Swipe up to make the image brighter or down to make the image darker.
5. Lock Focus And Exposure
Besides setting focus and exposure, the iPhone also allows you to lock them. Simply tap the screen where you want to set focus and exposure, but instead of releasing your finger, hold it down for a couple of seconds. A larger square will appear where your finger is along with a yellow AE/AF LOCK sign.
Now no matter what happens inside the frame or how you move the iPhone, the focus and exposure will remain unchanged and autofocus will be effectively disabled. Here’s what happens as I move the iPhone further from the subject.
Now, why would you want to lock focus and exposure? Whenever there are significant changes inside the frame, the iPhone will automatically adjust focus and exposure for you.
If you’ve already set focus and exposure and a person walks through the scene, the iPhone will automatically readjust, but this adjustment takes time and any photos you take during that time will likely be blurred.
Even worse, the way you set focus and exposure will be lost and you’ll have to start all over, which is why I often like to lock focus and exposure when I’m expecting movement in the scene.
This is very useful in street photography, where you can set focus and exposure in advance and wait for a person to pass through the frame.
6. Take HDR Photos
HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is another great photography tool that’s built into the camera of your iPhone.
While there’s a lot to say about HDR photography with the iPhone, what you really need to know is that it combines three different exposures of the same photo to create one better-exposed image. Let me show you an example.
The photo above, which was shot with the iPro telephoto lens, doesn’t use HDR. Below is the HDR version of the exact same photo.
Pay attention to all the additional detail in the clouds, the brighter colors throughout the frame, and all the extra detail in the darker greenery in the foreground. This photo clearly demonstrates why I almost always leave HDR on in landscape photography.
However, there are some downsides to HDR, particularly when it comes to photos of movement. Since HDR is essentially a blend of three sequentially captured photos, you may sometimes encounter “ghosts” if the scene is changing rapidly. HDR photos also take longer to capture, and this difference is more pronounced on older iPhones.
It’s also important to mention that non-HDR photos will sometimes look better than HDR ones, which is why it’s important to save both versions of the photo. To make sure that both version are saved, go to Settings > Photos & Camera, and make sure that Keep Normal Photo is turned on.
You can find the HDR setting on the left side of the camera app. Tapping on HDR gives you three options: Auto, On or Off. In general, I like to use HDR for all landscape photos and when the sky takes up a large part of the image. In other cases I keep HDR off.
7. Take Photos With Volume Buttons
Have you ever missed the iPhone’s tiny on-screen shutter button? If so, switch to using the volume buttons on the side of your iPhone!
Either of these buttons can also be used for shutter release, and the tactile feedback you get from pressing a real button is definitely much more satisfying than pressing a digital button. Additionally, this allows you to hold the iPhone in two hands, exactly like you’d hold a traditional digital camera.
The one downside of this approach is that you have to press the volume button quite hard, which can result in camera shake. For this reason I don’t recommend using the volume buttons on the side of your iPhone in low light situations.
8. Take Photos With Your Apple Headphones
Remember those white Apple headphones you got when you bought your iPhone? They also have volume buttons, and you can use these buttons to take pictures!
This feature is incredibly useful when you want to take photos of people you don’t know as you can just pretend to be listening to music or making a call while you’re actually taking photos.
I also like to use the headphones when I shoot with a tripod. Since I don’t even have to touch the iPhone, this is a great way to minimize unintentional camera movement.
In fact, I even cut the cord of an old pair of Apple headphones right after the volume control to create a dedicated remote shutter release!
9. Use Geotagging… Only If You Want To
When you enable geotagging, you’ll always know where you took a particular photo. Can’t remember where you took that incredible landscape photo years ago? Now it’s no longer a problem since the iPhone saves that information for you.
This data can be used to display your iPhone photos on a map using software like iPhoto or Picasa, which over time will turn into an exciting database of places you’ve visited over the years. And if you ever need to find all the photos that you took in New York City, it only takes seconds!
With that said, be careful when you share your images on social media or when you share photo files with someone directly since they show the exact location where each photo was taken. If revealing your location is a concern to you, it’s best to not use geotagging.
Another reason to not use geotagging is battery life. Since the iPhone has to turn on GPS every time you take a photo, you can take significantly fewer photos on a single charge when geotagging is on. If you plan on shooting all day and you won’t have a chance to charge your iPhone, it’s best to turn geotagging off.
You can turn geotagging on and off if you go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services. There you can turn all Location Services off at once, as well as enable or disable them individually. Make sure the Camera option is set to While Using (as well as the options of any other camera apps that you use) if you want to enable geotagging.
Bonus: iPhone Camera Features Video Lesson
To accompany this blog post I’ve recorded an in-depth video explaining 7 hidden iPhone camera features that every photographer should use. In this video lesson you’re going to see advanced tips and hands-on instructions for using the techniques you learned about in this article.