Photography / Tips and Solutions

The iPhone Camera: More Than a Basic Point-and-Shoot


The iPhone camera is a simple point-and-shoot photographic tool, right? Yes, it is, but, even using the basic iPhone camera app, the photographer has many different options for capturing the best possible image. Here we will give you a quick-and-dirty guide to getting intimate with your iPhone’s camera.

1. There are many ways to activate the iPhone camera.

  1. The most basic: Click on the Camera icon.

  1. Extra fun. Press-and-hold on the Camera icon and you will get a shortcut menu to Take Selfie, Record Video, Record Slo-mo, or Take Photo.

  1. Swipe left on the lock screen to get to the Camera.

  1. Use the pull-up menu and click on the Camera icon.

2. In your settings menu, there are several options that affect your Camera. To get there, open the “Photos & Camera” option in “Settings” and scroll down to “CAMERA.”

  1. Preserve Settings. This lets you remember your camera mode, chosen photo filter, or Live Mode for the next time you open the Camera app.

  1. Grid—This overlays a “Rule of Thirds” grid on top of your screen when the Camera is on. I recommend you turn this on for help keeping your horizon lines straight, even if you are not a big subscriber to the “rule” of composition.

  1. Record Video—Set your video recording resolution and frame rate.

  1. Record Slo-mo—Set up your slow-motion recording resolution and frame rate.

  1. HDR (High Dynamic Range) Keep Normal Photo

3. Basic Controls (Clockwise from the Top Left)

  1. Flash—Three modes for the LED light on the back of the phone that serves as an additional light source; On, Off, and Auto. Auto reads the light level of the scene and fires the flash if the camera thinks it is needed.
  2. HDR—The acronym stands for “High Dynamic Range.” Dynamic range is the range of values from dark to light in an image. When compared to the human eye, the camera has a limited ability to see very bright and very dark areas in the same frame. Therefore, bright areas, like a daytime sky, might become all white, while shadow areas might become all black. To counter this, the HDR function of the iPhone Camera will take three images—one bright, one middle, and one dark—and combine them into one image that shows both the bright and dark areas of the image. The system works best if the camera is completely stationary during capture because it wants to combine three identically composed images. In the photography world, HDR is a bit of an acquired taste. It can be a useful tool or a gimmicky trick. It is up to the artist on when to use it but, generally, you should leave it OFF when shooting your iPhone.

  1. Live Mode—For some reason, the default setting for this is ON. In this mode, the iPhone makes a very short (about 1.5 seconds) video before and after snapping the picture and combines it all into a kind-of GIF. I have taught at smartphone photography workshops and many iPhoneographers do not know this system is ON when out photographing. Turn it OFF unless you want to use it. It is OFF when the LIVE MODE circle icon is white. It is ON when the icon is yellow. Personally, I wish there were a way to completely disable this feature. In Preserve Settings (see above), you can make the camera remember you turned it OFF.
  2. Timer—This function delays the capture of the image by either 3 seconds or 10 seconds. Your choice. This is a great mode for maximizing camera stabilization and reducing camera shake as long as you are not trying to capture a fleeting moment—or if you know a fleeting moment is going to happen in 3 seconds’ or 10 seconds’ time!
  3. Filters—Chose between Mono, Tonal, Noir, Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer, Instant, or None. Remember, the filter you use is permanently embedded on the image. You can change your mind about turning a black-and-white image back to color, or add a filter after you have captured it by using the Camera editing software (more on this later). If you are filter crazy, this is a limited selection and many iPhoneographers apply filters in post-processing software or in Instagram after the shot is taken.

  1. Front/Rear Camera Selection—Taking a selfie or shooting your friend across the room? Always remember that the iPhone back camera (the one facing away from you when you are looking at the screen) has a higher resolution and better lens than the front (selfie) camera.

  1. Shutter Release—This is only one of a few ways to take the photo.
  2. Last Photo Thumbnail—Click on this to see your last photo(s) and scroll through them, or click on “All Photos” on the top right to go to your Camera Roll. Get back to the camera by pressing on “Camera” on the top left.

4. Picture Controls (L to R)

  1. TIME-LAPSE—Takes a photo every few seconds and combines them into a video file.
  2. SLO-MO—Make an awesome slow-motion video.
  3. VIDEO—Make an awesome video.
  4. PHOTO—Take a photograph.
  5. SQUARE—Take a photograph in a classic square format. You can also crop your image to a square in post-processing.
  6. PANO—Pan your camera, held vertically, from left to right and it automatically will create a panoramic image of what is in front of you.

5. Zoom

You can zoom out of your image by using two fingers to make a reverse-pinching movement. A slider will appear at the bottom and you can use that to fine-tune the zoom, or ignore it and pinch your fingers together to zoom in.

Unless you have a dual-lens iPhone (7 or 8), you are NOT optically zooming your lens. You are digitally zooming the image, discarding information from the edges of the frame. You can affect the same zoom simply by cropping an un-zoomed image after capture. Digital zooming is never recommended in photography.

