Today, photography is everywhere. People take photos of anything, and with anything. Gone are the days of film, and limited amount of pictures, today you can snap to your heart’s desire. Sadly, the loss of film and expensive cameras being the mainstream also means the loss of a lot of quality and patience in photos.
Sure, Instagram offers you a few filters you can stick over your photos, but if you want to make your photos really stand out, you need something extra. We won’t be looking at the cheesy and frankly ridiculous filter selfie apps my girlfriend seems to be so fond of, rather, real apps and tools to help you make the most of your iPhone’s camera. If you have an iPhone, chances are the quality of the camera is fairly good, it’s just that you need the right tricks, apps, and tools to be able to maximise the potential of your expensive smartphone.
What’s wrong with my photos as they are?
The iPhone, especially the 6s, 6s plus, 7, and 7 plus, have brilliant cameras, which perform great in good lighting. However, when taking photos of food at a dimly lit restaurant, you may start to notice little multicolored dots pop up in plainly colored areas. This is called noise, and it’s done by the iPhone in an attempt to make your photos brighter. To do this, the sensitivity of the sensor behind the lens is increased, and the noise is a result of false-positives creeping in from the increased sensitivity. If you don’t understand that, thats not a problem, but noise, shakiness, and framing are just a few of the major things which give away the fact that the photos are taken by a phone.
Part One – Photography Basics, and using new apps to take photos:
If you’re going to take better photos with your phone, you’ll want to know a bit about what these words mean. They’re essential in photography, and they’ll help you to use the manual camera apps to their maximum potential, to take beautiful photos.
Framing and the Rule Of Thirds
Taking photos is all about framing. If your subject is not in the frame of your photo, something is definitely wrong. Likewise, if they’re right in the middle, or moving towards the closest edge of the frame, that’s also not ideal. Ideally, you should be following the “Rule Of Thirds”. Simple put, if you put two equidistant (from the edges) lines going across, and two equidistant lines (from the edges) going down, your subject should be placed where the lines meet. If the subject is moving across the frame, also aim to have more space in front of them rather than behind them. You want to see where they’re going, not where they’ve been.
This is how long the the iPhone will receive light from the sensor for. If you take a photo at 1/10, it means that the image will take one-tenth of a second to take. If you move the phone at all within one tenth of a second, you’ll end up with a shaky looking shot. The shutter speed has a huge impact on the brightness of your photos. The longer the light is collected onto the sensor, the brighter the resulting photo will be. If you take a photo at 1/8000, the light from just one eight-thousandths of a second will be transferred into the resulting picture. If you take a photo of anything other than a lightbulb or the sun at 1/8000, you’ll end up with a very dark shot.
This is the sensitivity of the sensor. The higher the sensitivity, the brighter the photo will be, but also the more grainy. If you’re shooting outdoors at a low shutter speed, the resulting image will already be bright, so you can choose to set a much lower ISO. Usually, the lower the ISO, the clearer and less noisy the photo is. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable to use a higher ISO for indoor shots – particularly if you’re shooting a moving object. If you’re shooting a moving object, you don’t want to have a low shutter speed, as they will end up looking blurred, so you’ll need to crank up the ISO to counteract that. For night or indoor photography, I’d recommend getting a tripod of sorts, so you can use a low shutter speed coupled with a low ISO to retain the clarity and brightness of the shot.
This is how wide the hole is which the light passes through into the sensor. If you open up the aperture completely, you can have bright shots, even in darker areas with low shutter speed and low ISO. The downside is that you’ll need to get the focus exactly right, as things out of focus will be very out of focus. This is how photographers using DSLR’s achieve the “bokeh” effect, whereby the subject is in focus, but the background is blurred. Unfortunately, on the iPhone, and most smartphones, you don’t have any control over the aperture of the lens, as they’re fixed at around F2 or so.
If you’ve ever taken a photo of wood indoors, you’ll know how important white balance is. Simply put, it’s how green/purple, blue/yellow the photo is calibrated towards to make the white true white. If you’re under incandescent lighting, you can end up with some very blue looking shots, which can look cold and clinical if you don’t set the white balance correctly. This is perhaps one of the most important settings to change, as you can end up with some very good looking shots if you can get the white balance correct, and some terrible looking photos if you don’t.
