5 Technical iPhone Photography Tips for Instagram-Ready Photos

5 Technical iPhone Photography Tips for Instagram-Ready Photos

In 2018, iPhone photos have been published in countless high profile publications. So what's stopping your shots from looking that good?

According to data sourced from Flickr uploads, the iPhone is currently the most used camera on planet earth – and for good reason.

While the sensor is small and the ISO handling is poor, it's the most convenient camera imaginable. Viewed on mobile screens, the image quality favorably compares to high end consumer DSLRs – and from a technological standpoint, the image processing technology is immense, producing usable photos in harsh conditions with just one click.

But there are ways to get even more out of your iPhone photos and produce results like the stuff you drool over on Instagram.

Some of these tips require a 3rd party app that unlocks the full technological capability of your iPhone camera. We like Camera+ for this – if you're a serious iPhone photographer, it's hard to image 3 dollars better spent.

iPhone Photography Tip #1: AE & AF Lock

The iPhone is one of the best cameras in existence when it comes to being on hand and being fast enough to grab a shot. This is largely due to Apple's highly advanced auto exposure and auto focus settings: the moment your camera app is opened, the iPhone reads the light values in the composition and meters the exposure for the area that it sets focus to (which is based on lots of different factors – face recognition, local contrast, and more).

When it's right, it's a wonderfully smooth shooting experience. But when it's wrong, it can ruin your photo.

Something as simple as a passerby walking through the background of your composition can pull focus, blurring out your subject and ruining the exposure in a moment. In moments where you've artfully framed your composition and need total control, give your camera a long press on your subject to activate AE/AF lock.

With the AE/AF lock enabled, your iPhone will keep focus and meter for the exposure on whatever subject you've chosen to be inside the square. No matter what happens outside of that square, your photo will stay locked to take the best possible photo of whatever is inside it. But if the auto exposure of the AE/AF lock still isn't doing the job, there's one more way to adjust your composition.

While holding down the AE/AF lock square, drag your finger up and down to adjust the exposure level. While AE/AF lock is active, it won't pull focus or adjust the exposure to meter for anything outside of the given square.

If that level of focusing control still isn't enough – and for applications like macro photography, it might not be – consider 3rd party apps like Camera+. With this kind of app, you can adjust the focus point by the millimeter.

As an added bonus, Camera+ allows you to lock focus and lock exposure on separate areas, which can massively broaden your creative control.

iPhone Photography Tip #2: Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is tempting, and the iPhone's baked-in sharpening algorithm does a great job at polishing a zoomed photo. But in almost all cases, it's better to take a photo without pinched-zoom and crop later.

When you use digital zoom on an iPhone – or any digital camera for that matter –, you're actually not getting any additional reach in your photo than if you were to take the photo zoomed out and crop in later.

Cropping after taking the shot gives you ultimate flexibility to play with aspect ratios and compositions that you lose out on if you use digital zoom. This becomes especially important when considering Instagram's particular aspect ratios.

With newer iPhone models, use the x2 button to switch to your second lens (an equivalent 50mm). Otherwise, just take the photo and crop in later! Not only will you preserve context and give yourself more creative options, you'll also minimize your iPhone's sensitivity to camera shake.

For the serious photographer, check out this amazing write up that analyzes the optical/digital zoom formula and explains best practices for what to use – and when.

iPhone Photography Tip #3: Light Quality and Temperature

Mobile or professional, photography is all about light. It's your job as a photographer to find the brightest, cleanest light in any given situation and ensure it's being cast on your subject as optimally as possible. Often, this means recomposing and staging closer to a light. Sometimes it means using your camera flash.

Taking iPhone photos in low light is not especially pleasurable. Given the iPhone's small sensor, the ISO handling – in other words, the way the iPhone camera boosts it's sensitivity to light – creates muddy images. If you've noticed your shots become grainy and blurry in medium or low light situations, you're seeing something called 'digital noise' – and it's essentially a lack of information due to high ISO.

A high ISO can be mitigated by two ways: lowering the shutter speed or lowering your aperture. The relationship between these settings is known as the 'exposure triangle', and it essentially looks like this:

  • Higher ISO = More light
  • Slower Shutter Speed = More light
  • Lower Aperture = More Light

Unfortunately, the iPhone's native camera app doesn't allow you to control ISO settings or shutter speed. Thankfully, Camera+ does (by the way, they didn't pay us for this, we promise! – it's just that good).

