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Tips For Improving Your iPhone Photos on Vacation

Sept. 03, 2013
13 min read
Tips For Improving Your iPhone Photos on Vacation
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Andrew over from Lenticular Travel and I connected recently via email and we thought it might be really helpful for him to share some tips on using an iPhone camera, so that traveling families can better capture some images from their vacations. Of course, some families have fancy cameras they bring along for the ride, but for many of us the only thing we can manage to add to our luggage is the iPhone that we always have firmly placed in our pocket. Andrew takes amazing photos with amazing cameras, but as he points out, it is often less about what your camera can do, than what you can do with your camera.

Here is a post he wrote for families about using your trusty iPhone to take some amazing shots on your adventures!

I’m gonna try to present one day on vacation in Southern California with your only camera – your iPhone. I would love to help you make your dream vacation more memorable for ever, every moment counts!

You are starting your day in Ojai, a little quaint town close to Santa Barbara. There is a lot of orange groves around here. While driving around you just noticed this nice big cactus tree. It has very saturated orange fruits and you would like to take a picture to share it with your friends back in New England. Your first reaction – step out of your car and take a shot of the entire plant.

That is not what you hoped for. The picture looks dull, not vibrant at all, it exposes boring environment… And in reality it looks really nice, your experience seeing it is not dull at all.

All right, let’s try to get closer and crop out some of that ugly background. It’s better, the subject becomes more clear and defined. But the picture is still flat and hazy. Where is the sun? Behind my back? Maybe if I move a little…

Wow, is it the same plant and the same iPhone camera? What happened? Why is my picture suddenly so saturated and crisp? The main difference – your light is way more interesting, instead of the flat look, you got some contrast and vibrance with the backlit scene. Not fully backlit, more of a side backlight kind of layout…

I’m excited now, this might lead to some success. How about if I get really close? Not bad at all, the great looking fruits are clearly the subject, the background is even slightly out-of-focus. Maybe I got too close, maybe there is a way to get a better light?

Bingo, the best light and the best composition. The picture looks great, the subject is clearly established, saturation and colors look great.

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Does iPhone stink as a camera?

Well, yeah, kind of… What are the biggest weaknesses, maybe there is a way around it? Why do people drag all those heavy cameras and bags full of lenses with them? There are a few reasons, of course they think they look cool with the long zooms wearing a fancy vest. But seriously, there are some important reasons:

  • The quality of the images produced by various cameras depends partially on the quality of the digital sensor used. Bigger, more serious cameras usually have better and bigger sensors. This helps to take sharper images, with less noise and more information captured and stored. Luckily the technology moves forward pretty fast and today even compact cameras and smartphones have pretty high quality sensors. So even your iPhone is capable of taking good quality photos. Sure, there are ways to help it take good photos. For example if you shoot in a dark environment and there is not a lot of light to capture, your pictures will be noisy. The best pictures taken with an iPhone come from the bright, well lit scenes.
  • You also have to understand – your camera doesn’t see the world as you see it. It doesn’t understand what you want to photograph. It tries to make an average image which almost always creates an average quality boring picture. For example, you want to photograph a dark dramatic sky – the camera “automatically” makes it brighter, it doesn’t like black or white, it likes grey. Grey = average. Grey, boring, dull. Average. That’s why photographers don’t like automatic cameras. They want to control the way they expose their photos. Many cameras today have full manual control, unfortunately iPhone is as automatic as it gets.

Is there any way around the automatic nature of the iPhone?

  • Luckily for us, there is. It’s called Camera+. It’s an application which introduces an element of control to the fully automatic iPhone photo taking process. It allows to adjust, yes adjust!, the brightness of your scene. This is key. You want your dramatic sky to be dramatic – drag your finger around the frame to achieve the desired level of drama.
  • Lenses are the most important elements in the camera system, the quality of glass, how “fast” they are (means how much light they can capture) etc. This is key. iPhone has a tiny little lens, not fast enough to expect pictures with very shallow depth of field.
  • There are additional features which make a camera more useful, they can record RAW format without any compression instead of traditional JPEG, they might have a solid construction and be waterproof, they might be able to fire 10 frames per second to be able to photograph some fast action. All those things combined do improve image quality. But all you have on your vacation in Southern California is your iPhone. Let’s see what you can do!

After what you just learned shooting the cactus tree, you tried a new approach to shooting those beautiful blooming flowers on another cactus. The background was not great, so you concentrated on close up of the flowers and tried different angles and different compositions. The light was great, still very early, nice play of shadows, great!

