How to take great photos with an iPhone

Most of us carry a smartphone with us everywhere these days, so it's important to know how to use your smartphone camera to take great photos! I've only had a smartphone for a couple years, and I've loved having a decent camera to document things I'm doing or take quick photos to remember something I've seen that I want to recreate.

I still favor using an actual camera for my instructables, but I do like to use my iPhone's camera to take nice photos of my embroideries to share on Instagram and to post items on Etsy. :)

I'll be focusing mainly on iPhone photography tips since that's the smartphone I own, but many of these tips can be used for Android devices as well. :D

If you're more interesting in learning to edit your iPhone photos, check out my basic photo editing instructable.

(P.S. Did you know that iPhones are the most popular camera on flickr? Pretty nuts! If you keep clicking you can see tons of examples of amazing iPhone photography and lots of terrible selfies.)

Step 1: Recommended apps

How to take great photos with an iPhone

For the majority of my iPhone photography, I use three apps:

  • Afterlight ($0.99)
  • Camera+ ($1.99)
  • Instasize (free!)
  • Camera+ has replaced the normal camera app for me - it has more options, including an image stabilization feature that's currently missing for the default camera app on iPhone 4S/5C. It has loads of options to enhance your photos, but it's also just fine to use it without making any adjustments.

    Afterlight is great for tweaking photos! I use it for cropping, adjusting brightness and colors, and also for adding frames. The app also has a fantastic set of filters that are actually useable - they don't make the photos grainy and strange like Instagram does.

    Instasize is a great way to post full photos to Instagram and social media without cropping them into a square. So many times I take photos and love the way they look and I don't want to butcher them by cropping - and this is a perfect solution! As an added bonus, you can choose the color of the borders around your photo, but I tend to stick with white. :)

    Free (and awesome!) photo editors:

  • Pixlr Express
  • Adobe Photoshop Express
  • Litely
  • Pixlr and Photoshop Express are capable of creating very pretty and well edited photos. I haven't noticed any issues with pixelation when the images are blown up. :D

    Litely is not as full featured, but it's lovely for adding a bit of mood and polish to portraits - it's essentially just a collection of really beautiful film-style filters.

    If you want to add text to your photos, I recommend using one of these apps:

  • A Beautiful Mess ($0.99)
  • Rhonna Designs ($1.99)
  • Typic+ ($0.99)
  • The one major drawback here is that most text editing apps default to square cropping and/or can be a little clunky to use.

    A Beautiful Mess also has a hard time processing edited photos - I find that when I blow the image up it's quite pixelated. But if you're just using it for Instagram, it might work just fine for you!

    Typic+ also has a free version with less options if you want to give it a go before you buy. :)

    Step 2: Photo taking prep

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    Before you take a photo, there are a few things you should do:

  • Turn your phone's brightness ALL THE WAY up. This will ensure that you're seeing the best possible version of the photo you want to take. It also allows you to adjust the focus/exposure of the photo much easier.
  • Clean off that lens! It gets much dirtier than you'd think. I tend to just do the breathe on it/wipe it with my t-shirt method, but keeping a soft lens cleaning cloth around is never a bad idea.
  • Have a pair of volume adjusting headphones on you. You can use the volume up button to snap pictures!
  • Remove that ill-fitting case if you have one! Sometimes badly made cases can slightly obscure photos or leave a nasty color cast on the image. If you've got a wonky phone case, that might be part of the problem. ;)
  • I don't use tripods or any other accessories for my iPhone photos, but they're out there! If you're still having issues with your photos after following this instructable, it couldn't hurt to look into trying something else. :D

    Step 3: Use lighting to your advantage/adjusting exposure

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    I really do think the most important thing for taking any photo is making sure you've got decent lighting. This is especially true for the iPhone! In order to get your images nice and crisp, you want your subject to be well lit.

    Photos taken with smartphones can go super grainy in low light conditions - you'll lose most of your sharpness and depth of field in low lighting.

    You can adjust the lighting slightly when taking a photo - tap the screen in different places to move the focus and exposure.

    Another great trick is use the AE/AF (auto exposure/auto focus) lock function. Press and hold on the spot you want to expose and focus on - a yellow box will pop up and the words AE/AF lock will show up in a yellow box. Now you can move around slightly and still keep your focus and exposure right where you need them.

