Getting started with iPhoneography

Basics of iPhone shooting - Getting Started with iPhoneography

Are you new to iPhoneography?  Do you want to learn how to shoot amazing pictures with your iPhone?  Maybe you just need a few tips and tricks?  Read on!

As you can tell from my frequent iPhone photo posts, iPhone photo app reviews and my list of top iPhone photo apps – I kinda like shooting with my iPhone.  It’s a fabulous tool and gives me creative freedom that I don’t always find when using my Nikon DSLR.

In fact, I wrote an article about how the iPhone is helping me become a better photographer.  I really believe that it is.  Even if it wasn’t, I would still shoot with it a lot because it’s fun, especially given all the apps that you can use to make your shots even more creative.

Whenever I post my iPhone shots, I tend to get questions about shooting with an iPhone, what apps I use, how I processed the shot, etc.  So I thought I would add some more articles here, and start with this article about the basics of shooting with an iPhone.

Commercial break: my friend Justin Balog wrote a book on iPhoneography - you should check it out if you really want to get deeper into this.  I bought it, and it's very helpful!  Well worth the price!

Here is the iTunes link:

OK, let's get started, shall we??

Here are a few things you should know before you start firing away.

  1. The built-in camera in the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 is 8 megapixels.  That’s as good as a lot of point and shoot cameras, and better than some!  I currently use the iPhone 4S.  I love it!
  2. Unlike a P&S or a DSLR, you cannot adjust Aperture, ISO, etc.  These things are fixed, but that is actually ok because we have a lot of creative possibilities anyways due to the availability of various apps.
  3. Because of the 8 megapixel sensor, you can actually print these photos out in a decent size.  Decorate your home with your iPhone shots!
  4. You will find that because the iPhone is small, easy to use, and fun you will always have it with you and you will start taking a LOT of iPhone pictures.  I cannot be responsible for your new addiction.  :-)

Ok, we are ready to get started…so grab your iPhone and follow along!

1. Quick access to the camera

First things first: have you ever been somewhere, see a shot come together, and struggle to get your DLSR out, turn it on, get the settings right, and then fire?  Heck, even grabbing your iPhone and getting ready can be a challenge at time.  You are likely to miss the shot.  So Apple made a huge improvement a while back, which allows you immediate access to your iPhone’s camera.  When your iPhone is locked, just swipe quickly up on that camera icon there in the bottom right corner and you are ready to shoot!  Easy!

2. Turn off the flash

Some people use the flash, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I do not.  I rarely need it, unless I am grabbing a family pic in low light.   The iPhone is not very good with low light.  Usually though I am shooting something on my travels or around town, and the flash is just not necessary for that.

In this case, I am shooting some Lucky Cat thing I found in my office closet.  Nice kitty!


Do you see the little lightning bolt-looking icon in the upper left corner?  That’s for the flash.  Just tap on that and your choices are: Auto (iPhone chooses when to fire the flash), On (on all the time) and Off (off all the time).  Pretty simple stuff.

3. Turn the Grid On

Click on “Options” there on the top of the screen and you will see “Grid”.  By activating the grid, you will get the grid lines in your Live View, which look somewhat like a tic-tac-toe board.  This is used to help you better line up your shots, and to follow one of the basic rules of photo composition, which is the Rule of Thirds.


The Rule of Thirds is essentially this: try to line up whatever your subject is on one of the intersecting points where the grid lines meet.  This tends to yield a better photograph, from an aesthetically pleasing point of view.  Centering your subject is usually considered a bad idea....but not always.  This is art, after all.  Rules are really just suggestions. :-)

So although I generally think the Rule of Thirds is helpful, I would add that you should feel free to experiment.  That’s one of the great things about shooting with the iPhone – it’s easy and fun to experiment and get creative.  Plus, rules are made to be broken.  So just go shoot and have fun with it.

4. Turn HDR Off (there's an app for that!)

Wait a minute Jim – don’t you love HDR photography?  Why turn it off?  Yes, you got me there – I love shooting HDR, even on my iPhone.  But, I don’t use the built-in HDR functionality on the iPhone.  I tend to prefer shooting my iPhone HDRs with the ProHDR app.  In other words, as the saying goes…there’s an app for that.

You can see my review of ProHDR here.  It’s definitely my “go-to” app for iPhone HDR.  It’s the only one I ever use for it.  It's awesome.

5. Choose your focal point

The iPhone has an ingenious way to help you choose where you want to focus: just touch the screen and the iPhone will focus there.  It’s really that easy.  If you don’t tell it where to focus, it will decide for itself.  Sometimes that works, but’s it doubtful that the iPhone thinks exactly like you do all the time.  Just a quick touch and you are ready to fire away!

6. Tell the iPhone how to expose the shot

Note that when you touch the screen for the focal point, the iPhone will use that point as the exposure setting too.  What I mean is that your shot will vary wildly depending on where you tell the iPhone to focus.  Take these two shots for example, which I took on a plane while writing this.

In the first one, I touched the middle of the screen, and since it was a dark area, the iPhone chose to expose for that area (brightening it)…which as you can see means the brighter section up top got REALLY bright.  In other words, it brightens the entire image.  So be careful here, because that can cause serious blown out highlights in a photo.

Now in this second shot, I touched the screen in the brighter section up top, telling the iPhone to exposure for that area.  So it toned down the bright lights there, but that also means that the darker spots got much darker.  In my opinion, that is also bad.


