There is a saying among photographers that the best camera in the world is the one you have with you at the time.
While I’m not convinced that this is always true, I get their point: it’s no good having a heavy, bulky and expensive DSLR – plus a selection of equally heavy, bulky and expensive lenses – if they’re stuck at home because they are too inconvenient to lug around with you…
Which is exactly where I am with photography at the moment. I have the ‘proper’ kit for ‘proper’ jobs, but am increasingly using my iPhone to cover events with, finding that the quality is so good that it is easily good enough for website and print use for the majority of shots.
But, while you might always have an iPhone with you (or other smartphone – these tips are equally applicable to Android phones), they do have their limitations. Here’s how to start creating photographs with them instead of just snaps.
1. Get close to your subject
The first problem is that you’ll almost certainly have a fixed lens, which rules out zooming in to get closer to the object you’re shooting. That’s OK though, because you can do the same thing manually – by walking towards it.
Yes, I know you can scroll and pinch the screen to get closer but all you’re doing is losing pixels and image quality by cropping the photograph in-camera. It’s far better to walk a bit closer to fill the screen with the subject.
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2. Set your focus
The second limitation is that your iPhone focuses more slowly than a proper camera.
This isn’t a problem when you’re shooting a building or other static object, but it can be a problem when you’re trying to take a photograph of something that’s moving quickly, like grandchildren. The result, too often, is a missed shot and blurry pictures.
The trick here is to pre-focus on a point that they are about to pass. Do this by pressing on the screen at the point you want the camera to focus on. Once it has done so press the screen again, only this time do it for a couple of seconds.
A yellow box will appear, and the words ‘AE/AF LOCK’ will be in a box at the top of the screen. You’ve now locked your focus, so all you have to do when the fast-moving object passes this point is to press the shutter and voila – a perfectly focused photograph!
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3. Adjust the exposure
The third limitation is adjusting the exposure; with a DSLR you can balance ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to get the exposure you need.
With an iPhone, the ISO range (which runs from 32 to 1600) is automatically selected and the aperture is fixed at 2.2, meaning you are going to struggle to control the exposure perfectly.
And yet, when you fixed the focus in the previous step, it told you that the exposure (AE) was fixed too. However, by sliding your finger up and down the screen you can lighten or darken the exposure by increasing or decreasing the length of time the shutter is open. It’s limited, but it is there and can be used to great effect.
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The great photographers will tell you that they nailed a shot in one go. That’s rarely true, and a magazine cover is often the culmination of a couple of days' work and thousands of photographs.
This is great news for you and me because it frees us up to take lots of shots too, in the hope that we will get the perfect photograph, by hook or by crook...
With an iPhone, holding the shutter button down shoots a burst of images. Dozens of ‘em, if you like, which drastically improves your chances of getting that perfect smile; shoot a burst and you’ll be amazed how much of a difference a thousandth of a second can make to the finished result – and all you have to do is to pick the best one of the bunch later on!
Now we’ve looked at some of the limitations of the iPhone, we can start to look at some simple hints and tips on photographic composition.
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5. The Rule of Thirds
Imagine two vertical lines and two horizontal dividing your camera screen into thirds. If you place an object at the point where these lines intersect, you’re using the Rule of Thirds to draw the viewer’s eye to that point.
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6. Keep it simple
The best images are simple, conveying exactly what the photographer wants you to see. So think about what you want to depict and work ruthlessly towards that point.
This shot was taken after a four-hour hike up Snowdon. I wanted to show the vastness of the landscape and the way the sunlight was playing across it.
I might have nailed the fine detail better with my Canon 6D, but I think the iPhone did an impressive job nonetheless – and it was much easier to carry!
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7. Shoot from a low angle
We see the world from head height, so if you can get low you’re automatically going to produce photographs from a perspective that is more interesting.
This shot took a lot of patience (and pre-focusing) but I love it. (Note: Rule of Thirds too!)
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8. Stand in front of more interesting things
Because your iPhone is so small, you’ll generally have it with you when you are out and about. That means that when you stand in front of interesting things you’ll have the wherewithal to capture the moment, no matter how fleeting.
This shot of a Kia was a result of my glancing back to where I’d parked the car after climbing up onto a sea wall to admire the view.
I’d already got the conventional car-beside-the-sea shot in the bag when I realised that there was a more interesting photograph just begging to be taken.
I couldn’t be bothered to climb down and unlock the car, assemble my kit and take the shot ‘properly’ (in my defence, I needed my lunch – and we all know what happens when motoring journalists get hungry…) but I did have my iPhone in my pocket.
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9. Just do it
No, not a slightly naff sporting slogan, this is me urging you to get out there with your iPhone and just take some shots.
This photograph was taken on a very dark day, and the initial image was dull and unexciting. However, with some editing, the clouds that had dragged the shutter length right down to get the exposure right had also blurred the rain drops, giving a wonderfully atmospheric shot that has been one of my most popular on Instagram.
I very nearly didn’t bother even trying to get this one. I’m so glad I did.