How to shoot anything on your iPhone

Here are a few common situations and some tips on how to photograph them successfully. We emphasize basic approaches, but don't be afraid to get creative and capture something unique.

Sunsets and bright windows

If you find yourself observing a beautiful sunset, and you're itching to take someone's picture in front of it, remember that the sun is still very bright even when it's setting. This means that you're shooting in a backlit situation, so you need to take the same steps you would if you were shooting in front of a sunny window.

When capturing a backlit portrait, use your iPhone's flash to illuminate your subject. Because the camera will expose for the background lighting, the result should be a nice, even exposure. Alternatively, you can tap to set the exposure on your subject and then use the iPhone's HDR mode to flesh out the sunset's shades. HDR is perfect for capturing sunset landscapes.

Landscapes

You might suppose that you need to use the widest angle possible to capture a vast landscape. But the problem with using a wide angle is that when you zoom out, distances get stretched and details in your image get smaller. The result can be an image with no discernible subject.

For great landscape photos, layer your shot: Find something evocative in the foreground, middle ground, and background that you can unify in an image.

Sometimes, a scene is simply too big to fit in a photo. In that case, go for the details instead: Get in close and capture just a sliver of a broad vista, or find an evocative detail in the scene to shoot.

Crisp motion

Capturing fast-moving subjects such as athletes or kids can seem impossible when you're using an iPhone; by the time you frame the shot and tap the shutter button, you've missed the action.

Compact and professional cameras let you increase your shutter speed, but the iPhone doesn't. Instead, try these tricks. If you're close to the action, turn on the flash to help you freeze the action. Set your flash to On, which forces the flash to fire even in well-lit situations.

Your odds of getting a good shot increase if you capture the subject at the peak of the action. However, developing good timing takes practice.

Complicating the process is the problem of shutter lag. To combat it, try using a tripod to stabilize the camera. Alternatively, use an external release button--such as the Volume Up control on your headphone cord or Bluetooth remote--to fire the shutter without shaking the camera. This is also a great opportunity to use Burst mode: Press and hold the shutter release button to take a series of photos at once. Hopefully one will catch the action.

You also want to keep the focus on your subject. For example, if you manually set the focus on the left side of your frame and the subject moves to the right, the camera might focus on the background instead of on your model. Try locking the focus on your subject ahead of time. Another trick is to focus on the area you expect the action to move to.

Night scenes

To take effective night shots, where light is minimal, use a tripod to steady the camera, and then use either an external shutter release button or a third-party app to set a timer. Since your device has a fixed aperture, you can't fiddle with it to let in more light in a low-light situation; but if you're taking a picture of a sign or of a bright, starry sky, you might get lucky.

Kids

The best way to photograph children is to get down on their level. Once you're at eye level, mix it up. Go in close and shoot with a wide angle; if your kids are skittish, shoot from farther away and try zooming in a bit with the digital zoom or with an external iPhone lens.

Group shots

When you want to photograph the entire family, don't just line everyone up against the wall, execution style. Instead, aim for a more complex or natural composition. Mixing sitting and standing postures can be a nice option. Not everyone has to be on the same plane. Lines of people stretching toward the camera can be an interesting effect to play with.

The iPhone 5s has a face-detection feature that locates the people in a shot, and then fine-tunes both the focus and the exposure for those faces. Face detection is also a boon for flash photography. With face detection turned on, the flash doesn't try to light up the whole room--it concentrates on the people within range.

Face detection is at its most effective when the camera can see both of the subject's eyes; its accuracy diminishes greatly when handling profile shots. Also keep in mind that although face detection is fast, it isn't instantaneous.

If you have an older iPhone with no face-detection capability, you can get similar results with a bit of extra work. First, to gain better control over your camera's focus, point the device directly at the person you want to focus on so that he or she is in the middle of the frame; lock the focus by tapping and holding, recompose the shot, and take the picture.

Outdoor portraits

Despite the fact that you're shooting on a bright, sunny day, everyone in the foreground of your photos seems to be lost in the shadows. What gives? The reason your shots look gloomy is precisely because the ambient light is so bright outside. This effect is called backlighting. Sunlight can cast strong shadows on a person's face and can create dark circles around the eyes. It also tends to bounce off a person's skin and accentuate shiny spots. The iPhone's HDR setting can minimize the effect of these two problems and create a more evenly lit portrait.

