How to get the most out of your iPhone camera

Nikki ParkinsonLife 40 Comments

I’m a geek girl at heart. Always have been, always will be.

If it’s new and it’s techy and it’s going to help me in my personal or professional life then I’m on it.

I’ve also always had a thing for photography. Not a professional thing. Just a hankering thing.

It’s a hankering that goes back to my childhood when I was first given a Kodak pocket camera in the late 1970s. Every photo snapped was considered and precious. It cost a pretty penny to get those photos developed so you didn’t want to risk wasting a frame.

When I travelled to Europe at the age of 19, I didn’t lug around an SLR but I did take with me a Konica Pop that took 35mm film. It captured some stunning shots – the most memorable ones in the Swiss Alps.

Twelve years ago, I DID lug an SLR to Europe – an amateur-level Pentax. The photos I took on Santorini looked just like the prints that were popular in stores at that time.

Not long after, I moved to digital. With a Canon EOS DSLR and also the first of many compact digital cameras. For the past three years, my Canon PowerShot G12 has been my constant companion.

It’s the main source of photography for this blog but I’m not using it nearly as much as I used to.

The reason? Phone cameras have got just so damn good.

How to get the most out of your iPhone camera

Phone cameras have levelled the photo taking playing field. They mean everyone can get creative – and we can do so on the go.

Yes, it still helps to have an eye for composition when taking a photo but the sophistication of the in-built phone cameras increases with each new product launch giving even great meaning to the point-and-shoot concept.

I’ve had an iPhone for almost four years. First the iPhone 4 and then the iPhone 5 two years later. Thanks to Apple Australia, I’m now trialling the iPhone 5S for a few months*.

Yes, in all likelihood not long after my trial finishes there will be a new iPhone release but in the meantime I’ve been like a pig in phone photographic mud capturing and playing with images on the 5s camera, which I’ve found a big jump up in quality from the 5.

I realise that not everyone has an iPhone … or an iPhone 5s but I’m going to briefly fill you in on some of the great functionalities it has if you do have one or are in the market for one. I’m also going to share my favourite photo editing apps and how playing around with an attachable lens can take your phone camera to the next level.

iPhone 5S camera

There are so many reasons – techy kind of reasons – why this camera is better than previous versions. You can read them all here.

What I’ve noticed having the greatest impact on my phone photos is the the light and the clarity of the images.

Before I moved from the iPhone 4 to 5 I would shoot my photos via an app such as Camera+. I haven’t felt I’ve needed to do that since the 5 and definitely since the 5s.

There are a few things I do within the Camera app that are pretty cool and make it quicker and easier for me to get my photos up on to Instagram and Facebook.

Tips for taking photos with an iPhone 5s

1. Shoot in square. I’ve been doing this for a while now. Because so many of my phone photos are taken for the express purpose of posting on Instagram, it makes sense for me to frame my shot within the square. Previously, I’d have to imagine the square and crop afterwards, hoping I’d got the subject positioned to fit.

2. Add the grid to your camera screen. Tutorials in photography will teach you about the rule of thirds. Good photography composition puts the subject matter at key points within a nine-square grid. The theory is that people can better take in and view your photograph if you consider this. You can read more about it on Digital Photography School. I’m not one for sticking to so-called rules but I do play around with this. It’s easy to do if you add the grid to your camera screen. You can do this via the Settings – Photos & Camera in your iPhone.

3. Play with the burst button. Mr 8 has had a field day with this discovery. Not only can you take your photos using the volume keys on the side of your iPhone but on the 5s you can hold down one of the buttons to get a burst of images. Once taken, the phone then pre-selects some possible favourites for you based on composition, light and focus and then prompts you to save just those to your camera roll. Or you can over-ride that and select your own favourites. Great for action photos.

4. Don’t be afraid of the flash. I’m a natural light kind of girl. So much so, I’ll go out of my way to avoid using a flash at all. Now, I’m re-learning to love the flash. The 5s flash is made up of two different coloured lights and when triggered it creates just the right tone of light for the subject. No more washed-out face in a night-time photo. And here’s a little tip if you want to photograph food in low-light and have an iPhone 5s buddy handy (in my case Mr SY’s phone). In the photo below, he put his camera on video function and forced on the flash so it was shining on the subject. I took the photo on my phone without flash.

How to take a food photo in low light with an iPhone

5. Use and lock the AF/AE function. This has come in handy for my #everydaystyle photos posted to Instagram. Mr 8 takes these for me on our verandah. I’m backlit and sometimes side-lit, so it’s not the best for getting an image that clearly shows what I’m wearing. He’s been trained to touch the screen to focus on me but now he does that, holding it down to lock in the focus and exposure for that photo. Here’s the difference in clarity from a photo from my old 5 and now the 5s.

