Anyone can pick up an iPhone and take a photo, but it takes a more skilled photographer to create a truly great image. Taking incredible photos with an iPhone is actually very easy, as long as you follow some important guidelines on focus, exposure, composition and photo editing. In this article, you’ll discover 12 essential techniques that every serious mobile photographer should know.
If you’re just starting out with mobile photography, you should master these twelve techniques before anything else. Even if you’re an an accomplished iPhone photographer, you may well find that some of these tips and tricks have passed you by.
So, let’s get started with everything you need to know for taking amazing photos with your iPhone!
1. Clean The Lens
Your iPhone spends a lot of time in your pocket, a bag or in your hand, and as a result it will get dirty. Dirt, dust, grease and fingerprints on your lens will have a big effect on the quality of your photos.
There’s no point trying to take great photos if the glass of the lens is dirty. It will block light from entering the camera’s sensor and will leave smudges, blurs or dust spots on your images. A clean lens will ensure you get sharp, clear images with your iPhone.
You should clean the lens each time you take it out to take a photo. Use a soft lens cloth when doing this as any abrasive cleaners will scratch the glass over the lens and this will result in poorer image quality.
2. Set The Focus
The most important thing to look out for when taking a photo is to make sure that your subject is in sharp focus. To set the focus on the iPhone camera you simply tap the screen where your subject is in the frame. A small yellow square will appear to confirm the focus point.
If your subject is moving around, make sure you tap the screen just before you take the shot to ensure that they are in focus.
Once you’re happy that you have gotten a sharp photo of your subject, you can draw more attention to them if you wish by using one of the many apps available to blur the background as part of your editing process.
3. Adjust Exposure Manually
When you tap on the subject to focus on them, the camera will also use the focus point to set the exposure in the shot. Exposure simply refers to how bright or dark the image is.
Allowing the camera to set exposure on the focus point isn’t always ideal. For example, if the subject is in a dark area of the frame, this could lead to the overall image being over-exposed (too bright) or vice versa.
In iOS 8, Apple introduced a new manual exposure tool. When you set the focus by tapping the screen, a small sun icon appears on the side of the focus square. When you see the sun icon, simply swipe up or down on the screen to adjust the exposure slider.
Swiping up will brighten the overall image, and swiping down will darken it. When you’re happy with the exposure/brightness of the image, release your finger from the screen. This manual exposure slider allows for much greater control over the look of the final image.
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4. Don’t Use The Zoom
The iPhone has a zoom function which you can access by pinching or stretching two fingers on the screen. This brings up a zoom slider which you can slide with your finger to zoom in and get a closer view of your subject.
Unfortunately this is a digital zoom and not an optical zoom. In essence what happens with a digital zoom is that the image is cropped as you zoom in. This results in a noticeable loss in image quality the more you zoom in.
If you want to take a photo of a far away subject, don’t use the zoom. Walk closer instead and use the camera as normal without any zoom. You’ll end up with a far better quality shot.
Alternatively you can crop the image yourself in the editing process to bring the viewer closer to your subject. Cropping afterwards gives you more control over how much of the image you want to remove.
In this example the lighthouse and boats were on the far side of the harbor and looked very small in the original image. As I didn’t have the choice of walking closer to get a better shot, I just cropped the image to make it look like I was closer than I was.
5. Keep Your Camera Steady
Keeping your camera still is particularly important when taking photos in low light or at night. When you take a photo in these conditions, the iPhone camera will need to use a slow shutter speed to allow more light to hit the sensor. The problem with this is that any movement of the camera will result in a blurred image.
To avoid blurry iPhone photos you should hold the phone with both hands or rest it on a solid surface to keep it steady. You could also use an iPhone tripod together with an iPhone tripod mount. There are a number of tripods designed specifically for the iPhone such as the GorrillaPod by Joby.
When using a tripod, you can be extra careful by using the timer button on the left-hand side of the camera screen. Place the camera on the tripod and set the timer to 3 seconds.
When the photo is taken you won’t be touching the phone at all which means the camera will be perfectly still when you take the shot. This is taking things to extremes but could be useful in some very low light situations.
Another trick here is to connect your headphones to the iPhone and use the volume buttons on the headphones as the shutter release. This means that you can put the phone on a tripod and take a shot with physically touching it, avoiding any chance of camera shake.
6. Use The Rule Of Thirds
Getting focus and exposure right is crucial in photography, but composition is equally important. Without good composition, your photo isn’t likely to be very eye-catching.
The rule of thirds is one of the most useful composition techniques in photography. It’s an important concept to learn as it can be used in all types of photography to produce images which are more engaging and better balanced.
The rule of thirds involves mentally dividing up your image using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, as shown below. You then position the important elements in your scene along those lines, or at the points where they meet.
You should try and put your subject in line with one of the vertical lines. If there is a horizon in your photo, it should be in line with one of the horizontal lines. The idea behind the rule of thirds is that the off-centre composition makes for a more interesting shot.
On the iPhone you can place a grid over the screen which will help you when you’re trying to compose a shot. To display the grid, go into Settings, Photos & Camera, then turn the Grid on.
For beginners it’s very useful to leave the grid on as it will help train your eye. In this example the boy is in line with the right hand vertical line and the horizon is in line with the bottom horizontal line.
