Food & Home

How to Take a Great iPhone Photo


As smart phones keep getting smarter, and built-in cameras get more and more powerful, it’s becoming all too easy to forget the tricked-out DSLR at home. But a great camera doesn’t always mean a great photo, so we asked five top Instagrammers in their fields—interiors, food, travel, party, and portrait—to give us a crash course.

FoodJoann Pai

It’s pretty easy to spot a Joann Pai pic without even seeing her handle. Stylized, dramatic, and meticulously detailed, she treats food Instagrams like fine art rather than quickie snapshots (see: Acorn, her stunning food-focused online mag). It also helps that her work covers the world, specifically Paris.

Joann’s Q&A

How do you use light to create a specific mood?
First and foremost, you have to consider the mood you want to convey. Are you going for a moody rainy day scene? Or maybe you’re capturing a light, bright summer spread? Either way, food generally looks best when the light is coming from the side or back. It gives your subject(s) shape and texture. When light hits an object from the front it generally makes it looks flat, so try to avoid any harsh overhead lighting, direct flash, or bright sunlight, as these create strong shadows and make photos look too severe. For a summery scene, I tend to use light-colored props and a simple reflector (like a white piece of cardboard) to bounce light back onto the subject. For a darker, moodier look, I’ll use dark colored props and a black reflector to deepen the shadows. I also turn down the exposure on my camera just a bit.
How do you set up the perfect food still life?
Think about the story you want to tell, then start simple. Add props that fit your story, ones that add to the scene rather than distract.
What angles do you suggest for shooting food?
It really depends on the food in question and what you’re looking to highlight. For example: I would shoot a stack of cookies straight on to show off the height, whereas something flat, like pizza, looks better when shot from above, in order to get all the toppings.
How do you incorporate people into your shots?
I always enjoy adding a human element to photos but only if it looks natural or adds to the story. For example, when incorporating hands into a food photo, I usually ask people to pick up the food like they would normally—no awkward poses.
How do you compose a balanced shot—or, how do you crop to fix a badly composed one?
Keep basic photography rules in mind: the rule of thirds (Ed note: rule of thirds is when subject isn’t centered, but is off to the left or right), balancing elements, leading lines (Ed note: When you use lines, i.e., a road or horizon line to draw the eye to the focal point). Make sure the supporting elements are placed so that they lead the viewer’s eyes back to the main subject.
Do you have any iPhone tricks for making it easier?
You can adjust the exposure on your iPhone prior to taking the photo by setting your focus (by tapping on the screen) and then sliding the sun icon up or down. You can also lock the focus by holding your finger down on the screen a little longer than usual—it helps keep the focus on the subject when recomposing a photo. If taking a photo for Instagram, use the square mode on the camera so you can compose your photo accordingly and avoid guessing what you’ll crop out later.
What’s your go-to editing app? Any tips for making shots brighter, sharper, etc.?
I use Snapseed to tune my images (for changes to brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights, sharpness, and so on), and VSCO Cam for filters. Try to get the correct exposure when you’re taking your photo so that you have less editing to do later on, and when you do edit, work in increments, making sure not to over-edit. Heavy-handed editing can ruin a photo.

InteriorsBonnie Tsang

Cali-based photographer Bonnie Tsang is kind of a Jill of all trades (portraits, events, travel, food—she does it all) but it’s her interiors and still lifes that keep her followers scrolling. She’s selective and never crowds or over-styles her compositions, and she’s always checking out new spots in Los Angeles, so it’s appealing for foodies, too. A whopping 7.3 million people follow her on Pinterest.

Bonnie’s Q&A

How do you get the best exposure?
Getting the exposure right on a smartphone can be challenging. I like to shoot when there’s natural light. By tapping at the mid-point between lightest and darkest area (or the darkest area, depending on photo situation), the phone will adjust the exposure for you.
How do you compose balanced shots—or crop to fix a badly composed one?
Take more than one shot. I always try taking photos at slightly different angles and then pick the best one to post.
What angles do you suggest for shooting a room?
Straight on, but it depends on what you want to focus on (sofa, fireplace, etc.).
What’s the best way to incorporate people into your shot?
The best way is to let them be themselves and be natural, to have movement.
What time of day has the best mood for interior shots?
I love mid-day, but there’s something about sunrise and sunset that makes a space extra calming.
What caption guidelines do you follow? Do you use hashtags?
Unless there’s a special message you want to share, a caption doesn’t need to be too long, two to four sentences is good. Hashtags should be kept to a minimum, three is max for me.
Any other tips?
Since Instagram is where I share my photos the most, I almost always shoot in square format. It makes deciding which image to use and then cropping it much easier.
What’s your go-to editing app? How do you make shots brighter, sharper, or at the best color?
I use VSCO Cam for all of my Instagram images, as it has all the editing tools (brightness, contrast, sharpen, etc.) I need. For interiors, there’s also SKRWT to help straighten the lines.
Favorite Instagram filter?
Oh, I don’t remember the last time I used an Instagram filter. If I do, it’d probably be Lark and then tone it down to 30% to preserve the natural color tone.

TravelMiles & Miles

Almost three years ago, Sarah Murphy and Stefaan duPont left their cushy gigs in NYC (Sarah’s background is in textile design and Stefaan worked at big-name interactive agencies) to travel the world and document the adventure. The resulting collection of photographs and insane Instagram feed grabbed the attention of brands and magazines—the rest is creative collaboration history.

Sarah & Stefaan’s Q&A

How do you get the best exposure?
For us, it’s all about the time of day we shoot. The light is best in the early morning and late afternoon, so we generally spend our time exploring then.
How do you compose balanced shots—or crop to fix badly composed ones?
Every circumstance is unique, but the most important thing to do is remain aware of what’s going on in the frame. Symmetry, light, dark, and subject should all be taken into account.
What angles do you suggest for shooting a landscape?
Putting yourself in the most epic landscape possible is the first step. On our adventures we’re constantly seeking out beautiful places. Once you find them, it’s a matter of capturing them from a unique perspective. If the best view is from the top of the mountain and you’re at the bottom, you better get your hiking boots on and start climbing!
How do you incorporate people into your shots?
It can be a challenge—if you keep things candid and natural you’ll have the best outcome.
How do you create a visually interesting landscape in a destination that’s over-photographed?
Get there early, once the crowds show up the opportunity for something spacious and dynamic is gone. Try various angles, it’s easiest to go to the classic viewpoint but if you make the effort to explore the entire area you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Do you have any caption advice? Do you recommend using hashtags and geo-tags?
We generally keep our captions short and simple. If you can tell the story of your adventure in a few words it can be very impactful. We do recommend using hashtags/geotags, as this way it allows your photos to reach a broader audience.
Any iPhone tips for making things easier?
Try touching different areas of the image while shooting to adjust exposure and focus. Shoot as much as possible, then take the time to go back through your images from the day and edit. It’s all about curating a beautiful, cohesive story, so be sure to select only your best images and avoid over-posting.
What’s your go-to editing app? Any tips for making shots brighter, sharper, of better color?
VSCO Cam is our go to editing app. It’s beautiful, tasteful and allows for all kinds of adjustments.
Any other tips?
Consistency is key. Follow your instinct, if you think something is beautiful, explore it. Chances are your viewers will get excited by your perspective of the world.

Wedding & PartyAmy & Stuart Photography

It’s not easy to capture a wedding in a way that’s romantic and natural and not the least bit cheesy. It’s probably because Amy and Stuart are a married couple themselves that they do just that. As evidenced by the outtakes populating their Instagram feed, they’re big believers in candids.

Amy & Stuart’s Q&A

How do you get the best exposure?
Know your gear. Whether it’s a phone or a real camera you have to know how to control it and not the other way around. It’s often best to underexpose your image slightly to preserve highlight detail for better image processing later.
How do you compose balanced shots—or crop to fix badly composed ones?
We’re fans of getting it right in camera. We try to stick to the rule of thirds for composition while keeping our horizon level. If all else fails, shoot with a little room around your subject so you can adjust your crop in post.
Any tips on angles for capturing moments that don’t feel cheesy?
The best shots are always when you catch a real moment. Things can get cheesy fast if you pose too much. If we’re going for a pose, we see what comes naturally to our subject and then ask them to hold that for a second while we shoot. As for angles, it’s sometimes effective to “break the rules” by going low or high. We also like foreground elements to help give images depth.
When shooting, do you wait for the right moment, or just go for it and edit later?
It is sometimes effective to just shoot a lot of frames in the moment and identify the perfect frame later. When we shoot film we are a lot more considerate though as it’s a precious and expensive luxury.
Do you have any caption advice? Do you use hashtags?
There is no doubt that hashtags work. For captions we like to keep things very simple. A strong image should speak for itself.
Any iPhone tips to make things easier?
In addition to using the volume button as a shutter for the iPhone we also like to hold it down to shoot in burst mode to catch a moment. The AE/AF lock feature is also very useful for controlling captures. If you just touch and hold the focal point on your screen you can lock focus and then slide your finger up or down to fine tune your exposure. We also shoot in HDR mode a fair bit. It’s better to have more information in your image than less. You can always throw away highlight or shadow detail during processing to achieve the look you want.
What’s your go-to editing app? Any tips for making shots bright, sharper, or improving colors?
For iPhone shots we love the Mextures and VSCO Cam apps. Processing is always a matter of taste and style. What appeals to us may not appeal to others. We are always trying to make our digital images look as close as possible to the analogue film that we love to shoot.
Favorite Instagram filter?
We don’t use Instagrams filters all that much.

PortraitKim Genevieve

Sounds contradictory, but Kim Genevieve’s aesthetic is equal parts minimal and in-your-face bright. In fact, color is kind of her thing (her azure-blue #shotoniphone6 billboards are plastered all over the world), as evidenced by her expressive yet never stuffy portraits.

Kim’s Q&A

How do you get the best exposure?
It’s a combination of exposure control, the perfect time of day, and a little post work. In order to achieve great exposure, it’s best to touch the screen to figure out what looks best—I prefer mine a little on the brighter side, so I slide the exposure up a little.
What time of day has your favorite light?
I enjoy shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is bright and the sky is really blue. This helps me achieve my bright and colorful aesthetic. I also find that colors and faces pop a lot more during the day.
How do you get your candid portraits?
If you’re snapping a candid in a crowded place, definitely make sure your volume is turned off completely! I can’t stress this enough. There have been a few times I’ve forgotten to turn off my iPhone’s volume, and the shutter sound has led to awkward situations where I have to admit that yes, I am in fact taking a picture of you sitting with your book and coffee. It happens.
How do you get balanced shots—or fix badly composed ones?
The iPhone allows you to take your photo in square format right away, so you can compose your shot without having to crop later—it saves a ton of time, especially when you’re working with people, not just still lifes.
Any iPhone tips for making it a bit easier? 
I’ve been enjoying the new burst feature on the iPhone 6 & 6 plus. It makes capturing movement effortless, which results in beautiful natural-looking shots. Just think of your phone as a professional SLR camera and experiment with the built-in features and play with angles. Last but not least, practice! Shoot everyday! Take photos that inspire you and you’ll get better at it.
What are your go-to apps? How do you make your shots bright, sharper, and get such good color?
I always edit my iPhone photos with VSCO Cam and I credit Snapseed for helping me accomplish bright and colorful images! I also use the Touchretouch app. It’s great for removing tiny imperfections, since I like my photos to be clean and crisp. Self Timer is super useful for iPhone self-portraits—actually, that’s how I got my Apple #shotoniPhone6 campaign image.
Any other advice?
Take photos that make you happy. Don’t try to copy what other people are doing. Just do your own thing and people will appreciate it.