17 Tips for Clear iPhone Photos Every Time

Any recent model iPhone comes equipped with a camera capable of taking professional quality photos. So why is Instagram full of blurry cat pics? (No, no – not because of Samsung. Come on now, let's get serious!) Many people simply don't know how to get the most out of their iPhone cameras, but that changes, now. Here are 17 tips for clear iPhone photos every time.

*While this is a fairly basic article, intended for beginners, even the experienced photographer should give it a quick skim. I picked up a tidbit or two, myself while researching the article!

  1. Tap To Focus

    So simple, and yet I have encountered many people who haven't realized this. Most of the time, your iPhone will do a pretty good job of focusing on your subject automatically, but not always. The iPhone is trying to get as much of the scene in focus as possible. Help it help you, by telling it what is most important. Simply tap on your subject on the screen, and that's exactly where it will focus.

    In this iPhone 6s photo, I wanted the focus to be on the red leaf in front, so I tapped it on the screen to let the camera know my intentions. Photo by Tracy Munson.
  2. Swipe To Adjust Exposure

    When you tap to focus, that's also the point where the iPhone camera will measure for proper exposure. This will usually be desirable, but there are exceptions. For example, when photographing a tree in a meadow on a bright, sunny day. You will want to focus on the tree, but when you tap it, the background turns white and you lose the blue sky and the puffy white clouds. It is exposing for the dark bark on the tree and overexposing the bright clouds in the sky. Fortunately, we see how our exposure is going to look, right on the screen, before we take the photo. Simply swipe up (to brighten) or down (to darken) on your screen to fine tune the exposure to look the way you want.

  3. Turn On HDR

    Sometimes, your scene just has too much contrast. You swipe up and the tree looks good, you swipe down and the sky looks good, but there just isn't a satisfactory middle ground, where both look good. Now it's HDR time. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and it refers to the difference in tones the camera's sensor can capture. Our eyes have the ability to see a very broad dynamic range. We can look at a scene with very bright and very dark parts and still see details in both. Your iPhone camera sensor simply can't do that. In any one exposure, it has a much narrower range of tones it can capture. Either you get the brights or the darks, but not both. The HDR setting will increase the range of tones by taking multiple photos, at different exposure settings and merging them together. Tadaa! Now you have a photo that looks much closer to the way your eyes see the scene.

    The iPhone photo on the left, exposed for the sky. On the right, an HDR image, with both highlights and shadows properly exposed. iPhone 6s photo by Tracy Munson.
  4. But Not All The Time!

    Unfortunately, HDR is not always the answer. In fact, there are some situations where it will only make things worse. If there is anything moving in your scene, like a flying bird, or leaves rustling in the wind, you are going to run into problems. iPhone cameras have gotten really good at taking the 3 exposures in super fast succession. When I first started playing with HDR on my iPhone 3GS, you had to hold the phone perfectly still, tap a bright part on the screen, wait for it to take the photo, tap a dark part in the scene, then wait for it to take the second photo. Never mind the moving subject, it was near impossible to get a decent shot of anything without a tripod. Now, the camera measures for the exposures and takes the 3 shots in the blink of an eye. But that is still too long, for a fast moving subject. You will end up with “ghosting”, glowing edges around high contrast areas and possibly even faint doubles of moving subjects.

    This photo of windmills at sunset was a poor choice for HDR because the blades moved between exposures. iPhone 6s photo by Tracy Munson.
  5. Hold Steady!

    If you are using HDR, you will have to hold the iPhone very steady for long enough for it to take the 3 exposures. Even if you are not using HDR, this is still an important technique, particularly in low light situations. When there is too little light, the camera's shutter needs to stay open longer to let enough light reach the sensor and record the photo. (For those who remember the Flintstones, imagine that the little bird gets tired when it's dark and it takes him longer to carve the image! If you're too young, you can see what I'm talking about here. It's in the last 30 seconds.) These longer exposure times mean that any shaking in your hands or even the movement of your breathing can lead to a blurry image. Some tips for holding steady are: keep your elbows tucked against your body, rather than holding your arms straight out, this will give you greater stability. Hold the phone with both hands. Tap the shutter button lightly when you are ready to take the photo (don't jab it violently, the way my mother does). In very low light, it can help to lean against something solid, like a wall. Try propping the iPhone up against something solid, rather than holding it, or hold it pressed against a solid surface. Take the photo towards the end of an exhale and hold your breath for a second before inhaling again. Always hold the iPhone in position for a second after you take the photo, rather than moving on immediately. This will ensure that the exposure is finished before you move.

  6. Use Volume Buttons As Shutter Release

    Did you know that you can use the volume buttons on your phone to take a photo, rather than touching the shutter button on the screen? It's true, try it! It's a much more natural way to do it, for those who are used to pressing a shutter button on top of the camera. It means that you can hold the camera with both hands, the whole time and don't have to jostle the phone by tapping the screen.

  7. Use Earbuds As A Cable Release

    Better still, you can use the volume buttons on your earbuds as a cable release and avoid touching the iPhone at all! This works great if you are on a tripod or have the iPhone propped up against something.

