How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

We love to take pictures of the people we love. It's one of the primary reasons we buy cameras, and it's one of the primary reasons we use our iPhone camera. Our friends, our families, our children, whether it's for something special like a card or graduation, an event like a trip, a party or, or family get-together, or just a chance encounter, we always have our iPhone with us so we can always grab that perfect portrait of that important person.

But how do you take a great looking portrait with your iPhone? Lighting, camera level, pose, and the "rule of thirds" we went over last time all play a role.


If you're using an iPhone to take portraits, you likely do not have (nor want) access to a professional lighting studio, but you can still control some aspects that will have a major impact on your photos.

Avoid the sun

How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

I've heard a countless number of people exclaim about a beautiful sunny day being such a great day to go out and take photos. This couldn't be further from the truth. Direct sunlight is a photographer's worst nightmare -- it provides harsh, unforgiving lighting and makes your subject squint. In fact, the best type of day for taking portraits is an overcast one. This isn't something you can control, though, so if you find yourself taking portraits on a sunny day, head to a shaded area.

Natural light is the best kind of light

How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

Most indoor lighting is horrible for photography because cameras struggle with accurately interpreting the colors -- or in photography terms, choosing the correct white balance. A big reason for this is because when indoors, you usually have more than one light source (including natural light) and each source may be emitting a different color of light. If you've noticed that your indoor images have a yellow tint to them, this is why.

So what is this magical "natural light"? It's simply light that's produced by sun, but not direct sunlight. To improve your indoor portraits, turn off your indoor lights and head to a window or sliding glass door to use as your light source. Experiment with placement, as well. Placing your subject at a 45 degree angle to the source is a good place to start.


How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

Ever notice that in some portraits, the subject's eyes stand out more than in other portraits? Sometimes there is some post-processing involved, but most of the time it was just clever placement of lighting -- and it's so simple. To make your subject's eyes stand out, you need catchlights.

A catchlight is simply a reflection of the light source in your subject's eye. Given this definition, it should be easy to understand that you want the light source to be somewhere in front of your subject, preferably above eye level, to get the desired results. This is happens naturally when seeking out a light source, like a window, but takes a little thinking on your part when outdoors.

The best way to get catchlights with outdoor portraits is to make sure they are posed in a way that allows the light to hit their eyes. Since the light is coming from the sky, make sure your subject is not looking down or wearing a hat that shades the eyes. If you're photographing a girl with thick bangs, you may consider taking her photo from above and have her look up at you. If it's an overcast day, make note of the sun's location and position yourself so it's behind you and in front of the person you are taking photos of. This is good for both catchlights and lighting in general.

Get eye level with your subject

How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple repositioning of the photographer to transform an image from being a simple snapshot, to being a nice portrait. The trick is to get to your subject's level. For babies, this means getting down on the floor, possibly laying on your tummy. For small children, crouch down or get on your knees. And the one I have to constantly remind myself about -- get to higher ground for people who are taller than you. This is actually pretty easy with an iPhone since the viewfinder is your screen. All you need to do is hold the iPhone above your head, at your subject's eye level, when taking the photo. The screen is big enough for it to still be easy to frame the shot and trigger the shutter.

Remember, though, that rules are meant be broken. If done right, portraits shot from above or below the subject can come out rather stunning.


How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

Posing your subject is definitely one of the hardest things about portrait photography and we could focus an entire article on just this topic alone. For today, we'll just hit a couple main points.

Keep your subject's attire in mind when choosing a background. For example, if your subject is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, you'll probably want to avoid posing your subject in front of a bunch of palm trees. You want the background to compliment your subject, not distract away from them.

Try not to put your subject into specific poses as this often makes them feel awkward which translates into an awkward photo. Stick with poses that are natural and not forced. Aim to give instructions that naturally result in a nice pose. For example, tell your subject to lean against a wall and play with his phone while you respond to an important email. This will result in a completely natural pose because your subject doesn't even realize they are being posed.

For smiles, the last thing you want to do is say "smile!". For most people, this results in a very awkward, forced smile. Again, the goal is for your subject to look natural and comfortable, so try to evoke a natural smile by making them laugh or think of something that makes them happy.

Rule of thirds and empty space

How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera

Don't forget about the rule of thirds! This can be applied to every area of photography, including portraits. But with portraits, we're going to expand on the idea just a little bit more.

If your subject isn't directly facing you, frame your shots so that the front of their body is facing the empty space -- or, the two-thirds of the photo that does not have your subject. Our eyes naturally look in the direction that the subject is facing and it feels awkward to the viewer if the empty space is behind the subject.

Now go out and shoot!

Your assignment for this week is to go out and take some killer portraits. Practice makes perfect, so solicit your friends, significant others, and if you're feeling brave, strangers, to hone your skill. Then head over to the Photography Forums, ask questions, share your results, and offer feedback to your fellow iPhoneographers!

How to get more help with iPhone photography

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Leanna Lofte

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

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Reader comments

How to take great looking portraits with your iPhone camera


Biggest issue i have with the iphone camera and all these tutorials is i'm rarely taking pictures of people in outdoor settings and the pictures just aren't great at night or indoors. Like it's 5:51 now and the sun has set. even with the lights in my house pics come out grainy. Unless i grab lights and move them near people which isn't really feasible they come out just ok.

i'd really appreciate a tutorial on how to take pics in low light or indoors at night when there is not a window near. Like say at a xmas party or something. need light. there is no getting around that. So if there isn't available light you need to bring your own. You can buy small LED battery powered lights at hardware stores. Small enough to fit in your pocket. You can use them like off camera flash (except they are constant source). Easy, job done.

Yep, there's no getting around the fact that you need light. The only really solution to shooting in low light is to find light. I'll see if I can find any good, small light to offer as a recommendation.

well the iphone really needs a competent flash then. It's a huge flaw for me. i'm not talking about just low light i'm talking indoors. But really an iphone shouldn't take worse pictures indoors then my 6 year old canon digital camera. It's not feasible to ask people at a party to, "hey you guys move over here. Now someone grab a bunch of lights to give us proper lighting." In my real life, you take the picture whenever the moment strikes and changing lighting is totally not realistic.

AWESOME write up.
With the iPhone 4 I also use a lot: AutoStich, PhotoWall, FilterStorm, and of course Camera+
Since I started using the iphone4 I lost track of my Nikon D70, it is in the colet ... somewhere.

Yep! That's my husband and I say we married "equally" :) In many ways I married up and vice versa - we compliment each other perfectly.

Good article, but maybe it's an idea to inform users how to hold the camera (as Apple seems to forget to tell thier users how to "not hold" their device). I quote: "Don't hold it like that".
When holding the iphone like in the titel picture, with the volume buttons on top, the iphone is actually upside down. Results are upside down videos and pictures that are upside down on any software that does not read the EXIF information (Most photo frames, any forum on internet, e-mail clients or the default MS Windows picture viewer).
I really hope apple does something about the orientation issue in iOS 5.1 because it is hitting quite a lot of normal users.

How do you get rid of pictures once they are part of an album? How do you get rid if an album?

Here is a helpful tip: Shooting portraits of people who are over weight, you might want them to tilt there head up, and shoot down on them. This provides a thinning effect. The light issue when shooting with this phone. One trick is to have a light defuser. It could be anything from a sheet, to a piece of white paper, to break up the light.

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