How to get started with iPhone photography

Everything you need to know about using your iPhone Camera to take great, memorable photos

With the new iPhone photography -- or iPhoneography -- series we're running on iMore, we have a lot of new iPhones users, and burgeoning photographers joining us. So, Leanna and I thought it would be a good idea to team up, take a moment, and go over the basics so that everyone gets up to speed just as quickly as possible. If you're new to the iPhone or new to taking pictures, here's everything you need to know to get started. Bookmark it. If you're already an expert, save the link for a friend, and jump right into our iPhoneography Forum and share your work!

The iPhone 4S camera

The iPhone 4S has an 8 megapixel camera. A megapixel is 1 million pixels, so that means the iPhone 4S camera captures images that are 3264x2448 pixels in size. That's enough to print an 8x10 picture at 300 dots per inch (dpi), or fairly high quality. (Low quality color images print at 150-300dpi, high quality at 300-600+ dpi)

The aperture on the iPhone 4S camera is f/2.4. The f stands for "focal ratio" or "f-stop". The lower the f-stop (which is actually a larger aperture), the more light that can be let in so you can get better pictures in a wider range of settings. For example, combined with the iPhone's macro abilities, you can be obtain a shallow depth-of-field (where the subject is in focus, and elements in front of and behind the subject are blurred). The iPhone 4S also has 5 elements in the lens, helping to keep photos sharp.

An infrared (IR) filter helps produce more accurate color, and combines with software that optimizes dynamic range and white balance. So, you basically have a camera that could previously only be found on a dedicated point-and-shoot, built right into your phone.

Quick Camera access

With iOS 5, Apple's made it easier and faster than ever to access your camera when you need it, even when your iPhone is locked, and even if you have a passcode set.

  • Wake up your iPhone by using the On/Off" button on the top, or the **Home button right under the screen
  • Touch and hold the Camera icon
  • Slide up to reveal the Camera app

That's it. A button press, an icon slide, and you're in the Camera App and ready to shoot.

The Camera app

iphone_30_icon_cameraTap the Camera icon on your iPhone Home screen to launch the Camera app. The Camera app is the built-in, default way to take photos on your iPhone. Even in other apps, like Messages, if you tap the camera button to take a photo, you'll be taken into the Camera app.

The Camera app opens to a live-view screen, similar to the LCD display you see on a point-and-shoot or DSLR camera. Controls are available right on the screen to take a photo, set the flash, access advanced options, and switch to the front-facing camera. Other controls are also available, including a hardware shutter and digital zoom. We'll walk you through all of them.


When you first launch the Camera, you'll be asked for permission to use your current Location for geotagging

The first time you launch the Camera app, it will ask for your permission to use your current Location. That's because, if you let it, your iPhone will store the GPS coordinates of every photo you take, so you can always easily refer back to it later. This can be great for keeping track of vacation shots, but not so great if you're posting pictures online and don't want the entire internet to know your address.

Whether you choose to enable geo-tagging for now or not, you can always change your mind later.

Taking a photo

There are two ways to take a photo with the Camera app. Both of them will fire the shutter and save a picture to your Camera Roll library.

  1. Tap the Camera button on the live view screen
  2. Click the volume up hardware button on the side of your iPhone

Bonus tip: If your iPhone headset has a volume up button, you can use it to take pictures remotely!

Pinch to Zoom

Pinch to zoom activates the digital zoom, and shows you the zoom slider

The iPhone has a mediocre digital zoom but if you absolutely have to zoom in, it can be very slightly better than nothing.

  • Touch your thumb and forefinger to the screen and pinch them together to zoom in.
  • Spread them apart to zoom back out.

Once you've activated the zoom feature, a slider will appear giving you linear control, if you prefer it.


You can automatically take macro shots by getting in close... though the focus seems glitchy on close ups

The iPhone will automatically adjust for macro photos. Just bring the camera close to the object you want to shoot and take the picture.

Note: There appears to be a glitch in iOS 5 that causes problems focusing extremely close for macro photos. It locks for a moment, then blurs again. Hopefully Apple is fixing this for the next update.

Changing auto-focus and auto-exposure

To focus and set exposure on an object, just tap on it. The square indicates the current target.

The iPhone camera has automatic focus, exposure, and facial recognition. It will always try to take the best possible photo it can, but it may not always know which area of the photo you want to target.

Changing the target is simple.

  • Tap the screen

That's it. Any area you tap will be surrounded by a white square and your iPhone will automatically refocus and re-balance the exposure for that area.

If your iPhone detects a face -- or up to 10 faces -- it will put a green square around it and automatically refocus and optimize the image around the face.

