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The Essential iPhone Photography Guide

A guide to stunning iPhone photography

This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions from Chris Folsom, Sarah, Misho Baranovic, Sandra Roussy, Jaymes Dempsey, and Lori Peterson.

Struggling to take beautiful photos using only your iPhone? It’s not as hard as you might think.

Most people don’t realize it, but iPhones contain surprisingly capable cameras – cameras that become more powerful with every new release. In the hands of a skilled photographer, an iPhone can be an effective way to capture stunning landscape shots, portrait photos, street images, and much more. Often, these iPhone photos are effectively indistinguishable from photos taken with high-end DSLRs and mirrorless models.

Of course, capturing good iPhone photos does require some careful techniques, and that’s what I share in this article: Key lessons I’ve learned since picking up my iPhone camera. Once you know these basic iPhone photography tips and techniques, I guarantee that your images will improve in leaps and bounds.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

Powerful tips for beautiful iPhone photos

Let’s kick things off with 16 effective tips to get you using your iPhone like an expert – including advice for choosing iPhone photography apps, techniques for improving image sharpness, and easy approaches to enhance your iPhone compositions.

1. Hold your iPhone like a camera

man holding iPhone to take a photo over a fence

When I first started taking iPhone photos, I held my phone with just one hand. That was a mistake.

One-handing your phone works great for casual, everyday activities, but when you’re shooting photos, you want to keep your phone as steady as possible. In other words, you should generally use two hands.

Try cupping your hands together, kind of like you’d hold a small point-and-shoot camera. Then let your right thumb hover over the shutter button. When you’re ready to snap a photo, just press down gently with that thumb while keeping your hands rock-solid.

You can use a similar technique when holding your iPhone horizontally (i.e., when capturing a landscape-orientation shot). Let your left hand support your right hand, and keep your thumb in position to fire that shutter.

Note that you should never jab at the shutter button, nor should you stretch your thumb so it’s in position. Make sure everything feels natural and comfortable; that way, you’ll get crisp, highly detailed results.

Also, keep your elbows tucked in and your iPhone screen close to your body. When I first started iPhoneography, I held my phone out at a ridiculous angle, which created a lot of camera shake (and as a consequence, a lot of image blur). Now I hold the phone in front of my chest or face, and I “look” through the screen as if I were using a conventional camera model.

2. Zoom with your feet

person holding iPhone in front of unusual staircase

There are two types of iPhone camera zooms: Optical zoom and digital zoom.

Optical zoom is created by camera optics; this is the kind of zoom at work when you switch from your wide lens to your telephoto lens or your ultra-wide lens to your wide lens.

Digital zoom, however, is created by cropping; your iPhone simply deletes pixels to create a “zoom” effect.

As you probably realize, there’s nothing wrong with using optical zoom. If your iPhone has multiple lenses, then you should absolutely use them as required. Switch to a telephoto lens when you need to get close, and switch to an ultra-wide lens when you need to capture a wide frame.

But digital zoom is problematic. It won’t actually get you any closer to your subject. Instead, it’ll just damage your images.

So when you feel the urge to use your iPhone’s digital zoom option, zoom with your feet. Don’t sacrifice any pixels. Simply move closer to your subject!

3. Shoot the same subject a few times

One of the great things about iPhone photography is that it allows a lot of attempts – and a lot of mistakes. So take advantage! Instead of capturing one shot of each subject, take multiple photos of the same thing, then pick out your best shots later.

I don’t mean that you should constantly fire off photos left and right. You don’t want to end up with thousands of files, all featuring the same boring scene. But it does pay to capture subjects from a few different angles, using a few different compositional approaches, etc. That way, you can ensure that you get the best possible result (and you can let yourself be as creative as possible).

palm leaves lit by bright sunlight

I love shooting at the beach with my phone. I’ll take tons of images on a walk, check them out when I get home, then delete all the bad ones when I get home (that way, I don’t run out of storage space!).

Pro tip: Don’t delete any files when you’re out shooting. Certain photos might seem bad at the time, but once you’re back at home, you may find that some of your “worst” images actually turn out to be your best!

4. Use the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a popular composition guideline in photography, and for good reason: it ensures that photos feel balanced and that the viewer’s eye flows easily across the scene.

