Your guide to idiot-proof iPhone photography

While the iPhone is optimised to help even the novice photographer, sometimes a little extra help is needed. — Pix by Erna Mahyuni
While the iPhone is optimised to help even the novice photographer, sometimes a little extra help is needed. — Pix by Erna Mahyuni

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 21 — I often joke about how the ‘i’ in iPhone stands for idiot-proof but no matter how many advances the phone gets each year, there are still people who take terrible pictures with it.

I am one of those people, dear reader. After years of fiddling with various iPhones here are a few tips about how to take better photos and not by sheer accident.

1. 9/10 times it’s just the AE/AF Lock

AE/AF Lock stands for auto-exposure and auto-focus respectively. Basically you let the iPhone determine the best exposure for your photo and lock the camera’s focus point on a point you choose.

You tap the screen and a little yellow box forms – that yellow box will be your focus point.

Swiping up and down will let you adjust the exposure, which is represented by a tiny little sun icon next to the yellow box.

Press and hold on that little box and you will see a yellow indicator pop up on the top that says ‘AE/AF Lock’.

This will lock the camera’s focus so you don’t need to adjust the exposure or focus and you can easily undo the lock by, again, tapping the screen.

Experiment with your focus point by switching it around until you find the optimal one.

Very reflective or shiny surfaces can be a struggle but locking the focus can often be helpful.

2. You need to relearn the burst mode (on the iPhone 11)

The burst mode is one great “cheat mode.” If your photos tend to be terrible/out of focus/your subject has their eyes closed, the burst mode lets you take a whole lot of photos so there’s a higher likelihood at least one will be usable.

While non-iPhone 11s just require you to press and hold the shutter, the newer models require a little more finger dexterity.

You press, lightly hold and quickly swipe to the left.

This is because pressing and holding now turns into “press and hold video.” It’s nifty if you want to take quick video but still be able to revert to phototaking mode in a pinch.

3. The best selfies have light coming from the front

You want a good selfie — find a window and preferably in the morning light 11am or earlier or evening light from 5pm to 7pm.

Apple’s increased the smoothing algorithm on its front cam but light directly on your face is often more flattering, so long as it’s not too harsh — avoid the window when the sun is high as squinty selfies are not flattering.

Experiment with the selfie flash as sometimes, depending on light conditions, it might add a nice effect but the flash in low light or at night is helpful but still not all that flattering. Still, the old red-eye “I took a selfie while drunk” look is no longer a problem at least.

4. Portrait mode is right but contrast matters

The new portrait mode now lets you take a new high-key light mono, which basically helps you make instant, white background, black-and-white selfies.

For the best results, make sure there’s enough contrast between your subject and the background.

At night, for instance, taking a portrait against the night sky when your subject has dark hair that blends into the background will result in imperfect outlines.

The camera isn’t quite smart enough to separate the subject from all backgrounds so try to ensure there is enough contrast, whether in colour or texture.

The iPhone background blurring isn’t perfect and results will vary according to subject or background.
The iPhone background blurring isn’t perfect and results will vary according to subject or background.
With the right, high-contrast background, your portrait photos will look more convincing.
With the right, high-contrast background, your portrait photos will look more convincing.

5. Sometimes it’s just about the apps

You think your native camera pics still look terrible? Here’s something I learned from taking pictures with actual digital SLRs — digital photos often need retouching so there is really no harm in prettying up photos.

Photos that are a little (but not too much) dark can be brightened up. Underexposure is fixable; overexposure not as much.

If you favour the Instagram aesthetic, VSCO is the app of choice of many an Instagram influencer.

Should you prefer the “beauty” look that you get with a lot of East Asian Android phones, then Korea’s Snow, Looks, B612 and Foodie apps might appeal with a range of cute filters and an auto eye-enlargement.

They’re all made by the same company (Snow Inc) but Snow is general-purpose, Looks specialises in make-up filters, B612 is cute personified and Foodie is about making your food on IG look extra-yummy.

Want more manual options? ProCamera offers a companion Apple Watch app as well as video tutorials and manual settings to get your best picture.

For more tutorials (you’ll need to pay for them as in-app purchases but the first few are free), the Darkr app is like a photography coach in your pocket.

Here’s hoping you get the best out of your iPhone camera this holiday season!

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