take better pictures with your phone : my best tips, tricks, and apps

January 17, 2013

For a while now people have been asking me for iphone photo tips, and I kept putting it off and putting it off so that I could format it into a post that would be the record-breaking best shit to ever be repinned on pinterest and then I'd see 5 or 10 'Instagram Tips!' posts already out there and shrug my shoulders, because what the hell could I have to add to that?

Uh... well wow. All this, I guess.

Embarrassing confession: I don't use my DSLR anymore. Don't get me wrong, I love my Nikon, but ever since I discovered I can get brilliant, fast, really fun images from the phone I already carry in my pocket 24 hours a day, well... game over man, game over.

It's taken trial and error and a whole lot of practice, but I've gotten to a place where I'm head-over-heels in love with the pictures I'm getting just my phone – and really, I'm not doing anything especially special that everyone else can't do too.

Here are my best tips, from the very basics to the apps I can't live without. You can do this, guys. Not every picture needs to be a masterpiece but every picture can be in focus.


Let's start with the easy stuff, the things that should be obvious but based on the average photostream, well... aren't. Everybody who picks up a camera, even to take a picture of a poop on the floor, should know 4 simple photography basics:

1.   Stand still
No, seriously. I'm not really sure what's happening, is your phone inside a cloudy plastic bag underwater? Are you currently jumping up and down? Is your hand made of bees?

Hold your phone/camera with two hands and rest your elbows against your torso to increase your hand stability. Lean against a nearby wall or chair. The nicer your camera the easier it is to get a tack-sharp image BUT, even the older models can get fine results if you're careful. Some people are born with a smooth, steady hand and some of us have to work at it. Stop walking, stand still, concentrate.

taking photos with best light

2.   Look for the light
So you've got yourself still, the second part is getting your subject still. Since most of us are trying to snap shots of kids/pets/people it's not always possible to get your subject to cooperate and stop wiggling around. Good news! With some trial and error your camera can capture things in motion! Your wildest dreams are coming true!

Having a "nice" camera can help, but picking up a DSLR that you don't know how to use isn't going to magically solve all your problems. You can get equally effective results with a snap-and-go camera IF you know how to work with your camera's strengths.

The most important factor to combat subject blur is light. The brighter the light, the better your shutter will be able to stop the motion:

Toddler walking in dim living room = difficult, blurry
Dogs running full-speed in bright daytime at the park = BAM! crispy

how to stop motion iphone camera

If you want sharper, less blurry pictures move to a place with good, natural lighting. Period.

Especially with the limited settings on a phone camera it's really the only option you have to instantly improve the quality and combat shutter lag. If you really really need to capture your kid booping around the living room at 9pm go for it, but know ahead of time that you're going to compromise your picture.

(The exact reason you won't find many pictures taken in our very low-light living room. I don't bother because I know I won't be happy with the results.)

Not only does good light help your picture stay in focus, it also makes the image more interesting. Finding good light is sometimes more critical than finding something interesting to take a picture of (or even amounts to the same thing). Some of the least dynamic images are ones with flat, even lighting or a big, unnatural spot flash that washes out the subject. Unless you're rocking the #flashclub or you're getting fancy with bounce cards, your camera's flash is not doing you any favors.

how to use iphone camera

3.   Learn your camera
Some cameras always go dark, some always go light, some hang to the left and itch on Tuesdays. Your camera is a unique individual, and if you think I'm being ridiculous FINE BE THAT WAY, but I'm just trying to help you out. Learning the specific quirks of your machine allows you to take better pictures because you're tuned in to what's going on.

Example: When I switched to a new phone every single picture came out much darker than I was used to. I started adjusting the exposure (more on that below) to offset it, whamzam, problem solved. My camera also loves cold weather and any picture I take in dim, indoor light will look like a grainy pile of junk. These are facts I know because my machine and I are xoxo BFFs.

4.   Cull the herd
On today's digital cameras you aren't going to wear out the shutter. It's okay to take 25 pictures just to get 1 you like. Take 30. Take 50 different angles. Most importantly delete all of them except the best one/two.

Scan through them and pick out the one that best captures the mood/moment and isn't blurry and save it; nix the rest. You don't need 45 pictures of your kid eating a cookie if you have one super-adorable one that actually looks great. Moment = captured, storage space = saved. You can be our savior and deliver us from the evil that is an entire 52 pictures album of identical pictures of little junior eating an apple.

take better pictures

The above are all general tips that can apply to anyone using any camera, but from here on out we're busting into the specifics of what I know best- the iphone camera. Peace out 'droid fools because this is not going to interest you one little bit.

A few technical details: The camera I use is an iphone 4s — I've since upgraded to an iphone 5s. Very little of this post has changed upgrading from one to the next, other than the total resolution available. The cameras on the 4s/5/5s are similar, however the difference between the 4s/5 and the 3g/3gs cameras is quite significant.

