iPhoneography 101: Photo Tip Q&A

In this the second article in the iPhoneography 101 series I thought I'd answer a few questions that many ask about shooting pix with the iPhone.

I'm still working on the format for this series so please bear with me while I work through it.

Question: Why would I want a different camera app? Isn't Apple's Camera app good enough?

Answer: For most situations the iPhone's Camera app is perfect. It's easy to use, takes great shots most of the time, has many useful features, and is integrated into the iPhone's ecosystem, meaning that there are fewer hoops you'll have to jump through to tweak or share your photos.

However, I did say, "most situations," because there are photos that the Camera app just can't handle well. Light trails, for instance is far easier to capture with Slow Shutter Cam (1.8MB, iOS 7, or above, US$0.99) or PureShot (5.3MB, iOS 8, or above, US$2.99) than with the Camera app. Long exposure landscapes, portraits using external flash, and anytime you want to be able to reproduce a photo using defined settings. Alternative camera app focus on some aspect of control that beyond the reach of the default app.

PureShot Shutter Priority mode lets you tweak your exposure in real time.

SlowShutterCam can take very good photos in extremely low light by using a technique borrowed from astrophotographers.

The app takes a series of photos, each exposed for the low light situation, but not the necessarily the subject then combines them to bring out low light details while reducing exposure in brighter areas. The result is a perfectly exposed low light shot that just isn't possible with the Camera app.

I mentioned PureShot last week. One feature I like is its Shutter Priority exposure mode which lets you control exposure in real time.

Take tilt-shift lenses as another example of enhanced control. These lenses on SLRs can produce some amazing shots. Use it to be rid of lens distortion when shooting architecture or create eye catching "toy" photos. You can buy telephoto, wide angle and magnifying lenses for your iPhone, but no one offers a tilt-shift lens yet. With the right app, however, you can still get the tilt-shift effect. SynthCam(3.2MB, iOS 4.2, or above, free), for instance, tricks your phone into producing tilt-shift like photos by using video to take several quick frames and locking focus on the subject. Camera movement produces blurred images of everything but the subject. Depending on how you move the camera while taking the shot, the result can be a very convincing bokeh photo. The downside with using SynthCam is that its highest resolution is 960x720, not the best output. (This is dependent on which iPhone you have. Older models may produce lower res photos.)

You can get higher resolution using a post processing app like Snapseed (28.3MB, iOS 5.3 or above, free) or Big Lens (34.4MB, iOS 6.0 or above, US$0.99 + in-app purchase). Both can produce some amazing results the highest resolution your phone can support. Snapseed is free and Big Lens cost a buck. I'll talk more about Big Lens next week.

Question: Should I buy a tripod?

Answer: If you you want razor sharp images, especially in low light situations, then yes, get one and carry it with you.

That said, you can often get by without a tripod just by using objects around you that are solid, like handrails, posts, benches, tables, etc.

Captured using a concrete post as a "tripod" (Photo by Vern Seward)

If you intend to buy a tripod then you have a lot of options. Take a look at the GripTight GorillaPod from Joby. It has an integrated holder for your phone. Just snap it in a take a shot.

There are other tripod options too. I'll go into those in a later article.

By the way, if you use a tripod remember to take the shot using a timer to give your setup time to stop moving after you press the shutter button. You can also buy a Bluetooth shutter release. HISY makes a great remote called Halo. It's easy to sync and works with a free app called ShutterPanorama.

Question: What's the best way to take a selfie?

Answer: There is no one best way to take a selfie, there are things you can do to optimize the shots you do take for any given situation.

  • Make the most of available light:
    Light any photo, a good selfie is best when your subject (you) is well lit. Try to get you face in bright, but not harsh light. Very bright direct sunlight, for instance, can make for pix with hard shadows or squinty eyes. Find bright, but diffused light where the background isn't brighter than you. If the background is brighter or if you can't avoid harsh shadows, use your flash to fill in the shadows.
  • Make the most of your surroundings:
    Unless you really don't want to show where you are, get some distance between you and the camera to show off the backdrop. The is where a tripod and the timer can come in handy. Use the front facing camera to help you set up the shot and set the timer for several seconds to give yourself time. Sit or stand off center to show off the beauty behind you. Also, be mindful of your surroundings. Don't leave your new iPhone on a tripod and walk away from it unless you feel safe in doing so. That may seem obvious, but it only takes one lapse of judgement to wind up having to order a new phone because yours disappeared the second you turned your back.
  • Experiment! Take several shots!
    Again, this advice may seem obvious, but it's worth reminding. Change your position and snap away while remembering to keep the previous two points in mind. There are no set rules. Even the points I made earlier can be tossed aside if it means getting a better shot. Remember that.

That's it for this session. Next week I'm going to looks at some accessories that you may want (like add-on lenses and external flash!).

Stay tuned.