The Minimalist iPhone Shoot Kit: Your phone, your brain.
Many famous photographers (Henri Cartier Bresson and Steve McCurry among them) shot with a 35mm camera body and a 50mm prime lens most of their careers. Cameras of the day usually came with a 50mm lens, yet these masters knew their camera and lens well enough to take spectacular, out-of-the-ordinary photos with the most ordinary lens. They had no kit to slow them down: just a camera with one lens and a pocketful of film. Today the Tele lens on dual-lens iPhones allows us this same view that the great masters of 35mm photography shot with.
Lose some weight.
There are many extras you can use for your iPhone’s back camera(s), like lenses, filters, tripod brackets, lights, remote shutters, etc. But do we really need more toys to weigh us down when the camera in the iPhone was built to be so capable? The toys are designed to get your iPhone camera to behave more like a DLSR. The problem is: Just like a DSLR, you need to carry a bag for all those toys.
Free your mind, dude.
If carrying the added weight of a shoot kit for your iPhone, you also weigh down your mind with decisions on what toys to use and when. Carrying even one item, like a lens attachment, adds the decision of whether you should use it or not. The extra thought can slow down the creative process. Many of the world’s best street shooters just use a wide-angle lens so they can work fast. Since every iPhone has a Wide lens, you’ve got that base covered too.
There are many techniques that professional photographers have improvised over the years to work at slower and faster shutter speeds, improve on lighting and emphasize perspective without resorting to changing lenses, carrying a tripod or lugging around any extra toys. These techniques require no camera bag, just your brain. A lot of know-how has no physical weight.
Make use of your built-in lenses.
The more expensive iPhones have a Wide and Tele lens. If you work heavily with both lenses, you’ll learn the strengths and weaknesses. The lens lengths weren’t chosen at random: They’re two of the most useful perspectives in photography. The iPhone’s Tele lens is great for capturing flattering photos people. The Wide is useful for capturing their environment, with or without them in the scene.
When using Portrait mode on the dual-lens iPhones, images from both lenses are combined to create a sharp subject against a blurred background. It gives you the impression a longer telephoto was used. (The iPhone XR has a Portrait mode now too, but with a single lens, the trick isn’t as nice.)
The Wide lens has become the standard phone lens view. To exaggerate the wide effect: get in closer to the subject, add foreground elements and shoot at an angle.
Shoot slower or faster to capture what the eye doesn’t see.
Your iPhone is designed to shoot with a shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze most subjects. But sometimes you want to artistically capture the blur of subject or camera movement or shoot with a faster shutter speed to freeze motion. There are many apps like Moment, Halide, Manual and Obscura that allow you to adjust the shutter speed. 1/1000 will freeze motion, like kids and pets.
If you want creative blur, try Bluristic or Moment’s slow shutter settings. Bluristic does an great job of focusing on a point in the image and blurring everything else. Moment combines multiple images to give the effect of blur. You’ll find more on creatively blurring your images here.
The built-in Camera app also has a few shutter tricks. To blur: Shoot in Live mode > Drag up on the photo > Choose Long Exposure. This combines multiple images into a three-second exposure. (Note that the exposure actually starts 1.5 seconds before you press the shutter in Live mode.) To freeze: Use the Burst mode by holding down the shutter to take multiple shots. The phone assumes you’re trying to freeze action and shoots at a slightly faster shutter speed.
Bracing without a tripod.
When shooting a long exposure or in low light, you’ll likely want to hold your camera as still as possible to avoid camera shake. Pro photographers commonly adopt sniper techniques for steadiness:
- Brace your camera, body or elbows against the ground, a wall, a fence post, whatever is handy.
- If you can’t brace, dig your elbows into your side to help stabilize.
- Exhale slowly and squeeze the shutter to minimize movement or set the timer.
You get the kindest natural light when you shoot your subject out of direct sunlight or on an overcast day. Here are a few more tips for more flattering lighting:
- Turn on Smart HDR in Settings > Camera. This does a surprisingly good job of minimizing the difference in light and shadow to balance the exposure.
- Use Portrait Mode. In addition to blurring the background for a nice bokeh, portrait mode can also does some skin smoothing, lessens contrast and warms the tone. It’s not just for people, but any subject within 2-8 feet. You can adjust the effect to add studio or contour lighting to your image.
- Use fill flash. Flash icon > On. Fill flash has it’s pluses and minuses, but it’s often the thing to use in really dim light or when the subject has the light coming from behind them. Fill Flash works in Portrait Mode too.
- Move the subject out of the direct sun. Direct sunlight is the least flattering light. Not only is it harsh looking, it causes people to squint, make awkward faces and can make them tense up.
- Block the sun with your body. This is a useful technique for softer light on flowers.
Tip: When your human subject is in open shade, their face is likely to pick up a blue cast from the sky. If so, warm the cast a bit. In the Photos app: Edit > Adjust > Color > Cast > Drag left.
As you can see you can get along pretty well without the attachable toys.
What’s your shooting philosophy?
I have two opposing philosophies for what to carry when shooting photos on iPhone:
I always have my Minimalist Shoot Kit with me. But when I’m anticipating some photo ops, I carry a Maximalist Shoot Kit. It extends the capability of my iPhone to get shots I’d otherwise need a DSLR for. But I’m willing to bet that you’re like me and will find yourself molts often somewhere between the two: If there might be chances to shoot with a particular lens attachment, like a Tele, Wide or Macro, I’ll stick a lens in my pocket and go. More on iPhone lenses here. If you do need a Maximalist Shoot Kit, I also have an article on all the great photo toys available for your iPhone.
Get the definitive guide to mastering your iPhone camera: The Crap-Free Guide to iPhone Photography