How to Make Awesome Images with Your iPhone

iPhone Photography – referred to as iPhoneography by many – is a relatively new photographic medium. It's popularity has grown exponentially over the past three years as we see numerous iPhoneography exhibits, contests and course offerings worldwide. On, the iPhone is the most ubiquitous source of images stored on that fine service. The iPhone camera is used successfully by professional photographers, fine-art photographers and everyday photography enthusiasts alike.

We are all too well-aware of the pervasive nature of mobile photography. However, there are many opportunities for you to go beyond the Facebook and Instagram imagery we are bombarded with. All it takes is a little work to have your iPhone photography stand-out over all the rest. You will find people say to you, "Wow! Your photos are awesome!! You must have an expensive camera!!!"

I used to think, "Sheesh, what an insult!" Now, I relish whipping out my iPhone to show them what I used to capture and process my photos. After all, as a photography teacher once told me, "It's not about the violin; it's about the violinist."

Each time I teach my six-week iPhone Photography workshop at a local art college, I find that most of my students end up wanting more. This is because many learn – for the first time ever – to express and push themselves photographically with their iPhone camera. More importantly, they discover that they can achieve this not with expensive, complex and bulky camera gear, but with their pocketable iPhone camera.

So, dear reader, I am here to tell you that if you take some time to explore and come out of your comfort zone, you will discover the artistic potential not only in yourself, but also in your iPhone: "the camera that's always with you."

A hand slipping an iPhone into a jeans pocket.

The camera that's always with you

The study of iPhone photography is quite rich and is covered in numerous articles, books and courses. I thought that for this mid-summer article, I would offer up a short list on how to improve your iPhone photography. I then end by zeroing-in on one particular aspect.

Here's my formula for successfully capturing and sharing compelling, award-winning still images with your iPhone camera:

Understand the limitations of your iPhone camera. For example, considering the optics and the diminutive qualities of the camera, plus the fact that you are not allowed to manually select aperture settings, generally results in a very deep depth-of-field (the area in focus). This is fine for the typical, forgiving "Kodak Moment" snapshot situation. However, it does not do much for those creative techniques where selective focus helps to guide your viewer's eye to the intended subject and minimize distractions.

Exploit your iPhone camera's limitations to further advance and express your creativity. In the example presented above, outstanding images can indeed be made – simulating depth-of-field and selective focus effects – by processing your images with specialized apps, such as TiltShift by Michael Krause.

A screen capture from the TiltShift app.

With an app like TiltShift you can apply selective focus effects to enhance your image

Study principles of classic photography. A basic understanding of concepts such as composition, exposure, and light can go a very long way towards helping develop your Photographer's Eye and better images.

Learn how to edit and process your images using appropriate apps. After your photo shoot, know how to edit, process, fix and enhance your images using just a handful of inexpensive but powerful photo apps.

Learn how to manage your photographic workflow. This starts with pre-visualizing your shot and proceeds on to image capture, to editing your images, and to sharing them in multitude ways – all accomplished directly on your iPhone.

Study the work of other photographers. Immerse yourself in their images. Explore them, analyze them, enjoy them, and learn from them. See how others work around special photographic situations and camera limitations. Be inspired.

Take lots and lots of pictures. As with so many other things, practice makes perfect. You need to develop your Photographer's Eye; learning how to really see instead of just looking.

Beyond the other points listed here, the only other way to excel at your photography is to take tons of pictures of your subjects. Try different angles, varying details, different times of day, different kinds of lighting.

"Old-timers" (including yours truly) need to get out of that film mindset where we would conserve on the quantity of photos taken due to film and processing cost concerns. Memory is cheap now.

You have a little darkroom in your pocket or purse. So, take lots of pictures. Only keep the good ones; deleting the rest with impunity! It's difficult, I know, but it's so important. Oh, and never, ever show your bad images!

You want a benchmark? Consider yourself lucky if 20% of your photos are keepers. But that's only valid if, as I say, you take boatloads of pictures.

Hold it steady! Finally, give serious thought to using proper techniques that ensure capturing clear, sharp images.

Let's explore this last suggestion a bit more.

For any type of photography, "camera shake" prevents you from getting good, sharp images.You know, the ones that people want to pause and really look at. For the sake of artistic license, there are exceptions, of course, but mostly, image softness screams "amateur!"

A graphical illustration of the words

Camera shake is one of the most causes of ruined images

Camera shake is a problem inherent in all smartphone cameras. In addition, it's made even worse simply by virtue of how the device is typically held when shooting photos. Most of the time, you are forced to hold out your iPhone at arms-length when taking your shot. What do you think that does to promote camera shake? That's right, the resulting images can be pretty amateurish – particularly when fatigue sets in.

With lower available light, the negative aspects can get even worse as the iPhone adjusts to slower shutter speeds in order to compensate. I know what you're thinking, and no… you do not want to rely on flash!

