How to avoid taking lousy iPhone holiday photos

There’s an old wheeze that’s routinely bandied about in regard to digital photography: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Ask a qualified photographer about the value of this advice, however, and you might get a less-than-enthusiastic reply along the lines of “Why represent a great moment (and potentially great memory) with a terrible image?”

Fair enough. A bad image can taint a precious memory, but the truth is that sometimes wonderful things happen before your eyes—a child experiences the joys of the holidays, a disconnected relative rejoins the fold, dad nearly burns down the house by stuffing a tree up the chimney and setting it ablaze. Having a record of these events can provide a warm glow for years to come. So yes, these things are worth capturing with the camera you have handy. But, if you take some care, you can produce the best of both worlds from your iPhone—good memories as well as images that won’t haunt you in the future. To help with that, take these tips to heart.

Be ready

Far too many people forget that their iPhone’s camera is just two gestures away. Press the Home button and swipe up on the camera icon that appears on the bottom-right of the screen. The few seconds you save by doing this rather than unlocking the phone, tapping the Camera app, and finally snapping the picture may mean the difference between The Perfect Moment and The One That Got Away.

camera home screen

Go straight to the camera from the home screen.

You’ve always wanted to direct

Put family and a camera together and the person operating that camera suddenly acts out their dream of shooting police lineups. Invariably, the family is asked to shove themselves against a not-terribly-interesting wall, the shooter steps back 15 feet so that everyone fits in the frame, and she snaps the picture that will induce years of “Now who is that again?” You can do better.

Feel free to arrange your subjects. Instead of lining them up, do what the pros do with large groups of people and create rows—tall ones in the back, middling ones in the middle, and kids (or kneelers) in the front. Sure, it may mean that Uncle Bob has to put down his egg nog for a minute, but it will result in a better image where you can actually identify the people in it.

Likewise, tempting though it may be to plunk the clan in front of a holiday tree, if that tree has an unshaded window behind it, your family will appear as dark objects in front of the brighter background. It’s a cool effect in other contexts, but not great when you want to distinguish Aunt Carla from a standing lamp. Shift your friends and family around so they’re not backlit—natural light coming in from the side will be far more flattering. Or, better yet, take them outside and drape them with tinsel if that adds the holiday flavor you’re after.

Once you’ve arranged the scene, stay away from the zoom and get as close to your subject as you need to. The iPhone’s digital zoom simply increases pixel size, making your images less sharp. For better images, step up.

About the flash

“You want us to go outside!? It’s cold here, bub! Just use the flash!” some may suggest.

Please don’t. Or at least not when the room is dark.

Apple put a flash on the iPhone mostly because every other smartphone manufacturer had put a flash on their devices. The iPhone’s flash is not great for use in low light. Yes, it will allow you to capture an image that can’t be captured in any other way—when you’re attempting to take a picture in total darkness, for example. But it doesn’t carry very far and so when you shoot from a distance you’re not going to illuminate much. And if you get too close to your subject, the flash will wash out the scene and make your image very flat.

It is, however, useful as a fill flash—a flash you use to illuminate objects in the foreground when the background is bright. To use it this way, launch the Camera app, tap the flash icon, and then tap On. If you leave the flash set to the default auto setting it won’t fire in daylight. Note, again, that the flash isn’t terribly powerful so when using it as a fill flash, get close to your subject—within three feet, if possible.

flash

A fill flash can be useful when shooting subjects that are backlit.

Use the controls available to you

When people take photos with their iPhones they typically fire up the Camera app, tap on the screen to focus on their subject, and trigger the shutter, thus relying on the iPhone to do all the work. But the Camera app offers a couple of manual options that you might consider.

camera exposure

With iOS 8 you can manually adjust exposure.

The first is exposure control. Just tap to focus and hold briefly until a sun icon appears next to the focus box. Drag this icon up to increase the brightness or down to decrease it. When the iPhone insists on an exposure that’s a little too much or not quite enough, using this control can help create a better image.

You can also lock exposure and focus—something you might want to do when first setting up a shot, arranging things exactly as you want, and then pulling away the iPhone to tell little Chumly to don a funny hat. To do this just tap and hold on the screen to focus on your subject. As you hold, a yellow bar appears that reads AE/AF LOCK. To remove the lock, just tap on the screen.

Set it and forget it

Unless you intend to fill your picture-taking time with relatives clutched in uncomfortable selfies, you’re not going to appear in your own photos and videos. One way to become part of the party is to put your iPhone in a position to capture the action—pointed at the dinner table or dangling mistletoe—flip it to video mode, and tap the record button. Let events unfold and you might capture something special.

Another option is to use the time-lapse feature built into iOS 8 (launch the Camera app and swipe all the way to the left to reveal it). Again, place the iPhone in an unobtrusive place and start recording. The results will be, as expected, a typical time-lapse video with motion speeded up. But there’s nothing to stop you from importing the video into an editing app and extracting individual frames from it.

time lapse

Try placing your iPhone out of the way and capturing a time-lapse video.

In each case you’ll find it helpful to have an iPhone-compatible stand. There are a load of these available, including small portable stands that you can place on a piece of furniture or countertop, mounts you can use with a traditional tripod, and, of course, a longtime favorite, one of Joby’s bendable Gorilla stands.

Go beyond the Camera app

With iOS 8, Apple provided ways for developers to more deeply control an iPhone’s camera—letting you manually adjust focus, exposure compensation, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. The Camera app doesn’t take advantage of all of these capabilities but some third-party apps do.

Visual Supply Company’s VSCO Cam (free, with in-app purchases) offers manual control over all of these elements as well as provides a handful of filter presets. Tap tap tap’s $3 Camera+ is another versatile camera app. With it you can separately adjust exposure and focus, lock white balance, and, after the fact, choose from a variety of scene modes. It also includes a Clarity mode that brings out more detail in your images.

camera plus

Camera+ gives you greater control over your iPhone's camera settings.

Play with each and you’ll find that your iPhone’s camera is more capable than you imagined.

Give yourself a gift

With each iteration of the iPhone, Apple improves its camera. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are no exception. Each of these cameras offers f/2.2 aperture (versus f/2.4 aperture in the iPhone 5s and 5c), making them better low-light shooters. The iPhone 6 Plus includes optical image stabilization, which helps to ensure that any low-light shaky shots appear less so. They also offer 1080p video at 60 frames per second and 720p slow motion at 240 fps, thus letting you impose some cool slo-mo effects when later editing your holiday videos.

Maintain perspective

Finally, it’s worth remembering that you want to capture pleasant memories. And that’s unlikely to happen if you leap out from around every corner and shove a camera (iPhone or otherwise) in your mother’s face or prevent the kids from opening the next gift because you haven’t finished capturing their forced smile while posing with the last one. In short: Real memories are better than the ones you attempt to manufacture. Use your camera when appropriate and stay out of the way of the real joy of the season.

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