Spotting great photo opportunities is a talent in itself, but knowing how to quickly harness your iPhone camera’s built-in features to capture the best shots is an entirely different skill.
Your iPhone is the camera you always have in your hand, but sometimes inspiration fails around the same old point-and-shoot methods.
Sure, there are plenty of ways to enhance your camera with specialized iPhone lenses or tripods, but you don’t really need extra hardware to get great shots. Just sticking with the built-in camera and assorted photo apps can give you some uniquely standout memories. Here are some hints on how to achieve them.
1. Shoot in 360-degrees
With the rise of 360-degree cameras, interactive spherical shots are becoming increasingly popular both to view and to create—without spending hundreds of dollars on a dedicated camera.
To capture a 360-degree landscape that you can view on the desktop, via a mobile device, or through a VR viewer, just fire up your Camera app or one of the several 360-degree apps available in the App Store. Facebook’s new 360-degree photo feature automatically converts a conventional panorama shot with the iPhone’s native Camera app into a 360-degree image that viewers can explore directly in their Facebook timeline.
With Google Street View for iOS, you get step-by-step instructions on how to create and post a 360-degree image, which you can then upload to Google Maps, your Facebook page, or Google+. Just launch the app and follow the prompts to fill in the required number of panels. The app will stitch a pleasing photo sphere image that you can manipulate with a mouse or finger.
You don’t have to stick with the iPhone Camera or Google’s app. DMD Panorama, 360 Panorama and others offer detailed instructions on how to shoot and post 360-degree images.
2. Shoot horizontal and vertical panos
Panoramas are an excellent way to capture extreme wide-angle shots with your iPhone. Just launch the Camera app and hold the phone upright in portrait orientation. When you hit the button, hold the phone with both hands and steadily move it in one direction, following the arrow prompt. Note any messages on the screen and beware of moving too quickly.
Try to lock the exposure at a medium brightness in the landscape where the light is optimal before you tap the shutter button, otherwise you risk combining different exposures as the camera app adjusts to various points in the scene.
Panos can be vertical too, and are shot the same easy way, except that you hold the phone in landscape orientation as you move. To finish shooting the scene, just tap the start button again or move the phone slightly in the opposite direction.
3. Make your landscapes compelling
Wide vista landscapes are a perennial favorite of both photographers and viewers, but they are often a photographic challenge. Here are some simple composition tips to make your scenic image pop.
Always pick a main subject to focus on. A picture of a lake surrounded by trees and shimmering water can be an awesome sight to behold, but all too often it fails to come across in a photo because the camera’s lens does not take in all the majesty that your brain does. To compensate, focus on something—a bird, a person, a sailboat—some object that contrasts with the scene, generates interest, and guides the viewer’s eye around the tableau. Try using the iPhone’s built-in grid guide (Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid) that lets you apply the Rule of Thirds to help you convey the scenic beauty you’re after.
Another technique, called leading lines, lets you use the natural landscape to cut a visual path through your composition, making the main vista both dynamic and easy to follow.
For gorgeous landscapes, apps like ProCamera and Manual both offer highly customizable and precise controls for ISO, shutter speed, white balance, focus, exposure, and more.
4. Dramatize your skies
Clouds are your photographic friends. Every landscape is enhanced by cloud formations because they provide unique points of interest and contrast. You don’t have to wait for bad weather to get great-looking clouds. Just start with a cloud pattern that has some potential.
Make the most of cloud patterns by employing the Rule of thirds, giving your sky the top two-thirds of the action.
Then, tap the HDR (High Dynamic Range) setting on the Camera app screen. That lets you capture more detail in the shadows and highlights than using the default setting. Slight tweaks in either the mobile or desktop Photos app can easily enhance a sky after the fact too, but you can even take the drama a step further with dedicated photo apps like MacPhun’s Aurora HDR or JixiPix’s Simply HDR iPhone app.
That’s not to put down clear blue skies, not at all. While they may not seem inherently dramatic to look at, a pure, unadulterated cerulean hue, the kind that really brings out your subject, can be heart-stopping.
5. Be at one with wildlife
If you love the great outdoors, photographing wildlife is just part of the scenery. While getting a bird to sit still for a pose will take some effort, try your luck with Canada geese, ducks, alligators, peacocks, deer, and farm animals.
