iPhoneography 101 – Tips for taking better photos with your iPhone

Let’s keep it real. Sometimes it’s just not that convenient to lug around the big DSLR wherever we go. And, I’m saying that as a mom and not a professional photographer. Our kids roll their eyes when we bring it with us because they know they are being documented. Sometimes it’s good to go undercover with your iPhone. Our phones are with us ALL THE TIME. It’s a convenient way to sneak photos of your kids without them even suspecting…or anticipating. You can become a quick draw, whipping it out of your pocket and back in before anyone even realizes. And in the meantime, you’ve grabbed a shot you might have otherwise missed because we all know kids are fast! Remember…the best camera is the one you have with you.

For a little personal (and somewhat professional) challenge, I decided to use my iPhone and the Instagram app for our Disney World trip last week. No fancy Nikon camera and lenses to control everything. It was all about fundamental lighting. Oh yes, I did carry my DSLR. Like Linus and his blanket, I needed it for security…just in case I caved. I also borrowed my parents’ point and shoot. (I even flipped through the manual before we left since I’ve never owned one.) I had to warm up to the idea of having way less control over my images on such an important trip. And I admit, I carried the DSLR for a few character shots at Chef Mickey on my son Luke’s birthday and when he was in Jedi training fighting Darth Vader. But, I was also shooting with my iPhone at the same time. The funny thing is that my favorite shot of my son fighting Darth Vader with his light saber was taken with my iPhone! It just happened to be the best action shot. My DSLR shot count was probably 50-100 in only one day, which is nothing short of a miracle. The rest of the trip it stayed in the hotel room. Just one day into our trip and my iPhone and Instagram shots were becoming a fun little shooting adventure for me. I also decided that our Disney book would strictly be all iPhone photos processed with Instagram so they would have that consistent quirky/artsy feel in the more square format. I also kept thinking to myself that shooting, editing and processing is my job, so why not let loose a little on vacation and not have thousands of photos to edit when I got back from my trip. [Insert sigh of relief]

I was able to upload photos from the day to Facebook and Instagram from my phone each night, and friends and clients began following my captures from the trip and commenting. Many of you made comments that you wished your iPhone shots could be better. Are any of my shots perfect? No. They won’t be with an iPhone. But they captured the moment in a fun and creative way for us to enjoy, without Mom always worried about bumping or dropping my good camera, or getting it wet on a ride. It was my attempt to be a more enjoyable and Hands Free Mama on our trip.

I promised I would post a few tips with example images so here goes. Different coloration filters and frames were applied with Instagram.

1. Change your perspective and use prepositions.

Don’t shoot everything and everyone straight on. So many shots would be dramatically better by just a simple change in angle. Remember the list of prepositions you learned in elementary school? Above, across, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, and so on? Use them. Shoot above your child because when they look up at you their eyes capture all the light in the sky, shoot across a bridge to get the long angles of the rails making your subjects the focal point, shoot from behind flowers to get them blurry in your foreground, shoot below your child up into the rope bridge they are playing on to get texture, shoot between tree branches to frame your subject, etc. You get the picture.

Make sure your camera is focused where you want it to be. While looking at your composition on the screen, tap the screen where you want the camera to meter exposure and focus. This will make a huge difference in how your images are exposed and the sharpness of your subject.

Example 1: Shooting beside your subject. While waiting on my husband and daughter who were in line for the Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster ride, I watched everyone photographing themselves close up in the smack front and center of the huge guitar that was at the entrance. I’m not making fun. It’s what most people would do. I’m just saying to approach it a little differently. Their shots probably only had the person and a small portion of the guitar section in them. A much better angle was beside the guitar so you could get that curve of the strings that made it’s way overhead. I wish I had taken a photo straight on so you could see the comparison.

Example 2: From below your subject. In the next two shots my kids stood on a short wall and I shot from underneath them making them look larger than life in front of the Epcot ball. (Notice they have on their sunglasses — refer to tip #2)

During one of the afternoon parades, some of the cast members were on stilts. This guy stepped in front of the castle so I shot up at him, making him look larger than life and as tall as the castle.

Example 3: Shooting all around, close up and wide. These shots of Main Street and the castle all have very different perspectives due to one being on the ground, one being from a balcony overhead, and one from being underneath. Also, some are tight, whereas others are wide.

Example 4: Put something directional or interesting in the foreground of your shot. We walked into Hollywood Studios one morning right when it opened and all the store clerks and cast members were waving with Mickey hands. I asked one of the cast members to wave a little further out into the street so I could include it in my shot. It’s Disney World, the happiest place on earth, so of course he happily agreed. I also love that the word “Go” was in my shot. Small details like this help to tell a story in your image.

In this next shot, I put my daughter in the foreground watching the Disney Rocks show because she was so excited about seeing it. The sun was causing a sun flare on her head which also added some interest.

In this last shot, a vendor was carrying Mickey and Minnie balloons on Main Street, so I put them in the foreground of this castle shot.

Example 5: Use reflections, shadows and mirrors for a different perspective. My son got his face painted like a pirate and the woman doing it held up a mirror for him to see. I chose to take the photo of his expression in the mirror so I could get his first reaction.

The second photo is of my daughter and me on our way into one of the parks. The shadows were so fun that we stopped to capture us that way. I asked her to put her hands on her hips to add her arms and a little more interest into the silhouette since I was having to hold the iPhone to get the shot.

2. It’s okay to be a little shady and go undercover.

When possible, shoot in the open shade where sun is indirectly falling on your subject. There are SO many opportunities for this at Disney World because there are overhangs, doorways, umbrellas, pavilions and covered walkways while waiting on rides. There was beautiful filtered and indirect light everywhere! But, when you want your photo taken right in front of Cinderella’s Castle in Magic Kingdom or Mickey’s magic hat in Hollywood Studios, there isn’t any cover in the middle of the street and sometimes it just happens to be straight up noon when you get there. Don’t miss the shot waiting on the perfect light. If everyone is squinting in the bright sunlight, whip out the shades. When everyone is wearing sunglasses, no one is obviously squinting.

Example 1: The future’s so bright you gotta wear shades. There was full sun in the middle of the day for both of these shots. Are we squinting? Absolutely. But you can’t tell because we’re wearing sunglasses. (Notice how much larger the ball looks in the first photo here than it did in the photos above — yep, perspective.)

Another shot in full sun, but we all have on our sunglasses which hides the squinting.

Example 2: Undercover. These next few images worked because of indirect light coming from somewhere other than overhead. In this one, Lightening McQueen was under a shade tent, so the light on my sons’s face was just right.

In the next photos, we were waiting on line for rides, so there was a roof overhead and light was coming in from all sides.

3. Don’t be flashy.

Not sure why I didn’t list this one first. TURN OFF YOUR FLASH. I repeat… TURN OFF YOUR FLASH. I didn’t use my flash the entire time I was at Disney. Honestly, that little straight-on flash that comes out of your camera is death to a good shot. It’s a tiny bright flashlight pointed right into your subjects eyes, which will always be red from using it. It’s also a mood killer. If you are watching the Electric Light Parade in front of Cinderella’s Castle at night and there are all these beautiful colored lights in the dark, WHY would you want to light up the area around you and the people’s heads in front of you, and ruin capturing those vivid colors in the dark? If you need a little light on your subject, try putting them in front of a light source, like underneath a street light or in the beam of headlights. Look around and use the light that is available to you.

Example 1: Use available light to illuminate your subjects instead of flash. This photo would not have captured the 3D movie feel if I had lit up the room with my flash; and I would have lost the projected words on the wall that also happened to be illuminating their 3D glasses.

Example 2. Fireworks are done in the dark, so don’t turn on the lights. Use the ones that are there! If I had turned on my flash here, all I would have done is lit up the people’s heads in front of me and they would have become the focal point. Yuk. Without flash they are nice silhouettes of a crowd watching.

Did I mention to TURN OFF YOUR FLASH? That brings up the next point…

4. Slow and steady gets the shot.

If you are in a low light situation then the iPhone really struggles and your images will have noise (little dots of graininess) in them, especially if you don’t use flash. Any camera that is not built for low light situations just can’t do the job. The key to using your iPhone with the flash turned off is steady hands. Keep the phone as still as you possibly can with your arms close into your body or resting on something to steady it. This will keep you from getting blur from camera shake due to the slow shutter speed. Most of the night parade I sat with my knees up and my hands steadied on my knees holding the iPhone as still as possible. And don’t forget that you can use that top, side button to take the photo, not just the one on the screen. In the horizontal position, this helps you hold it more steady.

Example 2. Capture the magic. Don’t try to create more light in this kind of scene. Again, if I had turned on my flash I would have lit just the back of people’s heads in front of me and it would have ruined the shot.

In this second shot, a little girl in her stroller right beside us was playing with her light up Minnie spinner, so I chose to include it in the foreground.


And speaking of movement…

5. You can’t bust a move in the dark.

The one thing the iPhone just can’t do is capture quick movement in low light without blur. If the light is low, then the shutter speed is slow and movement will register as blur. I tested this the entire week at Disney. Quick head movements and hand gestures were always blurry, whether it was an indoors shot with less than adequate light, or nighttime. It just can’t handle it like a DSLR can. Stopping movement in full sun or sufficient light was no problem.

Example 1: The headless pirate. Here’s a great example of a low light movement disaster. My son looks like he’s carrying his head near his waist. I took this while he was playing around with his pirate’s sword at the Electric Light Parade. Look closely. [Insert theme from Friday the 13th] It’s like something out of a horror film! I cracked up when I saw it. The things you see in the sky are bubbles, but they look like little lines of light because the shutter was too slow to stop the movement.

Example 2: Blur has its benefits. Sometimes this movement blur can be to your benefit and make for a neat shot, like this photo I took of my daughter when we were in the American Idol Experience. I love that you can see the movement from her clapping her hands.

6. Don’t get fired up, keep your cool.

White Balance can make or break a photo. It’s the temperature of light. Have you ever noticed your shots being really warm (yellow) in the sun or really cold (blue) looking in the shade? It can make a huge difference in skin tones. If you have iPhoto, use the slider that adjusts temperature and see how it affects your photos. You will be amazed. You can also download the Photoshop Express app that allows you to make white balance adjustments as well as exposure, cropping, etc. I don’t worry as much about white balance using Instagram, because the filters apply interesting color tints and it’s just part of the look. I only adjust them in the Photoshop Express app if it looks extremely bad. Again, Instagram images aren’t about everything being spot on color correct. They’re quirky and artsy.

7. HDR and you’ll go far.

For landscapes and city shots without people in them, try turning on the HDR feature. HDR takes three exposures of the same composed image and merges them to get the best dynamic range and detail. You can turn it off and on on your screen just like you can the flash. Here are two examples of images I took using HDR.

8. Supersize your fries, not your iPhone pics.

iPhone shots don’t enlarge well. Stick to printing them up to size 5×7 or using them in a book. After all, I can’t give you so many tips that you don’t need me anymore, right? Save your crisp, clear and perfectly color correct 8×10 prints and larger for a professional. Don’t leave your portraits and special events in the hands of an iPhone or point and shoot. 😉

Give me a shout by leaving a comment on my Facebook page if you want me to do a blog post with tips specific to using Instagram and how to print Instagram books. And, thanks for your interest in my work! I try to return the love with helpful tips like these so check back often.

For now I’ll leave you with more images from our trip…



And if you aren’t tired of reading yet, check out this article on the handy little Joby Gorillapod tripod for the iPhone (pictured below). Wish I had brought one for this trip. I have a Gorillapod for another camera and it is such a great gadget because it will wrap around anything to steady the camera or so that everyone can get in the shot! I’ve even wrapped mine on the top of a lamp shade to do hands free videoing of everyone opening their Christmas gifts. Here’s a few pictures of the Joby gadget. Retail price $39.95 and here is where you can buy one.

6/26/15 Update: Since this original post was in 2012, there are definitely some new apps for iPhone photo editing. Some of my recent favorites are Pic Tap Go, VSCOcam, Afterlight, Facetune, PhotoGrid and Snapseed. Check them out and enjoy playing around with your images!

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