6. Autofocus/Auto Exposure Lock

Now, this is one way to separate your iPhone images from the pack. The iPhone decides at what shutter speed and ISO to shoot each photo, as well as where to focus. The iPhone does not have an adjustable aperture diaphragm, so the only exposure variables that change are shutter speed and ISO. Also, there are no shooting/exposure modes on the iPhone. It is always in automatic mode.

However, you do have some manual exposure control. While composing your image, you can touch anywhere on the photo and a yellow square will appear where you touched. You are telling the camera to expose and focus on the region of that yellow block. So, if you have a ray of sunlight pouring into a room and you want to only show what is being illuminated by that sunbeam, you can compose your image, and touch the sunbeam area. The camera will adjust the exposure for that bright area and the rest of the scene will go darker. Do it the opposite way to see deeper into the shadows.

7. Exposure Compensation

You can adjust exposure manually even more than using the autofocus/auto exposure lock. When you press on the image and call up the yellow square, you will see a small yellow sun icon to the right or left of the square. Move the yellow sun icon up or down with your finger and it will adjust your exposure to be lighter or darker. Use this, in combination with the AF/AE Lock to further customize your exposures.

8. Ways to Release the Shutter

On the iPhone, there are several ways to take a photograph in the Camera.

    1. Shutter Release Button—The obvious method to take the photos is the big white button at the bottom of your image. This is the primary way to release the shutter.
    2. Volume Buttons—Did you know that your volume buttons can release the shutter, too? This keeps you from having to press on your screen to take the picture.
    3. Remote Cord—If you have an iOS-compatible hands-free device plugged into your phone, you can use the volume buttons on your wired microphone/headphones to trigger the camera. This is just like using a wired remote on your “real” camera.
    4. iWatch—You can use your iWatch as a remote viewfinder and trigger the Camera on the phone. Sneaky!
    5. Timer—After you set the timer for 3 seconds or 10 seconds, you can use one of the above shutter-release methods to start the timer sequence. At the end of the sequence, the camera will fire a 10-shot burst.

    9. Burst Mode

    What is this burst thing you just mentioned? By pressing and holding either the main shutter release button or the volume buttons, you can take a burst of quickly spaced images. A small counter at the bottom of the frame tells you how many shots you have taken. Once you release either button, the capture ends. Inside the Camera Roll, all the burst images are saved together under one thumbnail. After you open the image, click on “Select” at the bottom of the screen and chose which shots of the burst you want to keep. You can then keep or discard the remaining images.

    10. Portrait Mode (iPhone 7/8 Only)

    The dual-lens versions of the iPhone 7 and 8 feature a portrait mode that keeps your subject sharp while selectively blurring the background—creating an artificial bokeh effect.

    11. Editor

    The iPhone has a very capable built-in picture editor. While not technically a part of the Camera app, it is found in the Camera Roll by clicking on the triple line and circle icon at the bottom of the photo preview screen. It has the following options (clockwise from the top right of the editor screen):

    1. Magic Wand—Automatic corrections to the image
    2. Editor Selector—It looks like my phone only has Markup on it, but the option appears to allow more editors to be added inside the iPhone editor. Markup allows you to write text on your image or finger-paint the image with basic colors, and add a kind of magnifying-glass effect.
    3. Light/Color/B&W Adjustment—Worthy of a stand-alone article, you can adjust Light (brilliance, exposure, highlights, shadows, brightness, contrast, black point), Color (saturation, color contrast, color cast) and B&W (intensity, neutrals, tone, grain) with precision.
    4. Filters—The same filters you can apply at capture can be added or removed from the image here.
    5. Rotate/Crop—Rotate the image in 90-degree increments, arbitrary angles, crop, or assign a specific size format (square, 3:2, 16:9, etc).
    6. Red-eye Removal—Tap your finger on the red eye or eyes and watch them vanish!

    An important thing to remember about editing your images in the iPhone’s native editor is that, once you OK the edits, you can still revert your image to the original photo by clicking on Revert inside the editor, but you cannot save both the edited file and the original. Many third-party editors allow you to save a copy and preserve the original.

    That is a fairly comprehensive walk-through of your iPhone’s Camera. Do you have any hacks or tricks you would like to share with other iPhoneographers? Do you have any questions about the different modes and functions? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

Discussion 5

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To: T.Wasoon

It all applies to the iPhone 6+, except where it is indicated that is does not. As an example," (7 & 8 ) only."

Thank you. I found the article informative and well written and have added it to my reading list for future reference. 

Is this relevant to me? I have the iPhone 6+. You should advise what model(s) you are referring to at the beginning of your article.

Curious - why do you recommend leaving HDR off vs keeping it on auto? 

Hey mike,

There are a couple of reasons:

1) The personal reason is that I am not a big fan of HDR photography in general. 

2) The other reason is that it saves 2 photos for every shot you take...filling your phone that much faster.

My advice is to use it when you think you need or want it, but leave it off at all other times.

Have you heard differing opinions? Thanks for reading!