Lesson 41: iPhortraits

We talked about focus long ago in Lesson 4.  One of the things I mentioned back then was that because the iPhone has a very small sensor, it tends to keep a lot of stuff in your photo in focus, even when things are far apart from the front to the back of the scene.

Sometimes, like when you’re creating a portrait of a person, we don’t want everything to be in focus.  Sometimes, we just want the one main subject to be in focus.

Unfortunately, the one setting that has the most impact on whether everything will be in focus or not cannot be changed when using an iPhone.  Instead, we have to find ways to trick the iPhone into giving us the kind of focus we want.

We actually did this in some previous lessons.  In Lesson 30, we used Hipstamatic with the Tinto 1882 lens to blur everything except the face in the photo.  In Lesson 37, we used a macro lens attachment to get very close to small subjects and only a tiny little bit of the subject was in focus.

However, what to do if you don’t want to use a Hipstamatic effect or shoot macro?

There are only a few things that will help create a similar effect when you take the picture, but there are also editing tricks that will help create the blur you want.

When you’re shooting, the closer you are to your subject and the farther your subject is from the background, the more blurred the background will look.  To really emphasize your subject, having a dark background with no bright colors and relatively bright lighting on your subject will also help separate them from the background.  This can get pretty fancy pretty quickly, so let’s take one simple example.

I want to take a photo of my husband outside.  I place him so his back is to the sun.  This creates a rim of light in his hair that will help separate him from the background.  I also place him so that at the angle I’m shooting at will show mostly dark trees in the background.  Now, I get pretty close to my husband to eliminate other background stuff from sneaking into the frame.  However, I don’t want to get so close that I make his nose look bigger.  This is a good time to use the 2x telephoto attachment we talked about in Lesson 39.  It will help me fill the frame with my husband without distorting his face.  It will also make the distant background more blurred.  Compare the two photos side-by-side–can you see how his nose starts to distort and the shape of his face changes when I get too close to him with the default lens?

Now, the next challenge is that his face is in shadow.  I can do 2 things about that.  First, I can take off the telephoto attachment and use the iPhone built-in flash like in this photo:


Camera Awesome Flash on - notice nose
Camera Awesome Flash on – notice nose

By the way, in case you’re wondering what happens if you leave the 2X Telephoto attachment on with the flash, you get scary looking bright circles of light that may indicate paranormal activity:

2x telephoto with flash left on

A second option is to find a way to reflect some light into his face either using a white poster board or an actual photographer’s reflector.  Since my husband was already squinting, I opted for trying to fix it using Snapseed, similar to what we did in yesterday’s lesson.  Here are instructions for the edits I made:

Your Assignment:  Try using the 2X Telephoto attachment with your iPhone to see if you can create better separation between your subject and the background.  Compare the effect to getting closer to the subject without the 2X Telephoto.  Also try standing back a bit and using the flash, then cropping the photo to get a more zoomed in look.  Which method is the most flattering to your subject?  Have you noticed changes in their face shape based on how close you were with the iPhone?  Are any of those changes flattering?

Lesson 39: 2X

This is not a lesson about shirt sizes.  Instead, we’re continuing our progress using the Photojojo lens attachments with the iPhone.  Yesterday, we looked at the wide angle attachment.  The day before, we used the macro attachment.  Today, let’s take a look at the 2x Telephoto attachment.

This is what it looks like up close:

Telephoto Lens

If you either have reading glasses handy or don’t need them, you can see the edge of the lens is labeled “telephoto” to help you tell it apart from the other lenses in the kit.  If you’ve already adhered the metal ring around the built-in lens on your iPhone, the magnet in the 2x Telephoto lens will hold the lens in place on the ring.  If not, refer to the instructions that came with the lens kit for more info.

We previously used a different telephoto lens attachment in Lesson 25 to take pictures of the moon.  That one is 8x telephoto (or 12x for an iPhone 5).  So, you might ask, why would I want 2x if I have 8x (or 12x)?  Well, the answer is simple.  Sometimes, 8x (or 12x) is too much.  Bigger is not always better.

Let’s take the example of being in a park where you want to get a picture of a spider.  The spider is close enough that using the 8x telephoto wouldn’t allow the entire spider to fit in the frame, but far enough away that with no zoom, the spider gets lost in the flowers.

