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  • Writer's pictureLeah Sacks

Phone Photo Fun

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

My second ever blog post, linked here, discussed my recent interest in photography. Specifically, I found that I enjoy taking photos of nature scenes and subjects in spots of nature hidden within more urban areas. Toward the end of that post, I considered that I might do a post on iPhone photography in the future, and here it is! As a warning, all images in this post are just attempts to showcase different techniques, not to be great images. So. They could definitely use some work.

As with many of my posts, when I pick a topic, I research it on the internet and then compile my conclusions here in a post. So. I wanted to look into iPhone photography. And I quickly realized that I was really interested in several different questions. Saying "iPhone Photography" is actually rather ambiguous. First, there is the idea of doing photography at all and what is involved in that. This includes things like the settings on your camera, ideas about composition (how to set up the image to be visually interesting), lenses, cameras themselves, and many many other topics. While I am now interested in iPhone photography, I don't have any base knowledge in photography that I am adapting to my phone, I am a complete blank slate. It turns out that this is both a problem and not a problem. On the one hand, for photography with the camera app on the iPhone (at least, the iPhone X and older), you cannot adjust any manual settings, so any knowledge about the settings of the phone is unnecessary and you already have the camera and lens, eliminating those decisions. On the other hand, I still know nothing about composition and if I want to actually take fancier images on an iPhone, I still have to find a way to adjust the manual settings, which means I still have to learn those. What follows are my conclusions from briefly looking into both the basics of photography and any specifics that are important for taking photos on an iPhone.

iPhone Photos - Native Camera

This is the category where I started my research. It quickly became apparent that there a few specific things that are important when taking images using the camera that comes on an iPhone. They fall into two categories: things that help with composition and things that are features or settings to adjust on the phone.

Composition Related Tips

  • Angle - All of the videos I watched discussed how important the angle of your photo is. Specifically, taking a photo from below or from above or just from an interesting angle or perspective. Many people just take a photo from eye height while standing, which doesn't lead to the most interesting of images. Or so I'm now told.... As one of the YouTubers that I watched explained, when you shoot from a crouch or the ground, looking up at your subject, it makes them or the subject look taller and the background grander. This is the "hero shot"apparently. In contrast, a shot from above or looking down can make your subject look smaller, but it also can give the image more depth, showing more of the background, which can give you some freedom in the composition. Another suggestion for angle included taking close up images of the subject of your photo, such as close up blades of grass, as a change of perspective. Here are two attempts an photographing this Bubly can that I did where I played with angle a little bit. The left is a top down, while the right is from the bottom looking up.

  • Background - In all of the videos that I watched, even if not explicitly stated, it was clear that picking a good background can really make the image. Especially if you are shooting photos of people, having an interesting but not distracting background is important. There are many cool textures that exist both in nature and in urban areas, such as on buildings. My experiments in background didn't go very well, but I found a cool pattern in my floor so, maybe that will be helpful in the future.

  • Silhouette Photos - The YouTuber from the iPhone Photography School noted that one really great category of photos is silhouette photos. By positioning your subject in front of the sun, you can create a silhouette, which makes for a simple, but fantastic image.

Settings Information

  • Focus - One of the biggest topics discussed regarding the camera on the iPhone is its ability to adjust the focus. To adjust the focus of the camera, you simply tap the screen on the subject in the image that you want to be in focus. This will switch the focus to that part of the image and the rest of the image will move out of focus. Here I played with the focus in the image with the can in focus in the left image and the wall in focus in the right image.

  • Exposure - Right after focus, and closely related, is exposure. When you set the focus of the image in the iPhone, you can also adjust the exposure. The iPhone will automatically adjust the exposure to make sure that the area that you have in focus will be lit up. This will often leave the rest of the image darker, though it depends on your scene. You can adjust the exposure manually by holding down and moving your finger up or down on the screen when you set the focus. A little yellow sun will move up and down with your finger, changing the exposure. The left image here is low exposure while the right is high exposure.

  • Locking Focus and Exposure - One of the nice features of the iPhone camera is that once you set your focus and exposure, you can hold down on the screen and a yellow box will pop up saying AF/AE Lock, which stands for Auto-Focus/Auto-Exposure Lock. This keeps your focus and exposure where you have set it, allowing you to move around and work on the composition of your image.

  • Grid lines - The iPhone camera also has grid lines that can be turned on or off in the main settings of the phone under the Camera app. This allows you to divide your image into thirds (a composition principle) and to line up the horizon. I've now been informed that a non-horizontal horizon is a clear indicator of non-professional photography.

