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Another Top Ten List for Shooting with the iPhone

Another Top Ten List for Shooting with the iPhone by Richard Gray

I know what you’re saying: not another one. Yes, there have been a lot of top ten tips but most of them have been about shooting generally, or are thinly veiled plugs for specific apps. Someone recently asked me for my top 10 tips for shooting with the iPhone camera. Yes, they honestly did. You mean specifically for the iPhone camera, I asked, not about taking photos generally, or apps? Yes, they said. So this one is specifically for taking photos with the iPhone camera on the native camera app. No fancy stuff.

1) Gravitate to the light. This tip seems to be at the top of everyone’s list, but it bears repeating. It works for all cameras but is particularly important for the iPhone camera. Especially when shooting people. If you have some good light (especially if you live in the UK) grab it. I took the photo below in London when I had some great light. It was (as us photographers like to call it in a very technical way) the golden hour (roughly the hour before the sun goes down), when the sun’s rays are almost parallel with the earth’s surface and (for some reason) turn a golden colour. People’s eyes are usually visible, not in the shadow of their sockets and the shadows are great. It worked well with the concrete in the picture, which is already a sort of beige colour. A slightly naughty advantage if you’re shooting people’s faces is that as they look into the sun they can’t really see you as you shoot them.


Golden light and lovely shadows.

2) Meter on the brightest part of the image. Most people reading this here will know that the humble iPhone camera allows you to fix the focus and meter for the light on a particular spot in an image by tapping and holding. So if the thing you like in an image is bright, the iPhone camera allows you to meter on it so it isn’t blown out. Where you have to choose between a bright and a dark thing in an image, meter on the bright thing. In post production, you can always make dark things light, but you can’t make light things dark (or it’s very difficult to). Various apps, most notably Pro Camera and Camera+, allow you to unbundle focus and light-metering. Quite honestly, I’ve never found a use for this. Why would you want something in focus but dark (or blown out) and another thing not in focus but properly lit?

Best to meter on the sunny side of the street. You can always bring the dark side out of the shadows later.

3) Keep the camera still. The iPhone camera doesn’t like shake: if you try and take a shot while moving, chances are it won’t be good. If you’re on a train, wait until it’s in a station. Especially if you’re doing street portaiture photography. Don’t be shy, just go up to the person and take the shot with a steady hand. What’s the worse that can happen? (Well actually a friend of mine said one of his street subjects pulled a knife, but don’t let that put you off). OK, yes, sometimes a bit of blurr is quite dramatic. But sometimes I get the feeling people have it in their images, not from choice but because they couldn’t get any better. There are some anti-shake functions on certain apps, but all they really do is wait until you’re still before allowing you to take the shot. A good old-fashioned tripod is great in low-lighting situations.

Blur is OK. But clarity is better. So wait until the train stops and hold the camera steady.

4) Use the new panorama button. Yes, you can get some nice shots of the inside of the whole of the Albert Hall or you can use it to take a photo of your hotel room if you want to complain to your boss about putting you in the tiniest room in the world when he sent you to that conference in Leeds. But try moving the arrow up and down and not slowing down when it tells you to slow down. It’s a cool new tool and you can use it improperly to weird effect.

That hotel room wasn’t so bad.

5) Keep charged. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing a great potential image but not being able to shoot it because your battery is flat. It’s also very annoying if you know you’ve got some great raw material but you haven’t got the juice to app it up, or, if you’ve already apped it up, to post it. A lot of purists also like to post their images soon after taking it. And it’s true. It is nice to keep that of-the-moment aspect in mobile photography. Carry around a portable charger or, if you know you’re going to be near power points, a cable charger. Starbucks coffee is pretty drab but they certainly do great power points.

Starbucks: great power points.

6) Use the different shutter options. The shutter button on the view finder fires when you release your finger, not when you touch it. If you’re waiting for that decisive moment that everyone goes on about, this is good to know. Also, use the volume+ button sometimes to fire the shutter. It can allow you to get some interesting angles. You’ve all heard about shooting from the hip. You can also shoot from a bit further down: from the thigh, depending on how long your arms are. Both are much easier if you use the volume+ button. And of course, the clever old iPhone knows about gravity, so if you’re holding your iPhone upside down, it corrects for it.

Volume+ for interesting angles

7) Understand your iPhone photo filing system (using the Photos app). Sort your photos into albums and make sure you back-up your best photos to your PC. You don’t want to lose that fantastic photo you took while you were rushing to work but didn’t have time to app up or post. So put it in a folder called “For Apping” so you can go back to it when you have a moment. I’m currently organising an exhibition of printed images and I know that a lot of people are spending a lot of time digging through their phones looking for the originals of photos they posted months ago. They can copy them back from Instagram or flickr but the resolution will be lower. Back up your photos to a hard drive just in case. You never know when you’re going to win the MPAs and your winning photo will need to be printed and exhibited around the world.


You never know when you might win the MPA

8) Turn your camera sideways. This might sound obvious but there is an unusually large proportion of portrait (vertical) photos in the mobile photography community compared with point-and-shoot or DSLR photos, whose cameras have landscape (sideways) as default. It’s pure laziness not to. People’s compositions can also be dictated by the fact that they’re posting to a particular platform. But if you use an app like Squaready, you (not Instagram) can decide what stays in your frame.

Sometimes it has to be sideways

9) Use your feet, not the zoom. When you see a photo-worthy thing, it’s very unlikely that the exact spot where you are standing at that moment is the best angle. There are an infinite number of angles you can take a photo from. Move around until you find the best one and all the elements in the frame are where you most like them. If you ever tried to take a photo of a plane in the sky, you will know that the iPhone camera has quite a wide angle lens, which means that planes become a speck in the sky. Things come out looking far away, so if you can get closer, do so. The zoom on the iPhone camera crops rather than zooms, so you lose pixels. And if getting closer means that the lines in your photo go wrong, use an app like Genius Scan+ to straighten them.

Move those feet

10) Explore the world of editing apps. OK, this isn’t about taking iPhone shots. But I couldn’t resist it. Taking photos – especially on the street – is a big part of it, but mobile photography is so much lot about the apps. Taking a photo with an iPhone is just the start. It’s your raw material. There are a million and one amazing things you can do with your photo after you’ve taken it. App to the max!


  1. “Various apps, most notably Pro Camera and Camera+, allow you to unbundle focus and light-metering. Quite honestly, I’ve never found a use for this. Why would you want something in focus but dark (or blown out) and another thing not in focus but properly lit?”

    I, and many other photographers, find having a separate focus and exposure meter highly valuable. Used correctly, they are essential for adjusting the light in situations that aren’t perfectly lit. It’s the difference in setting your DSLR from automatic to manual mode.

    • Thanks for your comment, Miki. I’m glad you mention it. I’ve been trying to work out how you would use that function for a while. I use a big DSLR and the focal/exposure points can’t be unbundled. Of course you can “over/under expose” while focussing on a particular point to get the same effect, but it’s interesting that they don’t offer it as a function. And I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of photos which use the technique. It’s just interesting that an iPhone app has a photo taking function that is more “advanced” than a DSLR

    • Glad you mention that, Miki. I’ve been wondering for some time about it. I use a big DSLR and the focal points don’t allow you to unbundle metering from focus. Of course, you can over/under expose manually while focussing on something so achieve the same effect. But I have to say I haven’t seen many photos that use that technique. It’s just interesting that an iPhone photo taking app should offer a function that’s more “advanced” than a DSLR.

  2. Hey Richard, you can call me lazy but I can appreciate the ‘naked’ honesty with shooting with the basics. That is if we can argue that the iPhone ‘camera’ is just that. Thanks for rehashing the top 10.

    • Not lazy. You’re right, the iPhone camera allows you to focus on composition, good subject, light, ie the real important basics.

  3. Thanks, Richard. Good stuff!

  4. Def like #10 as I like to get the creative juices flowing too. Thx for this!

  5. totally digging this list! thanks so much

  6. I really appreciated the emphasis on finding light. So many times, I’ve seen photos where people try to artificially compensate for lack of light (in post processing), and it doesn’t make up for the real thing. I’d suggest also really finding creative ways to use light: find shadows, etc. Artfully placed shadows can add a lot to a simple portrait. Thanks for this!