The focus is a key aspect of photography. Try taking a photo of the the scenery through a rainy window. Are you focusing on the scenery or the raindrops on the window? Often, the autofocus on the iPhone will get it wrong, thinking that I want to focus on the raindrops. If you want to get rid of the guesswork, you can manually set the focus to what you want it to focus on, but with the small aperture of the iPhone, once you get past a certain distance, you don’t need to worry too much about the focus.
Ok, how am I supposed to change all that with the Camera app?
In a nutshell, you can’t. You can, in some limited fashion, change the brightness of the photo, as well as lock the focus of the photo, but you don’t have enough granular control to really make your photos pop. My favorite camera app so far, after testing and buying numerous apps is Focus ($1.99). It offers all the controls your iPhone will allow for, in a neat and gesture-based interface. I’ll sum up a few apps below:
This is my favorite camera app. It’s only $1.99, and it offers an intuitive interface for changing all the controls your iPhone allows you to. Although it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the stock camera app, it’s brilliantly designed. The only downside to this app is the fact that you can’t shoot video at all on it. If you want to shoot video, you’ll have to open the stock app.
This is another solid camera app, with inbuilt video recording capabilities. It’s a good camera app, but the menus can be a little convoluted and confusing, as well as having very small UI buttons. If you’re willing to spend the cash, and have a larger device, give ProShot a shot (pardon the pun), but if you have a smaller device and prefer simplicity, go for Focus.
Camera + ($2.99)
Arguably the most user-friendly of the bunch, Camera+ trades control for ease of use and “fun factor”. Like the previously mentioned selfie camera apps, there are a plethora of different filters which Camera+ provides you with, such as “clarity” and “intensity”. If you’re well versed with photography and the definitions mentioned above, stay away from this app, but if you’re just getting started, you might want to try it.
Getting great photos
Now that you have your photo application of choice, proceed to use all of the previously mentioned settings to get the best photo you can. The trick to getting great shots is to know what settings to use, when. If you’re in a low-light situation, use a low shutter speed, with a medium ISO, rather than a high shutter speed and a high ISO, since you’ll get less grainy shots. However, if you’re shooting a moving object, you might not have the luxury of a low shutter speed, so you’ll need to wind up the ISO to compensate. If you have a moving object and the background doesn’t matter too much, follow the object while using a low shutter speed and ISO. You’ll end up with an excellent action shot of the object, where the object is in focus, but the background isn’t.
Part 2 Editing your photos:
Yes, the iPhone camera is great, and so are the apps that you’ve just taken your photo with. However, sometimes, it simply isn’t enough to make your photos pop. What you need now, is a photo editing app to give your photos a little extra. While Photoshop and Lightroom reign supreme in the desktop side of things, Pixelmator is my go-to photo editing app for iOS. At $4.99, it’s a little on the expensive side, but it’s a purchase you’re sure not to regret. With it come a plethora of different editing options, including a histogram, levels, and filter options. You can even add shapes and text, but that’s something I wouldn’t recommend for photography. The most important features here are white balance, tilt-shift (called “miniaturise”), selective focus, blur, and levels.
In Pixelmator, you can adjust the levels on a photo, under the “Effects” tab. With levels, you can change at what threshold each pixel becomes completely black. If you set this all the way to the top, you’ll end up with a completely black photo, as even white will be transformed into black. Likewise, if you set the white threshold to 0, you’ll end up with an all white picture, as even 0, 0, 0 will be turned into 255, 255, 255 (the maximum “brightness” in RGB). Usually, I turn up the black point a little higher, to give the entire photo a darker and more contrasty feel. It also gets rid of any “washed out” look in the photo.
Blur is also an important part of making a photo shot on the iPhone extra special. If you’re lazy, you can use a combination of tilt-shift and selective focus to blur out the background of the photo, while keeping the subject relatively sharp. If you have a lot of time, or you care a lot about the photo, you can trace and select the subject, invert the selection, and blur the background manually. This takes a little more time, but makes it look close to a photo taken with a low aperture on a DSLR.
If you have an iPhone 7 Plus, you don’t need to worry about this – Apple will do it for you. Simply open the default camera app and navigate to the “Portrait” section of the camera app, select your subject, and shoot. It’s very easy with an iPhone 7 plus, and one of the reasons I’d recommend it to anyone who has enough money to afford it.
If you want to take better photos, use the right app, learn the tricks, and learn to edit your photos. While you may still not have the best photos, they’ll certainly be better photos than the ones that come straight out of the default camera app. Art gallery quality? Maybe not. Instagram-worthy? Definitely.