Photography

Shoot like a pro with the iPhone

Here's how to get the best results from your smartphone photography.

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Michael Muller

The iPhones have always packed some of the best phone cameras you can buy, capturing shots that give many dSLRs a run for their money. Even better, since your phone is almost always with you, you're ready to shoot whenever an opportunity rears its head. And if you have an iPhone 7 Plus, you're even luckier — you have a telephoto lens and neat creative portrait features built in.

If you're serious about your phone photography, there's more to using the iPhone's camera than just pointing it at your subject and pressing a button. I'm a professional photographer and I'm regularly blown away by the shots I can get from my phone. Along the way, I've gathered some tricks that anyone can use.

Never stop shooting

With your iPhone always in your pocket or purse, there's no reason to miss a good photo. Shoot as often as you can — it's great practice, especially if you're new to serious photography.

Practice photography by taking photos of anything, like this house.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The more you shoot, the more likely you'll capture that split-second moment when a building casts a gorgeous shadow or that last beam of sunlight peeks magically over the horizon. You'll learn about your own style, too, and how to use angles and settings to capture the best in a scene. Sit down with your photos at the end of each day and critique the shots you've taken. You'll be surprised how much you learn.

Get creative with your angle

Give a familiar scene a new look with a fresh angle. That concrete staircase you pass on the way to work might look miserable and dull at 8:30 on a gray morning, but spend an extra moment studying it and you might see it in a more interesting way.

Crouching down and shooting from ground level can transform a dull scene. Why not climb those stairs and photograph the other commuters from above? Or watch for interesting shadows cast by the shapes around you.

Try challenging yourself to take three artistically considered photos a day on your way to work or running errands. When you stop seeing a scene through the eyes of a sleepy commuter and look through the eyes of a creative photographer, a whole world of interesting street photography awaits.

Look for the light

Photography needs light, and no camera can take beautiful photos in total darkness. When the sunlight drops, you need to find your own light. City streets are a great place to start — passing car headlights, overhead streetlamps and brightly lit shop windows can be great light sources when you're shooting at night.

When it's dark, it's important to find good light sources.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

See how you can use these evening lights to your advantage. If the light isn't strong enough to fully illuminate people, try to photograph them as a silhouette with the light positioned behind them. A good technique is to find your light source first, frame your shot and then simply wait for someone to enter it.

Take full control

The simplicity of the iPhone's standard camera app makes it ideal for quick shooting. But if you want to get a bit more creative, it's worth slowing things down by taking manual control of the camera's settings to achieve your artistic goals.

A variety of apps, like VSCO and MuseCam (both free) let you control specific camera settings, like shutter speed. Slowing the shutter speed blurs motion in a scene, which can be a great way to add drama to action photos. The app Slow Shutter Cam ($1.99, £1.99 and roughly converted to AU$2.60) slows the speed even more, turning passing headlights of cars into light trails that snake through the city streets.

It's also possible to shoot photos in raw format in these apps. Raw photos contain more detail in very bright and very dark areas than regular JPEGs, which allows you to tone down highlights or boost shadows when you're editing your photos. Raw shots also don't save white balance information, so you can change the color tone of your image afterward in a much more realistic way than by simply adding a filter over the top. Raw file sizes are larger than JPEGs though, so make sure you have plenty of storage free on your phone.

Edit for more impact

There's a lot more you can do with your image after you've pushed the shutter button. It's often the editing process that can take a ho-hum snap and turn it into an "Oh, wow!" piece of art. Don't let anyone tell you that editing is bad — almost every professional photo entails some form of editing.

A few edits can help make your photo really pop.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Beyond the basic editing options in the camera, there are a ton of apps in the iTunes App Store that deliver more advanced features. Snapseed is my favorite iOS photo-editing app because of its great range of editing options, filters and ease of use, but you should also play around with VSCO, Adobe Photoshop Express and Camera+. They all have a wide variety of color filters, frames, effects and other tweaks that can help transform your shot.