Additionally, it's important to realize that when engaging in iPhone photography, you don't have available to you a vital feature that most point-and-shoot and DSLR camera users enjoy – the camera viewfinder used for setting up the shot. Having a viewfinder affords a steadier hold of the camera as it is being held against the photographer's face, and with elbows firmly tucked against the sides of the body.

So, with camera stability in mind, here are some suggestions that are sure to help you get those nice, sharp shots:

Use auto-focus override. When composing and setting up your shot, be sure to tap the screen where you want the focus to be its sharpest – typically your subject. As the iPhone's circuitry acquires focus, you will see a square reticle appear on-screen right where you tapped.

Never shoot while holding your iPhone in one hand. You stand a much better chance of introducing camera shake by doing so. Use both hands, and try to keep your arms close with elbows firmly held against your sides.

A man taking an iPhone photo with one hand in low-light conditions.

Especially when indoors, you can't expect to get sharp images when shooting with one hand

Find some form of support. Rest your iPhone against a wall or tabletop to help reduce possible camera shake to practically zero.

Use the UP-volume button to snap your photo. This welcome feature was introduced in iOS 6. Not only does this provide the familiar feel and stability of using the shutter release button on your old point-and-shoot camera, it gives you a more solid grip on your iPhone. Gentle, though; a nice light press is all that's needed. With the original method of tapping the on-screen camera button to release the shutter, that tapping action introduces yet another source of camera shake. What do you think that translates to? Correct! More soft photos to throw into the bit bucket.

Use a tripod and a remote shutter release. This is the ultimate in eliminating camera shake entirely. Most DSLR users will already know that to completely remove camera shake they need to shoot using a tripod and a remote release to control the shutter.

In the marketplace, you have a huge choice of tripods as well as iPhone cases that include a tripod mount. Regarding the remote shutter release, your iPhone's equivalent to the tried and true shutter release cable is actually included with every iPhone: the Apple EarPods.

A detail view of the volume control bar on the EarPods cable.

Pressing the UP button on the EarPods' in-line control bar will release the camera shutter

All you need to do is plug them in and when ready for the shot, trip the shutter by pressing the volume-up button found on the headphone cable. By the way, third-party bluetooth headphones provide the same functionality. Oh, and this also works for remotely stopping and starting video recording on your iPhone.

Avoid the zoom function in your Camera app. This type of zoom produces lower resolution images, which equates to low-quality. This occurs because your iPhone zooms digitally. As opposed to optical zoom in "higher-end" cameras,  the iPhone Camera software is simply cropping the image and discarding pixels in the process. The best photos are the ones where your subject fills the frame.

So, what to do in this case? The answer: if at all possible, zoom with your feet! That is, walk up, and get close to your subject.

Take advantage of specialized apps. Recruit the assistance of apps that help reduce the evidence of camera shake in your photos. If you find that camera shake is unavoidable in your situation, there are apps that can help you get the shot with the least amount of camera shake.

One of my favorite photography apps is Camera+ by tap tap tap. It's what I call a "Camera replacement app" because I use it exclusively to take pictures with my iPhone. Of this app's many excellent features, the one that helps with camera shake is called Stabilizer. With this feature enabled, the app analyzes the iPhone's movements by using the device's accelerometer. The app releases the camera shutter only when it senses the instant you achieve maximum steadiness.

A screen capture from the Camera+ app.

The Stabilize feature in the Camera+ app monitors your camera shake and releases the shutter the moment there is the least amount of camera movement

Finally, I'm recommending a great hardware and app combination product that I have found to be enormously instrumental in reducing camera shake. I've already mentioned that an fundamental limitation of the iPhone is that there is no traditional camera viewfinder. This is a concern because the viewfinder helps to appreciably stabilize the device.

The Daylight Viewfinder eyepiece attached to the iPhone screen.

The Daylight Viewfinder eyepiece and companion apps work together to help you get your sharpest images

The solution I discovered – a Kickstarter-funded product – is called Daylight Viewfinder by Sig Innovations, LLC. It's a high-quality viewfinder eyepiece that attaches via suction to an iPhone and works with its companion Daylight Viewfinder app.

Here's the thing, the product website touts its main feature: that of blocking out external light to make taking photos in bright sunlight easier. Don't get me wrong, that alone is a great feature which really works. However, even more important is the side benefit of providing additional camera support, resulting in sharper photos. The use of the loupe-like viewfinder allows you to bring the iPhone to your face thus providing a steadier hold as described earlier.

In conclusion, remember that photography is less about the camera gear and more about your vision, no matter what gear you use. The iPhone is always with you. Unquestionably, the latest models have exceptional photographic capabilities.

Why not take some time to learn and practice the necessary techniques that guarantee awesome images, and have people compliment you by saying, "Wow! Your photos are awesome!!You must have an expensive camera!!!"