Locking auto-focus/auto-exposure

Sometimes the auto-focus and auto-exposure on the iPhone is more blessing than curse. For example, when there's a lot of movement, or when the center of the photo you want to take is exceptionally bright or dark. When that happens, you can lock both the auto-focus and auto-white balance so that, when you move the camera around, they no longer change.

  • Place your camera one the area that has the focus and exposure you want to lock onto to
  • Tap the square to make sure the focus and white balance are set.
  • Hold the square with your finger until it turns blue and pulsates.

The words AE/AF Lock will appear at the bottom the screen to confirm you've done it correctly. Move the camera and take your photos without worrying about the auto-focus or auto-exposure balance any more.

To remove the AR/AF Lock, just tap the screen outside the square.

Setting the flash

To toggle the LED flash between On, Auto, and Off, tap the current setting at the top left of the live screen

Your iPhone has an LED Flash that can be set to off, auto, and on. It's not a great flash and as will any point-and-shoot camera, light is your friend -- especially lot of daylight. If you're in a really dark place, however, and really want or need a picture, it's easy to turn the flash on.

  • Tap the Flash button at the top left of the live view screen.
  • Tap the On button to turn the flash on, or the **Auto button* to put it into automatic mode.

Taking HDR photos

To enable High Dynamic Range, tap Options, then toggle HDR to On.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and involves taking a series of pictures, one right after the other, both slightly overexposed and slightly underexposed, and combining them together to reveal more light and shadow information than a standard single-exposure photo would allow. So basically, you can see detail in the bright sky and in the shadow under the tree, rather than having one blown out or the other lost to black.

  • Tap the Options button at the top center of the live view screen.
  • Slide the HDR toggle to On.

The bottom of the screen will show HDR so you'll know it's enabled.

Note: The multiple exposures take a short amount of time to combine, so after you take an HDR photo you'll see a your iPhone say "Saving HDR". If you need to take a lot of photos quickly, you'll want to make sure HDR is set to Off.

An example of a regular vs. HDR photo, with the HDR photo on the right revealing far greater detail in the sky

Displaying the grid

how to use the rule of thirds

The grid is useful to help you align your photographs and achieve better compositions. For example, by using the "rule of thirds".

  • Tap the Options button at the top center of the live view screen.
  • Slide the Grid toggle to On.

Two sets of vertical crossed by two sets of horizontal lines will divide your screen, and you'll be ready to compose your shot.

Camera Roll and Photo Stream

Photo Stream is a great way to backup and instantly get all your photos onto all your Apple devices... just handle with discretion for now.

Once you've taken a photo, it gets stores in your Camera Roll, and optionally your Photo Stream.

To access the Camera Roll from inside the Camera App:

  • Tap the Thumbnail button next to the camera button.

To access the Camera Roll from the Home screen:

  • Launch the built-in Photos app
  • Tap the the Camera Roll tab.

Photo Stream is part of iCloud and keeps the most recent photos from your Camera Roll, up to 1000 of them and for up to 1 month, in a special album that's stored up to Apple's servers and pushed down to your other iOS 5 devices. It can also stream photos to an Apple TV 2 without keeping any local copies, and will store all your photos, without limit of number and time, in iPhoto or Aperture on Mac, and on a Windows PC.

Think of it as a photo only (no video) duplicate of all the Camera Rolls of all your iOS devices -- including photos you've saved to the Camera Roll from email and the web -- all in one place.

Unlike Camera Roll, however, you currently can't delete photos from Photo Stream (that will change with iOS 5.1 later this spring). That means if you take any risqué photos you don't want store online, you'll have to reset your entire Photo Stream via in order to get rid of them.

Photo management and editing

You can manage your photos, including emailing, tweeting, iMessaging, deleting, creating and filing into folders, and even basic editing like red-eye removal, rotation, cropping, and auto-ehance, right in the built-in Photos app. There are also several excellent photo editing apps in the App Store.

We'll cover more on that in a future article. For now, we just want you to focus on taking photos.

Other Camera apps

A sampling of Martin Reisch's (@safesolvent) awe-inspiring Instagram gallery.

While the basic, built-in iPhone Camera app is all you really need to get started, there are several other well regarded Camera apps in the App Store. They typically provide more or better features than the built in app. Here are two of our current favorites.

  • Instagram is a popular, free iPhone app for applying distinctive filters to your photos, squaring them, and quickly sharing them to the Instagram network, as well as via Twitter and Facebook. You can also see some amazing examples of other people's iPhoneography. Read more - Download now
  • Camera+ has a lot of great features, including separate focus and exposure settings, image stabilization, enhanced zoom, scene modes, and a bevy of sharing options. - Read more - Download now

How to get more help with iPhone photography