How to Compose and Shoot Great Photos With Your iPhone

The iPhone camera  – a small wonder that captures excellent images given its physical limitations. We can exploit those limitations and take advantage of the many incredible photo processing apps to get some irrefutably awesome images. 

The first thing to consider  – something which makes any image more appealing to the viewer  – is to understand and master the basic principles of good image composition. Your level of photographic skill is principally defined by the ability to compose an image well.

I have put together five rules for you to follow and to help you improve your photographer’s eye.  

1. The classic Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is arguably the most essential principle of good composition. It is one of the first things that is learned in classic art courses as well as in basic Photography 101 and beyond. 

An iPhone image of a street in Italy. A tic-tac-toe grid is superimposed to help with composition.

In this street scene in Aosta Italy, a tic-tac-toe grid is superimposed to help with composition

Imagine an evenly spaced tic-tac-toe grid superimposed over your view frame or screen. This virtually divides the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The Rule of Thirds states that for pleasing compositions, your main subject should be placed on any of the four intersecting points. Elements like horizon lines or buildings should be placed along the gridlines. For example, don’t place a horizon line smack in the center of the image. Instead, place it along the top third (horizontal line) to emphasize the foreground, or the bottom third (horizontal line) to emphasize the sky.

On an iPhone, you can enable your camera’s Grid. This places light gridlines into your image frame. The Grid is there to not only help you compose according to the Rule of Thirds, but also to aid you in shooting straight images.

The Photos & Camera Settings panel in iOS 7

You can enable the camera Grid from the Photos & Camera Settings panel

To enable the camera Grid in iOS 7, go to Settings > Photos & Camera. Scroll to the bottom and enable the Grid. I keep it on all the time, and I highly recommend that you do the same.

A screen capture showing the enabled camera grid on an iPhone screen

When the Grid is enabled, it will be lightly superimposed over your image as you compose the shot in the Camera app

2. Avoid centering your subject

I alluded to this above. It’s very common for casual snap-shooters to place the main subject in the center of the image. This just leads to unsettling compositions, even if only subliminally. You want to stand apart from the typical shutterbug, right?

Simply moving your subject just a bit off-center will do much to improve your composition.

An iPhone image of a girl eating spaghetti

Julia is slightly off-center, resulting in a pleasant composition. (She finished that entire plate in this trattoria in Bologna, Italy)

3. Diagonal balance

The Diagonal Rule of composition states that good composition is achieved by aligning the principle image subjects diagonally. This helps maintain good balance.

An iPhone photo of four pizzas using diagonal composition

Diagonals are very powerful elements of composition. The pizzas are powerfully good, too!

Additionally, by placing certain linear elements diagonally in the image, such as fences, walkways, roads, waterways, and pizzas, you can realize a more dynamic, pleasing composition.

4. Maintain the direction of movement

Even though subjects in our images appear stationary, they often depict a certain direction in their perceived movement. For example, we expect active people, running animals and vehicles to move forward. Our eyes follow the direction of their implied movement.

An iPhone image of a jogger

Generally, it's best to compose this subject so that she is walking (or jogging) into the picture

When photographing a person walking or a vehicle moving  – say from left to right  – you want to leave more space in the direction of movement. Your goal is to place the person or vehicle so that they are “moving into” the picture. In this case, keep the subject heading right more towards the left side of the image. Again, it’s more natural for our eyes to interpret this type of image, and makes for a better overall composition.

5. Follow the eyes of your subject

This rule is closely related to the previous one. When we study an image of a person, we generally look at the subject’s eyes first. Similar to how our eyes naturally follow a subject's movement, they follow the eyes’ gaze of other people. So, when shooting a person  – taking their picture, that is  – try to leave more space in the direction towards which your subject is looking. 

An iPhone image of a nice lady napping on a plane

Ok, so my wife is sleeping instead of marveling at the Italian countryside flying by, but you get the idea

So there you have your five rules for composing great photos and making them stand out above all the rest. But, guess what… rules can be broken! 

In fact, the above rules are simply classic guidelines that have been around for ages. It’s good to learn and understand them, and to apply them when appropriate. Yet, there certainly are many reasons not to use the Rule of Thirds. 

For example, it’s often more appropriate to center a composition when symmetry is evident in the scene.

An iPhone image of two symmetrically positioned cranes

There is a lot of symmetry here. The image works best when a centered symmetry is maintained

One of the most valuable tips I can offer to my photography students, and now to you, is to take many, many photos of your subject and from many angles while trying different compositions. Film is cheap nowadays… Wait… never mind. Point is, you have the ability to shoot boatloads of images and to analyze them later in order to choose the best of the bunch  – and to toss the rejects with impunity!

In conclusion, next time you shoot a photo with your iPhone, just pause for an instant and think about applying the above rules. At least you’ll be comforted just knowing that if you want to, you can certainly break them.