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Our Top 10 iPhone Photography Tips for Beginners

by Grant
iPhone Photography Tips

When folks ask me about what cameras we use, many are surprised that we use the camera on our phones extensively. What amazes a lot of folks is that they have the same phone we do and are not able to get nearly the results that we get with our photography. Since we are all about helping folks improve their travels, here are my iPhone photography tips.

These tips are designed to help novice photographers make the best use out of their iPhone. These tips are not designed for advanced photographers who already know their way around an iPhone camera. 

Grant taking pictures at Silver Falls in Mt. Rainier National Park using his iPhone.
Grant taking pictures at Silver Falls in Mt. Rainier National Park using his iPhone.

So, if you have always wanted to take better photos with your iPhone but don’t know how, let’s get started.

All of the photos in this article were taken with an iPhone.

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Why Use an iPhone for Travel Photography?

Believe it or not, iPhones (and almost all modern smartphones) have really good cameras. They are not as good as you will find in a professional quality camera. That said, they have great software that produces outstanding images for what most people are going to use them for: posting online. You can use iPhone photos for making prints up to about an 8”x12.” Any larger and you will notice significant flaws.

Relaxing by Sprague Lake with a Nolan the Wanderer.
We were able to take this photo, edit it and post it to social media all on an iPhone.

For sharing online, an iPhone is amazing. You can take the photos, edit them and share them right from your phone. 

This is all from a device you keep in your pocket, meaning it is always with you. One of my favorite adages of photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Since an iPhone is always with you, that makes it the best camera most folks own.

Looking for the other gear I use? Check out my article on what I keep in my camera bag.

Tip #1: Use the Rule of Thirds

One of the simplest and easiest tips for photography is to use the Rule of Thirds in your composition. 

So, what it exactly is the Rule of Thirds? Well, for whatever reason, the human eye is drawn to things that are off set by 1/3 of the image rather than centered in the image. 

Sunset on Lake Michigan which demonstrates the concept of Rule of Thirds.
I used the Rule of Thirds when composing this picture. Note the sun is offset to the left by 1/3. Using the Grid on the iPhone allowed me to take this picture.

Imagine for a moment that the image is divided by a tic tac toe grid. If you line up the most important things in your photograph with where the lines intersect, the picture you take will be more visually appealing. 

Fortunately, iPhones have a setting that turns on a grid on your phone to take the guess work out of composition. Open the Settings app, then scroll down to “Camera.” Turn on “Grid.”

By using the Grid, you will see on your phone screen how to frame your picture to take advantage of the Rule of Thirds.

Tip #2: Get Closer

As a general rule, most folks don’t get close enough when taking pictures. If you think you are close enough, take two more steps closer. 

You will notice as soon as you do that the subject tends to fill up the frame so much more. This is especially important in any kind of picture you take at a location.

 Most folks want a picture with whatever landmark in the background. There are good pictures of people or good pictures of places. Unless the person is a prop in the picture of the place, you often can’t get both in the same picture.

Grant frequently wears a t-shirt and a fleece - great for layering and can go from the trail to dinner with ease.
Grant with Mt. Rainier in the background. Note the use of Rule of Thirds in the composition. The picture is more about Grant than it is about the scenery in the background.

Start your image by using Rule of Thirds to place emphasis on the person. Then step closer, keeping the grid lined up with your person and try to work the location (mountain, landmark, etc.) over their shoulder. 

The end result is a good picture of the person with the location as the background, which is what people really want. 

This is also especially important in taking any kind of pictures of small objects. Get as close as you can.

Tip #3: Use Something in the Foreground for Scale

When you are taking a picture of a grand vista, be sure to include something in the foreground. Doing so offers scale and helps frame your image.

While panoramic overlooks with tons of mountains in the distance are truly awe-inspiring, they don’t lend themselves to amazing photos without something in the foreground to give a sense of scale and to help frame the image.

A view of the Gore Range from Trail Ridge Road near the highest point on the road.
This is a great example of using an object in the foreground to give the mountains beyond scale and help the viewer see the vastness of the vista.

I like finding a tree or a large rock in the foreground to give that appropriate sense of scale. 

There are times you can use a person as a prop or to give perspective of size. A good example of this is taking a picture of something especially large, like a massive tree. Adding a person to the picture allows the viewer to truly understand how large the item is. 

Tip #4: Use Your Telephoto Lens

Newer iPhones have a 2x telephoto lens. This allows you to get a closer picture when you can’t actually step closer.

To use the telephoto lens, press the “1X” button in your camera app. This will switch to the telephoto lens, which is indicated by the button changing to “2X.” To switch back, hit the button again.

Overlooking the Great Hall and kitchen at Grand Portage National Monument.
I was able to get a nicely framed picture of the Great Hall and kitchen at Grand Portage National Monument using the telephoto lens on my iPhone.

