How Jill Emmer Creates Amazing Whimsical iPhone Photos

I’m really excited to share this interview with Jill Emmer, a talented photographer who creates beautiful and whimsical images with her iPhone. She has endless enthusiasm for photography and art, and her imagination knows no bounds! Jill loves to participate in photo challenges to explore new genres and techniques, often using props and photo editing to add fun elements to her compositions. In this interview you’ll learn more about Jill, and how she creates such incredible images with her iPhone.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a stay at home mom of two little boys in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was an English Literature major in college with a Creative Writing focus. After college I worked in Advertising for many years.

I’ve never taken a formal class in photography but I would love to. I’ve been an art lover since I was young. When I visit another city, the art museum is usually one of my first stops.

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I love to be active. Water skiing, downhill skiing and long distance running are some of my favorite sports.

I also love to drag my family out on big long weekend camping adventures all over our state. We’ve camped through all the stages of babyhood with both boys. They definitely love the dirt!

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How did your iPhone photography journey begin?

I’ve always been the girl with the camera. I remember bringing a camera with me to a field trip in second grade. I was also the girl at the bar or football game in college with a pocket-sized camera (before iPhones!) so an iPhone was an easy and welcomed transition.

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Until a year or two ago, I mostly captured candid shots of friends and family and maybe a pretty sunset or two. But once I was introduced to Instagram, I really started using my phone as an artist tool.

I had a private Instagram account to start with. I mostly copied my friends and posted shots from nights out and silly things my kids did. Once in a while I would post a photo of something pretty I would see on my run, like the sunrise or a beautiful deer in the woods.

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Those “pretty” shots never got any “likes” from my friends but I still thought they were decent photos so I decided to make a second, public account.

For the first six months I didn’t tell many of my friends about my public account. I remember the amazing feeling of having a stranger actually “like” my photo! It was exhilarating!

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I’ve been having a lot of fun ever since… just sort of “finding” my photographic groove. I think my favorite part is that I still have two accounts. My public account is where I sort of experiment with all kinds of different photography genres, such as minimalism, nature, children, fantasy editing, etc.

And my private account still has my kid spam and my “real life” moments (my youngest son’s pants always seem to be falling down a bit!) that I only share with people I know in person.

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It’s a nice balance. It really keeps my love for mobile photography strong because I shoot whatever catches my eye and not because it’s “grammable” for mass appeal on Instagram.

What inspires you to take photos with the iPhone?

Since my iPhone is with me at all times, it’s my default camera. There are several aspects of the iPhone that I love: the wide angles, the rapid-fire burst mode shooting option, and the ability to shoot, edit and share immediately.

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Do you have a favorite genre of photography that you like to shoot, or do you prefer to experiment with different types of imagery?

I try my best to push myself and experiment, which is why I love photography challenges. I adore anything that pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to be creative. Many times I share photos that I know aren’t going to be a crowd favorite, but that I’m proud of because they’re a different style for me.

Nevertheless, I do seem to settle into a sort of whimsical minimal genre most of the time. Subconsciously I seem to seek out the same landscapes no matter where I go.

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A friend once mentioned to me that the hill I use in my photos must get a lot of traction from me. I realized that even though I’ve spent countless hours seeking out new locations and new hills, they actually look pretty much the same when I finally share the photo!

Your Instagram feed is a fabulous array of fun and whimsical images. Where do you get the inspiration for these wonderful creations?

Well, just about every day I read children’s books to my boys, and I rarely walk away without an idea or two. I adore Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, and Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney to name a few. They’re just so quirky and fun. They make us all smile while we read them.

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I’ve also been a long time lover of art. My mom and I make annual trips to our local museum, which luckily for me was designed by Santiago Calatrava! I’m amazed at the similarities between the art I have hanging in my home and the types of photos I produce.

It took me many months, maybe even a year, to realize that I’ve spent my life purchasing and surrounding myself with the exact type of art that I’ve grown to love to photograph. If you came to my house you would easily see my inspiration on my walls.

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In my bedroom I fall asleep looking at a huge photograph print (from Etsy) of several deer in the fog. In our guest room we have a canvas of a cheery solo tree on a big green grass hill in front of a bright blue sky with puffy clouds. My living room has a large Warhol sunset, and my hall has a four foot Magritte.

These are art pieces that I’ve collected for years. It’s what I’ve always been drawn to. In fact, I’ve also painted a few art pieces like this in the past.

You like to use props in your iPhone photography. How does the use of props help photographers create more interesting photos?

I love to have fun with props and to be a little over the top. I try to take them to a new level and make them count by being a necessary part of the photo. My favorite types of photos are ones that tell stories.

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Props can make a photo feel historical (a top hat, for example) or mysterious (a red cloak) or cheerful (a rainbow umbrella). They also add wonderful pops of color to otherwise dull scenery.

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Talking of props, you started the Rainbow Umbrella Project which is a traveling umbrella that gets sent to photographers all over the world. Can you tell us a bit about this project and how you came up with the idea?

I had so many people ask me where to buy my rainbow umbrella that I decided just to mail it to them! I was inspired by a friend who started a traveling dress. Soon after, I had so many people requesting it that I had to start a list.