When using Camera+, the best way to get sharp photos in low light is to open your aperture and decrease the shutter speed until your hand shake starts to blur the frame. With every 'stop' you lower the shutter speed or open your aperture, you'll also be able to lower the ISO in tandem. 

Newer iPhones can open their aperture up all the way to f/1.8, so use that as a base. From there, try dropping your shutter speed to 1/60. This should allow you to set your ISO to 3200 or below, keeping your image relatively clear of digital noise.

But the considerations don't stop there. Every source of light has a color temperature, measured in Kelvins. The iPhone does a decent job at adjusting white balance for a given light source, but when you combine natural light with an indoor lamp, your colors will start to contaminate. 

Not even Camera+'s white balance control can fix a contaminated image, so be especially mindful and ensure your subject is lit cleanly by one color of light.

iPhone Photography Tip #4: HDR Mode

Note: This tip is different than iPhone X's "Auto HDR Mode" – but be careful with that feature.

Have you ever tried to take a photo of a high contrast scene with your iPhone and been frustrated by how poorly it captured on camera? Here's why: digital photography comes down to the sensor in your camera. The larger the sensor, the better the low-light performance, image quality, and notably, the dynamic range.

Put simply, dynamic range is the range of detail – from deepest shadow to brightest highlight – captured in an image. A photo with low dynamic range will have blown highlights and pure black shadows – which is totally fine for simple exposures with even lighting. Conversely, a photo with high dynamic range. Think of breathtaking landscapes that feature deep, shadowy forests and sun-bleached mountain tops, and you'll start to see why dynamic range is such an integral part of photography.

The iPhone's sensor, while impressive, is quite small – so when you have contrasty, high sun-lit photos, it should be no surprise that your photo doesn't read the same way your eye sees it.

Apple's technological solution is called "HDR Mode", and it works by taking three images (an overexposed, properly exposed, and underexposed version) all within milliseconds of each other, automatically aligning them together, and masking in the parts of each image that have the best dynamic range.

However, the time it takes to take all three shots in succession isn't exactly zero. This can be problematic when the camera tries to line up all three images perfectly – especially if your hands are shaky, your shutter speed is slow to due low light, or if you're shooting a moving subject.

Ideally, you'd be shooting HDR mode only when using a tripod. Realistically, you're not usually going to have one of those on hand.

To avoid the risk of a glitchy photo, the best time to use HDR mode is when:

  • Your hands are very still.
  • Your scene is very bright.
  • Your subject is still.

Once you've captured your HDR image, you can use editing platforms like Photos, Snapseed, or VSCO to boost the shadows and lower the highlights with far more flexibility than before.

iPhone Photography Tip #5: Consistent Look and Feel for your Instagram

The iPhone captures a fantastic amount of dynamic range and image quality. The raw image files on your phone give you tons of latitude when it comes to adjusting exposure, colors, and contrast – but the 'straight out of camera' look is a bit flat and boring.

You probably already know that, just like professional photography, you'll have to edit your images if you want them to shine. VSCO is an amazing tool for iPhone photo editing and we swear by it –  but if you're just slapping on a vintage-looking preset and calling it a day, you're going to look cookie-cutter, dated, and you certainly won't stand out. 

If you want your photos to look unique to your Instagram account, you'll have to craft a custom editing process in VSCO. Using your favorite VSCO preset as a base, try lowering the intensity and adjusting the HSL sliders, highlight, fade, grain, and clarity to evoke the mood you had in mind when you took the photo. Voila, the bundle of adjustments you just made can now be saved as a 'recipe'! 

Once you have your 'recipe' perfected, you can start applying it across all of your photos (although you should be making slight tweaks every time to enhance the specifics of your image – a pop of saturation in the green for richer leaves or grass, bringing the luminosity down in the red values to darken skin tones for a burnt, summer look, etc). This process will give your feed the consistent look you see on popular Instagrammer's profiles.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all color treatment in photography. If you apply the same recipe to a high key portrait as a gritty urban street shot, you're doing your photos – and your followers – a disservice.

Challenge yourself to build out 3 separate VSCO recipes that complement what you shoot the most. For example: natural light food photography, high-contrast portraits, or architecture.

As a photographer, it's important to explore your aesthetic and carve out a visual niche for each niche of photography you share with the world. VSCO recipes will ensure your Instagram account keeps consistency no matter what you're shooting.

Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.