Let’s consider the macro attachment.  You might wonder why you wouldn’t use that for the spider as well.  There are three considerations:  1) How big is the spider?  2) Will the spider hold still while you manipulate the lens inches (or less above it)?  3) Will you scream and throw the phone if the spider suddenly moves while you’re that close?

The 2x zoom gets you in tighter without having to get within grabbing distance.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of my spider with and without the 2x zoom (uncropped):

And a second one, just for fun.  By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, even with the 2x zoom, I still jumped when the spider suddenly ran to the top of its web.  It’s a big spider.

Your Assignment:

Attach the 2x telephoto lens to your camera.  Look for subjects where you’d like to get closer without getting physically closer.  Notice how 2x sounds like a lot, but really only brings things in slightly closer.  Can you use the 2x telephoto attachment to fill the frame with your subject from further away?  Did you get any great photos of critters that can be hard to get close to like spiders or butterflies?

Lesson 26: The iPhone and Wildlife

One of the challenges with the iPhone is trying to capture photos of wildlife where you can actually see the wildlife in question.  In yesterday’s lesson, we looked at using the photojojo telephoto lens to get 8 to 12x magnification optically.  You might think this is a really great answer for wildlife.

Using the telephoto attachment for wildlife shooting introduces several additional challenges.  First, it’s hard to hold the phone steady enough to get a photo of a wild animal with the telephoto lens attached.  Any shake is magnified proportionally to the magnification of the lens.  Second, you have to focus manually, which can be very tricky if you’re trying to follow a moving animal.  And third, if you don’t have the attachment already on the phone, there’s a good chance the wildlife will have left by the time you get it attached.

I am continuing to experiment and research what other people are doing for wildlife, but so far, I’ve found two patterns:  they are shooting subjects they can get up close to without the subject moving.  Or, the subject is really big.  Like buffalo and moose big.

This morning, I managed to sneak up on a Great Blue Heron who was hanging out by the side of a bike path that runs along the Tennessee River.  The secret to sneaking up on a heron is to start by getting as close as possible on your bike.

For heron who hang out by bike paths, they are so used to bikes going by that they assume you’re not a threat when you’re on one.  Once you’re off your bike, don’t look at the heron.  Get your iPhone unlocked and the app of your choice ready to go.  Walk sideways or backwards towards the heron, turning just enough to get the framing you want and snap.  Walk closer and snap again.  Keep this up until the heron starts to look nervous.  Then, back away.  By the way, heron are known for stabbing at people’s eyes with their incredibly sharp beaks when threatened, so keep your eyes well out of reach!

The heron I approached this morning was pretty patient.  I managed to try two different films in Hipstamatic with the same lens (Tinto 1884) we used in lesson 24 as well as the Camera Awesome app.  By the time he started looking nervous, I was within 10 feet (and wishing I had eye protection).

I chose the Tinto 1884 lens because I wanted the blurred effect that helps isolate the subject.  I started with the D-type tintype film because I like the look with the bridge in the background.  However, because you can’t select the focus point with that film, the heron came out blurry unless I nearly centered the heron, which just didn’t create a pleasing composition:

By switching to the Ina’s 1969 film, I was able to select the focus and get a better composition.  To select the focus in Hipstamatic, place your finger on the screen where you want to focus and hold it there for a second.  If you look closely, you’ll see a motion in the viewfinder that simulates the turning of a lens to focus.  Don’t tap–if you tap, it takes a picture.

Compare the photo on the left, taken with the D-type film that doesn’t allow for focus selection, to the photo on the right, where I was able to select the focus:

As you can see, while the D-type film may create an interesting effect for the scene, the mis-placed focus makes it less pleasing over all than the version using Ina’s 1969 film with the heron in focus.

Finally, here’s the photo I took with the Camera Awesome app (no editing):

Camera Awesome
Camera Awesome

Not bad for an iPhone in low light!

Your Assignment:  Go to a local park that has a body of water.  There are bound to be frogs, water birds, turtles, and spiders.  Water birds are far easier than song birds, by the way.  They are usually much larger and they like to sit still for endless periods of time because they’re used to watching for fish.

Try sneaking up on one, taking photos as you work your way closer.  How close do you have to get for the photo to work?  How big was your subject?  If you spot any turtles, these are great subjects as well–they move slowly if at all.  Spiders can also make great subjects, but we’ll be talking more about those in a later lesson when we use the photojojo macro attachment mentioned in yesterday’s assignment.  You might also try getting photos with your telephoto attachment if you bought one.  Were you able to get interesting photos with visible wildlife?  Since the iPhone lens is wide angle, you’ll want to apply everything you’ve learned about inclusion and exclusion to make your photo as interesting as possible.  Did you get anything really good?