Using AE AF lock on iPhone 5s

{My mate BabyMac has some tips for you too}


These are the apps I’m most likely to turn to after shooting an image on my phone. I don’t use them all, all of the time but I do use Snapseed every time. I’m giving iPhoto more of a go. Especially if I’m on my iPad with more visibility for my old eyes. With photography apps, my best advice is to play around with them. That way you’ll get really quick at using them and won’t think twice about it. These kind of apps really level the photography field again. Many do in seconds what would take ages in a desktop program such as Photoshop. I always save my edited photo to the camera roll – I don’t share direct from the app.

9 photography apps that turn your iPhone into a pro-Phone

SnapseedI’ve been using Snapseed consistently for about two years now. Editing a photo in this app is now second nature to me. First I’ll straighten, then crop, then adjust brightness and contrast. Before the 5s I’d also use the sharpen button. It really hasn’t been needed any more. Sometimes I’ll use the Centre Focus to make a portrait or vignette pop off the screen.

iPhoto:  I think because Snapseed is second nature to me that I’ve been slow on the uptake with iPhoto. Love it on my iPad as mentioned above as I can really see what I’m editing. Love that you can tap the help button for editing suggestions. A great feature within the app are the lighten and repair functions. You can selectively choose a part of your photo you’d like to lighten, just by swishing your finger across the screen on that part. The repair is like cloning in Photoshop. Using the finger again, you can get rid of that bruise on your leg that you inflicted on yourself in a yoga move gone wrong 😉

PicTapGoWhen I first got on board the Instagram train … before it was cool to do so … I was there for the filters, not so much the sharing. These days I rarely pop an Instagram filter on the photos I share but I’ll often – particularly for a landscape – have put the photo through PicTapGo and applied a filter there. For beach scenes, I’ll apply a bit of Sweet Tooth. I never apply the filter at 100%, instead adjusting it back to about half way. Love that this app keeps on file in “My Style” the filters you most use and if you use a combination of filters, it will save that “recipe” for future use too.

Flipagram: I got on board the Flipagram express late last year with one of those end-of-year photography round-up things. I’ve used it every month since to create an Instagram video featuring all my #everydaystyle outfits for the month. Once connected with your Instagram account, it’s super easy to load in and order the photos you’d like to include in a video and the option is there to create it specifically for the Instagram time frame and add music from your phone too.

Group Shot: This is a new one but a good one to have up your sleeve – particularly when you’re wanting to capture a photo of family or friends. The chances of getting everyone looking at the camera and eyes open are minimal. This app works best if you’ve taken a burst of photos (see above). Then you can work with a selection to “move” one head from one photo where say the eyes are open on to the same person’s head on the photo where they are shut. It’s the kind of stuff that would take ages in Photoshop.

Facetune: Want to smooth over some wrinkles, do away with a pesky hormonal zit that’s landed on your face, brighten your eyes or whiten your teeth? Yes, you can do all that and more. This is one of those apps that should come with a warning to err on the side of caution. A little bit of Photoshop stuff is ok – a bit like a professional makeup – but if you’re going to use it to reduce your size (mmm … ) then I’d tread carefully. You want people in real life to equate what they see in a photo with who you are.

AfterlightAfterlight has some beautiful filters but what I most like using this for is for old-school, flash, film effects. A flash of light can add a little drama to an otherwise ho-hum image. The irony being that some give the effect that you unwittingly got if you opened your film camera up when the film was still spooled in there. You can also use this app to bring your image into a pre-determined shape like a circle, which then sits on a white square background.

Lumie: I have a bit of fun with this one. If I’m shooting at night in low light and it’s all grainy as a result, I’ll throw some bokeh hearts or disco lights over the photo and, voila, that’s all you’ll notice. Great for party photos and adding in your own fireworks for New Year’s Eve.

A Beautiful MessWhen this first came out we were all mad for a bit of text on our photos. I’ve calmed myself down now but this is still the one I’m most likely to use to add text, arrows or doodles to my photos while on the go.

Extra bits

But I know you want more … or is that just me, a marketers’ dream? Did you know that you could get clip-on lenses to attach to your iPhone camera? I did. I’d bought a macro/fish-eye one from Snugg last year and it was still sitting in its box up until last week. I’ve got it out to play since my Apple workshop and I also bought another lens – the olloclip one below. I haven’t linked to the Snugg one as they don’t seem to be selling them at the moment.

Add an lens to an iPhone to enhance your photos

olloclip Telephoto and Circular Polarising Lens ($119): This lens made sense to me as a extra something-something that would help my iPhoneography along. The only down-side is having to take off your phone case to place the lens over your phone camera lens.

The telephoto lens side makes a huge difference to how close your subject is. See this example below. It makes for better depth of field when taking photos with your phone too.