I recently wrote a short piece about what a “good photograph” is. I highly recommend it, it’s the best accelerated photography course you will find anywhere (yeah, sure I know, in my not-so-humbled opinion). One of the surprises, I don’t mention “camera” until the very last point. This famous question: “great pictures, what camera do you use?” outside of getting really old and somewhat annoying, simply makes no sense. Your camera does not make you take better pictures. Please, please, remember that. Sure, it makes a difference as I just explained earlier. But if we are talking about a good photograph, there is quite a few elements which are more important - much more important. I recommend that you read the entire post, but I will very briefly present the important points here:

Lesson 1. PATIENCE. Don’t rush. You’re standing on the edge of the most breathtaking waterfall in the world and you just can’t stop taking snapshots, snap, snap, snap. You feel like you must photograph everything right away. It’s the middle of the hazy day, everything looks pale and washed out. You’re staying here for a few days. Slow down. The waterfall is spectacular, but your photos are not. First lesson – better light will make your waterfall look better. Better light usually means early morning or late afternoon/evening. Look around. Think about the sun direction. Where is sun going to be the next morning?
In case of the iPhone photography, patience also means let your iPhone focus and measure the scene before you press the shutter. Very often I see people shoot everything really fast, I bet most of their photos are out of focus and badly exposed. iPhone needs a little time to see the scene and find focus. Don’t rush.

Lesson 2. SUBJECT. What exactly are you trying to photograph? The basic mistake is an attempt to show “everything”. The widest angle you have captures the entire vista because it’s so beautiful. It is beautiful, but when you are standing there you are not seeing everything at the same time. Your brain and your eyes selectively pick some elements which attract your attention. Ask yourself, which elements are the most attractive? Maybe instead of this super wide angle, try a more “normal” lens. Crop a frame which will expose an interesting layout. Don’t try to photograph everything. Your brain also selects and isolates an object of interest. You can achieve the same thing in your picture by creatively using the depth of field. It helps to establish your foreground and your background.

Lesson 3. LIGHT. Did I mention how important the good light is? Just checking. Very often our subject can’t be adjusted or changed. We came to this pyramid in Mexico expecting something out of this world. It’s not really that great… But we can still take a great picture. What can we control? Light. We can pick the best moment of the day, we can be lucky and have some unusual light spectacle, a rainbow, dramatic clouds with breaking god-rays. Great light usually means a good photograph. BTW I seem to use the word “usually” often. That’s because photography is not mathematics. It’s art. The result depends on many factors. That’s why it’s so interesting and never boring.

Lesson 4. COMPOSITION. For centuries artists have been looking for simple rules describing a pleasing, balanced composition. When two things are in the proportion of 3/8 to 5/8, they are said to be in the golden mean. Rule of thirds is a simplified version and something which can greatly help you create more balanced images. Instead of placing your subject always in the middle of the frame, try putting it on the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns and rows, ideally near the intersection of those lines.

Lesson 5. TECHNIQUE. The best camera won’t help if you don’t choose the proper shutter speed and your image will be blurry.

Remember, the first step is to think about what you want to photograph, to start observing light, to choose the best moment. With a couple of simple apps you can take great photographs. Once you get hooked, believe me, there is no return. You will buy a better camera soon. It will allow you to control your scene more and the technical specs will be better. Photography is a way to chase the perfect picture which will allow you to see what other people miss. You will be coming back to your hotel full of excitement about your amazing sunrise experience at Angkor Ta Prohm temple and they will be arriving to the boring mid-day hazy conditions and a crowded place, not even close to the magical wonder you just witnessed.

As your day continues you are much more confident with you iPhone camera. You are looking around, moving often, experimenting with various compositions. Getting closer or wider. Your beach photos came out really nice, not only did you capture a couple of interesting angles, your images are showing the kids and the environment; the light is nice, very cool.
All the tips you learned help improve your kids' portraits too. All the rules, good angle, great light, a new original approach – all this works. The iPhone lens is very demanding as far as the chosen perspective, be careful to make your loved ones look great!

The evening trip to the Universal Studios was great. You are especially proud of your images, you noticed almost everybody around was shooting pictures and you tried to do something different, maybe a completely different angle, different perspective. The shot of the Universal City walk globe came out great, you didn’t know shooting against the sun can be so rewarding!
You moved to Manhattan beach to see the sunset and it was so nice, such a refreshing place after the crowded theme park. There was no amazing clouds or color, but you were still able to capture the typical Southern California image with a beautiful lens flare.

All my pictures were taken on one day, Sunday, August 25th. I processed them all in snapseed, by far the best photo post-processing app available. It’s created by Nik, the company behind the most sophisticated Photoshop filters on the market (Google bought them a couple of months ago, not the greatest thing if you ask me). To transfer my pictures to my computer I use PhotoSync. Apple seems to think we all need iTunes to copy a few pictures to our laptops. Well, luckily for us, there is PhotoSync. I will cover Camera+, snapseed and PhotoSync deeper on my blog.

Andrew writes, a blog covering great photo locations around the world. He covers miles and points as the best way to travel in style and save money. “Help a traveler take better pictures and a photographer travel better”.
To celebrate the launch of his blog, He has a giveaway running till September 6th, so there is still time to sign up for prizes, including travel gift cards and prints of his photographs.

Thanks so much to Andrew, and I look forward to trying out a few of these tips myself!