How To

10 photo composition tips to improve your iPhone photography

iPhone photo composition

As an iPhone owner, you hold in your hand a phone that can produce beautiful photos. Having quick access to our phones, makes it easier than ever to capture moments or events without having to dig out our point & shoot or bulky DSLR. Take a moment to think about how photography has changed since 2008. It’s really quite amazing. The iPhone’s camera is both capable and meets the ever so important characteristic of the best camera being the one you have with you. While it meets all of the technical criteria for taking excellent pictures, taking truly great photos often depends on the one behind the lens. Ok, having an incredibly cute kid or pet does help, but what you do can transform good pictures into great. When you take a photo, you typically frame the subject, focus and shoot. Yep, point & shoot. Yet two people in the same room, with the same smartphone, can produce two entirely different results. The most basic concepts in photography is composition and how you frame your shot. We’ve compiled the best techniques for improving photo composition that is sure to improve your iPhone photography. You don’t have to be a pro to take awesome photos!

iPhone photo composition

1. Use The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a guideline for composing images. It requires a grid of two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. These create what looks like a tic-tac-toe board or 9 equally spaced boxes. The four intersection points may be used for interesting elements. When you are composing your subject using the guide lines, the most important elements of the person or object should be at either along the lines or at their intersections. A common technique when shooting people is to line up their eyes to a horizontal line and their body to a vertical line. People tend to look at the intersection point and not the center of a photo. You want important elements at places that are natural focus points for people viewing your images. Here’s a photo I took on the left, which did not follow this rule. When I edited it after, the intersection point runs through the eye. The result is an image that naturally brings you eye to the subject. I could have avoided the need for the editing, but it’s worth noting that cropping can be used to better inform the viewer of the intent of your photo.

Rule of two thirds

How to turn on grid lines on your iPhone’s camera

By default, the grid isn’t enabled in iOS 8. Here’s how to turn the grid lines in iOS on your iPhone.
1. Navigate to Settings > Photos & Camera
2. Toggle Enable Grid Lines to ‘On’.

Enable photo grid

When utilizing in the real world, feel free to experiment within these guidelines. Once you begin shooting using these principles, you’ll quickly that these are not hard and fast rules, but rather a good way to maintain proper composition.

2. Horizons above or below the middle of frame

If you are taking any sort of landscape photo, we can also apply the rule of thirds. The horizon should never be centered. It should be below or above the center point. Using our grid, we can align a visual element with either the top or bottom horizontal lines.

Horizon

This doesn’t apply to photos of just landscapes. If you are taking a photo of someone at the beach, the horizon or line that would divide the water and sky, should be horizontally off-center. As for the person, align them to the left or right, leaving space for other elements to breathe.

3. Fill Your Frame

If there is a primary subject of your photo, make sure that’s readily apparent in your photo. Too often, people are forced to rely on cropping an image. That can and should be avoided when you are taking your photo. Where possible, I’d avoid using the digital zoom. It can make it more difficult to focus and hold steady. Unless you’re trapped in quick sand, use your legs and move closer to your subject. Getting up real close, for example to capture a child’s smiling face, can help convey emotion of the moment. When you are framing your shot, look beyond your subject. An up-close photo of a house cat can look can draw comparisons to his distant wild jungle cats. In comparison, pulling back would revealing his getting comfortable on a couch from Pottery Barn. How you fill your frame matters and can have an immediate impact on your photos.

4. Don’t Forget Your Background

Filling your frame isn’t always practical and nor will it yield the best results. Often we’re going to use backgrounds. It’s a contributing factor to your overall image and one that often gets overlooked. A film isn’t great because of a single actor. It’s often the supporting cast that helps propel a film to greatness. Your photos are no different. Think of the background as your supporting cast.

Create a proper ratio between your background and your primary subject. The background should be interesting. Don’t be afraid to dial it back or add more. If you are vacationing and taking a photo of a family member, consider having them move towards you, creating more space between them and the background.

Background

Be careful not to have a background where the brightness is more so than your subject. People will focus on the brightest section of your photo. The background is there to serve a purpose and that’s providing contrast to your photo. Stark backgrounds can also have a positive impact by providing a simple backdrop.

5. Photograph People Looking Off-Frame

All photos tell a story. When a person being photographed is looking directly into the lens, the story is simple – “someone is taking my picture.” We’ve all seen and taken these photos. And while some are good, they are commonplace. Think of someone celebrating a birthday. Which photo would tell a better story? A photo of them looking directly at the camera or of them looking at a brightly-lit birthday cake? This photo below is out of focus, but I still love it. For me it works because it captures that sense of curiosity of a 1-year old opening a present.