You may be tempted to use your iPhone’s digital zoom to close in on feathers or fur, but you will likely be disappointed with the results. Instead of zooming in, get up as close and personal to your animal subject as possible without putting yourself in harm’s way, of course. (Beware of geese, alligators, and elk especially, but any animal you don’t know can react badly to close human proximity.)
Then, when you are at a good distance, circle the creature in order to capture a variety of angles. Use the camera’s burst mode so you don’t miss a shot. Make sure to use your exposure and focus lock and try to zone in on the animal’s eyes for depth and realism, if possible.
6. Explore colors, shapes, and patterns
Phone cameras may not be the best choice for capturing expansive landscapes, but they are hard to beat for exploring color and detail. Not all images have to be about something or of a specific object. The best part of the outdoors is the seasonal colors, so consider capturing nature’s hueful charm—beautiful foliage, flowers, leaf patterns or shadows—for its own abstract sake.
Get up close to your subject and shoot from different angles to capture intriguing natural patterns. For darker environments, a judicious use of flash may come in handy.
7. Use silhouettes
Silhouettes can dramatize just about any animate or inanimate subject, and they’re super-easy to accomplish. To create one, just look for the light source and position your subject in front of it. You can shoot silhouettes at any time of day, but the most dramatic time for outdoor silhouettes is when the sun is low in the sky, around sunrise or sunset (often referred to as the golden hour).
Most of the time, you can rely on the iPhone’s auto exposure for great silhouettes, however to make sure that you get the image you’re looking for—a blackened subject and a nicely exposed sky—tap on the brightest part of the image—the sky—and a silhouette will naturally form, provided the light source is behind the subject. If you need to darken the subject more, swipe down on the screen to further reduce exposure.
Need more help with getting the best silhouette-friendly exposures? Try shooting with an app like Camera+, which lets you separate focus and exposure controls.
8. Buildings are landscapes too
You may wish you were going to some wild place on your summer jaunt, but maybe you can’t get away. No problem. The city is the great outdoors too, and that means streetscapes and sidewalks filled with people and buildings. Architecture shots are just a different kind of landscape, and they can be equally challenging.
For building and street shots, the concept of leading lines will give you naturally dynamic images, while crazy camera angles, contrasting colors, reflections, and mirrored windows can yield unique and fascinating looks. Just remember to look up, move around, and have fun snapping from different vantage points.
9. Shoot in the best light
Timing is everything in photography. Time translates directly into available light, and light governs how your image will look. When shooting outdoors, the most unflattering light for just about any scene, person, or object is bright, mid-day, high-in-the-sky sun. It robs subjects of color and depth, often bathing them in harsh light and deep shadows.
The best times to shoot are early morning or twilight—the so-called golden hours—just after sunrise or before sunset when the light is mellow, though mid-morning or later afternoon may be more realistically convenient. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out when the best shooting time will be. Not surprisingly, there’s more than one app to help out.
Rizon, for example, lets you dial in optimal times and will notify you ahead of time to get ready for your shot.
10. Stormy weather
It’s not always possible to shoot when the weather is optimal. In some places, a perpetual fog or constant rain can last for months. Does that mean you should retreat indoors with your iPhone cam? Heck no.
For the most dramatic atmosphere, compose your shot so that the stormy sky takes up a large proportion of the frame. Use leading lines, which draw the eye directly into the scene, to create powerful images. Moody skies and silhouettes also work well together for bad-weather drama.
Shooting through a window, car windshield, or from under an awning can produce distinctive shots. Darkened clouds create dramatic skies, while a little bit of rain can inspire unique and abstract compositions, even an accidental rainbow.
Try shooting with the HDR option turned on to boost vibrance.
What you see is what you get
If you’re posting photos directly from your phone, feel free to do some quick tweaks in the Photos app. If you’re really ambitious about sprucing up a special shot, transfer images to your desktop for editing in Apple Photos and its various extensions, or call on reinforcements like Pixelmator, Adobe Photoshop Elements, or Lightroom.
Starting off with a good shot is always optimal, but don’t be afraid to give a good photo a little boost. In the end, it’s what the viewer sees that counts.
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Jackie is a tech writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her specialties include Apple hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, AR, VR and 3D, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems.