I get a lot of questions about my photography.
What camera do you use? Where did you learn? What software do you use?
I wish I could say that I’m a formally trained photographer using the latest camera and lenses, but I’m just a guy with a phone.
I use my iPhone 5 exclusively, I’m self-taught, and do only very minor photo editing using free software.
This should be great news for the novice photographer because (a) you almost certainly have a smart phone with a camera at your disposal, and (b) with a little background knowledge and practice, you’ll be able to start taking great photos.
I’ve boiled down everything I’ve learned into a collection of general photography tips (as well as some iPhone-specific pointers) to help significantly improve your photos.
General photography tips
The following tips aren’t iPhone-specific, as they apply to all cameras, and are still essential to capturing quality images.
There are a million tips and techniques out there, but these are the ones that helped me dramatically improve my photography.
Lighting is probably the single most important aspect of photography.
Get it wrong and nothing else you do will matter!
Since we’re talking about iPhone photography, I’ll assume you don’t have access to a perfectly laid out and equipped studio, so the two main variables you’ll have to work with will be indoor vs. outdoor light and direction.
Indoor vs. Outdoor lighting
Despite having a million ideas for recipes and thoroughly enjoying cooking, I have a really hard time getting good photos of food to you guys.
Every time I cook dinner, I think, “Wow! I should really take a photo and get a recipe to the guys.”
But the photos always come out looking like brownish orange slop, unfit for even the local prison population.
The photo on the left was taken on my kitchen counter around noon. Even though my apartment was full of natural light, just turning on the overhead lights made everything look tan/yellowish.
At night, it looks much worse than this.
The photo on the right was taken just a minute later near a window and I think it looks a lot more appetizing.
The reason is that indoor lighting in general is too “warm” and disrupts the colors of the food by casting a yellow glow on everything.
I’ve tried to use “cooler” bulbs in my kitchen which are more white/blue, but I felt as if I was living in a futuristic operating room.
Seriously, the harsh indoor lighting was a little too intense and had me on edge all the time.
Until I get my indoor lighting sorted out, I have to place items in front of an open window if it’s the right time of the day or literally take a plate or dish of food outside to get a good shot.
Outdoor lighting is best for most shots, but direct sunlight can be a little too intense.
The absolute best time to take photos is on partly cloudy days, or close to sunrise or sunset. The lighting will be natural but indirect.
Direction of lighting
Have you ever taken a photo of your friends and had the entire front of their body come out extremely dark?
If you revisit that photo, chances are you’ll find that the sun was at their backs or you’ll see some other light source over their shoulder.
The two photos above show the exact same objects taken only seconds apart.
The first with me facing the sun, and the second with the light source at my back.
What’s happening is that the entire surface of the mailbox is in a shadow. If the camera were to let in enough light to brighten that surface, the background light would be so intense, it would flood the entire photo.
In general, the light source should always be pointed at the front of your subject, or your back as the photographer.
Frame your shots
There’s so much that can be said about this, but in short, framing a shot means choosing what will be in your shot, where those things will be, and how they will work together.
If you’re taking a photo of someone against a mostly blank wall, including half of a clock in the upper right corner of your shot could distract the eye.
Instead of instantly focusing on the subject, the viewer will likely glance over and think, “What time was this photo taken?”
It doesn’t seem as if it’s a big deal, but where the viewer’s eye goes and how long it takes to focus on the subject is one of the components separating great photography from the pics your aunt snaps at birthday parties.
Just start to pay attention to what is going on in your photo and try moving yourself around until you get an angle that captures your intentions.
Change your perspective
There’s nothing interesting about the things we see on a daily basis if viewed from the exact same perspective, and I’d wager that 99% of photos are taken from chest height on an adult.
To illustrate the power of perspective, remember how different the world appeared when you looked up after falling off your bike?
Maybe it was the bump on the head, but more likely, everything looked completely different because you were looking up at things that you normally viewed from above.
Ordinary scenes and objects can take on a whole new life by simple getting down on the floor or climbing on top of a chair.
The first image in my example just looks like a cooking pot on the ground.
The second image highlights the burner, detail in the foreground, smoke from the fire, and a view of the forest.
It’s the exact same object, but seen from an unfamiliar angle, it’s immediately more compelling.
Don’t be shy
Taking photos up close creates so much interest because, like perspective, it’s different from the way we normally view things.
When was the last time you inspected a stranger’s face from six inches away?
While it’s bizarre to see a man eyeballing a flower three inches from his face, a photo taken from that distance allows us a chance to really “see” a subject.
The subjects in the photos shown were less than 2 inches long, but getting up close and personal makes them feel larger than life.
I took these pictures while crouched on the sidewalk in an extremely busy urban environment.
And yeah, people were staring at me while I did it, but I’ve learned to ignore what’s going on around me and get the shots I want.
Use leading lines
Similar to framing your shot, leading lines help to draw the eye to your subject.
Use your environment to make the viewer look exactly where you want them to look.
Staircases, railroad tracks, fences, sidewalks, and window frames can all be used to your advantage.
We analyze images from foreground to background and read from left to right.
With those two habits in mind, leading lines starting at the bottom left corner of the image are most effective since they draw the eye along familiar paths.
One of the most common complaints from new photographers is the dreaded blurry photo.
There are a few reasons your photos can be blurry, but a shaky camera is the obvious suspect.
No matter how steady you think your hands are, there’s no way they’ll be as stable as a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod with you, improvise.
Some techniques for holding your iPhone from least to most stable are:
- Holding with one hand
- Holding with two hands
- Holding with two hands while resting elbows on a solid surface
- Holding the iPhone against a solid surface (i.e. doorframe)
- Using a tripod
I’d also add that, like shooting a gun, your body position has a lot to do with stability. You’ll never see a sniper standing up to take his shot – he’ll be as close to the ground or a stable surface as he can get.
Going from standing, to kneeling, to sitting, to lying down will get you closer and closer to crystal clear shots.
To get additional stability while standing (without using a tripod or a solid surface), you can also tuck both elbows firmly against your sides to hold your hands steady.
Even though some of my images are quite good, I don’t just walk out, take one excellent photo, and then head home.
When I want to get a photo of an outfit for Iron & Tweed, my wife will usually take about 30 pictures of the same scene.
She’ll mess around with the focus, perspective, and lighting and I’ll move around in a few different poses.
When I get home and review the photos, usually only a few are worth keeping.
It takes time, but unless you’re an expert photographer, you’ll probably going to have to take a ton of photos and then sift through them for the gems (don’t feel bad, the pros often do this too).
iPhone specific tips
The previous tips can apply to any camera, but the following apply specifically to iPhone photography.
Focus, focus, focus
Left to its own devices, your iPhone will focus on whatever it wants.
And most of the time, it does a great job.
But if you’re after better quality photos, you need to take as much control as possible.
All it takes is a tap on the screen, usually on the subject, and your iPhone will adjust the focus and exposure (lightness or darkness) to highlight the spot you selected.
You can lock the focus on your subject by holding your finger on the screen for a second or two. You’ll know you got it right if “AE/AF Lock” appears on the screen.
This can be useful if there are any moving objects in the shot or if you will be changing positions.
In the example photo, I have the focus on the french press in the first image and on the picnic table in the second. Notice how much more detail is visible in the wood grain in the second photo.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is standard on all iPhones with iOS 4.1 and above.
So what does it do?
The iPhone will struggle when you want to capture a scene containing both a dim area and a strong light source (i.e. dark forest and bright sky).
It won’t be able to decide between overexposing to make the dark area visible and underexposing to capture detail in the bright areas.
The result is usually an image that’s way too dark or way too light.
What HDR does is layer an underexposed and an overexposed image to utilize the best of each.
To use this function, just select the HDR option (next to flash) on your camera screen and take a picture.
Since the iPhone is taking multiple pictures in HDR mode, it’s particularly important to hold the camera steady.
By default, your iPhone will save both the non-HDR photos and HDR photos, but you can disable this in your settings menu to save memory.
In the example above, the first image is overexposed and the sky is very bright and lacks detail.
The second is the HDR version with properly exposed foreground and background.
Don’t zoom – ever!
Okay, you can zoom, but just know that it degrades the quality of the photo due to the type of zoom used on the iPhone.
Professional cameras use an optical zoom that works like a telescope.
It’s the length of a lens that gives it its magnification properties and makes the image appear closer. Hence the long lenses you see on professional cameras.
Optical zoom lenses don’t cause a loss of photo quality.
With an iPhone, the lenses are very close together and the zoom is accomplished digitally by stretching the image, resulting in a significant loss of quality.
This works in the same way as when you expand an image on your computer and you start seeing all the pixels. The photo was never meant to be viewed “stretched out” like that.
