While most people think you need a professional camera to take great photos, the truth is you can capture professional-looking images with the camera you already have: your smartphone. In this article, we’ll go over tips, tricks, and “hidden” iPhone camera features for beginner and intermediate photographers. Whether you use your phone to take quick and casual pictures or create content for more professional purposes, you’ll find useful information in the tips below, which we culled from SLR Lounge’s Creative Photography 101 workshop, where all of the images in the workshop were created using only an iPhone and edited in Lightroom Mobile.
Most of these tips require a standard smartphone or iPhone Photography features like night mode, portrait mode, and wide-angle lenses, which you can find in most newer models. The examples shown in this article were taken on an iPhone 11 Pro Max; however, the majority of the concepts we cover below can be applied to your mobile phone or any camera you have.
1. Adjust the Exposure
You might not know this, but you can use phone apps and built-in camera functions to adjust your exposure settings, just as you would with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera. The iPhone’s built-in camera, for example, allows users to tap and hold any part of the frame and drag your finger up and down (using the sun icon) to adjust the exposure. Other mobile phone photography apps offer manual adjustments to the phone’s camera settings, such as aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Check out the Pro Camera by Moment app, which we reference often in this article. You might also want to read our article on the Exposure Triangle, to understand how to leverage shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to your advantage.
2. Lock Focus for Sharp Subjects
A great tip for keeping your subjects sharp is to lock focus on them. To do this, simply hold and press down on the area you want to lock focus on, and a small AE/AF Lock graphic will appear. With focus locked, your subject will stay in focus, even if you shake your camera or move around the scene.
3. Use the Grid for Composition
As explained in this article, 20 tips and Tricks for iPhone Photography, your phone likely comes with a compositional grid. Use it! Open the Settings app from the Home screen of your iPhone and select “Photos & Camera.” Then, toggle the Grid switch to enable a compositional grid to appear on your camera screen when using the native camera app. This tool will allow you to line up your subject using the rule of thirds. You can also use the grid to better understand other compositional tools like the golden rule or leading lines.
4. Capture Action Shots with Burst Mode
You don’t need a high-end camera to capture quick-moving action. Using your iPhone, hold down the shutter button to capture ten frames in a row in quick succession. This will allow you to capture the action and get the right shot, which you can select from the set of ten. Some examples of action that work well for this feature include jumping, dancing, and sports.
5. Use the Wide Angle Lens
If your phone includes a wide-angle lens, take advantage and use it to capture more of the frame than you can capture using a general lens with a standard focal length. On an iPhone 11, the main wide-angle camera offers an f/1.8 aperture and an equivalent focal length of 26mm. It’s important to understand that a wide-angle lens will also distort perspective more than a standard lens, as you can see in the image above.
6. Create Long Exposures
Here are a few different ways to create longer exposures with your iPhone camera.
- Tripod: Regardless of which phone/camera you have, a tripod can help you create long exposure photos. Place your phone on a tripod and use a third-party app to manually set your shutter speed to a slower setting.
- Live Photo Long Exposure: For iPhone users, Apple’s Live Photo mode allows you to swipe up on an image after capturing it and select one of three options. The first option is what we’re interested in here: Long Exposure. This option enables the camera to compute a longer exposure based on the time in which the live photo was captured. Remember to hold your hands very still while capturing the photo, especially in low light situations. This will give the live photo a solid chunk of stable footage to use for the long exposure.
- Night Mode: Exclusive to iPhone 11 and newer, “Night Mode” shows off the iPhone’s low-light capabilities in its improved camera. Night mode uses the new sensor along with machine learning and the Neural Engine in the A13 processor to create Night Mode shots.
DSLR or mirrorless sensors are more powerful than the iPhone’s sensor, but you can use any of the above-mentioned methods to create long exposures for light trails, water motion, photos in darker locations, or other unique examples of movement.
7. Take Panoramic Shots
You’ve no doubt seen a panoramic photo before. In and of themselves, they’re nothing new, but they can be used creatively to produce interesting portraits. For example, try panning the camera slowly with your subject posing on one end. Then, while you’re still panning, have your subject run to the other side of the frame, near where you’ll stop panning. In the final image, your subject will appear on both sides of the frame. Or, try using the Panoramic feature in a vertical image to highlight tall buildings or endless sky.
8. Never Miss a Moment
Make sure that your settings allow you to access your smartphone camera with one swipe from your lock screen.
9. Try Light Painting
If you can find a dark space that blocks most of the ambient light, you can try light painting with your iPhone. You’ll need a tripod for this technique to prevent camera shake. Start with a slow shutter speed of 1-2 seconds and then adjust your Aperture and ISO to darken the room, which you can do using info from tip #1 above. After you’ve set your exposure, try swinging a set of string lights to capture light painting magic (see the image above).
10. Play with Depth of Field
The iPhone XS ushered in the ability to change the depth of field of our images. In terms of using your phone to create portraits, focus on a singular object, or capture more detail in landscapes, this is a big deal. With an f-stop range from f/1.4 to f/16, the slider lets you adjust the depth of field to add a strong bokeh effect or keep everything in focus.
11. Use Foreground Objects to Add Visual Interest
When using an iPhone to capture an image that includes foreground elements, the camera tends to focus on whatever object is closest to the lens. Perfecting this technique will require practice, taking multiple shots, but the camera should eventually cooperate. It’s worth practicing because foreground elements add significant visual interest and will help you take better iPhone photos.
12. Go Under Water
Be careful here and make sure your iPhone is capable of going underwater for cool underwater iPhone photos. Both the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 are only water-resistant. You can submerge the new iPhone 11 Pro camera, however, for up to 30 minutes in roughly 13 feet of water. Expect this technology and the resulting images to only get better. Here is a Complete Guide on Underwater photography, to take your photography to a whole new level.
13. Zoom In
Using the Telephoto Lens, which you can access by pressing the 2x button next to 1.0x in the middle of the screen, allows you to zoom in two times the standard lens. On older models, you’ll have to zoom in manually, often resulting in a loss of detail and quality. Use the Telephoto lens to capture tight (or closer up) portraits.
14. Find or Create Reflections
Want to impress those who see your photos? All you need to do is find a window or glass door to create a reflection of your subject or view. To get better results, place the reflective surface close to the lens on the iPhone. Other reflective surfaces to consider include another phone or an ND filter. These are great options for creating a reflection on the go.
15. Rotate the Camera
By simply rotating your camera to place the lens closer to the ground, you can quickly change your perspective. The lenses are typically located in the top right corner of the back of your phone, which means they’re not placed at their lowest possible vantage point. Try rotating the camera to get interesting angles from the ground up.
As iPhones (and other smartphone cameras) continue to improve, their already amazing potential will only get better; they may someday even hold a place among even the best DSLR and mirrorless cameras. In the meantime, use the tips above to take better iPhone photos and stop settling for mediocre results. Since you probably keep your iPhone on or near you at all times, you might as well take advantage of its capabilities and make the memories you capture look their best. For more tips on this topic, be sure to check out SLR Lounge’s Creative Photography 101 workshop.
Create your professional photography website
Even as you continue to learn and inculcate the skills of iPhone photography, you must not forget to market your work. Build a professional photography website to showcase your photos. Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding work from recent travels. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
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Author: Sean fell into photography while teaching for a non-profit. What started as a minor task - documenting guest speakers and classroom activities - grew into a major obsession, and eventually led to a position shooting with Lin & Jirsa. Nowadays, at SLR Lounge, Sean's work as a marketing associate merges his interest in the fields of photography and education.