Lesson 25: Surprise! It’s Telephoto

Today’s lesson is a surprise lesson.  A surprise to me, that is.  I wasn’t planning on doing a lesson on attachments for your iPhone for a couple of weeks, but the opportunity presented itself with a full moonrise.  I am a fan of shooting the full moon rising over the horizon.  The iPhone is not particularly great at achieving good moon shots, largely because its built-in lens is very wide and getting good shots of the moon requires zooming in.

Since the iPhone cannot zoom in optically (only digitally, which will degrade your photos), some very clever people have come up with external attachments that go over your lens to give it some zoom (or should I say “zoom, zoom”?).  Photojojo.com carries such attachments at pretty remarkable prices.  The telephoto attachment comes with a case and mini-tripod for your phone for $35.  You can order it here if you’re interested.

While it’s a pretty ridiculous looking contraption, it fits in your pocket, which is hard to argue with.

This is what it looks like in its tripod:

Photojojo 8x telephoto attachment for iPhone 4S
Photojojo 8x telephoto attachment for iPhone 4S

You put the phone in the case, screw the lens into the case, and voila, you have 8x the focal length for an iPhone 4/4s and 12x the zoom for an iPhone 5.  Pretty cool.  While this will not achieve the same quality of photograph that you get with a high-end DSLR and telephoto lens securely clamped into a high-quality tripod, it’s a $35 attachment that fits in your pocket.  Compare that to the $5000 you could easily spend on a DSLR, lens, and tripod that you then have to lug around.  Once again, pretty hard to argue with that.  (Although, you won’t get the workout you’d get with the DSLR arrangement.)

To take pictures of the moon, you’ll want to use the tripod and have a stable place to set it where your phone will not, say, fall off a balcony and smash to pieces in the event the tripod tips over.  The tripod is not the most stable thing I’ve ever used, but hey, it also fits in your (back) pocket.

The lens requires manually focusing–your iPhone cannot focus automatically for you with the lens attached.  If you use glasses for reading, make sure you have them!  It really sucks to take a bunch of photos and then see them on a big screen and realize they’re all out of focus.

One of the effects of the lens attachment is called “vignetting.”  This means there may be some dark areas around the corners and edges of your photo.  You can crop the photo after you take it to both get some more zoom and get rid of the vignetting if you don’t like it.  Some people like it just fine–in fact, many photo editing tools include an option to add vignetting to a photo, so that’s another option.

Here’s what my original image looked like using the Camera Awesome app with the Photojojo 8x telephoto lens with the iPhone 4S:


I did some adjusting to make the colors look more like what I saw and cropped to put the moon in the middle of the frame, eliminate the vignetting, and get a little more detail of the moon:



While I didn’t get some of the detail I wanted, it’s a far better photo of the moon than I’ve ever gotten with the naked iPhone.  Here’s an example I took a while back that includes the moon–it looks more like a big star without the telephoto attachment:

Your Assignment:  Decide if you are willing to spend $35 for an attachment you may end up not using much.  If so, go to Photojojo and order the telephoto lens.  While you’re there, you may want to consider ordering another set of attachment lenses that I’ll be doing lessons on in the next couple of weeks.  That set includes a wide angle, macro, 2x telephoto, and fisheye attachment for $45.  It’s a fun set of attachments, but now we’re talking $80, which is a pretty big investment for iPhone photos.  If you don’t want to spend the dough, don’t worry.

Whether you decide to order the attachments or not, check the time of the moonrise in your location.  Here’s a website that will help.  Assuming the night is clear enough, watch for the moon.  It may be late if there are hills, mountains, or buildings between you and your view of the horizon.  Watch carefully, sometimes haze at the horizon will prevent the moon from being visible until it gets a little higher in the sky.  It’s also harder to spot when moonrise is before sunset–the light of the moon may not be bright enough.

Once you spot the moon, try taking some photos of it over the landscape with your naked iPhone.  Try zooming in using two fingers and pulling them apart.  Notice the difference in the fuzziness in your image and the speckles that appear when you zoom in this way.  If you do get the telephoto attachment, try this again when the attachment arrives and compare.