This is the main reason I shoot HDR on my iPhone.  Using the ProHDR app, you can take two photos, one exposing for the light and the other for the dark, and then combine them.  From there, you have the option to make several adjustments.   The end result is that you get a balanced version of the photo.

Here’s a screenshot from ProHDR while adjusting this photo.  See all the sliders for Contrast, Saturation, etc?  You can adjust the photo all sorts of ways.


Here’s the final version, which more closely represents what I saw with my own eyes (and sorry, not exactly an exciting photo…just happened to be writing this from 35,000 feet!).

7. Zoom in

Yes, you can zoom in with the iPhone as well.  Just do a “pinch” motion on the screen, and a little slider with a “plus” and “minus” sign at either end will appear.  Hit the “plus” sign to zoom in, and hit the “minus” sign to zoom back out.


Note however that when zooming, you will lose quality in the end result.  The shot will have more noise in it – i.e. it will be more grainy.  The camera is just not super sophisticated, and the sensor just can’t accommodate a massive zoom, but that’s ok.

Normally if I need to zoom in, I just walk closer to my subject, assuming I am able to.  That way I get a better quality photo, and a little exercise!  (ok, very little exercise!)

8. Take the photo

Ok, that may have taken a little while, but now you are ready to fire your shot.  Just tap the camera icon in the bottom center of the screen.  You can also hold down on that button and when you release it will fire the shot.

9. Film a video

If you look in the bottom right corner of the screen while having the camera “open”, there is a little camera icon and a video camera icon, with a slider.  This allows you to quickly switch from camera to video with a simple little swipe.  I rarely shoot video, but a lot of people use this one frequently.  It works pretty well, but note that it will be zoomed in a bit more than the camera is, meaning if you are filming a scene you may need to back up to recompose how your video is framing it. 

10. Take a selfie

Everybody loves to take pics of themselves and share them online…it’s like proof that you actually went somewhere, and it’s fun to virtually do a little boasting to your friends on your social network of choice.  You can take a self-portrait with the iPhone too.  See the little camera icon in the upper right with the arrows?  Just tap on that, and the camera turns itself on you instead of on the scene in front of you.  Tap it again to switch it back.  Easy as pie.  Now the outcome of your self-portrait will just depend on how long your arm is.  

That's me on Baker Beach in San Francisco...I was out shooting. Hard to believe, isn't it?  :-)

11. Quick access to the Camera Roll

Your camera roll is where all the shots get stored.  It’s your digital library of iPhone photos and videos, basically.  If you are in Camera mode, you can quickly access your Camera Roll by tapping on the little icon in the bottom left corner.  The picture you see there is the last one you have taken.  Just tap on that icon, and it will take you to the Camera Roll where you can see all the shots you have taken.


While in Camera Roll, you can quickly return to the camera by tapping the camera icon in the bottom left of the screen (as is the photo above), or you can delete the photo by tapping on the trash can icon in the bottom right of the screen.  The arrow that looks like it is moving (just to the right of the Camera icon) is to forward the photo in email, or text it, or use it as wallpaper, plus other options (see below photo).  The next icon (right-facing triangle) is to create a Slideshow.  Lots of stuff you can do, huh?

12. Create an album and get organized!

You can also create an album for your iPhone shots, which helps you stay organized in case you end up taking a lot of photos…which you probably will.  While in the Camera Roll, be sure and select “Albums” on the bottom of the screen.  You will notice a “+” sign at the top left – just tap that and it will prompt you to create an album. 

Pick a name, hit “Save” and there it is.  In this example, I created one called "Test Album". 

It will then prompt you to add photos to the Album.  You can do so by selecting “Camera Roll”, going into it, and tapping on any photo you would like to add to your new album.  Click “Done”.  It will move a copy over, and you are done!

A note about Albums:

As you can see, I do not really use the Albums feature.  There is nothing wrong with it, except for one thing: it makes a copy of any photo and drops it into the new Album, which means the original is still in the Camera Roll.  That makes sense, but because you are creating all these copies, you start to eat up storage on your iPhone.  Since I take a lot of iPhone pics, I decided not to do that.  Instead I create Albums for them in Aperture and manage my iPhone photos there.  I also remove them from my iPhone every once in a while, just so I have free space to take more!

Get ready for fun: Time to get creative

Once you have mastered all the basics of shooting, it’s time to start exploring your creativity by downloading and trying out a bunch of photo apps.  There are so many that I could never cover them all.  I have a list of my favorites here.  Feel free to test those out, and let me know if you find other cool ones!

Note that many apps allow you to take your photo from within the app (such as ProHDR) instead of using the native iPhone camera.  I rarely do that, except in the case of ProHDR because I have to use the app in order for it to take the two exposures and combine them. 

Anytime that I am just shooting single iPhone shots, I take those with the native iPhone camera.  It’s just my preference.  Some of the apps might be just as easy to use, but I prefer to take my shots with the iPhone camera and then make adjustments in the app (except with ProHDR, as I stated above) at a later time. 

As I said, I tend to make my adjustments later, after I am done shooting, so that’s another reason I take them with the built-in iPhone camera app.  I prefer to shoot away while the light is good, and then take some quiet time later to mess around with the shots in various apps.

Well, that’s about it folks!  These are just some basic steps to get you started firing away with your iPhone.  I sure hope this helps, and that you have a good time out there creating art!  Thanks for stopping by, and tell your friends!