How to Improve Your iPhone Photography Skills

Take pictures no one will believe were shot on a phone

Photo of iPhone camera app open, pointed at a plant in the background

With a little knowledge and effort, you can improve your iPhone photography skills. The following tips, tools, and techniques will help you capture professional quality images with your phone. We’ll cover a few useful third-party apps at the end, but the truth is that you need nothing more than Apple’s Camera app and some skill to take high-quality images with your iPhone. If you’re just getting started, see How to Use the iPhone Camera.

  1. Clean the iPhone camera lens before you take a picture. Over time, fingerprints and dust may gather on the lens and make the camera less effective at capturing an accurate image. A microfiber cloth, similar to what you might use to clean eyeglasses, typically will work well to clean the lens.

    Photo of right hand holding iPhone, while left hand holds a microfiber towel, about to clean the iPhone camera lenses
  2. Pay attention to how you hold your iPhone. When you pick up your iPhone, you probably hold it in portrait mode, with the main rear camera in the upper-right area facing away from you on the back of the device. Portrait orientation works well when you want to capture an image that emphasize a vertical scene. More often than not, though, you may want to rotate your phone to a landscape orientation, which produces an image wider than it is tall.

    Left image shows iPhone held in landscape orientation; right image shows iPhone held in portrait orientation
  3. Move before you tap. Unless you’re trying to capture a fleeting moment, move your iPhone around a bit to experiment with at least a few different ways to frame your subject. Move lower or higher, left or right, or even around your subject. As you move, pay attention to shadows and reflections. By moving a bit, you may be able to capture a more interesting image.

  4. Don’t move when you tap. Many models of the iPhone include optical image stabilization, which helps the system reduce blur. But the more stable and still that you can keep your iPhone when you take a picture, the more likely you’ll get the photo you want.

    You can capture an image at least two ways within the iPhone camera app. One, tap the red button, which you probably have used. Or, two, press the volume up button while in the camera app.

    Photo shows pressing volume up button on iPhone to take a picture
  5. If your iPhone offers digital zoom settings, use them as little as possible. On a device with two cameras, a single tap on the zoom will switch from 1x zoom (or, essentially no zoom) to 2x zoom. Beyond that, you can choose a zoom of up to 10x. You may notice that images captured with a higher zoom setting lose detail when you enlarge them. Instead, as the phrase goes, “zoom with your feet”. Whenever possible, move closer to your subject.

    Animated GIF of finger pressing 2x Zoom button
  6. Turn on the camera grid overlay in Settings > Camera > Grid to get help with framing your subject. This setting places virtual lines, two horizontal and two vertical, on your camera display. These lines divide every scene into a grid of nine rectangles. The grid lines can help you align an image, either vertically or horizontally. Many photography guides suggest you should align your camera so your subject appears at one of the four points where these lines intersect.

    Photo shows Settings > Camera > Grid on (right); with Camera app with grid displayed (left)
  7. With your camera active, tap on a section of the screen. The iPhone camera will attempt to focus objects captured in view of the area you tap. While you will often want to tap to focus on your subject, many times you may obtain a more interesting image with a focus on another item in view. For example, if you try to take a photo of a laptop, a tap-to-focus on the screen may cause the camera to lose details on the keyboard. In that situation, a tap-to-focus on the edge of the display may help you get more details overall. In general, take the time to tap two or three places around the screen to see how the iPhone adjusts focus.

    Photo of iPhone camera with yellow square on-screen, indicating autofocus area
  8. Turn off the flash, unless you absolutely need it to capture an image. Obviously, the flash can cause glare when you take a photo of objects that reflect, such as glass or metal. The iPhone camera can capture a surprising amount of detail even in some low light scenes, such as at dusk or in a dimly lit restaurant. Try to capture your image without the flash first, then turn the flash on only if necessary. (And remember, many museums prohibit the use of a flash at all times.)

    Animation of turning iPhone flash from Auto to off
  9. Turn on Smart HDR and Keep Normal Photo to capture two versions on an image. Open Settings > Camera, to turn on both of these options. When you take a photo, the system will save both a “normally” exposed image along with another image that captures and blends items in scene using Smart High Dynamic Range (HDR). By preserving both images, you can choose which image you prefer.

    Photo of iPhone camera settings with both Smart HDR and Keep Normal Photo enabled
  10. While the iPhone camera offers a few filters you may use when you capture an image, in most cases, you’re better off going #NoFilter. If you intend to apply a filter to an image, you can easily add a filter later. No need to select a filter and then have that filtered image be the only one you have of a scene or subject.

    However, the Mono filter, which lets you look at an image purely in tones that range from black to white, can help you evaluate a potential scene. If the image looks interesting to you as you view a scene with the Mono filter, that’s a strong indication that the color image also may be compelling.

    Photo of iPhone with MONO filter active, shows subject of a plant in varies shades from white to black
  11. The only real tip you need to capture a compelling image, though, is to look. Look carefully at everything in your iPhone camera frame. Look for composition, contrast, color, in addition to your subject and background. Many beginning photographers only look at the subject. The best photographers capture content in context, with intentional choices of framing and light contrasts. Look not only at your own work, but also look at the work of skilled and recognized photographers. (For additional ideas, see Tips for Mobile Photography.)

Which iPhone?

If you want the best iPhone camera available, you should upgrade to the most recent iPhone released, since Apple seeks to improve the iPhone camera with every new generation of devices. For example, the cameras in the XS and XS Max are identical, with a dual-lens, while the XR offers a single lens. In earlier generation devices, the Plus model iPhone typically included improved camera features over the smaller size iPhone.

At a minimum, you’ll want an iPhone that has been updated to the current iOS operating system. As of April 2019, that means a device that runs iOS 12, such as an iPhone 5s, an iPhone SE, or any more recently released iPhone.

Take Better Pictures With Optional Hardware Accessories

Serious iPhone photographers will likely want to invest in a tripod and a corresponding mount for the iPhone. Apple carries a few tripods by Joby, and you can also find many iPhone tripods at Amazon, including some Amazon Basics tripods. For a tripod mount adapter to hold your iPhone, the StudioNeat Glif works well, as do mounts from Joby.

Explore Alternative Camera Apps

Third-party camera apps offer additional access to camera settings and controls, as well as the ability to capture RAW images. When you capture a RAW image, a third-party app handles image signal processing instead of relying on Apple’s built-in systems. Try apps such as Halide, Moment - Pro Camera, or Obscura 2 which each allow you to shoot RAW with various custom controls. For other camera apps to explore, see The 10 Best Camera Apps for iPhone in 2019.

Edit Photos to Create the Image You Want

After you have saved a photo, other apps give you several ways to manipulate it. The Apple Photos app offers many photo editing capabilities, such as the ability to crop, rotate, apply filters, and adjust light, color, and black & white balance. (See How to Edit Photos in the iPhone Photos App to learn more.) Snapseed, from Google, is free and provides access to many powerful editing features. Some apps solve specialized problems, such as TouchRetouch, which helps you remove unwanted objects from photos, or Image Size, which allows you to resize an image to a specific size. (For more editing options, see The 5 Best Photo Editor Apps of 2019.)