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Apr
08
2013

7 ways to take better photos with your iPhone

Yes, it is possible to take great photos with just your iPhone camera. Sure, you could probably take better shots with a fancy digital SLR, but let's face the facts. Even if we own a dedicated compact or SLR camera, most of us also use our iPhone to do a fair amount of photography - especially for the unexpected little things, which could be exactly the kind of photos you want in your heirbooks. This is because your phone is always right by your side. Meanwhile the quality of camera technology on smartphones (such as iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 (pictured left) and the latest Samsung or HTC phones) has improved drastically in recent years.

We've gone to a fair amount of length here, because we want to leave you with quality advice rather than just 7 one-liners. But we promise that your photos will benefit substantially if you take the time to read and digest this. We want you to know that we firmly believe that you can take great photos from your iPhone. So when a shot opportunity arises, whip out your iPhone proudly and put on that photographer's hat!

Note: (i) If you're using a non-iPhone smartphone, do carry on reading as most of these tips would also apply to you; (ii) the camera we're referring to throughout this article is the rear camera of the iPhone (i.e. facing away from you). This is a much better quality camera than the one facing you (for Facetime calls).

So without further ado, here are our top 7 tips for taking better photos with your smartphone:

 1) hold your iPhone camera steady

This is a golden rule of any photography. Remember that any little twitch or movement of your camera is amplified. And to get good sharp photos, you want as little movement as possible. How still you need to be will depend on the lighting - in bright conditions, your camera can utilise a faster shutter speed, allowing it to freeze motion. But when it's dim, the camera's shutter needs to stay open for longer to capture more light, therefore movement (whether it's camera shake or subject movement) can significantly blur your photo. 

Firstly you need to hold your iPhone in a way that minimises movement from your arms. To keep your arms as steady as possible, pull in your arms towards your body (rather than extend your arms out). If there's somewhere to rest your arms or phone, or even to lean your body against, do that. If you're crouching down, you can even rest your phone or hands on one knee.

Secondly, you need to get rid of the camera shake that comes from pressing the 'shoot' button on the screen. You probably don't notice it but when you press the button on the screen, the phone shakes a fair bit. Try snapping a few times on your iPhone and observe your phone closely. A better way to take a shot is to hold down the 'shoot' button on the screen, and release it to take the shot. The camera doesn't actually snap until you release the button. Holding it down before you shoot is a great way to reduce camera shake. Practice this a few times so you get the hang of it, and observe the camera for movement until you're able to do it steadily.

 2) ensure adequate lighting

Take photos outdoors whenever possible, as natural daylight will give you the best results in so many ways. Firstly, colours will appear more vibrant and natural than shots taken indoors, without any need for editing. Secondly, the brightness will allows for much faster shutter speeds, meaning any shot you take will be far more forgiving. Whether it's camera shake or subject movement, more light will allow the camera to freeze movement so you end up with sharper photos generally.

Not all outdoor lighting gives great results, very bright and sunny days with the sun directly overhead tend to make harsh images with deep shadows. The golden light of sunrise and sunset is usually the best to shoot in, giving softer images with a lovely warm glow. But cloudy and rainy days, if bright enough, are also great for shooting in (if you can stay dry)!

If you're indoors and there's some element of planning, try to take photos in the brightest rooms. Again, rooms with ample natural daylight are best. But in the absence of this, go ahead and turn on the lights especially if your subjects are not staying still. Night shots of kids running around in a dimly-lit room would, as a general rule, be beyond the capabilities of your iPhone. Most of your shots will turn out blurry with poor colour exposure. Having said that, blurry shots aren't necessarily unusable as they can still capture the mood and feel of a situation. But if you know you will be shooting in such an environment, plan ahead and bring your SLR with a fast lens.

For the more technical amongst you, you should know that there's unfortunately no way to control the aperture or shutter speed priority for your iPhone. In a typical indoor environment (unless very well lit), the iPhone would typically default to a shutter speed of about 1/20s (and go as slow as 1/15s), and bump the ISO up or down to achieve the right exposure. Unfortunately, this isn't usually fast enough for capturing moving subjects.

3) play to its strengths

The iPhone's camera isn't necessarily weaker in all respects compared to an SLR. The technical specifications of the iPhone actually give it certain advantages over an SLR camera (at least when comparing handheld vs handheld, without use of tripods/flash etc). Essentially the iPhone's camera has a very high depth of field, meaning it is best suited for photography where everything is sharp and in focus (as opposed to low depth of field, where you get background blur). This means it is ordinarily less suited for portraits, where background blur helps to place more emphasis on the subject. But it's actually pretty good for landscapes or architecture, or where you're trying to taking a photo of something quite large e.g. a tree or large sculpture from fairly close range, but want everything in sharp focus. Or say you're outdoors and trying to take a photo of a group of kids at different distances from you. With an SLR, you'd have to reduce your aperture size significantly to get everyone in focus, which reduces the amount of light entering your SLR and results in a slower shutter speed. But your iPhone can take the same shot with everyone sharply in focus without having to compromise on shutter speed.