As always, rules are made to be broken! Sometimes the situation calls for a different approach. In this example my son is in the centre of the frame. Normally this would be considered an absolute no-no but it works here because it adds to the sense of the forest surrounding him, creating a fairytale like mood.
It’s important to learn the rule before breaking it though! So learn to compose your shots using the rule of thirds, then once you’re happy with it, try breaking it on purpose sometimes to create a different impact in your image. As always with photography, don’t be afraid to experiment. You might be surprised with the results.
7. Use Leading Lines
Leading lines can be another very useful compositional tool. Using leading lines in a photo can help to focus the viewer’s eye on the main subject and lead the eye deeper into the image. It’s a simple technique that involves using vertical, horizontal or converging lines to focus attention on the subject of your image.
In this example the converging lines of the railings on this diving platform in Salthill, Galway lead your eyes to the stairs that subsequently lead your view up to the figure silhouette against the sky.
When taking photos with your iPhone, you should always be aware of any leading lines in the frame as they may lead the viewer’s attention away from your intended subject. You might need to change the position that you’re shooting from in order to make the most of any lines in your scene.
8. Shoot From Different Perspectives
You should always look at alternative points of view when taking your photos at any location. Most beginners will take shots from a standing position, but the beauty of the iPhone is that it’s so small and light it can be used in places that a bigger camera wouldn’t work.
You should consider getting down low and shooting from ground level as in the example above. This technique is great for creating a unique view of your scene that people normally wouldn’t see from standing height.
You could also try shooting from high up to get a bird’s eye view of your subject. In this example my son had just gotten his first hole-in-one in crazy golf. By shooting from directly above I was able to capture his happiness at his achievement while also showing the ball in the hole.
If I’d shot this from any other angle this wouldn’t have been possible. The advantage of digital photography is that you can take as many shots from as many different perspectives as you wish and then just delete the ones that didn’t work.
9. Watch Out For Distracting Backgrounds
If you have a cluttered background in your photos it can distract attention away from your intended subject. If the backdrop to your photo has a lot of clashing and distracting colors, the best solution in this situation is to convert the photo to black and white.
By eliminating all color, the distraction is removed. In the original of this example, the items behind the weaver were different colors and took all the attention away from his face which should be the focal point of the image.
Another solution is to avoid cluttered backgrounds altogether. One way to do this is to get down low and used the sky as your backdrop. This really helps your subject stand out, as you can see in the photo above. This photo is also a good example of leading lines and the rule of thirds that were discussed earlier.
10. Take Multiple Shots
If you see something that catches your eye don’t just take one shot and hope for the best. The chances of getting a good photo with your first shot are very slim. You should take shots from various angles and distances.
Keep reviewing your photos as you go to get an idea of what is and what isn’t working. If you find an angle or point of view you like then take multiple shots from that position. This helps ensure that you get a well composed shot that is in sharp focus.
The beauty of digital photography is that you can delete all the photos that didn’t work… and there will be a lot that don’t work! Also don’t be afraid to take bad shots. No one will ever see them.
These four shots were the only ones that I was happy with from a recent trip to the River Shannon, Ireland’s longest river.
I took almost 100 photos while I was there, but the majority were unusable due to various different issues – mainly down to the low light conditions and the fact I was shooting directly into the sun. No one will ever see the other 96 photos I took that day!
11. Use Panorama Mode
There are certain situations where the standard camera just won’t do justice to the scene you’re trying to capture. For example, you might want to take a shot of an expansive landscape, a cityscape or a wide building, but can’t fit everything in the frame. This is where you should use panorama mode.
You can access panorama mode by swiping left on the camera screen until you see Pano selected. You then hold the camera upright (in portrait orientation) pointing at the left hand side of the scene you wish to capture.
Now tap the shutter button and pan the camera slowly to the right to capture the full scene. When you reach the end just tap the shutter button to stop the capture.
Pano mode uses the iPhone’s built in motion sensor. When panning across the scene, try to keep the point of the arrow on the yellow line, tilting the camera any time the arrow moves off the line. Panning slowly will ensure you get a better image.
12. Don’t Over-Process Your Photos
Learning how to edit photos on iPhone involves more than just knowing how to use the tools within an app. It also involves resisting the urge to use too many apps or overly strong effects when editing your photos. A lot of beginners make the mistake of thinking that using photo editing apps will turn a bad photo into a good one. It won’t. I know from experience. I have tried it enough over the years!
Before using any apps you should concentrate on getting a sharp, well composed shot. Apps can work well to enhance a good photo, but not a bad one.
The most common mistake is the overuse of HDR photo apps. HDR can be useful for bringing out lost detail in dark photos but it needs to be used with restraint.
But the original image was too dark to begin with so I just ended up with a grainy, over-saturated mess when I applied the full HDR effect. I added in the lightning and birds to show that if these effects are used out of context they can look ridiculous. Again this is something I’ve been guilty of over the years.
So edit your iPhone photos with restraint. Only apply effects that will enhance the natural beauty of the photo. Watch out for the appearance of grain and overly saturated colors when you’re adjusting exposure and color settings. Dial back the settings if you think you’ve gone overboard.