    For this long exposure iPhone photo, I propped the phone up between some rocks and used my earbuds as a cable release. Photo taken with the iPhone 3GS (yes, that's right, basically an antique camera) by Tracy Munson.
  8. Look For Open Shade

    When photographing people outside in bright daylight, you may have noticed the results are less than flattering. Shiny parts like the forehead turn blazing white, while harsh shadows collect under noses and eyes. Yuck. In order to get a nice, even exposure on a person (or any subject) outside in bright, harsh sunlight, look for open shade. Open shade means just what it sounds like, a shady place that is open on the sides, still allowing some light in. Think of a covered veranda or picnic shelter, in the shade of a fence or a dense tree. (I say a dense tree because the dappled sunlight streaming through leaves in the forest looks beautiful when you are there, but terrible across a person's face in a photo.) If you have an overcast day, you are in luck! A gloomy day is actually the most flattering light to photograph people in, so take advantage of it and take some portraits!

  9. Use Window Light

    When taking photos inside, you'll struggle with another problem, which is almost always that there is not enough light. One of the most beautiful light sources is window light. Professional photographers spend hundreds of dollars on light modifiers that make their expensive lights look like light streaming through a window. Chances are, you have an actual window, sitting around the house, not doing much of anything, and available to work for free! Position your subject next to the window, so that the light is streaming across them and your subject will thank you for it.

  10. Use Lamps

    Yes, yes, I know your next question  “what if it's dark out”? That does make things a little more difficult. Obviously, you will want to turn on overhead lights, but this may not be enough. If your photos look grainy and blurry, it's because there's not enough light. Now's a good time to collect all the lamps in the house! The more light you can get on your subject, the faster your shutter speed can be (which means you won't have blur from your shaky hands or your subject moving). It also means your iPhone camera can use a lower ISO sensitivity setting, which means less noise. (Noise is that ugly, grainy appearance you get in photos taken in low light).

    The photo on the left is with overhead light. For the middle photo, I added a lamp on the right, pointed up at the ceiling. For the third photo, I added another lamp on the left. Keep adding light sources until your subject is well lit and photos aren't grainy. Photos taken with iPhone 6s by Tracy Munson.

    This 100% crop of his left eye shows the decrease in noise and increase in detail and clarity as light is added.
  11. Reflect Off White

    If there is a white (or light) wall or ceiling, try pointing a light directly at it. The light will spread across that bright surface and reflect back on your subject. True story: my boss at my day job was supposed to get a headshot done. She missed the session and was going to be in trouble if she didn't come up with a portrait against a white background, in a hurry. All I had with me was my iPhone. I stood her next to an open door, in front of a white wall. Still not bright enough, so I found a white blanket and taped it across the hallway on the other side of her. That reflected enough light that she was well lit and the wall behind her was bright white. It wasn't my best portrait ever, but it did the trick in a pinch!

  12. The iPhone's built in flash creates a harsh and ugly light. Even a seasoned model like Delgado can't look good.

    Don't Use Flash

    You may have noticed one obvious thing I haven't mentioned: the iPhone's built-in flash. That's because you should avoid using it at all costs. That tiny light source is just about the most unappealing, unflattering light you could use. Turn it off and forget it exists.

  13. Use The Flashlight On Your Phone

    Ideally, you'll heed my advice, but if you absolutely feel you must use the iPhone flash, at least do this: download the Camera+ app. It has a flashlight setting that provides a constant light, rather than the brief flash. The results are ever so slightly more appealing and the glowing eyes will be at least reduced.

  14. Intentionally Make A Silhouette

    If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If you truly can't bring enough light to the scene to get a nice, clear photo, then work with it and create a silhouette. Place a light behind your subject, or photograph them in front of a sunset and don't worry about lighting them. For best results, make sure your model poses with separation between limbs and body or they will just look like a blob.

  15. Know The Limitations (Action Indoors)

    The iPhone camera is amazingly powerful, for such a tiny package, but it does have limitations. The small size of the lens and sensor mean that it simply cannot collect enough light, quickly enough for some subjects. Moving subjects in poor light, like indoor sports, will make it difficult or impossible to get clear shots. Knowing is half the battle. Once you know the limitations, you can try to find ways to use them to your advantage!

  16. Intentionally Use Blur

    For example, use blur intentionally. Out dancing at a club with friends? Don't take a horrible photo with the iPhone flash. Take a super cool photo that shows streaks of movement as the nightclub lights flash. To achieve this effect, you will want to stand totally still and hold the camera very steady, while photographing moving people on the dance floor. For even more of a motion blur effect, try the Slow Shutter app, which allows you to take even longer exposures, like a quarter or half a second. Remember, the secret here is that you and the camera must be still! The only movement should come from your subject(s).

  17. Open The Camera In A Hurry

    Half the battle in getting great photos is being ready. Most of us rarely are! You can open the iPhone camera in a hurry, simply by swiping to the left from your lock screen. You don't even have to unlock it, just swipe and start taking photos. A very handy tip to know when you're around children or animals!

If you're ready for some more advanced iPhone photography tips, you may enjoy some of my previous articles.

3 thoughts on “17 Tips for Clear iPhone Photos Every Time”

  1. Excellent pictures Tracy. Thanks for sharing your info – much appreciated.
    I have under estimated the iphone with camera. My is a 6S Apple.
    The clarity on your pictures is outstanding. My problem is spending time practicing. Keep up your good work – I will stay tuned for more of your great work & advise ? Helen

    1. Thanks, Helen! You can absolutely take great photos with the 6s, as you said, it’s all about practice. Starting out with the severe limitations of the 3GS really forced me to up my game in a hurry. Sometimes, imposing limitations on yourself and focusing on improving just one element at a time can be helpful. Also, check out the Snapseed app, because that’s where a lot of my clarity comes from 😉

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