Looking away

What if there is no birthday? Well, cake is always good, but let’s say that’s not available. If you a photographing a person who is looking right, create a fair amount of space between the subject and the edge of the of viewfinder. Without a secondary object, this will create a sense of intrigue when viewing the photo.

If the object is moving, providing space to a side of an image can convey that movement. Look at any car ad and you’ll see this in practice. Think about how you apply this principle to your own photos.

6. Follow Leading lines

Whether you are shooting architecture, a road or a set of winding stairs, you’ll want to focus on the composition of what are called leading lines. When you are viewing your surroundings, imagine lines from your position to the end of what would be your frame. Using ‘lines’, you can create a journey for your viewers that draws them and leads through photograph. In some cases, that can be leading to infinity, often seen with the end of a road. They can be a walkway to leads to a house or a winding staircase where the focal point is a castle.

In this photo, I could jumped in front of these two, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting. The leading lines of the walkway creates a nice visual impact that takes the viewer on this journey.

leading lines

Leading lines do not have to be literal like stairs or walkways. They can be background elements which are pointing or directing the user visually. Other types of objects which lend themselves to leading lines include boardwalks, lamp posts, rivers, waves, shorelines, bridges and more.

From where you are taking your photo, use lines to draw in the user and lead them visually from your vantage point to your subject, in the process telling a story through your lens of your iPhone. To infinity and beyond!

7. Change Your Perspective For More Impact

I mentioned earlier that two people with the same iPhones, taking the same photo, can yield incredibly different results. If you’ve ever wondered why some friends have the best Facebook or Instagram photos, it might just be a unique perspective. Think of this as the relation between the lens on your iPhone and the subject. We live in a three dimensional world, but our photos ultimately end up as two dimensional. Decisions you make can help convey space, dimension, depth and distance. Are you standing straight up, focusing and shooting? Consider changing your position. That can mean getting on one knee and shooting up, great for capturing a skyscraper. By filling the frame of the bottom of the image, a viewer is more likely to see the scale of building. Sometimes that can be more important than capturing the entire building, which would include distracting elements.

Diagonal

The best advice here is to change your position and thus the viewfinder. Use a step ladder and shoot down.Lay flat on the ground and shoot up. Shoot at different angles. All of these can impact your iPhone photos and produce winning shots.

Top down

8. Avoid The Middle

Nothing can kill a great subject like centering them in the middle. Again, we’re going to lean on our steadfast guideline that is the rule of thirds. This will help you avoid the dreaded middle. When you take photos that are centered, it can often result in a static feel. In iPhone photography, you want your 2D image to convey a bigger sense of dimension. Sometimes backing up from your subject and placing them off-center can yield great results. When dealing with horizons, placing it in the middle can cause a photo to feel as if it were split in two.

Avoid middle

9. Learn from the best

There are no shortage of wonderful iPhone photographers, all of whom are doing some amazing things. Start by following someone like Martin Reisch on Instagram and see how he can time and time again use composition to create stunning photos. Don’t be intimated by professionals. In no time, you’ll be applying similar principles to your own photography.

Follow best

If you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to say that you’ve already taken more than your fair share of photos. Using the tips you’ve learned here, take a look back at your favorite photos. Look for the reasons as to why it was great. At the same time, look at your photos and look for ways on how you can improve. The only way to improve is to keep shooting. Hopefully, a few tips mentioned here will spur your creativity.

10. Break the rules

No that I’ve neatly outlined some tried and true tips in 1-9, you might be surprised at number ten. If at any point you feel constrained by a rule, go ahead and break it. It’s your photo, your story. If you have a vision for a particular photo that doesn’t match what’s been said, you need to run with it. The beauty of the iPhone and digital photography, is that you have an unlimited amount of do-overs. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Jack Hickman

    January 16, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Great info. I’m a steadfast follower of the ‘rule of thirds’, but you shed some light on other methods I never considered. Thanks!

  2. Ivan Williams

    January 17, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I tend to take photos with a phone quickly, and totally forget the rules. When using my Nikon D5000, I pay more attention, and take my time. I feel when taking a photo with my smartphone, I’m rushed. Not sure why exactly. But, this post is a brilliant reminder of the rules. I’ll be more mindful when taking smartphone photos…

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