    Step 4: Learn about HDR and use it!

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    HDR stands for high dynamic range and it can be useful in situations with very low or varied lighting.

    When you enable the HDR feature on the iPhone's standard camera, the camera will take three photos instead of one and then combine them to give you the best of the three images. (So in other words, instead of just having one area of the photo where the colors/brightness/contrast is great, HDR evens it out through the whole photo.)

    Check the photo above to get a better idea of what it does - the photo on the left was taken with HDR off. The sky is totally blown out and the colors are washed out overall. The wall to the right is very bright, too! On the right, HDR is turned on and the saturation is better for the sky, wall and flowers. With a little editing this photo will look much better than the original HDR off version.

    To get a more in depth explanation, check out this Lifehacker article over it. It's so good I don't think it's worth me trying to explain it in a new way. :D

    HDR is especially useful for portraits and larger outdoor shots - I've had varied results using it indoors for still-life style shots. Another thing to take into consideration is that if your shot contains a ton of movement, you should leave HDR off. Movement will cause lots of blurring and pixelation in the finished photo because you're combining three photos where the subjects are not in the same place.

    Also - don't use HDR if you want to take lots of photos at once - it takes much longer to process an HDR image, so the lag might cause you to miss something!

    Step 5: Never zoom in - get close or crop!

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    Seriously. I'm not kidding. You know how zooming in on an older point and shoot camera makes the photos get all blurry and pixelated? The same thing happens when you zoom on a smartphone, but it's much worse.

    Check out the photo above for a good example. I set an embroidery on the floor and took the first photo holding the camera at chest height and zooming in. The second photo I took right up on the embroidery. Look at how clear the second photo is and how shaky the first one is! It's a huge difference.

    Instead of zooming in, try to get closer to your subject.

    If you can't get physically closer for some reason, take the photo totally zoomed out and crop it so that it's zoomed in where you want the focus to be. You can easily crop by editing the photo in your camera roll or using an app like Afterlight. (my personal favorite!)

    Step 6: Use your gridlines

    How to take great photos with an iPhone
    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    The built in iPhone camera and many other apps (including Instagram and Camera+) allow you to overlay grid lines on your photo to help get things lined up just perfectly. If you're using the built in camera app, you'll need to head into the settings and turn the grid on there.

    The grid is super useful if you want to crop the photo or add text later since it'll help you account for those changes.

    The grid lines will ensure you're not tilting the camera in a way that will make the horizon or other elements go askew.

    If you don't know about it already, I'd also recommend reading about and using the rule of thirds to help compose your shots - this wikipedia article is a really interesting read!

    Step 7: Try different ways of taking photos

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    Did you know there are technically three ways to take a photo?

  • the on-screen button
  • the volume up button on the side of the phone
  • the volume up button on your headphones
  • BOOM. Awesome, right? Your headphones are the handiest - it's like having a remote. :D

    Step 8: Edit edit edit! (and reconsider using that filter)

    How to take great photos with an iPhone
    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    For a more in depth tutorial over how to improve your photos through editing, check out my instructable over basic photo editing.

    Above are two examples:

  • A photo taken in low lighting in the office, cropped and brightness/color corrected. Edited in Afterlight.
  • The HDR photo from before, slightly tweaked so the colors are less washed out in some areas and the contrast is higher. Edited in Afterlight.
  • I tweak brightness and saturation for almost any photo, especially those taken inside. I use Afterlight to do the majority of m tweaking. Make sure you're also editing your photo while your screen's brightness is all the way up.

    As far as filters go - be careful! Many filters give a harsh color cast, increase the contrast in unattractive ways, or add lots of noise to the photo to make it appear "vintage". Instagram is especially bad about this. If you want to try out filters, use the ones in Afterlight and Litely. They're much less intense but still let you change the way your photos look with the press of a button!

    Step 9: Examples of photos taken with an iPhone

    How to take great photos with an iPhone

    Just to show you guys how easy it is to get clear photos from your phone, here are some photos I took with my iPhone 4S - pulled right from my Instagram. Every one of these photos was edited for brightness and saturation in Afterlight, and some have frames added. :)

    (Actually, the necklaces and ginger photos might have been taken with a Samsung Galaxy - the first gen one!)

     
     

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