Tim Cook’s embarrassment at the Super Bowl seems a timely opportunity to put together something that’s been on my to-do list for a while now: a quick guide to getting the best results from your iPhone’s camera.

As a keen photographer, I’ve been amazed just how far cameras have come in the past few years. Where I once used to carry a compact camera with me everywhere just in case, my iPhone has for several years now been my ‘always on me’ camera (currently the iPhone 6s). And where I used to carry a DSLR for travel photography, I now only carry my Sony a6000.

Since low-light was the problem Mr. Cook had, I’ll start with some tips specifically designed to help in low-light situations.

1. If possible, prop the phone up for low-light shots

The best way to eliminate camera shake is to prop the phone up. You can do this with a mini-tripod setup, but you can also just lean the camera on a flat surface like a table or chair using a sweater or similar to prop it up. Using the self-timer will make sure you don’t end up moving the phone as you take the shot.

2. Use the volume keys to fire the shutter

If you can’t prop up the phone, there are still a couple of things you can do to minimize camera shake. The first is to use the volume keys to take the shot.

iPhones offer two ways to fire the shutter: pressing the on-screen button, and using either of the volume keys. The volume keys will almost always be the better option because they allow a firmer grip. By holding the phone firmly with both hands, you’ll get a steadier shot than you would using the on-screen button. It also makes it easier to keep the camera level with the horizon, so you don’t get a tilted shot.

3. Use ‘motor drive’ for low-light shots

Even with a steady grip, low-light shots are tricky. The iPhone amplifies the signal to the sensor to make the most of the available light, but it also needs to keep the sensor switched on for longer. This makes it much more likely that camera shake will create motion blur. You can maximize your chances of getting a steady shot by holding down the volume key to take a burst of half a dozen shots. Usually one of the later ones will be better as you eliminate the small movement you tend to get when pressing the shutter release.

4. Keep HDR on by default

Camera sensors have limited dynamic range. What these means is that if you expose a shot to capture detail in the shadows, the brightest parts of the image – the highlights – will be blown out, appearing pure white. Conversely, if you expose for the highlights, shadow areas will appear solid black.

High Dynamic Range takes multiple exposures and automatically blends them together into a single image that captures details in both the shadows and the highlights, so keep HDR switched on. While you may occasionally want to switch it off for creative reasons, you’ll want it on most of the time.

5. Keep flash off by default

A flash throws a lot of light a very short distance. A typical photo of a person with the flash on will light their face properly but everything else will be under-exposed. The result is a photo that could have been taken anywhere. If you want to show the surroundings, try the shot without flash first – using the above tips to help. If you’re in any doubt about the result, you can take a flash shot as insurance.

When you’re taking a photo of anything more than a few feet away, flash is not only pointless, it’s actually counterproductive. It won’t light what you’re trying to photograph, but will light up anything in the foreground, which may ruin the shot by making the rest of the shot dark.

So my advice is to keep flash off by default, switching it on only when you specifically want it.

6. Pay attention to the direction of the light

When taking a shot, look at where the light is coming from. For most photos, you’ll want the light coming from behind you. If you shoot directly into the light, the shot is likely to be underexposed, and even if not, detail will be washed out.

When photographing people, you’ll show the shape of their face when the light is at a roughly 45 degree angle. This tends to produce the most interesting portraits.

As with all photography ‘rules,’ there will be times you want to break them. Shooting directly into the light – known as contre-jour – can produce great effects when done deliberately. You will, though, typically need to use photo editing software to recover detail from the shadows, and you’ll probably see lens flare in the shot.


7. Research destinations

For travel photography, some web research can pay real dividends in the sights you’ll see and the photos you’ll get. On a visit to Shanghai, it was web research that alerted me to the fact that one of the most spectacular views in the city was actually seen from inside a building: the amazing atrium inside the Jin Mao Tower.


8. Consider all the angles

Sometimes you’ll get a more interesting shot by getting down low, getting up high and shooting directly down or shooting straight up. (And consider tip 8a as ‘monochrome can be your friend when the weather is overcast’ …)


9. Consider distance

Sometimes with a portrait shot, you’ll want to show the person in their surroundings. This is particularly effective when you want to show what someone does, like showing an artist with their canvas. But often times, portraits have the greatest impact when you get really close, filling the frame with the person. Getting in close will also blur the background, something usually not possible with the small sensors used in cameraphones.


10. Think foreground & background

A photo is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene. A sense of depth can be lost when looking at a photo, so including something in the foreground can be a good way to restore that 3D feel.


11. The ‘rule’ of thirds

I hesitate to include this one, because I see far too many beginner photographers playing slave to the rule. Sometimes the perfect photo is a symmetrical one. But it is true that, in general, having a point of interest roughly a third of the way in or up the frame can make for a more interesting shot than something which is dead center. My main advice here is to play with the idea of this, not stick rigidly to this or anything else as a ‘rule.’


12. Get up early

Ok, I’ll admit that pretty much the only time I take this advice myself is accidentally due to jet-lag! But if you want to take a photo of a popular tourist attraction, getting there before the crowds can definitely help.


13. Sometimes, it’s just about the memory

Finally, don’t let the fact that you can’t take a technically perfect shot deter you. When flying out of Cape Town, the movement of the plane combined with the slower exposure needed at night meant that the shot I took from the plane window suffered from motion-blur – but I didn’t care. I had a great time there, the sky was pretty and a night shot of the city on departure made for a happy memory.


Share your own tips in the comments, and also check out a video tutorial on how a few low-cost accessories can help with people shots.