How to Take Honest, High-Quality Photos with Your iPhone

Casey Lesser
May 25, 2018 5:53PM

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Brooklyn-based portrait photographer Aundre Larrow seeks to convey truth in his images—be it in a personal project capturing New Yorkers on the G train, or a commissioned campaign on the die-hard fans of the Golden State Warriors.

“Photography is painting with light,” Larrow said during a workshop on honest photography at the recent Adobe 99U conference in New York, where he was finishing up his time as an Adobe Creative Resident. “It’s not that it’s the original visual medium—obviously, there’s drawing and painting—but now, mostly thanks to our phones, it’s the most pervasive.” And because it’s become so easy to take photographs today, “we now have a responsibility to create responsibly,” he added.

With a degree in journalism, Larrow has developed expertise in portrait photography through shooting people since he was 15 years old, from college basketball games to editorial work, and collaborations with brands like American Express and events like New York Fashion Week. Larrow emphasized the need to take honest photography—pictures that don’t rely on editing or retouching and portray people as they really are. After attending Larrow’s workshop at 99U, we caught up with the photographer to learn more about how to take thoughtful, beautiful images with an iPhone. Here, we share his top tips.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.


It all starts with light.

“The first and primary thing you have to focus on is light,” Larrow said. And the first question you should ask yourself is: “Where is the light coming from?” Once you’ve located the light source, be it the sun or an overhead lamp, situate your subject in as even light as possible.

“If you’re taking photos of someone in the middle of the day, the sun’s gonna be really strong and there will be sharp shadows,” he explained. In this scenario, he said, look for an area where the light is the same—even if that means positioning your subject in a shadow. “It seems silly, but wherever the light is even and flat, that’s where you want to be. Your whole goal as a photographer is to make an environment that best lets you illuminate the story you’re trying to tell.” Additionally, be sure not to overwhelm your subject with light by backlighting them (i.e. situating them in front of a light source).

Lock your exposure.

It’s important to take the best image you can while you’re shooting, rather than relying on editing tools and filters later on. Larrow doesn’t advise using the iPhone’s HDR (high dynamic range) setting or flash unless you absolutely need to (see below), but he does recommend locking the exposure on your iPhone camera to maintain better control of the light while you’re shooting.

Here’s how to lock the exposure: Before you take a photo in the iPhone camera app, press and hold the part of the screen where you’d like the focus of the image to be. A small square will pop up, and a lock icon will appear. Then, you can scroll up or down to adjust the exposure, making the image brighter or darker. Wherever the exposure is locked, that part of the photograph is going to be exposed most accurately.

This helps with portraits, particularly when you’re trying to capture skin tones correctly, but it also applies while shooting objects and landscapes. If you’re taking a picture of a sunset over a city skyline, for example, you should lock the exposure on the sky or the center of the sunset. This may darken the buildings in the photo, but you can scroll up on the screen to brighten the image slightly and get some of the details back.

It’s always better to get the exposure correct when taking the picture, rather than fixing it with editing, Larrow said. “But if for some reason you [cannot get the lighting right and] have to edit it later, whatever application you use, it’s always better to take a photo that’s too dark than one that’s too bright,” he explained. “Once it’s too bright, you can’t get the details back in it.”

Say you’re taking photos of landscapes on vacation, and the lighting isn’t ideal. Larrow said in this case, it’s best to use the exposure to take one photo that’s a little too dark, one that’s a little too bright, and one in the middle. “From there, you can kind of get a sense of what the best version of that image is,” he said. If it’s the middle of the day and it’s very bright, this is one case where you may want to use HDR, which is intended to capture greater detail.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Shoot the way you see.

The first step in taking honest photography, Larrow explained, is making a smooth transition from reality to your camera screen. “Your whole goal is to communicate a visual language seamlessly and easily,” he said. This means being conscious of what you see with your eyes and what you see through the camera lens, and making sure that those two things are as similar as possible.

Larrow said that the iPhone camera was designed for scenarios like group photos of friends and family or a shot of the Eiffel Tower, and as such, the lens is wider than your eye. It’s up to you to make sure the image is framing what’s most important, in an accurate way.

He emphasized that you should take as many photos as you need and look at them before moving on, “so you can be aware of what the image needs,” rather than relying on filters or editing tools later.