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I also began to send out more than one umbrella. There’s one in NYC, LA, Minnesota, Australia, Malaysia, London and Rome right now!

Each person keeps it a week, shares a few photos and then mails it on to the next person on the list. All of the photos are grouped together under the hashtag #shineonyoucrayumbrella on Instagram.

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I feel that now the project means so much more than just the sharing of a prop. It’s a way to create a physical connection with my internet friends and celebrate something we all have in common – a love of creativity and photography!

I truly get goosebumps when I see a photo of a friend on the other side of the world holding the exact same umbrella I once held. My list of people waiting for the umbrella is well over 100 photographers. It’s a very exciting project and I dream of adding a charitable aspect to it.

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You enjoy creative photo editing, producing stunning fantasy images using apps. What inspires you to edit your iPhone photos in this way?

I like to make people, including my kids and myself, smile! I love to add little fantasy elements to my ordinary photos to give them an element of humor or whimsy.

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I love the way I feel after I read a great, silly story to my boys, like the world is full of magic. That’s what usually inspires me.

Let’s talk about photo apps. Are there any apps that you use for taking photos besides the native camera app?

I mostly just use my iPhone’s native camera. I’ve played around a bit with some slow shutter apps. I do use the Fast Camera app quite a bit to take self portraits.

I use a clip from Joby and I screw that on to a regular, cheap, full-sized tripod. I set my phone up in the clip and use the Fast Camera app to take a bunch of shots.

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I like the timer apps that take rapid-fire shots over a short period of time. I’ll turn on the timer, run out to the spot I want, and dance around like a fool until I hear the phone stop clicking. Then I hope to find at least one “good one” in the collection of 100 shots the app just fired off!

What are your favorite apps for post-processing and creative editing?

I have so many, it’s hard to say! I like LensLight, Reflect Mirror Camera, AlienSky, TouchRetouch, Superimpose and SKWRT to name a few. I don’t ever use filters besides a rare black and white so I don’t use the filtering apps too often.

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Can you briefly explain the story and editing process behind your three favorite iPhone photos?

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This is one of my favorite shots based solely on the emotion of the photo. There isn’t really any editing to this shot except to remove a couple of teeny water bottles in the background with TouchRetouch.

On the day I took this shot, I was on a long seven hour road trip with my two young sons. My husband was already at home. I decided to make a day of it and create all sorts of fun stops.

Instagram had announced that the challenge of that weekend was taking photos with mirrors. So as we drove through many small towns, I stopped at a little resale shop and bought this plastic mirror for $5.

We stopped at parks and historical sites and had all sorts of adventures on our way home. As we neared our home, the Twin Cities, we spotted sky divers! We pulled off the Highway and followed them visually until we found them physically.

Our visit with them was exhilarating! They were so friendly and welcoming, and the scene was very high energy. It was also very exciting for my young sons as they’d never seen sky divers before. As my son sat on the grass, I handed him the mirror (which he barely noticed) and was able to catch his expression as he watched a man fall from the sky for the first time.

Afterwards, I almost didn’t share this photo. I was saddened that it was caught at such an angle. If I straightened it, the skydivers in the background would be cropped. But I decided to share it anyway, and I’m honored to say that this photo went on to win many accolades and has been in a few shows. I’m so happy that I decided to share it even though it wasn’t “perfect.”

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This is a shot that took a fair amount of editing. I spotted this tree while on a walk in Chicago with my friend Heather. I asked her to stand right at the spot where the branches reached down the furthest. I had her do a few different poses but as soon as I saw this tree, I knew the shot I wanted to create.

On my plane ride home from Chicago I worked on editing this shot. First I used TouchRetouch to add more snow to the bottom of the photo. The snow was quite spotty that day, so I took the snow that was already there and cloned it to cover the dirty areas.

Then I used the AlienSky app to add the birds. It took many many layers to compose all of the birds, as well as a few trial and errors with the shape of the flock.

Finally, I edited the shot in Instagram where I really ramped up the exposure. It was a foggy day and it created a sort of blank slate in the background when I increased the exposure. I also love how increasing the exposure flattens out the snow. While some people may not enjoy that lack of detail in the snow, it really appeals to me!

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In the month of December I spent my Sunday afternoons driving to a very small town that’s an hour away to visit a relative who was ill.

On the day I took this photo I was on that drive and keeping an eye out for fun geometric shapes for the WHP Geometry challenge on Instagram. I really enjoy participating in the WHP challenges – it inspires me to look at my surroundings differently and it keeps me occupied on the long drives.

I’ve driven by this small, roadside hotel many times and have always admired its fun, colorful doors. I zipped into its deserted, snow covered parking lot and pulled out my tripod. I had to really push my tripod into a solid snowbank to get it properly lined up.

I took the photo with a timer app on my iPhone, so that I could be in the photo myself. I’m sure the people of the little town got a kick out of seeing some girl in a crazy hat taking selfies in front of the empty motel!

You’re heavily involved in both your local and online photography communities, including Instagram where you have almost 95,000 followers. What does the mobile photography community mean to you, and what impact has it had on your photography?

