Your iPhone has a pretty good camera on it — you might as well learn how to make good use of it.
I am by no means a professional photographer. I do have a DSLR, but I neglect it far too often and don't bother to take it with me.
Luckily, phone cameras have come a long way.
With the addition of portrait mode and dual lenses, iPhones are capable of producing some pretty stunning images — even ones that could be mistaken for being taken on a more expensive camera.
But a camera is only as effective as the person using it. Whether you're using a $2,000 DSLR, or an iPhone that you can fit in your pocket, you need to know how to use it to get the best results.
Here's how to make your boring phone shots more Instagram-worthy with just a few clever edits:
Step 1: Framing, grid, and rule of thirds
Before you can take a picture of anything, you need to get it in the frame. After that, it's pretty much up to you where you want to frame your subject — but there are a few rules that can help with your composition if you're not sure where to start.
The "rule of thirds" is a popular method of composition in photography, and your iPhone has tools built right in that will help you achieve it. Basically, following the rule of thirds means imagining the image split into nine equal parts, with a grid of three horizontal and three vertical lines dividing the image. You want to keep your subject, or other important elements, in one of the "thirds" of the image, close to where the lines intersect, as seen in the grid above.
To get the grids on your camera, go to Settings > Camera > Grid, and turn it on.
You by no means need to follow this rule, but it definitely helps create some pleasing images if used correctly.
Step 2: Setting your exposure
You probably know that tapping on the screen while in the camera will focus on the area you're tapping on. However, it also matches the exposure to whatever you're tapping on as well.
To test this out, point your phone at a window where a lot of light is coming in. If you tap on the window, everything outside will become visible, but everything inside will get pretty dark. If you tap on something outside of the frame of the window, the light coming through the window will get blown out, while everything in the room is visible.
If you want a little more control over this, you can tap and drag your finger up or down after tapping. Dragging down will set the exposure lower, as you can see above, and dragging up will bring the exposure higher.
If you want to lock your exposure and focus to a specific object, hold your finger down on that object for a few seconds until you see "AE/AF LOCK" appear at the top of the screen. Now you can point the camera anywhere you want, and the focus and exposure settings from what you tapped on will be saved.
Step 3: Taking your photo; use portrait mode, if you have it
The portrait mode, regardless of its name, isn't only for taking pictures of people. It's really useful for getting up close to your subject and blurring out everything in the background. This is an effect known as "bokeh," or depth of field, and it's an easy way to make your photos look much crisper and more professional.
For best results, get close to your subject. This will create maximum blur in the background (if that's what you want), and your subject will be nice and focused.
And, if you have friends to take pictures of, this is a great way to make them look like an Instagram model without doing much work.
Step 4: Choosing an editing app
So, you've taken your photo, you've framed it properly, and the exposure is just right. But you're not done yet — now it's time to edit.
There are tons of free editing apps you can use, but I pretty much stick to two: Adobe Lightroom (on desktop and mobile), and VSCO. Adobe offers free Lightroom trials, but you'll need a Creative Cloud subscription for extended use. VSCO is free and has some free filters, but additional filters can be purchased.
I prefer Lightroom and I'll walk you through the basics of editing in that app, although the concepts are universal and can be used anywhere.
Step 5: Cropping your photo
I took this photo on the roof of my apartment, and my first step was to crop it a little because I wanted less of the balcony in the frame. If you need to straighten your photo out at all, you can do it with the cropping tool as well. Lightroom even has an auto-straighten feature that will do all the work for you.
Step 6: Adjusting the exposure, highlights, and shadows
Next, it's time to work on your light settings. On the first above image, I only slightly turned the exposure down, since the phone's camera got it pretty spot-on to begin with. Then, for effect, I turned the highlights all the way up.
As you can see, the "light" parts of the image have become washed out as you turn the highlights up. If the highlights are blown out in your image, you can try turning the highlights down to make them more visible. The same works with shadows, the dark parts of your image. You can turn them up or down to make them more or less visible.
I ended up turning the highlights down pretty far to show the effects of the sunset in the sky, then adjusted the shadows, blacks, and whites to my preference. The third image is the final product of all of these changes.
Step 7: Filters!
Now for the fun part: filters.
Don't let anyone make fun of you for using filters — they make boring pictures instantly not boring anymore. Filters are not just for wannabe-photographers on Instagram, and every photographer tends to edit their images to some extent.
What you shouldn't do, however, is just slap a filter on your image and call it a day. Make sure to look through all of the settings and adjust them after applying the filter. I did that process backwards here — generally I would apply the filter and make adjustments after that, but it worked out okay.
I chose the "warm shadows" filter in Lightroom to give the photo a warmer look, since it was taken at sunset. Apple has some okay filters at best, and Instagram has some decent ones built into the app. Play around with them and decide what you like best.
Step 8: White balance and noise reduction
I didn't end up having to use these effects for my image, but it's good to know how.
Noise reduction can be used when your photo is exceptionally grainy, which generally happens when you take a picture in a low-light situation. Be careful with this slider, because if you slide it too far you will lose a ton of detail in your image. Use slight, precise edits until the grain is gone.
White balance can either be used for artistic effect or to correct the image. Particularly with bad lighting, true "whites" in the image can show up as a different color — sometimes an off-white or yellow. Using the "automatic" white balance will attempt to fix this, or you can make the changes yourself.
Example time: Turning boring photos into pretentious photos
Here's a photo I took while waiting for the subway. As you can see, it's very boring. I wouldn't be caught dead posting this photo on Instagram, but after a few edits it will be looking good to go.
For this image, I'll be using the free VSCO app — the process is basically the same as in Lightroom.
I started by adding a black-and-white filter, which is the first step of making a boring photo into a cool and pretentious one.
I wanted the subway beams to be dark and indistinguishable, so I turned the exposure down, turned the shadows down, and then adjusted the highlights and whites slightly to make the subjects stand out. Then, I turned up the contrast to make the distinction between light and dark even stronger.
Finally, I cropped the image to cut out the unnecessary dead space in the image and to focus on the subjects.
The final product:
And there you have it — it's certainly not my best work, but its much better than the boring image I started with. Now it's ready to be posted to my Instagram page for online clout.
One last example:
I'll spare you the details with this one — I made it black and white again.
Good luck out there, and have fun. But whatever you do, don't be this guy: