How to take better photos with the iPhone

Posted:
in General Discussion edited October 2020
You've got one of the best cameras in the world right there in your iPhone XR, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max -- and really just about any recent iPhone. Knowing just a few tips will hugely improve the photos you take with them.

You don't need a tripod, but taking certain other steps will improve even your casual photographs
You don't need a tripod, but taking certain other steps will improve even your casual photographs


The best camera in the world is the one you've got with you. Usually when photographers say that, they mean that any camera is the best one when it's all you've got and when it's with you just as something happens that you want to shoot. However, when you've got an iPhone, it's also true that you literally have one of the best digital cameras there is.

Even before the next iPhones with their expected triple-lens cameras come out, here's what you can do to take even better photos with your phone.

Prepare

Clean the lens. Seriously. You've been throwing this phone in and out of your pocket or bag, and you've been holding it with your thumb over the camera. Don't use water, but also don't use your finger. Get a cloth and wipe it clean.

You think that lens is clean.
You think that lens is clean.


Remember that you're almost always going to need to take a photo quickly. Maybe you'll be in a huge rush because you have moments in which to take that perfect shot of your baby precisely as a soap bubble bursts in front of them.

Even if you're posing friends, though, and covering up that incredible landscape view with these people you'll have forgotten in five years' time, you can't dawdle.

So cleaning the lens ahead of time is a help. So is taking a moment to change certain standard settings on your iPhone.

Settings

Go to Settings, scroll down to Camera, and in that section tap to switch on Grid.

This overlays a grid on your iPhone's display when you're using the camera and you can use it to help compose your photos. Just having that grid seems to help us compose a shot better, it lets us see that we've got the person too far to one side, or that we're for some reason photographing a mile and a half of sky above their heads.

Specifically, the grid helps you use the Rule of Thirds, a term referring to how objects placed in certain parts of the image are inherently more interesting. Place your subject along one of these grid lines instead of dead centre of the frame, and your photo is better.

Turning on the grid will help you compose better shots
Turning on the grid will help you compose better shots


Next, go into the Camera app itself and tap on the flash icon. From the options that appear, tap on Off.

Flash is very rarely useful, and even on the times when you try to use it, it even more rarely makes for a good image. The default is Auto, which means the phone decides whether it's needed, but switch it to off. You can always change your mind.

Live and let HDR

The latest iPhones default to automatically using HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photos. With older iPhones, you had to tap an HDR button on the Camera screen. If you've got a HDR button, tap it.

What this does is make the iPhone take several photos at different exposures and blend them together into one image. It will almost always look better than an individual shot you too, but you can tell the phone to save both its HDR image and your attempt.

Go to Settings, Camera, and tap on Keep Normal Photo. There is a setting here for switching off the automatic HDR, but leave it on.

Live Photos also record more than a single image, they take a few moments of video and audio either side of your shot. Some people loathe this, others love it, it's completely up to you -- but note that Live Photos take up more storage space. Burst mode also takes up a lot of space.

Newer iPhones have this HDR setting on by default.
Newer iPhones have this HDR setting on by default.


To switch Live Photos on or off, tap the Live button in the Camera. There isn't a setting to switch Burst on or off, it just happens when you hold your finger down on the shutter button.

There is a setting for one more significant issue, which is what format your photo will be saved in. Apple is pushing the HEIC format which is meant to produce images that have more detail yet take up less space than a JPG.

That's the default, and previously we might've said you should switch it off for compatibility sake. HEIC images used to cause odd problems with different image editors, though it appears to have been greatly improved.

It's still the case that not everyone can use or see HEIC images, but if you email such an image direct from the Photos app, iOS will convert it to JPEG first.

Taking the shot

Your iPhone provides tools to help you get the best shot, and perhaps the most useful is how it lets you set focus. Line up the shot on whatever it is you want to photograph, and then tap on your iPhone screen at the point where you want the image to be focused.

A yellow box will briefly appear around your finger. To lock that focus, press and hold until the yellow box changes shape and the Camera app shows "AE/AF lock" on screen. That's now fixed the focus and also the exposure.

However, you can change the exposure, although it's not obvious how you do it. Tap on the screen to get that yellow box up, and then swipe your finger downwards to one side or other.

You'll see the image change as you alter the exposure and when you let go, it's set.

Take steps to improve the shot

We mean this literally. Forget the settings on your iPhone, actually take steps, physical steps. As good as the zoom on an iPhone is, whenever it is at all possible, you should zoom with your feet instead.

L-R: Regular shot, 2x optical zoom, 7x digital zoom
L-R: Regular shot, 2x optical zoom, 7x digital zoom. Look how fuzzy the leaves look in the zoomed image.


Get closer to your subject and you'll take a better shot. If you have an iPhone XR, pretend the zoom feature doesn't even exist. If you have an iPhone XS or an iPhone XS Max, you can zoom a little.

That's because the dual lenses in the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max allow those phones to have an optical zoom, and the iPhone XR only has a digital one. An optical zoom moves the lenses so that, like using a magnifying glass, it can make the object appear nearer.

A digital zoom just crops the image to a smaller frame and then pulls that back up to a full-size photo by calculating what the pixels should look like. That it can be done is remarkable, that anyone should use this feature is a mystery.

Tripods can be a boon.
Tripods can be a boon.


If you must use any zoom, think about getting a tripod, because even the slightest zoom magnifies any camera shake -- and you inevitably get that because you're holding the phone in your hand.

Speaking of lenses

You're not stuck with the lenses that come on your iPhone, though. You can add a zoom or telephoto lens to even an iPhone XR if you buy an external one, such as those made by Moment.

Moment also makes an ultra-wide angle lens for iPhone.






You do have the issue of taking the lens on and off, meaning that this isn't going to be for you if you need a fast shot. Not unless you leave the lens on, and then it isn't for you if you tend to handle your iPhone roughly.

Nonetheless, you can get remarkable results with a third-party lens -- and you can with third-party software, too.

Camera apps

Given that any app you buy can only use whatever lens your iPhone has or that you've added to it, you would expect them to be limited. You would assume a third-party app could not possibly do anything Apple's own Camera app couldn't. And yet you'd be wrong.

Apple may in theory have better access to its own hardware than anyone else, but Apple also chooses to balance power with usability.

The Camera app is a very good compromise between the two. However, there are third-party alternatives such as Halide that for the price of being a little harder to learn, exploit the hardware more for you.

The makers of Halide say that the data their app provides even includes details that Apple may not publish.

After you take the shot

You'll notice that we haven't mentioned filters. Love them or detest them, they are quick ways to make startling changes to your images. We'd just recommend that you take the very best shot you can at the time, and apply filters later -- to a copy.

You can apply filters after you've taken a shot
You can apply filters after you've taken a shot


For the very best filters and alterations, use a separate app like Pixelmator Photo or Affinity Photo on iPad, or their equivalents on the Mac.

However, you can make at least some filter-style changes in the regular Photos app. What you can't ever do is re-take the original photo if you've somehow destroyed it.

Being a better photographer

None of these tips will make you an expert. What will is practice, and learning as you go. What they will do is help you avoid some simple mistakes.

Don't forget, though, that the camera in your iPhone is a marvel. Everything about photography on iPhones is astonishingly good, really, when you compare it to the Polaroids that we used to take.

There is one thing that isn't great, though. And that's how camera phones and social media have trained us to take photos in portrait instead of landscape. Very little looks great in portrait mode. It's not even automatically the better option when you are taking an actual portrait photo of someone. Think about what the final image will look like, and where you're going to use it, before you take the shot.

Keep up with AppleInsider by downloading the AppleInsider app for iOS, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 1,498member
    You've got one of the best cameras in the world right there in your iPhone XR, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max —and really just about any recent iPhone.
    So for many of us that means that step one is really "Get a recent iPhone." LOL Seriously these are good tips. Thanks.
    hippololliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    napoleon_phoneapartalanhlolliverfreethinkingmicrobetoysandmewatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 17
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 9,009member
    My wife and I are enrolled in an 8 week photography class. The instructor is a professional photographer who has over 40 years of experience. We have learned about f stops, aperture, shutter speed, IOS speed and how they work together to produce a good exposure. The most interesting lessons have been about composition, lighting, and depth of field and how to control them. We are using DSLRs of course and I now know what almost all the buttons and settings do on my Canon T2i 550. The instructor freely acknowledges that smartphone cameras are getting better and better and that computational photography is doing a lot of post processing BUT he insists there’s nothing like having full control over your camera to produce truly excellent photos. He sells his art photos at exhibitions and fairs for good money and they are really amazing. We have few hanging in our living room.

    Bottom line for me is that there’s a lot more to photography than pointing and clicking and letting the camera’s AI decide how to expose the image. The smartphone camera is fine when you just need to “get the shot”. I don’t know if there are apps that allow the photographer to take full control of the iPhone’s cameras. 
    hippofreethinkingmicrobewatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 17
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 5,688member
    lkrupp said:
    My wife and I are enrolled in an 8 week photography class. The instructor is a professional photographer who has over 40 years of experience. We have learned about f stops, aperture, shutter speed, IOS speed and how they work together to produce a good exposure. The most interesting lessons have been about composition, lighting, and depth of field and how to control them. We are using DSLRs of course and I now know what almost all the buttons and settings do on my Canon T2i 550. The instructor freely acknowledges that smartphone cameras are getting better and better and that computational photography is doing a lot of post processing BUT he insists there’s nothing like having full control over your camera to produce truly excellent photos. He sells his art photos at exhibitions and fairs for good money and they are really amazing. We have few hanging in our living room.

    Bottom line for me is that there’s a lot more to photography than pointing and clicking and letting the camera’s AI decide how to expose the image. The smartphone camera is fine when you just need to “get the shot”. I don’t know if there are apps that allow the photographer to take full control of the iPhone’s cameras. 
    For me there is something special about putting your eye to the viewfinder and blocking out everything except the photo, half pressing the shutter button and knowing that nothing is going to get in the of taking the shot.

    Phone cameras are great but regular cameras with comfortable grips are still great options and still have qualities resulting from their form factor.
    hippomicrobe
  • Reply 5 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    Agreed, looks ridiculous. I wish there was a button that allows you to hold the phone vertically, which does allow a firmer steadier grip, especially one handed, but shoot the video/photo as if it were oriented landscape. So basically rotate the lens instead of the phone. I know iMovie can do this after the fact, but I’m not sure how much resolution is lost in the process. Also an extra step most people wouldn’t bother with.
    lolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 17
    “Best” is of course a subjective thing. The iPhone camera is really good, and probably better than most phone cameras and a lot of pocket cameras. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s as good or better than a DSLR or one of the mirrorless professional or semi-pro cameras. That would just be hype. 

    iPhone lenses are excellent, but they’re tiny and they have limitations. For instance, the reference to zoom functions in the article is partly correct but partly incorrect. There is no optical zoom on an iPhone. If you have a dual-lens iPhone, that means you have two fixed lenses. When playing with the zoom function, 1X is one lens, and 2X is the other lens.  Everything else is “digital zoom,” which is actually just cropping the frame before you save it. Everything between 1X and 2X is cropping the image from the first lens, and everything beyond 2X is cropping the image from the second lens. There are no moving lenses in an iPhone, and there is no optical zoom. 

    Optical zoom requires a big lens which has multiple lenses (elements) inside that move closer or further away from each other in order to physically magnify the image that reaches the sensor. It’s physically impossible for the compact lens in an iPhone to do that. 

    iPhone lenses are also fixed aperture. In photography aperture is referred to as “f-stop,” and that refers to the size of the opening in the lens that determines how much light comes through. It’s like the pupil in your eye.

    In pro- or semi-pro cameras, you can adjust the f-stop, or how big or small the “pupil” is. With the complex physics of light and lenses, this will change your depth-of-field, which refers to whether things near and far are all in focus, or if a certain distance from the camera is in focus, and everything else is more blurry.

    Adjusting the aperture can get that great landscape shot where everything is in focus, or that great portrait, where the subject’s face is in focus and everything else is blurred. 

    Because the iPhone’s lenses are so tiny, that ‘pupil’ has to stay one size. All the depth of field portrait stuff on an iPhone is simulated after the fact. The dual lenses can help the computer gauge distances, but the rest is computer simulations. It’s done really well, but sometimes if you look around the edges of a head or face where the iPhone has blurred the background, you can see places where the algorithm missed a detail, leaving a tiny bit of background in focus, for instance, or your cat’s whiskers get blurred with the background. On a big camera, that doesn’t happen. 

    All this is to say that the iPhone’s cameras are really great, but let’s not kid ourselves by claiming it’s the “best” camera you can get. You can take great pictures with an iPhone, but that person with the big camera next to you is probably getting much better shots than you are. 
    hippomicrobe
  • Reply 7 of 17
    lkrupp said:
    My wife and I are enrolled in an 8 week photography class. The instructor is a professional photographer who has over 40 years of experience. We have learned about f stops, aperture, shutter speed, IOS speed and how they work together to produce a good exposure. The most interesting lessons have been about composition, lighting, and depth of field and how to control them. We are using DSLRs of course and I now know what almost all the buttons and settings do on my Canon T2i 550. The instructor freely acknowledges that smartphone cameras are getting better and better and that computational photography is doing a lot of post processing BUT he insists there’s nothing like having full control over your camera to produce truly excellent photos. He sells his art photos at exhibitions and fairs for good money and they are really amazing. We have few hanging in our living room.

    Bottom line for me is that there’s a lot more to photography than pointing and clicking and letting the camera’s AI decide how to expose the image. The smartphone camera is fine when you just need to “get the shot”. I don’t know if there are apps that allow the photographer to take full control of the iPhone’s cameras. 
    For the person who is not going to learn all the stuff you’re getting in your class, the iPhone’s AI is a truly fantastic thing. It’s the same thing as the perennial lamentations (like Neil Young, for instance) about the quality of recorded music. Young complains that the file compression algorithms of mp3s or Apple Music are inferior to the pristine audiophile stuff of 180-gram vinyl or lossless digital formats. That’s true, but it ignores the fact that your average person never had the audiophile stuff. Apple Music played through stock ear buds is orders of magnitude better than scratchy mass-produced vinyl (or even worse mass-produced cassettes) played through cheap K-Mart audio gear, which is what most consumers had. Apple Music from an iPhone is better even than CDs played through a lot of crappy consumer-grade audio gear. So the truth is, the average person has way better quality audio than they used to. 

    Likewise, they can take way better snapshots than they ever could in days of yore, and because it’s available via the phone in their pocket, it’s a huge improvement. Audiophile music is still better than Spotify or Apple Music on an iPhone and a DSLR (or mirrorless option) is still better than an iPhone camera, but the bottom end in both cases has come way, way up.
    hippololliver
  • Reply 8 of 17
    Watching people take videos holding the phone vertically happens so often but these are probably the same people who complained about watching a letterboxed feature film instead of pan&scan because they're being cheated out of seeing the "whole" movie. And the digital zooming...ugh! But what was left out of the article is using the iPhone for digiscoping and the various adapters currently available. I use my iPhone SE with an adaptor from Kowa and my Swarovski scope for stunning photos and videos. So much so I've stopped carrying my DSLR. While I gave up the flexibility of aiming my DSLR for rapid shots, I've gotten very quick at getting on subjects, specially when anticipating where the subject will be "in the frame". An article on digiscoping with an iPhone would be a nice compliment to this tips article.
    hippo
  • Reply 9 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    Agreed, looks ridiculous. I wish there was a button that allows you to hold the phone vertically, which does allow a firmer steadier grip, especially one handed, but shoot the video/photo as if it were oriented landscape. So basically rotate the lens instead of the phone. I know iMovie can do this after the fact, but I’m not sure how much resolution is lost in the process. Also an extra step most people wouldn’t bother with.
    You’d lose a lot of resolution. It’s just cropping out most of the top and bottom of a vertical image and blowing up the remaining pixels in the middle to fill the screen. Even if you start out shooting at 4K, the cropping will net you a less-than-HD result. People just need to learn to turn their phone sideways when shooting video.

    The best thing Apple could do would be to add an alert that pops up to say “turn your phone sideways for better video.” It could go away automatically when you turn your phone sideways, and otherwise have an “ignore” and “don’t tell me again” button for those who really don’t care.
    edited September 2019 hippomicrobe
  • Reply 10 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    I take mostly horizontal shots but there are times that a vertical is necessarily to get what I want in the picture or that it actually makes the shot better. That’s for photos but I suspect it would be the same for videos if I took more of them. 

    As for why, it’s most likely because that’s how people normally hold the iPhone. 
    hippo
  • Reply 11 of 17
    Wgkrueger said:
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    I take mostly horizontal shots but there are times that a vertical is necessarily to get what I want in the picture or that it actually makes the shot better. That’s for photos but I suspect it would be the same for videos if I took more of them. 

    As for why, it’s most likely because that’s how people normally hold the iPhone. 
    For still photography, vertical or horizontal or cropped to nonstandard dimensions is an entirely aesthetic choice. For video, horizontal should be the default, unless an aesthetic compositional choice is being made or the user really only intends that the image be viewed on a handheld device that can also be held in a vertical position. If you’re taking ‘eyewitness video’ or otherwise have any thought that someone might want to watch it on a big screen, turn the phone sideways. Nobody is going to turn their TV set to a vertical position to get the full screen image.
    hippololliver
  • Reply 12 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    Maybe they shoot portrait photos? Or their cat jumps vertically?
    hippo
  • Reply 13 of 17
    The 'Live Photos' feature is definitely the best thing about taking photos with my iPhone. I actually don't mind the amount of space it takes.

    And, yes, people should stop holding their phones vertically when recording...
    hippololliver
  • Reply 14 of 17
    lkrupp said:
    My wife and I are enrolled in an 8 week photography class. The instructor is a professional photographer who has over 40 years of experience. We have learned about f stops, aperture, shutter speed, IOS speed and how they work together to produce a good exposure. The most interesting lessons have been about composition, lighting, and depth of field and how to control them. We are using DSLRs of course and I now know what almost all the buttons and settings do on my Canon T2i 550. The instructor freely acknowledges that smartphone cameras are getting better and better and that computational photography is doing a lot of post processing BUT he insists there’s nothing like having full control over your camera to produce truly excellent photos. He sells his art photos at exhibitions and fairs for good money and they are really amazing. We have few hanging in our living room.

    Bottom line for me is that there’s a lot more to photography than pointing and clicking and letting the camera’s AI decide how to expose the image. The smartphone camera is fine when you just need to “get the shot”. I don’t know if there are apps that allow the photographer to take full control of the iPhone’s cameras. 
    The below article lists apps that can do more than the built-in Camera app. For example, the Halide app gives you manual control over shutter speed and ISO, and lets you save RAW files.

    Shoot, edit, and share with the best camera apps for the iPhone in 2019

  • Reply 15 of 17
    It's hard for me to understand why so many people hold their phones vertically. That never made sense to me. Especially for videos, I just shake my head in disbelief, that so many people hold their phones vertically.
    It’s way easier to hold. If you’re taking a quick pic, you’re not thinking of the device as a camera, just your phone. That it happens so often is a good sign it’s not because of “dumb users”.
  • Reply 16 of 17
    Tip number 1:
    Rotate the phone 90 degrees.
  • Reply 17 of 17
Sign In or Register to comment.