  • Burst Mode - By holding down the shutter-button in the camera app, your iPhone will take a burst of photos. This allows you to pick your favorite images from a set of many images taken in a row. Specifically, action shots of a moving subject can be difficult to capture, but with the burst mode, you can go through and just pick the ones that captured the part of the scene that you wanted.

  • Applying Filters (Before or After) - As noted in most sources of information about iPhone photography, the iPhone comes with a number of built in filters. Interestingly, and conveniently, you can apply these filters either while taking the image or by editing the photo afterward.

Things to Note

  • Shakiness - Having a specific grip on your phone or balancing your hands or body on a wall or your knees or the ground to minimize the shaking in the phone will help eliminate blurriness. In low light, your iPhone takes longer to take the image because it is waiting to capture more light. As a result, images taken in low light on an iPhone are more susceptible to image blur. To avoid a lot of these issues, a tripod can always be used.

  • Camera Zoom - One fact about the iPhone camera that makes a lot of sense is that you lose resolution in the camera when you use the zoom function. When you zoom into a subject on your phone, the image on the screen gets grainy and noisy. Thus, when taking images on your phone, its better to simply get closer to your subject. One exception to this idea is that if you have an iPhone with at least 2 lenses on it, which my iPhone X does, then you can tap the 1x circle visible on your phone to switch lenses. You are switching the the 2x mode, which is a zoom, but it is really you switching from your wide-angle lens to your telephoto lens. Thus, this particular zoom doesn't involve degrading the image quality at all, just switching lenses.

Photography Basic Principles - Settings

This is where my research ended up after I realized that all the information on iPhone photography wasn't really getting into any of the topics about photography. I wanted to know what settings people normally adjust in photos to see if I could do it on my iPhone. It turns out that without a third-party app, you cannot adjust any of the settings on the iPhone camera (for iPhone X and older at least). Thus, this category of research is really just ground work for when I branch out into using a third-party app.

From my YouTube video research, I came to the conclusion (as was told explicitly several times) that there are three main settings to adjust for photography.

  • ISO - ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is essentially how sensitive to light you want your camera to be. A higher ISO means that you are trying to take in more light. Unfortunately, more light is not always better. In contrast, for most photography, you actually want as low of an ISO as you can get away with without having your scene be dark. Higher ISOs (more light) will make the image grainy.

  • Aperture - Aperture is also about light. Aperture describes the width of the lens that is exposed to the light. Essentially, how big is the hole through which light comes into your camera. Different camera lenses have different ranges for aperture. Confusingly, smaller aperture numbers mean a bigger hole and more light. In contrast, a higher number means a smaller hole and less light. The reason we even care about the aperture is that it defines how much of the image is in focus, the depth of focus. If you only want your specific single subject in focus, like a portrait, then you could use a low aperture number, which would be a large hole and more light, which would keep the image depth low, highlighting your focus. The opposite is also true. Landscape scenes or large groups of people are often imaged with large apertures (so, a small hole, with less light). This seems counter-intuitive to me, so it probably needs more investigation.

  • Shutter Speed - The final component of basic photography settings is shutter speed, measured in seconds. This is essentially how long the shutter is open, how long your camera is taking in light. It controls blurriness in images. Some types of photography have intentional blur in them or want to take in light for a long time, so you use a large number for shutter speed (like 5 seconds or 30 seconds). This is what is used for light painting, astrophotography, and often running water. In contrast, you want a short shutter speed (like 1/800 second) for action shots where you want no motion blur at all. Like images of kids or pets or athletes.

Here is an image of a chart of common settings for different effects. One of the YouTubers that I watched had it in the video and suggested that viewers could screen shot it, so I did. Unfortunately, I caught a thumbnail of the video in the lower left-hand corner, which is not great, but I think the chart serves the purpose overall.

Closing Remarks and Future Research

This blog post is already quite long at this point and I have barely scraped the surface of photography, let alone iPhone photography. Some things I'd like to take a look into in the future include tips for composition, tips about lighting, third-party apps to adjust iPhone settings manually, post-processing/editing of images, and astrophotography in general. And I would really like to take pictures of something besides sparkling water cans. So look out for future posts!

Sneak peak for next post.... ArcGIS functions? A year in review? Research update?

Here are links to a bunch of the videos and YouTubers that I watched, many thanks!:

The iPhone Photography School:

The iPhone Photography School:

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