Here's a shot with everything (including our subject) in sharp focus. Above: Shot taken on iPhone 5 (edited) with everything in sharp focus. Would have required a very narrow depth of field on an SLR, which would have compromised the ability to handhold this shot. With the iPhone, it was a straightforward point and shoot (and compose)!

Why does the iPhone have a very high depth of field? We're now getting into technical territory, so if you're not keen to be bombarded by technical jargon then feel free to skip this and just remember the points above. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll talk about the iPhone 5 in particular. The iPhone 5 has a fixed 4.1mm f/2.4 lens, which has a field and depth of view that is equivalent to a 33mm f/19 full frame camera. Anyone who knows anything about f-stops knows that f/19 is a huge amount of depth-of-field, and that to get anything equivalent on an SLR would require a significantly lower shutter speed (more motion blur) or significantly higher ISO (more noise). This however is the iPhone's bread and butter, and it can achieve this high depth of field with a real aperture of f/2.4. This is a fairly large aperture i.e. it allows a good bit of light through and therefore permits faster shutter speeds and better sharpness from handheld shots.

4) shoot the detail

If you're busy taking photos of a child or family member at a particular event or setting, don't forget to take photos that don't actually feature anyone in them. When you're laying out your heirbook, you could try to tell the story by having one or two overly cluttered photos, or you could tell the story via a number of beautifully taken close-up photos. Take for instance an Easter egg hunt, which my son recently had his first experience of. Instead of trying to capture a photo with everything in it (him, the eggs, the banners, the setting, etc), we took close ups portraits showing his excitement whenever he found an egg. We also took some great wide-angled photos from behind the hidden egg, peeking out from its hiding place. And little details like the basket of colourful eggs. When laid out on a double-page spread, these had a far more striking effect than a couple of very cluttered photographs that tried to capture too much.

Don't be afraid to get really close-up, the iPhone can focus as close as 4 inches away from your subject! Take uncluttered shots. Look for patterns and shapes. Leading lines. Look for simplicity. Remember you don't always have to get the whole subject into your shot! 

5) de-clutter the background

Now that you know that the iPhone takes pictures with everything in sharp focus, you need to think about composition. The difficulty with having everything in a picture looking crisp and sharp is that it's difficult to separate the subject from the background. Pictures don't look great when there's too much going on. Hence when you compose your shot, look at the objects in the background and look at the colours. Look around you and see which angle you can take the shot from to reduce the background clutter.

Above: Shot taken on iPhone 5 (edited). Rather than trying to capture the whole playground in our shot, we've kept it simple as there are enough elements in the picture to tell you the subject is in a playground. We've taken the shot from a higher vantage point to capture more of the cork surface, as the sky was washed out and not particularly interesting for inclusion.

Remember, it's not just about telling your subject to move here and there. You are the photographer, don't forget to move yourself first and foremost. Try shooting from high up, or from down low. Try new angles. If there are several interesting background items you're trying to capture, why not capture them one at a time over several images?

6) check for smudges (!)

Don't forget that the lens on your phone camera is always exposed, unlike your SLR or compact camera which is usually covered when not in use. Being constantly handled and placed on different surfaces with the camera lens face down, you should be surprised whenever there isn't a smudge!

You should therefore make it a habit to check for smudges, or simply just give that corner of your phone a quick wipe with the edge of your shirt before you take any shots. There's nothing like a big smudge to ruin an entire day's photography. The problem is that many of you may not even know it, but I guarantee that you have a fair number of images that have suffered from this! Light reflects off the smudge to create a hazy washed out and slightly out-of-focus look on a section of your image. You can diagnose this as the cause if it's always the same area of every photo that looks hazy.

Note: if you use a protective casing over your phone, then the likelihood of there being smudges will depend on the type of case you're using. The best way to find out whether it's still prone to smudges is by observation. Make a mental note to check for smudges the next several times you use your phone camera.

 

7) quick-draw camera

Many of you may already know this, but we've met a surprising number of people who don't.

Since iOS 5.1, you can now access the camera very quickly directly from your lock screen. If you look closely, you'll see a camera icon next to your 'slide to unlock' bar. Simply flick or drag this upwards and you're in camera mode! A great way to bypass having to enter your PIN code and then looking for the camera icon on your home screen.

How does this help you take better photos, you may ask. Well a big part of photography is about capturing the moment. The beauty of SLRs (assuming you have it to hand) is that it's ready to snap in an instant. This little shortcut for the iPhone allows you to take your first shot in 3-4 seconds rather than 6-8 seconds. Those few seconds saved can seem like an eternity when you see that special moment passing you by!

 


With photography, the right frame of mind can make all the difference between a good shot and a bad one. If you believe that your iPhone isn't for serious photography, your mind will approach the shot in that way. But believe that the iPhone can take great shots, and you will start seeing those great shots.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post, do bookmark this page in case you need a refresher. Follow these simple tips and we're sure the quality of your iPhone photos will improve drastically. Don't forget to share these tips with friends you know who shoot a lot from their phones! And if you've got some great shots taken from your iPhone (or any smartphone for that matter), do share them with us and we'd love to publish examples on this blog to inspire others!

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