The idea is to divide each frame into thirds (both horizontally and vertically), then position key image elements along these “rule of thirds” gridlines. So if you were photographing a landscape, you would position the horizon along the upper or lower third gridline.

And if you were photographing a person on the street, you would position their body along the right or left gridline.

You don’t have to use the rule of thirds all the time, but it often works great – whether you’re shooting with an iPhone or a fancy professional setup!

5. Move in close

Sometimes a small detail can take a photograph from good to wow, so don’t be afraid to really get in close with your iPhone.

In fact, highlighting specific details is a great way to capture shots that show the viewer something different about the world – a new texture, a relationship between objects that are easily overlooked, a small area of beauty.

And iPhones are surprisingly good at focusing up close, so don’t be shy: experiment with objects, plants, or even pets around the house!

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

6. Pay attention to the light

Poorly chosen light can ruin any photo, whether you’re working with an iPhone camera or a $5000 DSLR. On the flip side, if you can master light, you’ll be an unstoppable photographer.

So pay careful attention to the light at all times. Observe the light’s quality, volume, and direction. Recognize how each type of light will affect your images.

Early morning and late afternoon offer golden-hour light, which looks soft, warm, and breathtakingly beautiful. You should experiment with different lighting angles, too; sidelighting will add three-dimensionality and emphasize texture, while front lighting will offer lots of detail but keep your subject looking flat.

iPhone photography tips

I’d recommend that you avoid shooting in the middle of the day (unless it’s cloudy). Midday sun tends to be pretty harsh, and it’ll make it very difficult to retain details in the shadows and highlights of your photos.

But while brighter light is good for capturing detail, don’t skip those nighttime photo opportunities. The newest iPhones offer surprisingly impressive low-light capabilities; you can even use them to capture the stars!

7. Seek out contrast and shadows

Learning to observe how light affects objects and changes throughout the day is key to improving your iPhone photos. Observe how shadows get created and how the light hits particular objects. Then capture those unique events!

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

You can also look for color contrasts:

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

Or even a single color pop in an otherwise monotone environment:

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

8. Capture test compositions while scouting

Even if you’re a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera user, the iPhone can be an invaluable tool in your photography arsenal, particularly for scouting potential shots. Imagine you’re out exploring or even just walking through your neighborhood and stumble upon a scene that catches your eye.

With your iPhone, you can quickly capture test shots, experimenting with different angles and compositions. This approach offers a no-pressure way to visualize potential photos without the need for a full camera setup. These iPhone snapshots serve as visual notes, helping you plan for a future session with more specialized equipment. It’s a practice that can significantly enhance your preparedness and creativity, turning spontaneous discoveries into well-planned photo shoots.

9. Try your iPhone’s alternative shutter buttons

Every iPhone offers a main shutter button: That big white target right at the bottom of the screen. But did you know that you can actually trigger your iPhone’s shutter in several different ways?

For instance, you can take a photo by pressing the volume keys (i.e., the volume up and volume down buttons). You can also take a photo by pressing the external volume buttons on headphone wires (though this only works on certain headphone models, so you’ll need to test it out yourself).

hand holding iPhone with camera open in front of a stunning ocean sunset

Either of the latter options is hugely useful if you want to take photos discreetly. For instance, if you’re capturing candid street portraits, you can move close to your subject, then trigger the shutter using your headphones. As long as you pretend to be occupied with something else, your subject will never realize what you’re doing.

One more tip: If you want to fire your iPhone shutter from a distance, make sure that you turn on Voice Control, open the camera app, and say, “Turn up the volume.” Your iPhone will instantly take a photo! Cool, right?

10. Capture some panoramas

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide

One of the most striking features of the iPhone camera is its ability to shoot expansive panoramas. With Pano mode, you can easily capture breathtaking landscapes, sprawling cityscapes, or any scene that requires a wider view.

To create a panoramic photo, switch your iPhone camera to Pano mode, hit the shutter button, and slowly pan your phone across the scene as directed on-screen.

The result is often a stunning, wide-angle view that can rival professional-grade cameras. This feature isn’t just for landscapes; it can add a dramatic effect to architecture, travel scenes, cityscapes, and more!

