Better iPhone Photos: Understanding the Impact of Light
Adapted from Capturing Better Photos and Video with your iPhone (Wiley)
By J. Dennis Thomas
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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 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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.