The image on the left was taken using zoom. Contrast that with the one on the right which was taken by simply getting closer to the subject and the difference is significant.
When getting closer simply isn’t possible, try taking your photos without the zoom and then cropping later.
Burst the blur
The clarity of an image is largely dependent on shutter speed, which is to say, how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to the image.
If the sensor is exposed for longer periods of time (slow shutter speed), any motion will be recorded as a blur.
On an iPhone, this setting is automated. So if you snap a picture of someone walking, their feet will be blurry.
Since everything is automatic on the iPhone, it tends to spend some time “thinking” and often uses a slower shutter speed as it tries to focus on a moving subject.
To get around this, you can use the burst mode to capture photos much faster by essentially overriding the automated features and forcing the camera to just snap, snap, snap.
To activate burst mode, all you have to do is hold down the shutter button and the camera will start firing off pictures.
The photo on the left was taken by tapping the shutter button like normal whereas the image on the right was selected from a series of photos taken using burst mode.
The difference isn’t huge, but there is an improvement in the back foot blurriness.
Where does the iPhone fall short?
There’s no denying that the cameras on our iPhones are nothing short of amazing.
We can take better photos than cameras priced at several thousand dollars could just a couple decades ago – with our cellphones!
But if you’re looking to take the best photos possible, a gadget designed as a multi-purpose convenience item just won’t cut it.
Here are a few shortcomings I’ve found with iPhone photography.
Doesn’t isolate the subject
Professional cameras are great at creating an effect known as “bokeh”.
This simply means that everything in the photo, excluding the subject, will be out of focus.
Using the iPhone to take a photo of a man hailing a cab on a busy street, for example, will just look like a chaotic street scene.
Using a real camera with the ability to focus on the subject alone, will instantly draw the eye to the man, as if he’s in a beacon of clarity and everything else is unimportant.
You can fake the effect with apps like Instagram, but it isn’t quite the same since you’re blurring an area of the photo rather than an object at a certain distance from the lens.
In the “fake bokeh” photo below, the trees over my shoulders should be much less detailed since they’re very far behind me. You can also see that my arms are blurred when they shouldn’t be.
Autofocus can be “argumentative”
If I’m trying to take a photo of my watch band, the autofocus will “insist” that my watch face is a human face and will all but refuse to focus on the band.
The vast majority of the time, I’m able to focus on exactly what I want, but other times it takes repeated screen tappings to get the iPhone to bend to my will.
Fails in low-light
My main reason for wanting to upgrade to a DSLR (I have my eye on the Nikon D3200) is to have a camera better able to perform in adverse lighting conditions.
The iPhone simply doesn’t get the job done in anything but the best lighting.
When taking up-close images with the iPhone, anything in the foreground will appear oversized.
This is due to the wide angle of the lens.
Without getting into too much detail, there are lenses that are made for taking photos up close and others are meant to be used from far away (zoom lenses).
And of course there are a million lenses in between.
Let’s look at the photo of me sitting on the ground with my legs outstretched.
The camera lens is only 3 feet away from my boots and about 6 feet from my face, but the boots are going to appear disproportionately large since they’re 50% closer to the camera.
If you were using a zoom lens and standing 15 feet from my boots and 18 feet from my face, the proportions would appear much more natural.
Even though the the photo is of the exact same thing, percentage wise, my boots and face are much closer to each other in the latter example and will appear more appropriately sized.
My #1 Tip for iPhone Photography
If you want to get good at iPhone photography (or any kind of photography), you have to take photographs.
I know that sounds obvious, but people often want to be good at something right out of the gate and it just doesn’t work that way.
So take photos. Take a LOT of photos.
Take pictures every day, every time you leave the house, no matter who you’re with and where you go.
You may feel awkward whipping out your phone and laying on your belly to capture a squirrel in a busy park on a Saturday afternoon, but I assure you that you’ll get comfortable with this feeling a lot sooner than you’d think.
Don’t allow self-consciousness to be a barrier to taking great photographs.
As with anything else, the more you practice, the better you’ll become.
Try one of these tips at a time and really get to understand how different factors affect your photos.
Take perspective, for example. You could take a picture of an object from chest height, stand on something for another, and then get down on the floor for a third angle.
When you get home, analyze the images on your computer to see exactly how these changes affect the outcome.
Play around with framing, light, proportions, and a wide variety of subjects.
In time, all of these techniques will be second nature and those great photos will come a lot more frequently.
All the best,