How to Take Better Pictures with Your iPhone

Are the pictures of your glorious catches not coming out well? Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin shares how to take better pictures with your iPhone.

Someone holds up an iPhone to take a picture with at the beach.

Photo by Jordan McQueen

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In the old days when you brought a “roll of film” (remember them?) to the store to be processed, it was small compact cameras that were the trend. Most did what we call “point-and-shoot.” Taking decent pictures did not depend on understanding F-stop, depth of field, shutter speed, or a wealth of other technical terms. You just took pictures and let the camera make all those setting decisions. The results were not perfect but were significantly better than guessing the right settings. It spoiled us. We no longer needed to know what light does in an image and how to manipulate that light to help us. The point-and-shoot mindset carried over into the digital world in spades. Cameras were already smart when it came to measuring light. Instead of sending it to film, it sent it to sensors that made an electronic map of all the values and saved it on a memory chip as a file instantly. In the miraculous shrinking world of technology, all this was squeezed down into a few microchips and a lens the size of your thumbnail and put into your phone.

Setting You Up for Success

Now, everyone that has a smartphone is a photographer. The latest implementations of camera phones are truly mind-boggling. We are all now saving memories galore with pictures that live in the photos folder on our phones. The only downside is all these memories are mostly saved as 2 1/2 “x 5” images so when you have an image that you want to share with others as a physical “print,” it’s important it’s a high-quality image so it can be transferred well between the digital file to print. This article is for you if you are wanting to take great pictures of your fishing success.

Focus and Exposure

In order to get the best quality images from your phone camera, you need to know what it can do on its own and what you can make it do. Depending on the model phone you are using, some of the features shown here may or may not be available. The sample images shown in this article were made with an iPhone 12 Pro.

The two most important things about an image beside the content itself are focus and exposure. Your camera assumes what you have placed in the center of the viewing screen is what you want in focus. If you are holding a fish you just caught and your face is in the center of the screen, your face will be in focus and the fish may not be. On the viewing screen, move the camera until the subject is in the middle. (In the case of the image below, the lever on the reel.) You will see a yellow square when you touch the screen over the subject. When you do this, you are telling the camera, “This is what I want in focus and exposed correctly.”

The camera then holds that subject in focus even if you move the camera to compose the picture where your face is in the middle again. Exposure is a bit more technical to make a decision about. All the objects in your photo react to light differently. The color of some objects will reflect light while the colors of other objects or different parts of the same object will absorb light differently. Putting enough light on a subject to show details in all parts of an object regardless of the color is ideal exposure. The camera can record the difference in light values up to a point. This is called “contrast.” Keep in mind that the human eye can intake these different values much better than the camera can. That is why everything looks normal when you take the picture but when you look at what the camera took, sometimes some detail seems missing or blown out.

Being able to record this difference in light values is a function of exposure. The camera can accommodate this by using a function called HDR. Basically, it works like this—the camera takes multiple exposures. The first exposure is balanced for the bright parts of the picture called the highlights. It records the detail in those bright parts. It then takes an exposure of the middle light values and then an exposure of the dark parts of the picture called the shadows. Next, it takes the detailed parts of those three exposures and combines them together into one image. This simulates what the human eye can do and makes the image look very realistic. If you go to the Settings app on your phone and then to Camera, go down to HDR and make sure it is turned on, as shown in the screenshot below.

Composition

The next consideration in picture-taking that contributes to good images is composition. Be aware of what is behind the subject. There are common problem objects you are probably aware of. If you are holding up a fish you just caught, don't stand in front of a pole, narrow tree, or another object that will look like it is coming out of your head in the picture. Bright color objects in the background can also be a distraction and draw attention away from the subject. These things are so common the cameras of today have a “Portrait Mode.” What this does is keep the subject in focus but uses a shallow depth of field so the background stays out of focus and is not a distraction. Newer model phones with two or three lenses have this feature. If you have this feature on your phone, use it!

Don’t face directly into the sun if you are the subject holding your catch. Stand so the sun is ten or so degrees off to one side. Also, be aware of objects that are casting a shadow on you and the fish. Move a bit if necessary. Take those few extra moments and capture the memory in detail.

Zoom

The next thing I would like to cover in this installment of “Taking Better Pictures with Your Phone” is the zoom function. One of the most common errors in picture taking is being too far from the subject. We have all been shown pictures of family, vacations, or what have you, where the subject is way off in the distance and the background dominates the image. This is definitely not what you want to do when recording a fishing success. The problem here is that we tend to think we are invading a subject’s space if we get close to the camera. The new phones have a feature that makes getting close digitally a breeze. It works like this—if you hold your finger on the 1X symbol (see image) on the screen, a wheel pops up. Touch any place on the wheel and move it left or right. That is your zoom control. What you want to do is fill the screen with the subject and keep the background to a minimum. Cameras that have multiple lenses do this optically which is the sharpest. Other cameras do this digitally which becomes obvious as you zoom larger. If you are losing the quality of the image as you turn the wheel, just move closer. You don’t want to sacrifice quality to make the subject larger.