If the subject is completely backlit, however, the limited powers of HDR mode might not be sufficient to brighten the subject's face. To shoot a usable backlit portrait, first tap to focus on the darkest part of the person's face. The background at this point will look extremely blown out. After you take the shot, the final HDR photo will combine your subject's properly exposed face with a slightly toned-down background.

You can also cure a bad backlighting problem by turning on your flash, as long as your subject is within range. Your camera will do its best to expose properly for the background while producing enough light with the flash to illuminate nearby subjects. This simple technique can transform a disappointing photo into a stunning one.

Another way to fix backlighting is to lock your iPhone's exposure while pointing it at an area of the scene that has about the same amount of light hitting it as your subject does and that is about the same distance from you--say, a patch of grass. Tap and hold on the grass to force the camera to lock in the meter reading. Then compose your shot and take the picture.

Wildlife

Animals pay little mind to cameras mounted on a sturdy tripod as long as they don't see a human being crouching down behind that tripod. If you don't have a set of Bluetooth headphones, consider buying a pair so that you can use the cord's volume control to trigger the shutter. You can then position yourself at a distance (or even inside a tent or cabin) and fire away as the animals go about their business. (If you're shooting this way, switch off the camera's beeps, clicks, and flash if possible, unless you're keen on taking pictures of an animal's backside.)

If you expect the area where you're shooting to soon to be populated with animals, you won't be free to wander outside and adjust your iPhone's exposure once the action begins. So take a few test shots in a critter-free environment with similar lighting conditions, adjust your device's exposure, and then try the real thing once your furry or feathered guests arrive.

Events

Parties, weddings, holiday celebrations, and other events tend to take place in conditions of low lighting. The mood lighting makes for a great party atmosphere, but trying to capture it in your photos isn't easy. When the flash fires, the shots can look as though you took them in a dungeon.

While your flash does a good job of illuminating the subjects within range, everything farther than about 6 feet away fades to black. Instead, try using HDR mode on still subjects, or lock your exposure on a dark object before the party begins to compensate for the lighting.

And then keep shooting. You'll no doubt end up with lots of shots that are blurry, but don't worry--many of the remaining ones will be striking and unique.

Candid shots

Staged shots, such as group portraits, may be a staple of event photography, but candids provide the spice. Use HDR mode at a party for in-the-moment low-light candid photos. Unless you absolutely need it, retire the flash and rely on existing light for candid shots. This will allow you to work quickly and from a greater distance. Keep in mind that candids rely less on perfect lighting than they do on human interaction and emotion. So don't worry too much about the presence of a little added visual noise.

If you feeling like getting funky, parties are a great time to bust out your iPhone filters. Pick a filter that fits the mood of your event and shoot away! The photos from the night will all have the same fun look.

It's also a good idea to move in close to your subjects and shoot often: Tightly framed candid shots feel more intimate. While shooting, don't forget to change your angle. Look for high angles when people are bunched together, so you can get a clean shot. Try to position yourself in such a way that you can compose as uncluttered a shot as possible; isolating the defining moment in a photo makes it even more powerful.

Behind glass

Whether it's an exotic landscape seen from an airplane window or a shark cruising inside a public aquarium, some of the world's most interesting subjects are on the other side of glass. But if you're don't set up the shot carefully, you'll end up with a self-portrait instead--or even worse, a photograph of your flash's reflection.

The mistake many people make in this situation is to stand too far from the glass. When you do this, you pick up all of the light sources in the room, reflected in the shiny surface. The key is to eliminate these reflections by turning off your flash and placing the back of your phone as close to the glass as possible. This transforms the glass into just another lens filter.

One exception to the rule of getting right up against the glass is if you're shooting from a helicopter. To minimize the effect of rotor vibration, you shouldn't place your device against the window. Instead, hold your iPhone slightly away from the glass as you shoot.

This story, "How to shoot anything on your iPhone" was originally published by Macworld.

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