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Better Photos from your iPhone Part 2


Part one of this series was the backstory for why I became interested in using the iPhone camera with more serious intent for capturing good images. In part 2 I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of the actual techniques I’ve found that have significantly improved the quality of the photos I’ve taken with my iPhone, so here we go...


With any camera it is a fundamental requirement (unless seeking a particular creative effect) to hold it as still as possible when releasing the shutter. This is particularly important with the iPhone since you have no control over the shutter speed selected, it is best to expect a slower shutter speed than you'd prefer and to hold the iPhone with two hands, if possible. It will also aid stability if you hold the iPhone as close to your body as you can, tuck your elbows into your sides will also help steady your hands, the aim here is to make your body the tripod.

Try bracing yourself against a wall or other support if available, any solid fixture is good for this - it’s not much good having a steady grip on your iPhone if your whole body is still moving, even slightly. I’ve had surprisingly good sharp photos at crazy low shutter speeds on ’regular’ cameras by bracing myself against walls, pillars, tables, lampposts etc.

Alternatively, instead of bracing your whole body, I’ve found it very effective to brace even just the iPhone, press one of the sides of the iPhone (careful of the buttons here) against a wall or tabletop - confining even one axis of movement of your iPhone may be enough to stop inadvertent camera movement and keep your images sharp.

And finally (the obvious solution) use a tripod! There are plenty of very useful and ingenious supports now available, from cheap and cheerful to insane industrial solutions for more serious photogs and budding cinematographers. A few suggestions:

Joby Gorilla tripod
Olwe Bubo (totally over the top, but tempting for serious iPhone shooters)
Glif (impressive Kick-starter project too)
Moviepeg (brilliantly simple iPhone stand)

Sellotape/Bluetack - anything that holds it still, or props it up - though you need a self-timer app for this (the Joby app is a good free one).

Remember on 3GS (and above) you also have to touch the screen to select focus too, requiring octopus-like dexterity at times when trying to steady the iPhone, shade the lens, touch-focus and then release the shutter - so a tripod may be more useful than you’d think.

Here’s a quick ’n’ dirty video I’ve made to illustrate how I grip the iPhone when shooting. Emphasis here is on holding the iPhone as steady as possible while still being able to operate the features and shield the lens in case of flare.


In case you haven't figured this out yet - the shutter actually takes the picture when you release your finger from it. It's important to be aware of for this, and allow for it, as timing your shot is already tricky on these types of cameras.

Also the shutter on the iPhone is known as a ‘rolling’ shutter, the sensor is actually exposed in a sweeping scan, rather than all at once. This can cause bizarre stretching or fracturing of the captured image, but usually only when the iPhone is moved significantly during exposure and along certain axis/angles of movement.

Although usually seen as a problem his can also be used to creative effect, e.g. When panning a shot to follow a moving subject.


If you're using your iPhone without a case you'll probably find the outer element of the lens area nearly always has oil from your skin (or other materials) on it. Gross, I know!

Always wipe the outmost glass on a clean bit of fabric, or tissue (maybe even a few times) before shooting, check that your cleaning has worked too before you take the shot. When I'm about to take a photo with my iPhone I always rub the corner of the iPhone (lens side) against my shirt, or sleeve to make sure the lens is as clean as I can get it before taking my shot.

A proper optical wipe (the type you can get for glasses) is great, if you happen to have them. Like any camera you've no chance of obtaining good image quality if the lens is obscured by anything.

If you already use a case around your iPhone then you may suffer from another problem, the lens may now be recessed inside the case aperture. This can result in dust and debris from your pocket collecting inside this aperture and around the lens area. So in that case your cleaning procedure would involve blowing out the dust before shooting - I’ve a friend who recommended carrying a camera blower-brush precisely for dealing with this!

TOUCH TO FOCUS (3GS and above)

An elegant, and fitting, solution for the iPhone camera, also one that is now being copied by the more traditional camera manufacturers ~ imitation is the sincerest form of flattery indeed!

This selectable focus feature makes for a much better photo than just increasing the sensor megapixels, as it allows you to decide the area of interest in your shot for sharpness and exposure. Take care how you use this: try several areas in your frame, often a balance between extremes is needed, bracket plenty!

This tech actually does three things: sets exposure, focus and white-balance. Be aware though that this feature also affects how you hold the iPhone for the shot - and not in a good way! Whatever way you hold the iPhone you will need a finger or thumb available to tap the screen for focus, then quickly release the shutter. I say quickly because I’ve noticed that the iPhone camera will reset focus and exposure to a general centred selection within about 4 seconds or so after tapping your preference on the screen, so don’t wait long after selecting your focus point.