Do not, however, use the digital zoom on the camera. This is commonly done by pinching the screen to “zoom in” but can also be done with the 1X/2X button. All this type of zoom does is make the pixels larger, which degrades the image quality significantly. Basically, that button should read “1X” or “2X” only. 

The newer iPhones have a third lens, which is an ultra-wide angle lens. I have not gotten a chance to play with that lens yet but I am looking forward to trying it out. It looks really impressive. 

Tip #5: Change Your Angle

Most folks only ever take pictures from eye level. 

This angle can be nice for perspective shots, like the famous Instagram pose of the girl leading her partner to what ever beautiful location. I have made extensive use of eye level shots for our paddling adventures. 

That said, if that is all you ever take, it can be boring. I highly recommend changing up your angles on your shots. 

A bit of old barbed wire left from the Faraway Ranch.
Note how I got low to use this old fence post and these logs to frame the view. It might require getting low or high to get a good shot.

I am especially known for getting low on my pictures and I often find interesting framing and things on the ground to help my photos have scale. 

Don’t be afraid to take pictures down into holes or up along trees. The different angles can make for very interesting photos.

Tip #6: Use Portrait Mode

The newer iPhones that have both a zoom lens and a wide angle lens have a really cool feature called Portrait Mode.

Basically, the camera uses both lenses to capture the subject in focus while blurring the background. The result is a really nice picture of whatever is in the foreground.

A small batch whiskey and chili vodka cocktail at Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery.
Using Portrait Mode produces really nice blur in the background, called bokeh. It makes your subject really pop.

This is great for portraits, obviously, but also for taking pictures of small items, like getting the perfect picture of a flower or an amazing cocktail at a rooftop bar. 

You can access Portrait Mode by swiping left once you open the camera app. There are several lighting choices but I prefer natural lighting for most of my work.

Tip #7: Use Exposure Control

One of the features a lot of folks tend to forget about (or just don’t know exists) in the Camera app is the ability to control the exposure of the photo, or how much light the camera lets into the sensor. This controls how light (overexposed) or dark (underexposed) the picture will be.

Using this feature is really easy. Just touch the spot you want to be properly exposed in the photo. The camera will adjust the exposure accordingly. 

A screenshot of using exposure control in an iPhone Camera app.
Using Exposure Control allows you to tell the Camera app how light or dark you want the image.

From there, if you slide your finger up and down on the screen by the spot you selected, you can manually change the exposure either lighter or darker until you get it right.

As a general rule, I like to go darker rather than lighter. I find I can brighten an underexposed image much easier than I can recover an overexposed image.

Tip #8: Turn on HDR

For landscape or other still photography, turn on HDR on your camera. 

If you have ever taken a sunset photo and gotten a mostly dark landscape, HDR can help you get a better photo. HDR means High Dynamic Range. Typically, that means combining three or more pictures at various exposures into one image so you get more detail out of your pictures.

That means areas that are typically dark in a photo will be lighter with better details and areas that are typically white when they shouldn’t be (i.e. overexposed) will be visible and more colorful. 

An early morning picture along the Rio Grande highlighting the HDR capabilities of an iPhone camera.
Using HDR, I was able to capture this gorgeous shot of morning light on the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park.

You can turn on HDR in the Camera app by looking on the top of the screen when the iPhone is oriented vertically. You can also go into the Settings app, scroll down to “Camera” and then select “Auto HDR.”

While HDR is great for capturing vivid landscapes, it is not good capturing action.

Tip #9: Use Panoramas Creatively

The Panorama Mode on an iPhone is absolutely great for capturing grand vistas in one image. Most folks use the tool horizontally and it can be used to great effect that way.

The one thing about Panorama Mode is to watch out for moving objects in your frame. You can end up with people with multiple legs or other oddness if you are not paying attention.

That said, one trick that is fun to do in a wide-open space is to use Panorama Mode to capture the same person in two different spots. The trick is to have a person stand at edge of the shot and then run around behind the photographer to get into place on the other side of the shot.

Another really useful way to use the Panorama Mode is vertically. You can take wider vertical pictures using Panorama Mode than you can normally. That is especially helpful in tight spots where you can’t back up enough from the subject. 

The trick is start at the top so you can get the exposure of the sky right to begin with and pan down. You can reverse the direction of how the camera is supposed to the scan by simply tapping on the screen. 

Tip #10: Use Auto Enhance

Most folks will never take the time to edit photos they take with an iPhone. And, for the most part, that’s ok. That said, there is one simple editing tip you can do to improve your photos: Auto Enhance, i.e. the “magic wand.”

Auto Enhance is not going to drastically change your photo. It will, however, do small improvements to color, contrast and a few other elements. In short, it will help the picture pop. 

Here’s how you do it: Go into the Photos app. Select the image. Click on “Edit” at the top right of the screen. Right below the image will be a “magic wand” icon with the word “Auto” over it. Click it. 

This simple step is the easiest way to improve your photos beyond the steps above. 

Advanced iPhone Photography Tips

Once you have mastered the above tips, you will start seeing serious improvements in your photos. They will start looking more and more professional. Eventually, you will want to be able to do more with your photos; at that point, it is time to implement a couple of more advanced steps.

Advanced Tip #1: Use an Improved Camera App

The Camera app for iPhones is pretty good for most folks and is the camera app I use most often. That said, it does lack a lot of the more advanced features found on other camera apps. 

For situations that require a bit more control to get the right shot or the desire to shoot RAW (uncompressed, unprocessed) images for more advanced image editing, I use the Adobe Lightroom app. Professional photographers who want more control over their pictures use RAW images. When you’re ready to tackle more advanced photo processing techniques, taking RAW pictures is the way to go.

A screenshot of the Lightroom Mobile app. Using this app is one of our advanced iPhone photography tips.
Lightroom Mobile has it’s own camera app which allows greater control over things like exposure and white balance.

The camera app in Lightroom will do HDR, will allow you to take RAW photos, will allow you to manually control white balance (which allows you to compensate for differing lighting situations) as well as exposure. 

Lightroom also has a built-in level so you can make sure your shots get the horizon right. Lastly, it has serious photo editing tools built right into the app. 

The major con of this app is it requires an Adobe account and has limited cloud storage for free. If you add on Adobe’s Lightroom CC plan, you get significantly more online storage for photos. You also get a good desktop photo editor that syncs with the app on your iPhone. That’s a great step up when you are ready to get serious about your photography.

A screenshot of the HDR Plus app. HDR photography is one of the best iPhone photography tips and this app does it well.
HDR Plus is purpose-built for taking HDR photos. You can select four different spots to use for exposure, allowing a robust HDR image.

The other app I have just started using is HDR Plus. This is a paid app ($2.99) that allows you to do more robust HDR photos using an iPhone.

The real plus of this app is the ability to select four different spots in your photo for exposure control. It then takes four photos and merges them into one image. The results are better than the regular Camera app or the basic Lightroom HDR mode but does require a bit more effort.

Advanced Tip #2: Edit Your Photos

As you take more and more photos, you will find you have those photos that are almost right. The framing is right and you have a good shot but there is just something missing or just not quite right.

Click on the image, then click on “Edit” in the top right corner, just like you would for Auto Enhance. You can select various aspects of the image, like exposure or color, to adjust.

Since every photo is different, there is no magic combination of edits that will fix your photo. I suggest experimenting a bit with various effects to see what you like for your photo. You can hit the “Cancel” button at any time to reset the image back to what it was when you originally took the picture.

A screenshot of using the image editing features of the Photos app on an iPhone.
This photo was quite a bit washed out by the bright sun, so I boosted the saturation to help the colors pop.

If you look at the bottom of the screen, you will find some presets by clicking on the three lenses icon. These presets can make your editing process a lot faster if they match up with your vision for the image. You can also use them as a jumping off point and fine tune the image from there.

Next to that is the Crop and Straighten icon. That will allow you to straighten the image if you got the horizon wrong. You can also crop the image to eliminate unnecessary elements or size it to meet a specific purpose, like a square shot for Instagram.

Advanced Tip #3: Use a Tripod or Selfie Stick 

A tripod and a selfie stick may seem a bit frivolous but they can really help capture group pictures if you use them right. 

We use a small lightweight tripod and smartphone tripod adapter we picked up years ago to take pictures of the two of us out on the trail. You can use the timer (at the top of the Camera app) or you can use an Apple Watch as a camera remote.

Enjoying the view and a trail beer.
I used a small tripod with a smart phone mount to capture this shot. I used my Apple Watch as a remote to take the actual picture.

We also have a great Bluetooth selfie stick that has a small tripod base as well. It is easily rechargeable and makes it really easy to take selfies out in the middle of nowhere. 

These small investments will allow you to do some impressive tricks with your iPhone’s camera.

Final Thoughts on iPhone Photography Tips

An iPhone is a perfectly good travel camera. While it is not as robust nor flexible as my Sony RX10 Mk IV or my Canon EOS 7D MkII, it has one serious advantage: it is always with me. 

I always have my iPhone with me. I can get to it quickly and use it with one hand if I need to. That’s not something I can do that with my other cameras.

While the native Camera app does not have all the bells and whistles as one of my “big” cameras, the automatic modes are great for most people and you can get a more advanced camera app if you want. 

In short, an iPhone is a powerful travel camera because of its size, flexibility and availability. Make the most of yours!

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