If you have an older phone and you're wondering why your pictures don't seem as sparkly as your friend's— ding ding ding! That's probably the critical factor that's holding you back. Phone cameras have made huge leaps in the last 3-4 years. The older models can take fine pictures, but you're going to have to work a lot harder to get them.

best iphoneography tips

Getting the most out the iphone camera

Rather than just whipping out the camera and slamming down the button, there are few quick tricks that can help you get better results, immediately.

The camera does not actually take the picture until you take your finger OFF the button. When you're preparing to take a picture press down the shutter button before you line up the shot and then gently lift your finger it to activate the shutter.

This is a camera-shake reducer because it removes the impact of your finger pressing down onto the button and wiggling the screen. The volume + button on the side of the phone will also act as a shutter, as will the volume + button on your headphones. Those can be a big help if you struggle with shaky hands or if you're using a tripod and need a remote release (macro experimenters, headphone remote release is your new best friend).

how to use the iphone camera

The built-in camera will let you touch the screen to set where you want it to focus. You can touch somebody if you want to auto-focus on their face, or touch the closest thing on the screen to adjust the depth of field. It's a good start, but it's a little rough. There are apps that will let you take this control to the next level.

I shoot almost all my pictures with the camera+ app, first and foremost because it allows you to fine-tune the focus/exposure. Not only can you tap on the screen to set your focus (just like the standard camera) you can also use a second touch to set the exposure, letting you fully adjust the lights/darks in your image while preserving the focus. If you want to expose for the bright sky, you touch the lightest part of the screen; if you want to expose for the darker foreground you touch the darkest part.

changing the exposure on the iphone camera

So I'm obviously a big camera+ fan for the exposure control, but it also has a host of other convenient bonuses that come in handy like the focus/exposure lock, timer, rule of thirds grid, level, ISO/exposure readings, bracketing mode, and a slightly faster shooting rate overall for capturing action shots.

Any images you take in camera+ are saved to an in-app staging area where you can then sort/edit/delete and save only the best to your main camera roll. It's basically an upgraded tricked-out saucy diamond-studded version of the built-in camera. Camera+ gets the official grumbles stamp of approval*. (*Not a sponsored message)

taking better pictures

Rockin' apps and all that jazz

Once you've got a good, solid image there are a whole slew of edits and filters out there to let you futz with it to your little heart's content. Instagram filters are the obvious options BUT, there's so much more you can do to edit your photos than just slam on the earlybird border and call it a day.

You can get stunning results by subtly mixing and matching effects to create your own style, results that not only look unique but also that no one would guess came from a telephone.

iphoneography help

There are countless photo-editing apps out there but these are the ones I come back to again and again:

In addition to being THE BOSS camera, camera+ has a whole slew of filters and image effects you can choose from. Some of them are great (I particularly like their retro black and white setting) but major downside: it doesn't allow you to select multiple filters at a time. In order to layer multiple edits you'll have to save/reopen each time.

What camera+ is for taking pictures snapseed is for editing, ie, THE SHIT, and they were recently purchased by Google. Snapseed offers nearly unlimited editing options, from brightness/saturation adjustment to tilt-shift, sharpening, and spot adjustments. This is my main workhorse app for processing because I like to really fine-tune my images and it's extremely detail oriented.

fog, bitch

Vscocam offers a nice set of preset filters with a specific "look" (high contrast, low curves) but you can also delve into the options one by one and create your own mixture. The interface is not quite as user-friendly but the output is higher quality. A lot of times if I have an image with a lot of noise/grain a run through vscocam helps take the edge off.

afterlight (formerly afterglow)
Afterlight has quickly moved into the limelight because it offers so many options all rolled into one spot, reducing the time neurotic photo-editors like myself have to spend swapping between apps. It offers all the standard editing adjustments plus a huge range of filters that you can fade/layer to create custom effects.

It's also the most convenient way to crop your images into a square format for instagram. Afterlight images look great on the screen but be warned: you lose a bit of image quality when you export and be especially wary of the "sharpening" tool, it seems like a good idea at the time, but it's not. Trust me.

Other apps that come in handy once in a blue moon:
Diptic, Mextures, Over, Hipstamatic (not a fan, personally, but there's the obligatory mention)

black and white portraits iphone

Most importantly, just like any other camera, practice. Practice practice practice. Take lots of pictures. Learn what you like and what you need to improve on. It takes a while to get into a groove where you really start to excel, so shoot often and keep only your best work.

Not everything has to be a masterpiece, but just because you're not a photographer (and I am definitely no photographer) doesn't mean you can't tear ass around the figurative yard.

great iphone photos
iphone portraits

iphone camera tips The main reason I put my "fancy" camera aside and started shooting exclusively with my phone is because IT'S FUN. BAM, that's it— FUN. Really crazy addictively fun. I finally stopped feeling guilty and admitted I wanted to take my iphone images seriously. Isn't that what we should be spending our valuable time on, things that bring us joy? I always have it with me so it's fast and convenient, and I have fun pushing the boundaries of what the mechanics are capable of.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and there's no wrong way to take a picture. Good luck, have fun, and for heaven's sake HOLD STILL.

Still have questions? Wondering about print quality? Puzzled by camera+? Check out the updated FAQ

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