The community is my security blanket. I never would have had the courage to share my photos to the world without the encouragement of the community. When I first shared a photo in public, it was the positivity and generosity of my peers that made me feel comfortable enough to continue.

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Little by little they gave me the courage to experiment more, and to break through any restrictions I’d imposed upon myself – I first thought I was strictly a nature photographer when I started!

One day about a year ago I was asked to help a few friends plan a local photography meet-up. Well, I somehow ended up planning the entire event! I surprised everyone there by bringing about 40 red balloons, a ladder, some nets, and a few other props. It was so much fun! It was the first time I met many members of my local community.

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After that, people started to ask when the next event was and I, by default, became an organizer. Since then, my girlfriend Rita and I have created “Minnstameets” where we organize local events, support others’ events and provide a sort of base for our community.

We keep very busy with this organization. We have three events in May alone! One is our own event at a 100 year old barn. We’re asking everyone to bring vintage props and we’re going to have a bonfire and hopefully some bluegrass music.

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The other two events are non-profit events that we’re helping to promote. One of them is at our local art museum, and we’re curating a local mobile photography show that will be on display at their event with over 2,000 attendees.

What’s next? Do you have any other photography projects that you’re working on?

In addition to the numerous local events that I’m co-organizing, I’m also keeping busy with a few other projects.

I’m working on writing a children’s book. I’m doing the writing and photography and a wonderful American artist who lives in Beirut is doing the illustrations – he draws on top of my photos! I’m about halfway finished with the story. It’s about two boys who go on an umbrella adventure in the woods.

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I also have a photography business: Shine On Photos LLC. I’m a stay at home mom so it’s very part-time, but it certainly keeps me busy. I accept one to two projects per week. I do family and portrait photography as well as commercial shoots.

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My business started because of my Instagram photos. This summer I have two “business” trips lined up that include some sort of mobile photography aspect. I’m very excited about both of them!

And finally, I’ve started to sell prints of some of my photos. I currently have my own show going on in Minneapolis for six weeks. It’s motivated me to get all of my photos ready for sale. The photos that are on display are for sale, and I’m adding them to my website as well.

What tips do you have for beginner iPhone Photographers who want to start taking more creative photos with their iPhone?

Don’t be scared (like I was) to break out of your favorite photography genre. Instagram isn’t just about “likes.” The people who follow you like what you’ve been doing in the past, so they might not love your experiments, but there’s a whole bunch of other people out there who will!

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Be free in what you photograph, share your images, and you will find your passion. Remember that the Photography Police don’t exist! There aren’t any rules! If you believe that it’s a good photo, it probably is.

You’ve recently joined the team of writers here at iPhone Photography school and your first tutorial is due to be published next week. How does it feel to be able to share your knowledge of iPhone photography with our readers?

I’m thrilled to be on the iPhone Photography School team! When I first started my Instagram account about a year and a half ago, I Googled “iPhone Photography” with the hope of learning about shooting techniques, editing and how to improve.

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That search led me to this website! I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading through the articles, so it comes with great honor that I’m now a writer for this same site!

Which iPhone photographers do you admire the most?

That all depends on what mood I’m in. Some days I’m a minimal-gal so I love to look through the photos from my dear pals @huxsterized and @bogdan.tomsa. Other days I really love the photos from my nature adventurer friends @calsnape and @thegoodwithin.

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Other times I’m in mommy mode admiring @hannahargyle and @sunny_carmen. And finally I’m always proud to be from Minneapolis with @mamacita.rita@pixstern and @danfergus.

Where can we see your iPhone photography?

You can see my images on Instagram @shineonyoucraydiamond and on my website:

If you want to see my photos in person, they’re on display at Sebastian Joe’s, Linden Hills, Minneapolis from May 1 – June 15, 2015.

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It's easy to take a quick snapshot with iPhone, but most people don't know how to take full control of their iPhone's camera. That's why we created a free video revealing 7 hidden iPhone camera features that every photographer should use.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and passion for iPhone photography with us Jill. I just love your photos! 🙂

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      Kate! It is an honor to be interviewed by you. Thank you so much❤️

  • Stan Pendrak

    How did you add the flock of birds to your picture.

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      I used the AlienWorld App and a lot of layering! I am going to write a tutorial about it in a week or so with more detail. Hope that helps!

  • Lynne Gehling

    Love your style. Sorry I wasn’t able to come to the last Instameet. Hope to get to a Twin Cities one soon. lynnemn on Instagram.

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      Lynne!! Thanks so much! I look forward to meeting you soon!

  • Cachorro12

    Love the interview and her pictures!!!

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Jill’s photos are so inspirational aren’t they!

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      Thanks Kate!!

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      So kind of you! It was really fun to go through an interview! Thanks so much❤️

  • tracymg

    Clever gallery and cute story

    • Jill Cherwenka Emmer

      I am thrilled you think so! Thank you! It was an honor to be interviewed❤️

  • Bogdan Tomşa

    Thanks so much for the mention, Jill! You are one of my fave photographers out there! Keep it up! Your work rocks! 🙂