Photo 101

5 Tips for Making The Most of Your iPhone Camera

by Maxwell Tielman


There’s an oft-quoted phrase that says “the best camera is the one you have with you.” Today, the camera that almost everybody has with them is an iPhone and, despite its tiny size, it actually packs quite the photographic punch. Over the course of time that I’ve had one, my iPhone has slowly worked its way up to becoming my default camera—my bulky DSLR coming out only when I need a truly “professional” shot.  There’s no denying the iPhone’s (or any smartphone’s) benefits—it’s compact, actually fits into a pocket, and takes photos that genuinely rival consumer-grade point-and-shoot cameras. (For anybody skeptical of the iPhone’s photo-taking power, I highly recommend Austin Mann’s exhaustive iPhone 5S review.) As with any camera, though, the iPhone’s capabilities are vastly improved when you learn how to use it, taking advantage of everything it has to offer. Below, you will find my own favorite tips for making the most of your iPhone’s camera—from ways to expertly compose a shot to tricks for getting a more “manual” look. Let’s get snapping! —Max

1. Shoot with a grid! Like many professional cameras, the iPhone’s camera app has a grid feature that allows you to view your shots with a 3×3 grid overlaid on top of it. There are numerous benefits to shooting this way, from making sure objects are truly centered to making sure your image is perfectly aligned. Although a grid, what with its right angles and implications of exactitude, seems like it might be creatively stifling, it actually opens up a world of awesome compositional possibility. On the iPhone, the grid isn’t turned on by default. Go to the “Photos & Camera” section of the Settings app to turn it on.

2. Get fancy with your focus! The iPhone automatically adjusts its focus and exposure every time you reframe a shot (you can see it doing this with the little square that pops up on screen when you do this). However, “manually” adjusting your focus for more customized shots is easy-peasy: just tap the screen once to choose the object or location that you want focused/properly exposed. If you want your camera’s focus to be on something that isn’t in the frame or you want to be able to shift your composition after focusing, the AE/AF Lock feature is great. Simply press down on the screen and hold until the focus square pulsates twice. You will then see the words “AE/AF Lock” at the top of your screen. This feature is especially useful if you’re trying to get a nice “blurred” effect on your image—just lock your focus on something super close up and then take your photo!

3. Get the perfect shot! One feature that professional photographers use to ensure the perfect shot, especially with portraits, is burst mode. Essentially, taking photos in burst mode takes a number of photos in quick succession, allowing you to edit through them and find the perfect shot (no blinking eyes or awkward poses!). The iPhone has this feature built in—simply press and hold down the camera’s shutter button. Instead of the singular “snap” noise that accompanies a tap on the shutter, you’ll hear a quick succession of snaps—and your iPhone will capture photos for as long as you hold the button. Quick tip: for super-simple snapping, and to take photos the old fashioned “button” way, simply hold down the top volume button to snap a photo.

4. Optimize your shooting environment! Whether you’re shooting with a professional camera or an iPhone, the same rules of lighting and composition apply. It’s always best to use natural light (even with the iPhone 5S’s new “True Tone” flash, artificial light looks, well, artificial). Aligning your grid with elements in your environment also leads to more appealing compositions. Check out our guide for shooting interiors for tips for composing the best photos.

5. Get the best apps! Although I recommend shooting in the iPhone’s main camera app before importing to other apps like Instagram (this allows you to save a high-res photo and then crop to your specifications), I do have a few exceptions to this rule. The VSCO Cam app, which is quickly becoming the gold standard of iPhoto photography, is a superb alternative to the iPhone’s built-in camera. Its camera mode allows for even more manual control, from focus lock to a two-finger tap that allows you to adjust your exposure and focus separately—a feature that I use an a regular basis. VSCO also has a number of amazing filters and post-processing options that allow for great fine-tuning and photos that look remarkably film-like. Aside from VSCO cam (a must-have for any iPhone photographer), I also recommend AfterLight for its post-processing and framing options.

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  • I love this. Thank you! I only use my iphone as my camera because it has surpassed my old point-and-shoot digital camera, and beautiful DSLRs are way too expensive.

  • I think it’s great to see photography tips for every day, like phone cameras, but something important to consider before making statements like “Today, the camera that almost everybody has with them is an iPhone” is that, in reality, market shares show an 80% Android to 20% and dropping Apple/iPhone ratio (source: http://www.wired.com/business/2013/11/android-is-our-ms-dos/), so tips for the more affordable and more prevalent phone cameras would be appreciated.

    • Hi, Jacquelyn! You’re quite right—I shouldn’t have made such a generalization. Apologies! That said, I have used both Apple and Android phones and I must say that the photo quality attainable with the iPhone is almost always superior. Apple has done a wonderful job at fine-tuning their camera’s capabilities—a testament to how the company oftentimes focuses on design aspects that the consumer doesn’t even see, as opposed to more novel “visible” features. Apple has taken some slack for maintaining an 8-megapixel camera throughout several models, but the reasoning behind this is often misunderstood. It allows for more light control, something that is necessary for high-quality photos when using such small lenses and sensors. Regarding the price, while the latest iPhone model can, at $200, be pretty pricy, many cellular services offer their previous models at significant discounts or for free. I, for one, am using the iPhone 4S (currently available for free on the Apple website) and it takes beautiful photos!

  • Is anyone else having an issue with RSS feeds? My bloglivin account stopped updating Designsponge and their support said it was due to Designsponge’s RSS feed having issues?

  • These are the kinds of tips that everyone needs these days – with almost all of us being bloggers, thus smartphone users, photos on the go are our native language! Thanks for the tips!

  • I too was about to raise my hand and exclaim “Android!” from the back of the class, thanks @jacqueline for getting there first, and Max for addressing. Because the iPhone camera might be better than similar Android phones, but that doesn’t change the fact that significantly more people have an Android.
    (As a slight aside, I really resent iPhones because if it was down to them I wouldn’t have a smartphone at all, lower spec Android phones made it affordable for me and now I have worked up to a Samsung SIII Mini that I’m delighted with and that still costs me significantly less than the cheapest iPhone.)

  • Very helpful, thank you. A further set of questions: Do you have an app for distance shots that you like? And what about really shooting close up? Thank you.

  • Another: Don’t use the camera zoom if at all possible, just walk closer! Otherwise you lose quality quickly.

  • I am not getting any burst mode when I hold down my shutter on the iphone 5. Is there a spot to enable the burst feature? Does it only work within a certain app? Thanks for the tip about using the volume button as a shutter!

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