Using an olloclip telephoto lens on iPhone 5s

The polarising side is ideal for cutting down on sun glare and getting true colour in a brightly lit photo. Something that is very handy for beach/water photos where there is a lot of reflection.

Using an olloclip polarising lens on an iPhone 5s  beach scene

Some of above I was already doing/using. Some I found out about via my workshop at the Brisbane City Apple Store. Each Apple store holds free group workshops and you can also book in and pay for a one-on-one session for any of your devices. You can find out more and book here.

So tell me, is your phone your main camera now? What apps do you use or can recommend? Can you remember your first ever camera?

*This isn’t a sponsored post – more a culmination of stuff that I get asked about my photos on Instagram plus new things I’ve learned since receiving the phone for trial and experiencing a workshop in store.

Comments 40

  1. Just re-read this post on the Eve of our family overseas holiday…fabulous and thank you for all the tips – loved meeting you this year at yr Paddington, Sydney book launch…Yr book has pride of place on my bedside table, great resource…x

  2. Nice post. The best camera is the one you always have with you. The iPhone 5S is fantastic for this. I use ProCamera for most of my captures, Filterstorm and Snapseed for most post processing (Filterstorm takes a bit of learning but boy is it ever powerful!). The most “magical” app in my quiver is Retouch for removing unwanted items–wow, every time I use it I am still blown away with what it does.

  3. Great list Nikki.
    A great app for adding text/designs to your images is Letterglow. (by fellow Australian Stuart Watson) My fav app for black and white is Monokrom.

    every friday iPhoneographers share their fav photo apps on twitter with
    the #photoappfriday hashtag. You can check out what has been shared so
    far here:

    Noel Chenier

  4. Thanks for these tips Nikki, will come in useful when I ‘inherit’ my husband’s phone when his is upgraded in a few months. Can’t find our little old digital camera at the moment, so it can’t come soon enough!! xx

  5. Yep, mostly iPhone round my parts. Have yet to get a Big Girl Camera (hoping to get one for my Big Girl Birthday in September). Love all your tips and tricks – some I already do and some I’ve just learnt from this post. So thanks lovely!

  6. I love your blog but did you realise a lot of your photos are very dark, in particular the model and me / everyday style pics???

    1. The Model and Me photos are taken with my Canon G12 – they come up fine on my screen. Yes some of the #everydaystyle photos are dark because they are taken as we’re running out the door for the school run by my 8YO – never meant to be perfect just a way to capture the day’s outfit.

  7. Thanks for all this info Nikki ,I mostly use my phone for photos now and my favourite apps are a beautiful mess ,snap seed ,VSCO cam,lumie and flipagram.I might really want a 5s now,but still use a normal digital camera sometimes I would like to get better at photograph and yes I remember my first camera I spent a fortune on film and developing!

  8. Thanks for sharing Nikki. I use my iPhone camera a lot but take the ‘real’ camera on holidays etc. My iPhone 5 was my first ever iPhone (couldn’t part with the keyboard on my Nokia) and the camera is fantastic but the 5S looks extra special. Love all your app suggestions. Vintique it fun too, but fiddle with the % of the filters. Afterlight also has a self timer – I used it for my #everydaystyle photos last week because no one was home to take them for me!

  9. I too am a bit of a geek girl and a lover of all things apple. I’d never thought to take photos in square mode, so thank you for that tip! Another app you might like is Rhonna Designs. It’s like A Beautiful Mess but with a lot more glitter…it’s a lot of fun to use!

  10. Thanks Nikki for this review. Just came at the right time as I need to upgrade my 5 soon and was just reading about the S yesterday. Did you try the finger print identity sensor? Love some feedback if you did. Thanks Fran x

      1. Great to know as I am sick of typing in the pin thing and was hoping worked. Gone are the days when you could risk someone stealing your phone and only getting a few phone numbers.

  11. Thanks for the tip about holding down the volume key to take multiple photos! And I love the idea about groupshot! I usually use my phone but have a pretty snazzy samsung point and shoot that I’ve started using again. I also have a 5 year old Sony DSLR and really would love to learn to use it properly!

  12. I use pro-camera as my main ‘camera’, square ready if I need to square up a photo for IG without cropping, picframe for framing, labels & collages & some of the ones you mentioned to. Will checkout the others. Love iphonography too. xo

  13. I’m always willing to learn! … good one, thankyou nikki!
    definitely still learning how to take a good selfie! … can’t be age related surely! … need some techno help here! …
    your blog is always full of information <3
    grateful! m:)X

  14. This post is amazing Nikki, thanks for sharing these excellent tips that will no doubt improve my selfie taking pics no end!…I will be reading it in full tonight – now its time to dash to work xx

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