For maximum hilarity try doing all this while shading the lens from flare!

I’ve already dropped my iPhone once when trying to apply a convoluted series of gestures during shooting with it, so I’ve added an Ottercase and a wrist-strap (my own hack) to my nice new iPhone 4 - hate to loose the aesthetic, but hate the thought of losing the iPhone even more. You can see the Ottercase in the video.


Mostly a great photograph needs great light, and it is most definitely one of the iPhone’s main strengths as a camera that you’re likely to always have it with you if the light suddenly changes turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. This can often happen quite fast, so if you notice the light changing watch how it’s affecting everything you see and grab your iPhone quick, as the effect may be gone again just as fast. Some of my favourite iPhone shots have been caught within a few short-lived moments of glorious light, and when it’s gone, it’s gone!

Poor lighting...

Church dull lighting

Same scene, the only thing changed is the lighting...

Church at sunset

Beware of flare when shooting towards any light-source, the glass protection over the iPhone lens is exposed and flat - catching and spreading nearly any light that falls onto it. Flare like this can ruin a photo, creating unexpected intense colour shapes and generally bleaching out colours and contrast everywhere. Luckily it is a relatively easy problem to fix, always try to shade the lens if the light source is out of frame, use your hand, or a hat, or your pal with you if possible! You’ll know when it’s working as you ought to see the shadow from your hand falling over the lens glass, be careful too in keeping your hand out of the frame when shooting.

This can make a huge difference when photographing facing into the light.

Shooting into sunlight without shielding the lens...

Lagan path backlight flare

Shooting into sunlight, this time shielding the lens...

Lagan path backlight


As with most small sensor cameras performance in low-light is not very good and, due to the iPhones auto shutter-speed, you’ll need to keep the iPhone extra-steady when shooting in poor light.

For brightly lit photos be very selective with the touch-to-focus (if you have it) and be careful of highlight burn-out in very bright areas - the small sensor has a narrow dynamic range.
If your iPhone is 3GS or lower you won’t have a flash (you’re not missing much!), but you can still modify the available light by using a reflector (anything largish and light-coloured) to bounce light back into a shadow area. You can also use almost any form of lighting to help illuminate your subject, as long as you can move it, or your subject into a better position. Be mindful of how the light actually looks, artificial lights can be harsh, diffuse it if possible.
Also avoid extreme back lighting (e.g. subject standing inside a window with daylight behind them), or foreground light (e.g. Subject brightly lit, but background very dark). This does not usually end well!

iPhone image quality is very good, for a device of it’s type, but not great when compared to ‘big’ cameras, so go for strong composition, geometric, graphic, contrast - look at the shapes on the view screen, move around, re-compose if necessary. It’s not costing you anything to shoot extra frames - so shoot plenty!

Make the most of it the big iPhone screen, it is an excellent viewfinder and what you see is what you’re getting in your shot. Of course try vertical and landscape orientations too - sometimes even an obviously vertical opportunity can benefit from a landscape composition.

The iPhone has a fixed wide-angle lens & it does not zoom (forget the digital zoom), that means your feet are the zoom!

I’ll close this part with a great quote from the inimitable Joe McNally: ‘Get your lens in a different place!’ Don’t settle for the lazy and obvious option of shooting from your typical standing posture, get low, lower, lie on the ground - get high (I mean altitude!), stand on a chair/wall/stationery bystander, climb something!

Thankfully this is somewhat easier to do with a small device like the iPhone.

We now have some great camera apps available for the iPhone, and there are many to choose from, but I have a few must-haves on my list - more on these in Part Three…

Better photos from your iPhone (part 1)

In the constant effort to improve my photography skills I decided to make a more conscious attempt to always have a camera with me when I'm out and about. My problem with this is that the camera I prefer for high quality images, a Nikon D200, is something of a brute to carry around all the time. I even bought an excellent small Domke bag expressly for carrying the D200, a second lens and a tiny flash, but this is still a big and heavy enough bag to think twice about when heading out the door. I do still grab the packed Domke on occasion, but I need to be in a 'serious shooter' frame of mind to take it with me.

I also have an excellent little Ricoh GX200, which can shoot RAW and offers terrific image quality for it's compact size, with the usual small-sensor caveat of requiring good available light to shoot in.

But I really want a camera I'll always have with me and so eventually I decided the only camera guaranteed to fit the bill for 'always' is the camera in my iPhone. I'm currently using an iPhone 3GS and the 'touch to focus' feature really does offer a significant improvement in getting better image quality from the otherwise basic camera. Additionally there are now a great many photography apps on the iTunes store that offer surprising editing and manipulation capabilities for iPhone captured images.

