Stunning CSS3: A project-based guide to the latest in CSS

Better iPhone Photos: Understanding the Impact of Light

Adapted from Capturing Better Photos and Video with your iPhone (Wiley)

By J. Dennis Thomas


Light is a fundamental element of photography. Understanding the impact that light has on your subject and overall scene is pivotal to your ability to create excellent pictures.

Light has different qualities that play important roles in the presentation of your photo to viewers. The quality of light in an image impacts what a viewer sees and it guides how they perceive the visual you’re presenting. Likewise, the direction of light, as it illuminates a subject, also has a huge impact on how the subject looks. This also matters a great deal to the quality of your images.

With a sharp eye and a little planning, you’ll be able to find the right light in almost any situation, and this will help you make the best images possible with your iPhone camera.

Soft Light

Soft light is also known in the photography world as diffused light. By far, this is the most desirable type of lighting for just about any subject. It has little contrast and is therefore much more friendly to the sensor in your iPhone than bright light that produces harsh shadows (described next). Remember, the iPhone doesn’t handle high-contrast situations very well.

A broad or large light source provides the softest light. This type of light soothes textures by seemingly wrapping around the subject and filling in the shadows.

Some examples of soft lighting include cloudy days and window lighting. You can also move your subject into a shaded area out of the direct sun to get soft light for a photo.



A cloudy day offers a nice soft light to this quick portrait.

Indoor Lighting

Shooting photos indoors can be tricky. Available light from overhead bulbs can be harsh. But by moving a lamp closer to your subject when indoors, you can make the light source larger in relation to the subject and thereby soften the light.

One of the best ways to get soft light indoors, especially for a portrait, is to position the subject in front of a large, bright window that isn’t receiving direct sunlight. The window light portrait is very popular with many professional photographers. This is a very simple trick that will make your portraits stand out and flatter your subject(s).

One thing to be aware of when taking pictures indoors is that different types of light bulbs have different color temperatures. The iPhone attempts to neutralize the effect by adjusting the white balance, but it is not always successful.



A simple lamp provided the light for this portrait of local photographer Tim Pipe.


Bright hard sunlight is great for shooting plants and flowers.

Hard Light

Hard light is very directional. It casts distinct shadows and has much more contrast than soft light.

Compared with soft lighting, the light source for hard light is small in relation to the subject. Moving a light away from a subject makes the light harder.

The best example of a hard light source is the sun. Although, technically speaking, it is massive and certainly not close to a subject. But at about 93 million miles away, the sun is a relatively small-sized light source compared to subjects on Earth, and it creates very harsh lighting situations.

In photography, hard lighting is used to highlight texture and it can create an air of mystery in a portrait.

When hard light is your only option, try to keep the sun at your back. This means your subject will be lit from the front and you can easier avoid an underexposed subject.


Hard lighting makes for dramatic portraits, such as this one of photographer Jay West.

Outdoor Lighting

Usually the best scenario for taking pictures outdoors is on a partly cloudy day. When the sun is hidden behind a cloud, the cloud diffuses the light, making it much softer.

An easy way to get soft light when outdoors on a sunny day is to move to a shaded area. Under a porch, veranda or overhang is ideal. Be aware of your background though; if it’s too bright, you will have blown-out areas that can be distracting.

If you move your subject under a shade tree, watch out for mottling. This happens when sunlight shines between the leaves and hits the subject, causing spots of extreme bright areas.



A cloudy sky made for a nice soft-light portrait of my friend Megan. This image was processed with the Polarize app.


I used an umbrella to diffuse the bright sunlight for this portrait of my niece J’Ana.

Side Lighting

Place your subject so that light hits it from an angle. This creates a much more dynamic and dramatic lighting scenario than front lighting. Side lighting adds some shadows and brings out contour, which add an illusion of depth to photos.



Side lighting makes a two-dimensional photo look three-dimensional!


The texture of the wall is highlighted by side lighting.

Low Light

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome with iPhone photography is getting good photos in low-light situations. To do so requires the use of higher sensitivity settings, which adds noise to your images. In low light, the iPhone also uses longer shutter speeds, which can cause your images to be blurry.

To combat blurry images from longer shutter speeds, you can use a tripod to stabilize the iPhone to help your images look sharp. A simpler, although less effective, option is to stabilize your body by leaning against something solid like a light pole. Keeping your elbows in close to your body also helps to minimize shake.



For this night shot of Dirty Martin’s hamburger joint in Austin, Texas, I used an adapter that allowed me to attach the iPhone to a standard tripod.


I used a light pole to help me stabilize the iPhone to get a sharp shot of the New York, New York Casino in Las Vegas. Effects were added to this image with Photoshop.

Back Lighting

Back lighting is a tricky situation. It will often ruin your photos by introducing flare and lowering contrast. But sometimes, for the same reasons, it can make your images much more interesting.

The key is to find the right placement of the light source. Blocking the light source with the subject is a good way to get a usable backlit shot like this photo of a roadside attraction in Cabazon, California.



Placing the sun behind the dinosaur added a nice halo effect to this photograph. The image was processed using the LoFi app.


Backlighting provides an interesting flare to this photo of my Boston Terrier, Maddie. This image was processed using the MoreLomo app.

High Contrast

Another challenge for iPhone photographers is high contrast. Scenes with bright sunlight and strong shadows — as well as dark scenes with brightly lit areas — are two common high contrast scenes.

The iPhone camera’s sensor just isn’t capable of capturing details in both dark shadows and bright areas. Therefore, high contrast scenes often translate to images that have completely white areas with no detail. These are known as blown out areas.

To deal with this problem, Apple added an HDR feature to the camera with iOS 4.1. This takes three photos almost simultaneously and puts them together to increase the detail in both the light and dark areas of the picture.

If your phone doesn’t have this feature, it’s best to just avoid high contrast scenes. Or, try moving your subject into an area with less contrast.

You can also download the Pro HDR app, which provides the same functionality as the HDR feature built into iOS 4.



This is the original photo of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Notice the blown-out highlights.


This photo shows the HDR version from the iPhone 4. Notice that the details in the highlight and shadow areas are much more clear.

The Golden Hour

This is a term that photographers often use to describe the period of time just after sunrise and just before sunset. The golden hour is so called because the light at these times is being refracted through the atmosphere, and this produces a beautiful golden light.

The golden hour is an especially great time to take landscape shots, architectural photos and portraits.

There’s actually an iPhone app called the Golden Hour. It tells you exactly when the golden hour is … anywhere in the world.



This landscape photo was taken at the golden hour in White Sands, New Mexico.


A shot of the Frost Bank building in Austin, Texas, at the golden hour.

Front Lighting

There’s an old photography adage that goes, “Keep the sun at your back.” This is a pretty good rule to follow when taking snapshots. When your subject is lit from the front, you usually capture nice, even and flat lighting.

Although front lighting works reasonably well for a lot of subjects, it can sometimes lack depth. Turning your subject slightly away from the light source can help to add a little depth to your front-lit photo.



Good old-fashioned front lighting was used for this detail shot of the controls of an old tower clock.


Don‘t miss the next Insight article on Graphics.com. Get the free Graphics.com newsletter in your mailbox each week. Click here to subscribe.

Adapted with permission from Capturing Better Photos and Video with your iPhone by J. Dennis Thomas. Copyright © 2011 (Wiley Publishing)