11. Download different camera apps

The native iPhone camera app is nice, but you can gain far more control via various dedicated camera apps (many of which are free!).

Apps like Lightroom Mobile and Photon will let you adjust various settings manually, including shutter speed and ISO. That way, you can ensure you’re getting the best possible image quality, plus you can create all sorts of creative effects. Obviously, you shouldn’t jump into fully manual iPhone apps until you’re ready – but it’s definitely worth playing around and seeing what you think.

woman holding smartphone on a beach to photograph the sunset

I’d also encourage you to check out various creative iPhone photography apps. For instance, you can grab long-exposure apps (so you can produce silky-smooth blurred-water shots) and black-and-white apps (so you can capture fine-art monochrome photos). Editing apps are also pretty handy, as I discuss in the next section:

12. Have fun with editing apps

Did you know that there are literally dozens of amazing iPhone editing apps just waiting to be downloaded from the App store?

It’s true. iPhone photographers are spoiled for choice, thanks to apps like:

With each and every editing app listed above, you can adjust image exposure, crop to improve the composition, correct image white balance, add beautiful color effects, improve sharpness, and so much more. Many of these apps also offer advanced features, such as vignetting, noise reduction, and masking.

small church at the foot of a snowy mountain

And if you’re not satisfied by generalist editing apps, you can always grab specialist applications – including apps that’ll remove image backgrounds, apps that’ll remove unwanted objects, and apps that’ll layer several images together.

Personally, I love image editing. It’s a great way to enhance your photos, and once you’re done with the basic enhancements, you can have fun adding creative effects. I process literally all of my phone photos, and it’s so convenient; I just whip out my phone, pull up an editing app, and get to work!

13. Shoot from different angles

iPhones are small and light – which means it’s far easier to get down low or climb up high when doing iPhone photography (versus shooting with a heavy DSLR).

So take advantage of that capability. While it’s tempting to just shoot from standing height, I encourage you to experiment with many different angles. Crouch low to the ground and see if you can include a compelling object or line in the foreground. Then raise your iPhone high above your head for a top-down shot (or see if you can find some stairs for an even higher vantage point).

iPhone on a tripod in a field of flowers

In my experience, testing out different angles is a lot of fun – and it can create dramatically different images. The more you seek out different angles, the more you’ll start to realize the incredible variety of options you have as an iPhone photographer.

14. Clean your iPhone lens

iPhones get stashed in pockets, purses, backpacks, car cubbies, and drawers. They suffer rain, snow, mud, dust, oily fingers, and dirt.

And yet – somehow! – we iPhone photographers always forget to clean our lenses.

When I first started doing iPhone photography, I didn’t clean the lens for months. Then, when I finally gave it a little wipe, it made such a difference. A clean lens will capture sharper, higher-contrast images, plus it just feels a lot better to shoot with pristine glass.

iPhone photography tips

So get in the habit of regularly cleaning your iPhone camera lenses. (If your iPhone uses multiple lenses, be sure to clean them all!) Technically, you can clean off the glass with some tissue, a cloth, or even your shirt, but I’d encourage you to purchase a microfiber cloth or some lens wipes, which will get rid of grime without damaging the lens elements.

15. Simplify your compositions

Here’s another piece of iPhone photography composition advice.

Keep your images as simple as possible.

clear blue water stretching out toward the blue sky

Often, you’ll encounter beautiful scenes, but they’ll have so much going on: people walking by, trees stretching every which way, cars sitting at stoplights. It’s your job, as the photographer, to eliminate as many of these distractions as possible so that you can highlight the main subject.

If possible, identify one part of your image to highlight: a person, a building, or even a detail. Then try to remove everything that could possibly draw attention away from this element. (You can do this in various ways; try changing your angle, taking a few steps forward, or switching to your telephoto lens.)

That way, when a viewer is confronted by your photo, they’ll know exactly where to look!

16. Use your iPhone as a handheld portfolio

An often-overlooked aspect of iPhone photography is its ability to function as a portable portfolio. I like to sync my favorite shots to my iPhone, transforming it into a pocket-sized gallery.

The high-quality display really brings these images to life, and they’re ready to be shared at a moment’s notice. This capability is especially useful in impromptu settings, whether you’re sharing your work with friends or discussing potential exhibits with gallery directors.