Since making the decision to use the iPhone camera I wanted to know a bit more about the properties and tech specs of the camera module itself. From information on various sites I found this on the iPhone 3GS camera:

  • Resolution = 3MP
  • Lens = 3.85mm focal length (equiv to about 37mm on regular camera)
  • Sensor = 1/4" CMOS
Autofocus = 2cm to infinity
Auto exposure & ISO = from 70 to 1600
  • Aperture = fixed at 2.8
  • Shutter speed = variable. (EXIF data on my iPhone images shows a range from 1/10Sec to almost 1/3,000! So automatically controlled shutter speeds and ISO determine the exposure, unfortunately neither are accessible to the user).

And here's a camera update from a review on Macworld of the new iPhone 4:

"As on many smartphones (including previous iPhones), the iPhone 4’s 3.85mm camera lens has a fixed aperture of f/2.8, and automatically adjusts the shutter speed and ISO to get the best exposure. In our tests, we managed to make the ISO go as low as 80, and as high as 1000. The longest exposure time was 1/15 of a second, and the shortest was 1/10000 of a second."

By today's standards that's a pretty low-end camera and I've often heard the complaint 'but that's not a real camera!'. Well I'm as big a sucker for camera gadgetry as any other photo-geek but years of lusting after better and better cameras has led me to understand that a better camera does not necessarily equal a better photo. It is not the camera that determines whether the photo is good, or not, it's the photographer - I know this is a cliché but, by and large, it's true. Bear in mind too that the photography marketplace is awash with a rising tide of sales BS, apparently with the express purpose of selling you a 'high-end' camera with more features than you have brain cells (and sometimes they even succeed!).

My philosophy is that any camera is as real or serious as you make it, and anything that captures an image is a camera, from a cardboard box pinhole camera to a Hasselblad.

A few short years ago 3mp sensors were top of the line for emerging Digital SLRs and some fantastic images have come from those cameras. I can go back through my Lightroom catalogue and find many images of superb quality taken with my first 'serious' DSLR, the Nikon D70 - and it only sported a 6mp sensor.

I find that the quality of iPhone camera is more than enough for casual shooting, reference shots and experimental imaging.

The constraints of the iPhone camera are far outweighed by its convenience, because, of course, 'The best camera you have is the one that's with You'. This makes the iPhone almost perfect for unplanned, or unexpected photo-ops, here's a few examples of photos that only exist at all because they were shot on an iPhone:

These photos may not be high-res captures, but they capture something else, something far more fundamental to photography for me; It's all about being there, catching a random moment of perfect light, seeing a familiar location in a new way, or a unique event unfolding before your eyes - and, most importantly, it's all about the image, not the image quality.

A great shot is still a great shot, even if it's only 800px wide on your browser screen.

Often the quality of the iPhone image needs some help to really shine, so I have no problem post-processing my iphone images extensively using some of the wonderful photo-editing apps now available. I know some purists frown upon such extensive processing of images, but, in my opinion, 'image processing' starts when you raise your camera to take a photo in the first place. Aiming your lens, choosing angles, framing, exposure control, shutter speed selection etc., etc., are all decisions you make in capturing an image.

Editing the final image with software to enhance, or change it, is part of the same image-making process - it's ALL selective. To me there is no such thing as photographing something 'as it was', only 'as you see it'.

After a few weeks I expected that the quality my iPhone images would improve, but I did not expect that using the iPhone camera would make me a better photographer in a fundamental sense, but that is what I believe has happened. I'm shooting a lot more images, I concentrate more on what I'm looking at when shooting (the whole screen of the iPhone is my viewfinder), there are no distracting controls, just a shutter button. Lessons learned from shooting with my iPhone have improving my 'eye' for when (or if) I bring out a 'real camera' later.

I find it's refreshing to pay less attention to the mechanics of how I'm getting the shot, It's faster, more direct and I feel closer to the images I'm shooting. In fact, thinking back on it, this is why I was bitten by the photography bug in the first place.
 An added bonus is that there's no auto-review on iPhone after releasing the shutter - so there is no time wasted 'chimping' images already shot.

I'm not sure this kind of rapid self-development (pardon the pun) is even possible with any other camera, once you bring controls, buttons, menus etc. into the situation your relationship to capturing the image totally changes.

This is part one of my 'Better Photos from your iPhone' series. This post is much longer than I intended, but I've learned a lot from using my iPhone camera and I'd like to share this with anyone else who'd like to 'up the ante' on the success of their iPhone photos.

In part two of this series I'll cover the physical aspects of how to get better shots with your iPhone.