Fake It With Your Phone! 29 Tips For Better iPhone Photos

iPhone 5 macro, using Olloclip. Photo by Tracy Munson.
iPhone 5 macro, using Olloclip. Photo by Tracy Munson.

We’ve all heard the saying “the best camera is the one you have with you”, but serious photographers may let moments pass them by, just because the big camera is at home. I know that I have been guilty of this, and I, of all people, should know better since my journey into serious photography began when people started asking to buy prints of my iPhone photos. Here are 29 tips, tricks, apps and accessories that will help you take photos with your phone that everyone will assume you took with your “real” camera.

  1. Tap to focus and set exposure 

    Ok, this one is dead simple and yet I am frequently amazed to find iPhone users who do not realize that you can tap the screen of your phone to select the area that you want to focus on. You set exposure the same way, so if you are taking a photo of someone who's face is in shadow, you can tap on their face to expose for that instead of the overall scene.

  2. Separate focus and exposure 

    Use an app like Camera+, which allows you to separate your focus and exposure points, giving you much more control over the final photo. Simply tap on the focus square and drag to the side to separate the exposure settings, then drag the focus square over the part you wish to focus on and the exposure circle over the part you want to expose for.

  3. Take control with 645 Pro MK III

    Go one step further and use an app like 645 Pro MK III, which allows you to manually set your white balance and select your iso and shutter speed (aperture is fixed, so there's nothing to be done about that). One really cool feature of this is that it shows you how you are affecting the exposure right on the screen, in real time which may be helpful for those who are just learning to shoot in manual mode.

  4. Shoot .tiff or .dng  

    Did you know that you can shoot .tiff or .dng files on your iPhone? The above-mentioned 645 Pro app allows you to save your photos as .tiff files and the Digital Negative app allows you to save actual .dng RAW files. You’re going to need a phone with loads of storage if you plan to shoot a lot in these modes, or you can just save them for “special” photos that you think you may actually want to do some editing work on later.

  5. Snap on lenses  

    Morning dew on a sleepy bee, iPhone 4s with cheap, magnetic macro lens. Photo by Tracy Munson
    Morning dew on a sleepy bee, iPhone 4s with cheap, magnetic macro lens. Photo by Tracy Munson

    There are TONS of little accessory lenses that you can buy for your phone. They range in price from a few dollars for magnetic or clip on lenses to $100 plus from brands like Olloclip. I have used a number of them, including Olloclip, Photojojo’s magnetic lenses and some really cheap ones from eBay and I honestly, could not see a difference between the $3 lens and the $100 lens. In fairness, this was not a scientific study as I was using them on different phones, but I feel confident in saying that you shouldn’t let price affect your decision to get a set of these lenses because even the cheap ones can perform surprisingly well. Usually, they come in sets, most commonly including a fisheye, a wide angle, and a macro lens. Sometimes there may be a 2x telephoto (the one I had was absolutely useless, as it created a black circle vignette around the photo, just like the fisheye…in other words, I may as well have simply cropped) and a circular polarizer, which I have not yet tried and cannot speak to. I have also purchased a couple of the longer telephoto lenses, an 8x and a 12x but did not have good results with either of them, as they are manual focus, VERY shaky and cause a lot of distortion. It was also extremely difficult to even find the subject through the lens at those focal lengths, without being able to zoom out.

    Some grungy, urbex, fisheye fun. Taken with iPhone 4s and a cheap magnetic fisheye lens, edited in Snapseed app. Photo by Tracy Munson
    Some grungy, urbex, fisheye fun. Taken with iPhone 4s and a cheap magnetic fisheye lens, edited in Snapseed app. Photo by Tracy Munson

    By far, the most useful of these lenses and the one that I highly recommend is the macro. I have taken some very detailed macro photos with these lenses and to be honest, this is the one situation in which I am often happier with my iPhone photos than the ones taken with my DSLR! The fisheye lens can also be a lot of fun and is definitely a much cheaper way to play around with this kind of photography than buying a real fisheye lens would be.

    I have recently ordered (but not yet received) a set of lenses that clip onto the phone with a clothes peg – like system. If they are any good, I am hoping that this will solve the problem of having to buy new lenses every time I change phones because systems like Olloclip are fitted to specific models and eventually you lose (or use up) all of the sticky magnetic rings for the magnetic systems.

  6. Volume button shutter

    Something that many users don’t know or don’t remember is that you can use your volume buttons on the phone as shutter buttons. This is really helpful when trying to hold the camera steady, as you can keep both hands on the phone and don’t risk jostling it when you tap the shutter button on the screen. It even feels just like the way that you are used to holding a point and shoot camera and pressing the shutter button on top.

  7. Headphones as shutter release

    A secondary feature of the volume button shutter is that you can use the volume buttons on a set of headphones as a cable release for when you are set up on a tripod and want to be in the photo, or are taking a long exposure and want to make sure that you are not creating any movement.

  8. Kakabeka Falls, Ontario. Taken with iPhone 5, using Slow Shutter app.
    Kakabeka Falls, Ontario. Taken with iPhone 5, using Slow Shutter app. Photo by Tracy Munson.

    Slow shutter app

    One of my favourite, go-to apps for photographing moving water is the Slow Shutter Cam app. The app allows you to set a longer shutter speed for low light situations, but lots of apps let you do that. Where this one gets special is in the motion blur mode (found in the settings, under the gear icon). Here, you can set a long shutter speed, EVEN IN BRIGHT DAYLIGHT, because it works by taking a short video and merging it into a photo. The resulting effect is silky smooth waterfalls and crashing waves that look like mist between the rocks on the beach, without having to use a neutral density filter!

  9. Pro HDR and Pro HDR X

    The iPhone camera can take HDR photos and there are tons of HDR apps in the app store, but my favourite, hands down, is Pro HDR and the newer version, Pro HDR X. I keep both because the X version can be easier to use since it uses the iPhone’s ability to take a bracketed burst, meaning that you don’t have to hold the camera still for so long, but occasionally I find that I like the results from the original app a little bit better. The original gave you the option to do auto HDR or to manually select the areas you wanted to expose for by tapping the screen for brights and darks. It is rare, but every now and then I find that to be a useful feature. Both apps allow you to create an HDR from your photo library, which is a very cool feature because it means that you can take photos with other apps and then merge them into an HDR. Most notably, I use this feature with the Slow Shutter app, allowing me to take bracketed, slow shutter speed photos of moving water and then merge them into HDR. 

    Sunset at the beach, slow shutter HDR taken with the iPhone 3GS (Yes, really!), using Slow Shutter app, merging photos using Pro HDR and edited in Snapseed. Photo by Tracy Munson.
    Sunset at the beach, slow shutter HDR taken with the iPhone 3GS (Yes, really!), using Slow Shutter app, merging photos using Pro HDR and edited in Snapseed. Photo by Tracy Munson.


  10. Tripod

    If you’re going to be using slow shutter and HDR apps, you’re going to need to use some sort of tripod. This can be as simple as propping your phone up with some rocks while shooting sunsets at the beach or as complicated as mounting your phone on top of your DSLR while it’s on a tripod, with this handy device that holds your phone on your flash shoe. (This may sound redundant, but sometimes I like to take a quick and dirty iPhone photo at a location, for immediate posting to social media, since it may be months before I get around to editing all of my DSLR photos from a trip). You can also purchase tiny, pocket or purse sized tripods for your phone, unlike DSLR tripods, they are extremely inexpensive.

  11. Embrace silhouettes

    Not a fan of HDR? Expose for that gorgeous sunset and create a beautiful silhouette. You'll need a subject with a distinct and recognizable shape (like a person on the beach or a cat sitting in a brightly lit window, for example). You will also need to adjust your angle to make sure that the area behind your subject is all brightly lit. In the beach example, this will mean getting down really low so that the person is outlined against the sky and possibly the water, but not the darker area of the beach. It will also help to have human subjects moving around so that there is a separation between their legs and their arms are away from the body so that they are not just black blobs! At least when you are exposing for the brightest parts of the photo, you should have shutter speeds fast enough to handle a bit of movement, as long as it's not very fast.

  12. Snapseed

    Pretty much every one of my iPhone photos that sees the light of day on social media has been passed through the Snapseed app for finishing touches. Some of my favourite adjustments are Ambiance (in the Tune Image panel), Structure (in the Details panel) and Tonal Contrast (under Filters). All of these require a light touch, but can really add some pop to your photos. The ability to make Selective adjustments is a major bonus and can be extremely useful for removing pesky halos from your HDR photos. There are also some nice Vintage and Grunge type filters that you can play around with if that’s your thing.