It really is a powerful networking tool; having your portfolio in your pocket means never missing an opportunity to showcase your talent!

Key settings for iPhone photography

While iPhones are pretty great at doing most of the work for you, it’s important that you understand some basic settings so you can ensure you consistently capture the best results! Here’s what I recommend:

Set the image quality to its highest setting

iPhone photography

Your iPhone camera can capture some high-quality photos, but if you intend to store hundreds of photos on your phone without downloading or transferring them into a cloud-based platform, then you may want to shoot in low resolution so your phone doesn’t get full.

On the other hand, when you do want to shoot something important and plan to edit the photos afterward (which I recommend!), it’s best to shoot in the highest quality possible. And in many scenarios, it can be useful to shoot in RAW – that way, you have as much latitude as possible when processing your images down the line.

Tap to set your focus point

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

The iPhone has a feature that you can use to set your exact focus point, and it’s important to use it to achieve tack-sharp images. Here’s what you do:

  • Compose your shot
  • Tap your screen where you want the focus to be.
  • Press and hold to lock the focus point and recompose your photo if you wish
  • Take the image!

Make sure the grid lines are active

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

Nothing says amateur like a crooked horizon line! One of my pet peeves as a photographer is to see a beautiful landscape where the ocean seems to be sliding down the side of the photograph.

Fortunately, your iPhone offers a solution: activate the grid lines so that you can align the horizon to get a perfectly level shot! (This can also be helpful when composing using the rule of thirds – see Tip 4, above!)

The way you do this will depend on your specific iPhone model, but in general, you can just open your camera settings and toggle on the Grid option:

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

Consider shooting modes and special features

The iPhone comes with various modes and features for you to choose from, including:

Portrait mode

Beginning with the iPhone 8 Plus, Portrait mode has made it possible to capture images with beautiful background blur. It mimics the kind of shots you can capture with a professional lens! Here’s an example:

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

Portrait mode creates great portraits, of course, but can also be used for so much more. Try using it when you want a bokeh effect or a blurry background in your photos.

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide
Image by Sandra Roussy

Burst mode

Burst mode is great when you want to capture some action shots. Press and hold the shutter button, and the camera takes a series of photos.

The downside here is that you’ll end up with a lot of extra shots, but as long as you’re diligent about cleaning these up, it shouldn’t be an issue!

Live Photos

Live Photos is a fun feature that records short videos before and after you have pressed the shutter. When viewing a Live Photo, press and hold the photo to see the effect in action. (You can activate or deactivate this feature in the camera app!)

Useful iPhone photography gear and accessories

While the iPhone alone is a formidable photography tool, a few key accessories can elevate your experience significantly. Whether you’re using an older model or the cutting-edge iPhone 14 Pro, these additions can help you tackle various photographic challenges and enhance the quality of your shots.

In this section, I’ll introduce some essential gear that can transform your iPhone photography from good to great. From stabilizing your shots to capturing unique perspectives, these tools are both accessible and effective. They open up new possibilities, allowing you to experiment and refine your photographic style with your iPhone.

A mini tripod

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide

One of the simplest yet most impactful accessories for iPhone photography is a mini tripod. A tripod can vastly improve the quality of your shots by stabilizing your iPhone, especially in low-light conditions or when attempting long exposures.

For example, capturing the smooth flow of a waterfall or a nighttime cityscape is much easier with a tripod! And for self-portraits or group photos, it’s invaluable.

The market offers a range of options, from basic models like the Manfrotto PIXI Mini to more versatile ones like the Joby GorillaPod (known for its flexible legs that can grip onto almost anything!). Look for a tripod that’s sturdy yet portable, and make sure it comes with a reliable smartphone holder to ensure your iPhone is secure during those crucial shots.

A clip-on macro lens

The Essential iPhone Photography Guide

If you’re interested in capturing gorgeous close-up details, a clip-on macro lens can be a game-changer for your iPhone. While the iPhone’s native camera does a decent job with close-up shots, a macro lens allows for even greater detail and creativity. It’s perfect for capturing the intricacies of a flower’s petals or the delicate wings of an insect, for example.