There's no right or wrong way to process your photos, so spend some time using different apps and settings when you're home from your shoot. See how your shots look with different colors, in black and white or even with multiple effects. Don't be afraid to save a photo from one app, then open it again in another, applying additional effects over the top. As long as you save the original, you can always go back and start from scratch. 

Know your iPhone's camera controls

The straightforward layout of the iPhone's camera app makes it easy to quickly snag shots on the move. It'll open into standard photo mode when you first open the app, but you can swipe to change to the panorama function, video, time-lapse or slow motion. It's also where you'll find the portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus, which will give the dSLR-style depth of field to your portrait shots.

To the left (or at the top, depending on which way you're holding your phone) you'll find additional settings. I find it best to keep the flash turned off (tap the lightning bolt icon and then select "off") and only turn it on when I know I want to illuminate a person or object in my picture.

The HDR mode is brilliant for any scene that combines a bright sky and shadowy ground — it combines pictures with multiple exposures to achieve an even exposure overall. If you're taking landscapes with beautiful blue skies, turn HDR mode on and see how it helps your shots.

The three-overlapping-circles icon is where you'll find your artistic filters, including black-and-white and vintage-style presets. You can apply these while shooting, meaning you get to see exactly what your shot will look like before you've taken and edited it. If you know you want moody black-and-white photos, turn the filter on first to remove distracting colors and focus just on shadows and textures in a scene. Finally, there's also a timer when you need to run in front of the camera to join the shot. You can set it for a 3- or 5-second delay.

Zoom in with the iPhone 7 Plus

The biggest addition to the iPhone 7 Plus is the second lens, which Apple calls telephoto. It lets you zoom in on a scene much more than the standard lens, but it doesn't reduce the image quality. It really comes into its own in street photography, where it allows you to capture candid moments that unfurl, without you having to stand in the middle of them.

Hit the zoom button as you're composing your scene in the street, to see how it looks. It may be that the zoom adds a fresh angle to the shot — focusing on people's expressions or other details — or it may simply be that you can take the shot from farther away, keeping out of sight.

Download these editing apps

Portrait mode

Professional photographers use telephoto lenses to create an attractively shallow depth of field when taking portraits. The iPhone 7 Plus' zoom goes some way to replicating that, but goes further by digitally blurring the background as well.

It really helps separate your subject from the background, resulting in a shot that you'd struggle to tell wasn't taken on a much more expensive dSLR with zoom lens.

Portrait photos on the iPhone 7 Plus help make the subject stand out by blurring the background.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The zoom function doesn't let in as much light as the normal lens, so you'll take your best portraits when you're outdoors in the sunlight or somewhere else well-lit. Look for backgrounds that are free from distracting objects to allow your subject to pop.

The depth effect works best when your subject is about 6 to 8 feet from the phone, but this is a technique that's worth experimenting with. Convince a friend to be a model for an afternoon, and shoot away with the portrait mode, changing your distance, your angles and your background to see what you get.

Get your extras

By itself, the iPhone 7 is an extremely potent camera, but when you want to get more creative, consider these extras:

Battery pack. Spending the day shooting photos with your screen brightness up
will drain your battery faster than a thirsty toddler slurps a juice box. Keep a backup like the Mophie Powerstation XL ($69.95, £99, AU$160) with you to recharge on the go.

If you want to capture car light trails by using a slow shutter, you'll need to secure your phone on a tripod. I use the Manfrotto BeFree Color Aluminum Travel Tripod ($180, £175, AU$199) with the Shoulderpod S1 ($35, £30, AU$70) smartphone holder.

The Rotolight Stealth LED ring light ($109, £70, AU$180) is brilliant for taking artistic portraits with the iPhone — simply turn it on and shoot through the hole in the middle of the light. It gives a flattering light and leaves attractive little ring-shaped "catch lights" in your subject's eyes.

Additional lenses like the Olloclip range ($100, £100, AU$160) allow you to take extremely wide-angle shots, for those occasions when you want to capture a whole mountain range in one view. The macro lenses, meanwhile, let you get up close and personal with the smallest of details.

This story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. 

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