    A typical Snapseed "grunge" edit. I find that I can always spot a Snapseed grunge photo, so I try to use this filter sparingly, but when it works, it works. Photo by a terrified Tracy Munson (this house was SOOOOO creepy).
    A typical Snapseed “grunge” edit. I find that I can always spot a Snapseed grunge photo, so I try to use this filter sparingly, but when it works, it works. Photo by a terrified Tracy Munson (this house was SOOOOO creepy).
  13. Camera+ flashlight

    Ok, we’re all photographers here, so we know we definitely don’t want to use the on camera flash, but what to do when we really need some extra light? Once again, the Camera+ app saves the day with flashlight mode — it basically just leaves the flash on, as a constant light so that the whole scene is exposed while factoring that extra light into it. It really looks a whole lot better than the flash and, because you can see how the light is affecting the photo, you can avoid the evil, glowing eye look or the cringe and squint in pet photos. In my experience, the pets also hate it much less than the sudden blinding flash. 

  14. Clean Backgrounds 

    The iPhone 6s has a maximum aperture of f/2.2. Sounds dreamy and creamy, right? Nope. The smaller sensor size increases your depth of field (the amount of the photo, from near to far, that's in focus) and so does the relatively wide, 35mm (equivalent) focal length. That means that clean, simple, uncluttered backgrounds just got a whole lot more important. Unless you fake it with your phone, that is…

  15. Big Lens, After Focus

    One ability that I really miss when shooting with my iPhone is the ability to open up the aperture and get that nice, shallow depth of field with a soft, blurred background. You can fake it with your phone a little bit, if you are able to photograph your subject up close and have lots of distance between your subject and the background, but for times when that is either not possible or not enough, there are the Big Lens and After Focus apps. Both of these apps allow you to select an area of focus and then apply various amounts of blur to the background, with or without a graduated effect. They also have some additional filters and effects that you can apply in-app and with a little playing around, you can get some very nice looking results using either one.

    Pro traveler and back country camping expert, Delgado hanging out at our campsite in Kootenay National Park, Alberta . Taken with iPhone 5, edited with Big Lens App to create fake shallow depth of field effect. Photo By Tracy Munson.
    Pro traveler and backcountry camping expert, Delgado hanging out at our campsite in Kootenay National Park, Alberta . Taken with iPhone 5, edited with Big Lens App to create fake shallow depth of field effect. Photo By Tracy Munson.
  16. Vignette

    Sometimes, you don't need to do the whole detailed masking blur effect, you can draw attention to your subject and away from your background with a simple vignette. The Snapseed app allows you to control outer brightness and inner brightness separately and also has a lens blur filter that allows you to create a graduated blur effect around the edges of the photo. I frequently use both effects to make my main subject pop.

  17. Adobe Apps

    Adobe's iPhone apps have really come a long way recently, so if you were underwhelmed by the old Photoshop Express App, it's time to take another look. PS Express is still around, the filters aren't particularly good and the only thing I've ever used it for was noise removal on my old iPhone 3GS. Low light performance in phone cameras has improved and I have learned not to take iPhone photos in the dark, so I don't find myself reaching for that very often these days. Photoshop Mix and Photoshop Fix are in a whole other league. They both do what you would expect from their names. Mix is for blending photos, masking, adding textures and using some of the common blend modes that you're used to in Photoshop. Photoshop Fix has your cloning and content aware fill tools, everything you need for iPhone (or perhaps more realistically, iPad) retouching – even liquefy! There's more great news for Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers. These apps, as well as the Lightroom Mobile app are all free and all sync to your Creative Cloud so that you can pick up where you left off on any of your other devices with CC.

  18. Artistic effects

    This photo of my dog, Becca was edited using my Shock My Pic and Segmentix technique. It was taken on an iPhone 4s, using a cheap magnetic fisheye lens. This was actually one of the first prints that I ever sold, a total stranger bought a small, canvas print of my adorable dog, after seeing it on Instagram! How about that? Photo by Tracy Munson.

    Artistic effects can hide a multitude of sins, including the low resolution from older devices and unacceptable amounts of noise from shooting in low light. Sometimes, you can even fake it if your focus is a little off, by oversharpening the image and then applying a painterly type effect. Two of my favourite apps for doing these kinds of edits are Shock My Pic and Segmentix. My top secret editing technique is to run the same photo through both apps and then blend the two together using an app that allows masking (like Filterstorm or Photoshop Mix), leaving the softer, Segmentix edit in the background and the sharper, Shock My Pic edit for the main subject. I may or may not take that whole thing and then blend it half and half or 70-30 with the original photo, depending on how much I want or need the painterly effect.

  19. Textures

    Much like the artistic effects, textures can add a beautiful, finished look to your photos when executed properly and can help hide problems like noise. My first iPhone was a 3Gs and the noise was terrible. Combined with the low resolution of the photos, it could be very difficult to get results that I was happy with. That was the main reason I began using a lot of textures and artistic effects and eventually, I even had a few of my photos accepted into gallery shows featuring iPhone art. There are a lot of texture apps out there, but Mextures and DistressedFX are two very good ones. Don't forget that sometimes the best (and most original) textures will be ones you photograph yourself. When I was doing a lot of texture edits, I had a folder on my phone for textures and was always on the lookout for old letters and papers or interesting wood, paints and metals to add to my collection.

  20. Perfectly Clear and/or Lucid

    Want to edit a photo in a real hurry? Athentech's Perfectly Clear plugins for Lightroom and Photoshop will run you $150 USD, making their iPhone app “Lucid” a bargain at $2.99. The one touch fix is usually all it takes to make your photos really pop and, although you can tweak to your heart's content, I rarely find it necessary. One of the amazing things about this app is that it will improve photos that you didn't even think needed fixing and then after you see the results, you will suddenly realize how muddy and dull looking the original was. The older version of their iPhone app was called Perfectly Clear and although the Lucid app is new and improved, I could see only a barely perceptible difference in several photos edited with the one touch fix in both apps, even when viewed side by side on a 27″ monitor. In other words, if you have the older, Perfectly Clear app, it is not necessary (in my opinion) to purchase the new Lucid app.

  21. Cinemagraph

    The Cinemagraph app by Flixel is so amazingly cool and yet so underutilized by most people, including me and there is no excuse because it's free. Get out your tiny tripod, shoot a short video and then paint motion into only one part of a still photo. The effect can be surreal, or startling, or even funny and it is guaranteed to grab people's attention.

  22. Anticrop & Touch Retouch

    Have you ever wished that you had composed a photo differently or needed to resize to print 8 x 10 and found that you were unable to crop without losing important details? Yeah, everyone else, too and that's where Anticrop comes in handy. In this app, when you bring up the crop box, you drag the sides OUT and it fills it in, kind of like Photoshop content aware fill. It works best with fairly plain parts of the photo, like sky or grass. Anything very detailed will show repetition pretty quickly, but sometimes you can fix that with partner app, Touch Retouch, which is awesome for removing unwanted items like litter on the grass or power lines across the sky. You can purchase the two apps separately or just pick up the Handy Photo App, which contains both of those apps plus additional filters and basic editing tools.

  23. Add Some Epic Light

    As photographers, we are up from before the crack of dawn until long after the stars are twinkling, in hopes of catching a beautiful location in some epic light. The problem is, the light doesn't always co-operate and we don't always have the option of returning to a location again and again in search of it. There are a few iPhone apps that make adding a little “wow” light to your photos surprisingly easy. LensLight and LensFlare, both by the same developers (Brain Fever Media) have a great selection of lighting effects that are fully adjustable and customizable and look fantastic. The third app that I use is called Rays, which adds a very convincing sunray effect if conditions are right in the photo. It can take a little playing around with the sliders and it will not work on every photo you try it on, but when it does, the effect is very natural. Obviously, any of these lighting effects must be placed over the brightest point in the photo, or be coming from the same direction as the light (sometimes, I actually drag the effect outside of the photo, to have the light or flare streaming in, without the hot spot of the sun).

    iPhone 5 photos with lighting effects added from LensLight and Rays apps. Photos by Tracy Munson.
    iPhone 5 photos with lighting effects added from LensLight and Rays apps. Photos by Tracy Munson.
  24. Get Up High Or Down Low

    Without the ability to zoom in or out or use shallow depth of field to give your photos that extra “star quality”, it's even more important to remember to look for clever angles and unique perspectives to make your photos stand out from the millions of other iPhone photos posted daily. The relatively wide angle of view works great for getting down low and including some kind of foreground element in your shots.

  25. Get Up Close

    They're cliches for a reason. The Robert Capa quote “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” and the saying “zoom with your feet” both apply extra well to iPhone photography. Getting in closer to your subject can really help to make your photos stand out, compared to all the usual tourist snaps of the same location and you ALWAYS want to zoom with your feet rather than using the zoom on your iPhone camera, which is basically just cropping your image and is not the same thing at all as zooming in with a lens.

  26. Make It A Panorama

    While you're up close, don't think that you can't still include the whole landscape. The iPhone's built-in camera now takes great-looking panoramas with no additional app purchase required and it's as easy as panning your phone from left to right across a scene.

    iPhone 5 panorama, edited in Snapseed. Photo by Tracy Munson.
    iPhone 5 panorama, edited in Snapseed. Photo by Tracy Munson.
  27. Use grids and remember rules of composition

    Turn on the “rule of thirds” grids available in most of the camera apps to help you keep the basic rules of composition in mind (placing important details at the intersections of the lines, rather than in the centre). The grid will also help you to keep your horizon straight and be able to place it at either the top third line or the bottom third line, depending on whether your sky or your foreground is the most interesting part of the photo. Also, remember when to break those rules. For example, when you have a great reflection in water, then you may decide to place your horizon line in the middle of the photo and go for symmetry. Just because you are using your phone, it doesn't excuse you from taking a moment to think about composition before releasing the shutter. A well composed iPhone photo will draw more attention than a poorly composed DSLR photo, every time.

  28. Fast camera (burst mode)

    You may not have noticed, but newer iPhone cameras have a burst mode. If you tap and hold the shutter, it will just keep on taking photos in a rapid fire burst which is great for capturing action. The iPhone 6 boasted 10 frames per second in burst mode, but this is decreased to roughly 7.5 frames per second in the 6S (understandable, due to the increase in resolution from 8MP to 12MP). When you are done, it will place the sharpest photo at the top of the pile and it is usually right, but you can always go through the stack to select your favourite if you are the untrusting type.

  29. Upgrade Your Phone

    This is the extreme, of course, but if you are still using an older model iPhone then an upgrade may be just the trick to take your phoneography to the next level. With 12 megapixels, many extra features, and vastly improved low light performance, the iPhone 6s really is a pretty fantastic, pocket-sized camera.




10 thoughts on “Fake It With Your Phone! 29 Tips For Better iPhone Photos”

  1. Amazing article Tracy!!! I’m downloading a ton of new apps now! I had no idea my iPhone could do burst mode, very cool. Also right that while I knew you could use the volume button as a shutter, I always forget.

  2. Wow! Some great tips and tricks here! I can attest that having a tripod mount for the iPhone is great and I just got it! Very handy!

    1. That’s true Tim. The only smartphones that I know for sure puts RAW images inside a DNG file are Android phones. Having said that, DNG files can contain images sourced from other formats. In Adobe Lightroom for example, I can convert a TIFF or JPG image to DNG. What was originally meant to create a standard for RAW images has become more of a archival format.

  3. Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for sharing your tips. A tripod is definitely a must when shooting long exposures with the iPhone. When I am out shooting with my Nikon I will use this RAM Universal Composite Clamp Mount with Universal X-Grip(TM) Cell Phone Holder attached to my tripod: http://amzn.to/1rohkBb to snap some pics with my iPhone. But I recently bought this Manfrotto Rugged Mini Tripod Kit: http://amzn.to/2104oxa for when I am out with just my iPhone.

    The ProCam 3 App can replace the three camera apps mentioned in this article. It’s my goto camera app. It provides full manual control of ISO, white balance, and shutter speed. Shoots TIFF or JPG. Shoots HDR. Shoots 1080 or 720 video. Has a mode to do exactly the same things as Slow Shutter Cam (which I used before I discovered ProCam).

    I replace Slow Shutter Cam, vididHDR, and Camera+ with just one app.


    1. Thanks Khürt! I know there’s some overlap there, I just have some deeply ingrained habits and preferences. I will definitely check out ProCam 3, though. I have used the older ProCam apps in the past, it just eventually got pushed out by others that I liked better.

  4. I just read the tip about clip on lenses. With regard to the telephoto lens that had the vignette circle? Mine does that but if I zoom in the camera a bit that goes away! Also I have muscle tremors so holding my iPhone too long causes shaky pics no matter what so for me tripod & remote shutter release are esential! I am even looking into an octopus tripod or gorillapod.
    I have the 5se phone. I love macro & wish to do more! Any tips on that &/or micro?

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