These lenses easily clip onto your iPhone, and you can start shooting immediately using the standard camera app. The quality of iPhone macro lenses can vary, however, so I recommend opting for a reputable brand. (Moment lenses are known for their sharpness and build quality!)

A remote release

To further refine your iPhone photography, consider using a remote release, which will let you trigger the shutter from afar. This is particularly useful for long-exposure shots where even the slightest touch can blur the image.

While the iPhone’s self-timer can help you achieve the same results, a remote release offers more flexibility and control. With it, you can set up your phone on a tripod and carefully time the shot – for instance, you can wait for the exact moment a wave crashes or the wind calms.

Remote releases are widely available and can be easily paired with your iPhone, allowing you to shoot with precision. It’s a small tool that can make a significant difference!

A hands-on iPhone photography example (from Misho Baranovic)

A while back, I went to Sydney to visit Oliver Lang, a fellow mobile photographer who had a few mobile photo events that I really wanted to be part of.

One afternoon, I headed out to the Sydney Biennale, a huge open-air arts festival held on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. As always, I had my iPhone with me ready to snap a few shots of the artwork on display.

I was immediately drawn to a huge fog machine called Living Chasm by artist Fujiko Nakaya. For 15 minutes out of every hour, a series of pumps and pipes created an ethereal fog, which enveloped a nearby rock face. I, along with everyone else, was drawn to this incredible scene.

Approaching the fog, I launched my go-to iPhone camera app, ProCamera. I was quickly able to adjust my exposure to take into account the rapidly growing whiteness of the fog (which was surprisingly cold and wet!). Entering the fog, I couldn’t see more than a few steps in front of me. I realized that the autofocus was pretty much useless in this environment, so I manually set my focus point to about a meter in front of me (I used my outstretched hand as the reference point).

Once I had my exposure and focus set, I could get to shooting. One of the greatest advantages of shooting with an iPhone (or any smartphone) is that there is nothing between you and the scene. Because there is no viewfinder, I can experiment more easily with my framing – particularly my angles and compositions.

Cupping my hand over the iPhone lens to keep it dry, I watched as figures rapidly emerged from the fog. I tapped away at the shutter as adults hesitantly entered the fog, and I tried to pan the phone as children ran past (oblivious to the other people they could smack into at any moment!).

I shot about 100 photos in the 15 minutes that the machine was making fog. As the fog cleared, I put my phone back in my pocket and enjoyed the other works of art scattered around the Island. Two hours later, on the ferry trip back home, I took out the phone and started my review and edit process. I scanned through the images and found about a dozen that looked interesting. Going back and forth through my camera roll, I thought about how I could make an interesting visual story from the photos. Was there a specific editing style that would help bring out a common thread?

Seeing all the photos of people moving through the fog, I realized that the color in the images wasn’t adding much to the energy and mood of the photos. Right there on the ferry, sailing under the harbor bridge, I decided to edit the photos in a relatively low contrast black and white style; that way, I could draw out the otherworldliness of the scene and heighten the sense of disorientation and mystery.

With my iPhone, I have instant access to all of my editing apps, so I launched one of my favorites: Snapseed. (Snapseed’s iPhone app is fantastic for detailed editing!)

To show you what I did, take a look at this unedited image:

iPhone photography
Image by Misho Baranovic

I really like the energy of the boy running into the fog, but I felt like the image could be improved with some careful adjustments. So after a little cropping, exposure adjustment, sharpening, and a black-and-white conversion, here’s what I came up with:

iPhone photography

Here are a few other images from the same series (all shot on an iPhone!):

MB Post_08.JPG
Image by Misho Baranovic
MB Post_09.JPG
Image by Misho Baranovic
MB Post_10.JPG
Image by Misho Baranovic
MB Post_11.JPG
Image by Misho Baranovic

How to take great iPhone photos: final words

Well, there you have it:

Plenty of advice to improve your iPhone images!

If you remember my tips, and you make a real effort to think creatively, then you’re bound to capture some amazing images.

So head out with your iPhone and have plenty of fun!

Now over to you:

Which of these tips do you plan to use first? What type of iPhone photography do you plan to do?

Sarah is a busy mum blogging from the beaches of Sydney about her sea change from the gray skies of London to Australia.

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