Smartphones can shoot much more than snaps and selfies. The cameras are good, the apps are better and the way you can instantly share your photos with your friends and all your other devices is perhaps the best thing of all. But a smartphone is also a genuinely creative tool.
A smartphone encourages you to see and shoot the world in a whole new way. It helps you think different, work different and learn a whole new style of photography. By the way. I’ve got nothing against Android phones. I write about the iPhone because I’ve got one.
1. Shoot square!
The square format wasn’t invented by Instagram – in the days of old-fashioned roll-film cameras it was used a lot. It has two big advantages on the iPhone: (1) it makes you look at subjects and compose them in a whole new way, (2) it means you don’t have to turn the camera on its side!
It crops the image so you get only three-quarters of the megapixels (9MP on the 12MP models, 6MP on the 8MP models), but that’s not a massive loss.
Be aware, though, that you can’t ‘uncrop’ your square shots later. They stay square even if you edit them in Apple Photos or any other editing app.
2. Use the filters
You get eight different filters to choose from (nine if you count the unfiltered image) and while they might not be quite the ‘look’ you’re looking for, they’re a good starting point. There are two things which make the in-built filters really useful: (1) they preview the effect live so that you can compose your images and set the exposure in just the right way for that effect, (2) they’re non-destructive. This means you can change the filter for another one or remove the filter effect altogether later on in Apple Photos.
3.: Go wide with the Pano mode
I’m not going to suggest shooting everything as a panorama. The fact is that letterbox-style panoramas are impossible to print and a pain to view. But the Pano mode does something much more useful – it lets you simulate a much wider-angle lens than the one fitted to your iPhone. It’s easy – just don’t get greedy, and pan across a narrower angle of view. You’ll capture more of the scene than you could with a single shot and it’ll still have a natural-looking aspect ratio.
4. Tap to set the focus and exposure
It’s not psychic. Your iPhone won’t always focus on the part of the scene you want it to. But you can fix that so easily just by tapping the object you want to focus on. Obvious, huh? But there’s something else – this also sets the exposure for that particular object or area, so if you want the exposure to match the sunlit parts of a scene or a subject in silhouette, this will do it – it’s like a simple and intutive manual exposure control. And if the object you want to focus on isn’t suitable for setting the exposure too, then just drag the vertical exposure slider up and down – you’ll see it right alongside the focus square.
5. Exposure and focus lock
For this, instead of just tapping on an object in the scene, you tap and hold. This locks both the exposure and the focus on that object. Why would you want to do that? Because sometimes you want to maintain a consistent exposure for a series of shots, because it helps you lock the settings on a key part of a panoramic scene when it isn’t right at the edge where you’re starting, and because it will maintain a consistent focus and exposure in a video clip even when you’re following a moving subject and the background is changing.
6. Shoot video like a pro
The iPhone’s video quality is very good indeed, and if you use the shooting techniques of the pros you’ll get results that start to look a lot closer to theirs. So here are some dos and don’ts: (1) Don’t chase after your subjects, filming as you run. Work out what you want to shoot, find the right position and try to stay in one place. (2) If you need to pan with your subject, do it once, in one direction – don’t confuse the viewer by panning this way and then that. (3) Don’t try to shoot a whole movie in one take, but build it out of shorter clips and edit them together in iMovie or some other video editor. (4) Vary your angle and your distance – mix long shots with close-ups, mix action with people speaking to the camera or throw in some ‘reaction’ shots. Watch how film-makers make movies – and then copy them!
7. Brace yourself for low light
You can shoot anything, in any light – if you can see it, you can photograph it. True, if it’s really dark the iPhone will have to push up the ISO setting so far that the fine details start to turn to mush, but this doesn’t happen as soon as you’d expect, especially with the Plus model, which uses its in-built image stabilisation to use slow shutter speeds and keep the ISO down for as long as possible. If you are shooting in low light, brace yourself and the camera against a wall, a door frame, a table or your friend’s shoulder – anything that helps cut camera shake. You’ll be rewarded with low light shots you may not have thought were possible.
8. HDR and when not to use it
The iPhone’s HDR mode is rather good. It keeps detail in bright skies and other highlight areas by combining two separate exposures taken in quick succession. If you leave it enabled by default it will deliver great shots in tricky conditions. You might even be tempted to turn off the option that keeps the original non-HDR fail, but there is one specific circumstance when it will go wrong – when you’re shooting close-ups with out-of-focus backgrounds. The HDR system can’t cope with blurred edges and will produce unnatural-looking outlines. Otherwise, the HDR mode is brilliant.
9. Kill the flash before it kills the atmosphere
The iPhone’s built-in ‘flash’ does its best but it’s both weak and rather harsh, just like the pop-up flash units on regular cameras. It’s OK in an emergency, like when you’re photographing a document or a restaurant menu or something like that, but the rest of the time you should just switch it off and try to capture the scene with its natural lighting, which will be much more atmospheric. Unlike conventional flash, though, the iPhone’s ‘flash’ offers continuous lighting, so you can use it for video – if you must.
10. Don’t be scared to edit
All the changes you make in the iPhone’s Photo app are non-destructive. This means that the original photo is unchanged, and you can undo your edits at any time. You can crop a photo, rotate it, add a filter, change the exposure and do anything you like – and then change your mind at any time in the future if you want to.