3 Rules for Better Candid iPhone Portraits

In the first installment of this Portraits series, I gave you the first three rules in my Discipline of Film. It's a set of rules cobbled together from way back when I shot with film and had no instant gratification of reviewing my shots on the fly as we can with today's cameras and smartphones. I still use this Discipline regardless of what I'm shooting with, partly because it's habit and partly because it's just a good thing to do.

By sticking with my Discipline I find that my pix are predictable and consistent, both are good things. I have a very good idea what the shot will look like before I press the shutter, and I know that, given a similar situation, I can reproduce the results.

In Part 1, I also focused on what I called Staged Portraits. Those are ones where you have some control over the environment and subject. You can, for instance, pose the subject, augment the lighting, even reposition to get a better, less busy background. In Part 2 I said I would focus on candid pix, I just didn't have the time to take the shots I wanted to. Instead I'll include some from some photos of my friends and family.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos were shot by me on my iPhone 5 using either PureShot or 645 Pro MK and processed using SnapSeed.

Without further hubbub, lets get to it.

RULE# 4: Steady As She Goes

There are few things more frustrating than taking what could have been a "Money Shot" only to find, upon closer examination, that the subject is out of focus.

Yeah, there are many reasons a shot can be out of focus, but it's likely because you moved when you hit the shutter. This is especially noticeable in low light situations. To get the right exposure your shutter has to be open longer and the longer it's open the more shake we introduce into the shot.

Even in bright sunlight, camera shake can ruin a shot and no amount of post processing can fix it. So what to do?

There are plenty of ways to steady your camera and get razor sharp pix. The most obvious of which is using a tripod. There are truckloads of devices available that will let you mount your phone onto a tripod. I have a clamp that lets my phone sit solidly on flat surfaces. It also mounts on most standard tripods. I also found a great clamp that sells for less than US$5.00 on Amazon.

As for tripods, any designed for small cameras will do. The one pictured below set me back US$15.00 at a local camera shop. You can get something similar for a lot less on Amazon.

Cheap tripod and mount is all you need to get razor sharp pix

Of course, you don't have to spend to get a steady shot, you can improvise. This self portrait was taken with my iPhone propped on a small overturned waste can. I had set the timer in PureShot for ten seconds. I set the exposure to be slightly over exposed in the bright center because I wanted it to be silhouetted. It is a moody shot, but that's what I was aiming for.

Improvised tripod produces sharp shots in low light

The point here is that even when you don't think you'll need a tripod, if it's convenient, use one anyway.

Also, make use of the timer. Tapping the shutter when it's on a tripod defeats the purpose of the tripod. A 3 second timer solves this.

RULE # 5: Take the Shot, Dammit!

You've composed, you've got great lighting, and only the Rock of Gibraltar is more solid than the surface your iPhone is sitting on. Now what?

Press the shutter for cryin' out loud. Some folks will futz with camera settings, move the subject incrementally to the left or right or forward or backwards or lift a collar or lower an eyebrow...and never take the friggin shot.

Sometimes there's no way to make a shot steadier, you just have to take the shot likemy friend did of her grandsons, Dennis (the engineer) and Julian
(Photo Curtesy of Joan Othon, iPhone 5c)

There is no perfect shot until you hit the shutter. If you must futz, take the shot THEN adjust. If it's in focus then you'll at least have something to work with if no other shots are possible.

In this same vein, learn to shoot in manual mode (you'll need an app that simulates this on your iPhone like ProCamera 8+, 645 Pro MK, or my current favorite, PureShot.) and use it when you have the time to futz, but leave it in auto when you're out and about. The last thing you need is missing a shot because you had the shutter manually set to 3 seconds.

RULE # 6: Avoid the Flash

I'm sure this rule may sound ridiculous at first, but hear me out.

The iPhone, and most cameras have built in flashes that do a great job of illuminating. The problem is that they give you light in the most uninteresting angle possible, straight on. Yes, when all else fails please use the flash, but if you have adequate natural light and a steady place to prop your phone on then use that instead. A reflector can help shed more light on your subject.

 Great ambient light but kids can move too quickly. Even so, I love this shot of my grandson.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Bergeron, iPhone 4s)

If you must use a flash then get an external flash. Nova BlueTooth Flash is one. It's thin and can be held in any angle to light what you want lit. iBlazr is another choice. You can angle this one as well and it's bright! Sync either with your phone and apps like PureShot and 645 Pro MK can trigger the flash. That's right boys and girls, your iPhone can use a remote flash! (Are you beginning to see why I like these two apps?) I'll have more on these flashes in a later article.

Ok, that's a wrap for this installment. Next time I'm going into the studio to take formal portraits. It's easy and you'll be surprised at the results. Stay tuned.