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How to take your best portrait photos on your iPhone

We've put together our best tips for shooting incredible portraits on your phone.

Learn how to take the best portraits on your iPhone.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Shooting lovely pictures of your family and friends is one of the best uses for your phone's camera. Though I regularly shoot weddings as a professional photographer using expensive DSLRs and lights, I also love using my iPhone ($182 at Amazon) to take gorgeous portraits.

Taking your phone portrait photography from casual Facebook snaps to frame-worthy art is simple, you just need to follow these easy tips. While I shot my pictures on the iPhone X ($295 at Amazon), most of these examples will apply to any phone camera.

This article is part of my series on how to take better photos with your phone. Make sure to check out my best tips on taking great shots of cars and how to take amazing action sports photos.

Consider the setting for your portrait

Location is everything, so think carefully about where you'll shoot and whether the surroundings match the people you're photographing and tell the story you want to capture. Hoping for a sweet photo for your grandparents' anniversary? That gritty wall of street art probably isn't the best place to represent them and the time they've spent together (unless they painted it, of course).

A natural pose for a natural shot

One of the best ways to turn awkward holiday snaps into stunning portraits doesn't involve equipment at all. Forget about asking your subjects to stand up straight and stare straight into the camera -- it's not a natural pose, and it sure as hell won't look it in the pictures.


Get your subjects to pose naturally. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Instead, talk to your subjects and help them to relax. Put your phone down for a moment and see how they naturally position themselves when they're not being photographed. Don't force it; give them time to unwind and try a few different poses -- sitting, standing, even lying down -- and see how they respond. Remember that if they feel uncomfortable, they'll look uncomfortable.

Try for a variety of facial expressions, too. If you're taking photos at a wedding or birthday, try to get your subjects to laugh -- their expressions will convey the joyful emotions of the day and result in a natural-looking photo. For a more candid feel, have them look away from the camera too, as though they didn't know you were there taking photos.

Creative composition


Always remember the rule of thirds.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Composition is crucial in all aspects of photography, but nowhere is it more important than in portraits. Simply putting your subjects in the middle of the frame with no thought about where they are in the scene won't produce the best shots. But taking a moment to think about how you'll compose a photo and how your subjects will fit into it is a great step towards a better portrait.

Rather than framing a subject so your shot includes the body down to the waist, try moving in to fill more of the frame with their head and shoulders. Then, move away to capture the entire body and more of the background.

Don't have people stand in the center of the picture, either. Consider the photography "rule of thirds" and frame in the right or left third of the image instead. Most smartphones have a rule-of-thirds grid overlay (look in the Settings menu) that'll help you compose this shot.


Portrait mode isn't just for iPhone users.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pay attention to the background in the shot, and make sure that all the elements are where you want them to be. Check that the horizon line is straight, that there's no streetlight or tree sticking out of the top of someone's head and that any buildings (such as a church spire) aren't sliced off at the top. Remember that you can fix some lighting and color issues with editing, but you can't rescue bad composition.

Composition is important for lighting, too. With a bright sky in the background you have two choices on a phone: Expose for the sky and plunge your subject into shadow or expose for your subject and likely wash out the sky. Instead, move your subject to a location where they're lit well by the sun, but with no bright background.

Use portrait mode

Portraits shot on a DSLR with a telephoto lense have a characteristic blur to the background which helps the subject really pop out of the scene. Now that feature has come to phones. The iPhone 7 Plus ($250 at eBay), 8 Plus and X all have a portrait mode which can simulate that effect and give a great depth of field to your images.

You'll get the best results when your subject is close to your camera (between 3 and 6 feet). When you switch to portrait mode, your phone's camera will automatically apply the depth effect when it focuses on your subject's face. It can be a bit hit and miss (busy hairstyles with lots of flyaways don't always produce good results), and might take a few attempts to get just right, but it works well if you take the time.

Phones like the new Pixel 2 ($94 at Amazon), Note 8 and OnePlus 5T have portrait modes as well, so it's not just iPhone users who can get this effect.

Don't be afraid to experiment

Even with all I've just said, don't stick too rigidly to rules of how a photo "should" be taken. It's when you start to break the rules and play around a bit that the creativity really starts to flow. Move around your subject while you're shooting to mix up your composition, try some new angles, or find some unusual locations.

Never be afraid to try something new and unusual in your photos. With the ability to store hundreds of pictures on your phone, the worst-case scenario is that you simply delete an image that didn't work out. You might just come away with a wonderfully unique image that you'll treasure for years.

Edit for artistic results


Have fun with your edits, you can always return to the original. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Clever editing is a great way to turn an everyday snap into a beautiful piece of artwork. When shooting on your phone, apps like Snapseed, VSCO and even Instagram (all free on both iOS and Android) have a variety of filters and tools to tweak your portraits to your desires.

There's no single correct way to edit a photo. I love simply playing around with different effects and seeing what works. You can always undo your edits if you don't like them and go back to the original.  

For some general editing tips however, try to avoid increasing contrast and structure too much (unless you want a very stylised, dramatic effect) as it can produce an unflattering effect on skin. Also avoid any colour filters that result in too much of a sickly green tinge to the face.