The author shows the zoom wheel in this screenshot from his iPhone.

Photo courtesy of iPhone Life

Follow the suggestions here and you will notice improvements in your recorded memories. Next, I'll cover the editing functions built into your phone. You can correct many less-than-perfect images you already have on your phone. It is worth the time and effort to make your successful fishing memories everything they can be.

Even if you follow all the rules when taking pictures, ambient conditions can change rapidly and render the settings of the camera for the worse. Unfortunately, this is often not noticed until you have left the location the picture was taken at and it’s too late. It happens often and to everyone including professionals. Today’s phone cameras have excellent editing software as part of the camera app. This allows you to undo many of the errors you would otherwise have to live with. In this article, let’s take a look at some of these features and see what they can do.

Exposure

The most common error is incorrect exposure. This appears as no detail in the parts of the picture where there should be some. If the subject was very light, parts may be overexposed and “burnt out” (plain white with no detail). If the subject was very dark (in the shadows), it would be black with no detail. You have to decide which parts of the picture require the most detail. Typically that will be the subject. To correct this, you start with the “auto” feature, as you can see below.

A screenshot of the editing process from the author's iPhone. He has selected the "auto" feature.

The auto feature often does a great job but you can go to the “exposure” setting to do a better job. Exposure adds or takes out overall light from the entire picture. “Brilliance” is equal to “contrast” so there is a greater or less difference between dark and light parts of the picture. “Shadows” (sometimes known as Gamma) adds or takes away light in the dark parts of the image and “highlights” do the same to light parts of the picture. By moving the slider left or right in each of these modes, you correct the lighting error that exists. You see a live preview as you do this.

A screenshot of the editing process from the author's iPhone. He has selected the "exposure" feature.

Level Shots

Another common error in many pictures is that the horizon or subject is not straight across or level. Some folks may think a tilted horizon is artistic but your mind’s eye will not. That is not how you normally see the horizon or the subject—unless you’re leaving a bar after a long party! A lot more than just the horizon will be crooked. Though, this error is easily corrected using the “Straighten Control” as shown in the images below. You should be able to zoom the image and see detail in the highlights and shadows without pixelation. The image should remain sharp.

A screenshot of the author's image editor with the level adjusted to -2.

Presets

Testing all the options available to adjust the light and color balance of an image can be very time-consuming. There is an editing feature on many phone camera apps called “Presets.” When you click on that button, you will see a string of thumbnail images that have different manipulations applied to them. Browse through them and see if you find one that meets your needs. That saves you the time to try these editing changes on your image one by one. You can always do that as needed if you don’t find a preset you like. As you go through these corrections to the original, you will at some point want to go back to the original. Just click "cancel" which appears on most screens or “revert” which you will often see.

Night Mode

Most new phones have the capability of taking photos in low-light situations. Depending on the time of day you are reeling in that catch, you may need to use this feature. Take low-light photos with “Night Mode.”

An image of an iPhone using Night Mode when photographing a woman in front of a lit-up city.

Night Mode will automatically turn on when the camera senses a low-light environment. The Night Mode icon at the top of the display turns yellow when the feature is active. Depending on how dark the scene is, your phone might take a Night Mode photo quickly or it might take several seconds. You can adjust your exposure setting manually if needed. You need to hold your phone steady if you use Night Mode. The exposure will be longer than usual and motion will be detected and blur the image. You can use a tripod with a phone adapter if you have one. That is the best way to keep the image sharp. If not, hold the phone against a solid object while making the exposure. If you use an iPhone with iOS 14, your iPhone detects movement when you're trying to capture a photo, you can align the crosshairs in the frame to help you reduce motion and improve the shot. To interrupt a Night Mode photo mid-capture rather than waiting for the capture to finish, just tap the stop button below the slider.

Resolution

If your intention is to only look at your images on your phone screen or a computer monitor then an image resolution of 72 dpi is adequate and will allow fitting more images on a memory device. If you intend to ever print any of your photos 8” x 10” size or larger, you will need a resolution of 240 – 300 dpi. If you are using an iPhone 12 or newer, in Settings/Camera/Format you will see a choice for Apple ProRAW. This is a high-resolution mode that will provide all the detail you need for a great large-size print. It is a large file size and will need to be directly downloaded and not mailed from your phone. It is definitely worth doing for that special catch image!

If you want to play with more editing techniques, there are a number of apps you can add to your phone for image editing. One that I use is called Snapseed. It is free and easy to use.

This has been enough technical stuff to consume—now it’s time for you to be creative and try some new things out! It's all worth it to produce a special image of a once-in-a-lifetime catch.

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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