Make sure your images tell the stories you want to convey.

One of the biggest mistakes Larrow sees people making with iPhone photos has to do with a lack of patience. “People know what they want to capture, and their desire to capture it can be stronger than their desire to take time to make sure they got it the way they wanted to,” he said. “I would say whatever image you’re taking, be really calm with it and [be] aware of how you compose it, how all the factors go into telling a story about the image.”

Larrow noted that while it’s easier to convey things like a night out with your friends, if you’re trying to take a photo of a great glass of wine you’re drinking on a rooftop, it’s going to take a bit more work to make sure the image feels genuine and high quality. “I think it’s just a question of taking the time and being more patient in the process of capturing the best image,” he said.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Capture your subjects in their best light.

When shooting people, “the goal is to make the person look most like themselves,” Larrow explained. If your light is only coming from one source and it’s strong, he said, the first thing to do is to move the person so that more of their face is being covered by the light.

You should make sure your subject’s best side is in the light and aimed towards the camera (if they don’t know which side, you can sometimes go by whichever side they part their hair on). Their body should be angled towards the camera, not straight-on (which makes them appear heavier).

“You always want to shoot someone from above and not below,” Larrow explained. “If you shoot below—think about The Blair Witch Project,” he laughed, emphasizing that shooting at an upward angle is generally not flattering to the subject. If the person you’re shooting has softer features, he added, you may want to increase the shadow a little bit to add more definition to their face.

If you’re shooting babies or pets, the best time to take a photograph is in the middle of the day when natural light is brightest, since they don’t necessarily sit still. Taking a picture of a pet, Larrow said, is “not very different from when you take a picture of a loved one—you know that person or thing really well, and over time you get more comfortable and can read how they’re gonna react, and that helps you take their portrait more easily.”

Use portrait mode (and what to do if your phone doesn’t have it).

Portrait mode—a camera setting on the most recent iPhone models that have two lenses—makes it easier to take more detailed, true-to-life photographs of people. Larrow explained that portrait mode shoots with a shorter focal length, which allows for more accurate photos. “The idea is that focal length is the closest to what our eye sees normally,” he noted.

If you don’t have one of the newer iPhones and you’re taking a portrait, Larrow advises shooting your subject from several different angles and distances—2 feet, 4 feet, and 8 feet—to try out different focal lengths.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Aundre Larrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Only use flash as a last resort.

If you have to use flash—say it’s a special occasion with family, and you’re outdoors at night—Larrow advises being intentional about the distance between the subject and the camera. He noted that the flash on iPhones can cover a distance of 20 feet, but it’s not going to be very effective from that far away. And if you’re too close, the flash can blow out your subjects, particularly people with lighter skin tones. “Somewhere in the 3- to 5-foot range is where you want to be, and if you have a darker skin tone, getting a little bit closer might help,” he said.

If there’s one light source, like a lamp of a streetlight, “shooting so that the photographer’s back is to the light source is always helpful,” he explained, “because then, that light is going past the photographer onto the subject.”

If, for some reason, you’re in a place that’s pitch-black and you really want to take a group photo, you can have everyone turn on the flashlights on their phones to add additional light to the scene, Larrow said. The idea is to have as much light as possible, and for it to be as even as possible. “But I generally avoid flash unless absolutely necessary,” he added. “It’s not a big light and it’s generally everyone’s excuse to take terrible photos.”

“If you’re ever asking yourself, ‘Did I edit this too much?’ the answer is almost always yes.”

While it’s easy to overdo it, Larrow says it’s fine to use editing tools sparingly. He advises adjusting the white point and the black point to make the whitest white and the blackest black distinct in your image. Then, play with the highlights and shadows to make the brightest parts of an image stand out.

“If you’re going to use ‘clarity,’ don’t use ‘sharpen,’” he noted. What’s the difference between the two settings? Sharpen makes every single pixel in the image sharper, while clarity increases the contrast of the midtones, so it’s less harsh—but you still shouldn’t use it too liberally. If you feel the need to use sharpen, it probably means that your photo is out of focus, “and no amount of sharpen is going to fix that,” Larrow said, “so either embrace that it’s out of focus, or try taking the photo again.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.