iPhone photograpy …the follow up edition

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about using my iPhone on an overnight hike. Regrettably this did not result in Apple swiftly getting in touch and insisting that I take up a role with them as their official photographer. In fact all it did yield was some people asking me how I actually got the shots to look like they did.
Now clearly, only an idiot would give away their trade secrets…so here I go.

It’s not about the technology…no wait…it is!

Earlier this year I upgraded from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 12 Pro. Now I can promise you that if you have an older phone, then the tips I’m going to give you will help you get better photos…but I also know that if I had taken these photos on my old phone, they wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as good. And besides, the battery would only have lasted for the first 35 minutes of the hike.
Composition and technique help…but so does millions of dollars of Research and Development! So as with most things in photography, the more money you throw at your equipment, the more people say ‘How did you get that photo?!’
But telling people you can take better photos by dropping $1,200 on a phone seems like the sort of advice that inevitably leads to a global financial crisis (albeit one that is beautifully captured in photos on Instagram), so here are some tips that won’t cost you a cent!

Light bro

We’ve all had that experience of incredible light. Whether it’s the last fading light of a summer’s day, or the first golden rays in the morning, or that incredible light that comes after a big rain storm. You can take pretty much any photo in that light and it will look amazing. Why? Because the light is being diffused. Whether it’s because the sun is just rising or setting and so is only hitting you with about 10% of its light…or because the light is being reflected around by moisture in the air. The result is beautiful soft light.
The antihesis of this is pretty much any photo taken in Australia from 10am – 5pm, where the brutal sun just a makes everything look flat and unispired.
So the first step to getting a great shot on your phone is to get up nice and early when that light is at its subtle best.

‘I love the look of Pano mode in the morning!’

Setting the exposure

If you have your phone with you…bwah ha ha! Just kidding. Of course you have your phone with you! So seeing as you have your phone with you, load up the camera and find a shot where there is something bright (a window or light), and something dark (perhaps an open cupboard or shaded area), and then put your finger on either of these spots. When you put your finger on the bright part, you should see everything else get a little darker…and when you put your finger on the darker part, you should see that the everything gets brighter (to the point where the bright part gets really bright).
I know what you’re thinking ‘Cool story Chris…but how does this help me?’
Well, the reason this is happening is because normally your phone is looking at a scene and trying to find the right balance so that the bright parts aren’t too bright and the dark bits aren’t too dark. It’s a bit like making a decision by committee, you don’t come up with the best result…just the one that people hate the least. When you put your finger on the screen you are telling your camera ‘This is the part that I want you to get right…and everything else can just work around it!’ So for example with this shot, it’s the colour in the sky that draws you in.

More cloud…less guano.

But if I had just taken this photo as the phone wanted to take it, it would have tried to capture the detail in the shadows on the log in front, or the hills, and so would have added a lot of light…and in doing so, would have made the sky a white mess. So I put my finger on the sky, told the phone that this is what I want it to get right, and this is the result.
Tragically I have missed out on highlighting the beauty of the birdshit on the log…but these are the sacrifices you have to make as a photographer.

Similarly if you’re ever at a gig or a concert and someone is up on stage with a spotlight on them, press on the screen where their face is so that the phone knows to expose for that and it will make the background really dark, but have them perfectly lit.
There was a distinct lack of spotlights on the hike we did…but there some burnt out tree stumps…so exposing for the person’s face in the full light, made the blackened stump fall away to a perfect black background.

Stand in this burnt out stump son…Daddy’s taking a photo.


I think we’ve all had the experience of walking into an incredible natural scene, being overwhelmed and taking a photo…then thinking “Wait…that looks a lot more shit than I remember!” I call this the ‘Every phone photo ever taken of the moon’ phenomenon.
My non-scientific belief is that the experience you have is of feeling humbled by all that you’re taking in, but your phone can’t replicate that feeling (an iPhone 12 makes you feel many things…but ‘humble’ is not one of them).
My photographic approach to dealing with this is wonderfully contradictory!
First and foremost you need something in the foreground to give the grandeur behind it some perspective.

At the same time…going for the ‘Pano’ approach allows you to take in a larger portion of the scene, while getting rid of a lot of the sky and ground (I think as humans we can see a bit of sky and a bit of the ground and imagine how the rest of the sky and ground looked). Unless the sky or the ground is the part that’s interesting, focus the viewer’s eyes on what you want them to be looking at.

Also, speaking as someone who once had to ‘stitch’ 3 photos together in Photoshop (before this was an automated process)…the fact that you can just wave your camera around a scene and your phone will turn it into something comprehensible, is as much a modern-miracle as any life-saving drug!

Get low

We spend most of our lives walking around and looking at things from between 5-6 ft high. So if you want your photo to get people’s attention, try shooting from a different height. In particular…get low…especially if there’s water around for a reflection!

Crystal clear reflections

Getting high can also help your photography…but that feels like a different blog.


This may come as a shock…but I didn’t buy a special edition iPhone to take my black and white shots…I actually converted them to black and white in post-production! Similarly, I will almost always adjust the contrast, or pull back the exposure, or raise the shadows, or add a vignette to a photo before I publish them.
The person looking at the photo doesn’t get to smell what I was smelling or hear what I was hearing…so I’ll be damned if I don’t try my best to engage them visually!
All of these options built into your phone, and you can ‘undo’ any change you don’t like. So start experimenting and see what you can do!

Straight out of the phone
With some tweaking

If you have access to something like Adobe’s ‘Lightroom’, then you can have even more fun working on your photos…just try to get past the ‘add heaps of ‘clarity‘ to everything’ stage as quickly as possible. Like ‘instant noodles’ and ‘undercut’ haircuts, we all have to go through that stage…but it’s nothing to be proud of.

So there you go…some free tips on how to raise your phone photography game…for everything else, just drop a distressing amount of money on a new phone!

Up the creek…with paddles

The best camera is the phone you have with you.

There’s an old photography adage that ‘the best camera you have, is the camera you have with you’. In other words, it’s no use bemoaning the fact that you don’t have your $5,000 camera as a Yeti rides past on a Segway…you need to use whatever you have at your disposal to capture this moment!
For the last 10 years this ‘camera you have with you’ has been a phone camera, and over the last 10 years the phone camera has evolved from ‘if you squint you can kinda see what I was trying to capture’ to ‘this is only half as bad as I would have done with my proper camera’. But last weekend I went for an overnight hike with my family at Wilson’s Prom, and my iPhone got promoted to ‘this is the only camera I need!’
So I thought I’d write a quick blog post about how it felt to take my proper camera gear with me…and never take it out of its case.

‘So I just push this button?’

There is a very specific feeling of dread that happens when someone offers to take a photo with your camera. Invariably this will be when you’re taking a group shot, and someone will say ‘Hey, do you want me to take the photo?’ Sadly, societal norms mean that you can’t respond by saying ‘That depends…are you going to f*&# this up?’ So instead you will switch all your settings to ‘auto’ and say ‘Just press this button. No, not that button…this button’. Then they will hold the camera at arm’s length as if it’s a feral cat that’s trying to maul them to death…will press a button other than the one that you told them to…will frame the photo so that it’s only your upper-bodies and 3kms of sky above you…and when you look at the photo, while everyone else is smiling, you have a look of ‘WTAF are you doing?!’ on your face.
But put a phone in their hands, and people will happily snap a series of in focus, nicely framed images where you are actually smiling…like this one!

About to embark on our first family overnight hike

‘OK guys…just hang on a second, Dad’s just going to take a photo’

You had best believe that any time this sentence is uttered…the response is a series of groans.
Worst of all, these groans are 100% justified. Because the translation of the sentence is actually ‘Hang on for five minutes while Dad breaks any momentum that we’d generated so that he can unpack his camera, then decide he needs to change lenses, then get increasinly angry as no-one is able to re-create the happy scene that had inspired him to take out his camera five minutes ago’. But with a phone, you can simply take out the camera as you walk and get the shot.

On the way to Sealer’s Cove
On the boardwalk pt 1
On the boardwalk pt 2
Bowl of porridge…and a bowl of coffee. Camping done right!
Zero fear of wading through water to take the shot.

Yes, but Chris, I’m an artist!!

Of course you are! And you will not be able to take epic landscape shots that you can blow up and print for your wall…or take tack-sharp portraits…but DAMN you can get pretty close!!!

Wide-angled black and white. Would I have loved to have had a dancer creating a similar shadow next to this branch? Yes…but dancers were very thin on the ground at Sealer’s Cove
Pano mode in the morning
Crystal clear reflections
Trees and reflections of trees
More early morning shots. Pano mode with the wide-angle
The old ‘get them to stand inside a burnt-out log and look towards the sky’ shot.
The morning sun was breaking through the foliage in this one spot, so exposing the shot for that bright light made everything else fall off into darkness…or I carried a softbox and strobe for the entire hike in the hope of getting this shot. You decide.

Photos on the run

There may be times when I decide that it’s worth carrying the extra weight of my proper camera on a hike or bike ride…but there is NO chance I’m carrying a camera when I’m out for a run. Because I simply don’t need to make that any harder than it already is. But at the same time, I tend to do most of my running in the early morning as the sun comes up, and there have been many times that I’d wished I had a decent camera with me. Now I’ve got the best of both worlds. Now I can carry my phone, listen to podcasts, and if hypothetically speaking, there were an incredible sunrise…or a wallaby…or I see that the rest of family are about to paddle of up a river…I can take a shot!

Up the creek…with paddles
Pretty sure I’m being watched
Sunrise over Tidal River
Never pass up an opportunity to get a photo of a wombat

So there you go. I don’t intend this to be an advertorial for any phone in particular…nor am I about to sell my Fuji gear. But what a time to be alive when I can get these sorts of photos out of the same device that I can also ignore your phone calls on!

Uncle Jack & the iPhone

5 years ago I was lucky enough to work on a video shoot with Uncle Jack Charles. It was for an organisation called Malpa who are working to address the vast inequality in health between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. My job was basically to find a suitable location for the shoot (Malpa are based in Sydney, so they needed some local Melbourne knowledge). Never one to pass up an opportunity, I also bought along my camera to grab some stills during the shoot. I got some shots that I was really happy with…but this one haunts me to this day:

So close…but just missing the focus on the eyes.

This was taken literally as Uncle Jack was heading out through the house we were filming in. There was a light that just illuminated his face as we were walking and I quickly grabbed the shot. It wasn’t until I got it into Lightroom that I could see that I had hit the focus on his forehead instead of his eyes…I think I could have retired from photography knowing that I had peaked if I’d just got those eyes in focus!!!

Thankfully that sort of thing doesn’t stick in my head, or keep me awake at night, or re-surface any time I look back at these photos. So when Malpa got in contact again and explained that they needed to film Uncle Jack for a TVC, and that due to the ever changing COVID situation they didn’t think they could travel down for it, and so would like me to do it…I jumped at the chance.
I mean, had I Directed a TVC before? No.
Did I have a camera that could shoot 4K? Also, no.
Even if I could get a camera that shoots 4K, could I be trusted to shoot pictures and record audio at a quality that was acceptable for TV broadcast? No…again.
But, did this provide me with my best opportunity to get an in focus portrait of Uncle Jack Charles? Yes! So I took the gig.
Here’s how it went.

Location, location, location!

Malpa had said that they wanted a ‘grungy, Melbourne laneway’ for the location…but with $0 budget, there was no way I was going to find a cool laneway that we could section off for our use, and any other laneway that we tried to just rock up and shoot in ran the risk of traffic noise, people in their backyards, and of course if it was raining on the day, then we were stuffed. I also had some concerns about getting a man in his late 70s to walk along uneven cobblestones while looking to the camera delivering lines (the thought of the headline ‘Man who took out-of-focus photo of Uncle Jack Charles 5 years ago, now forces him to have a knee reconstruction after laneway mishap’ really didn’t appeal). But I found a few options near our house that had potential.

Grungy laneway option

Then on my morning run one day, I found a location that offered both ‘native bush’ and some graffitied walls that could offer ‘urban grunge’…and more importantly ‘place to film if it’s raining’. I pitched the idea to Malpa and they were happy with it. So I now had two locations…this was going to be great!

Under a bridge…
Native bush option

As part of my rigourous pre-production, I headed back to the location in the mid-arvo, as this was when we were likely to be filming, to see if the light was ok. It turned out that there a significant difference in light between 8am when I had taken the photos…and 3pm when we returned. It was almost as if the sun had moved and become brighter over the course of the day…weird.
Unfortunately this meant that the graffiti just near the bush location was out of action as it was in full-shadow and was too dark. But if we just headed over the bridge (about 200m) and down to underpass on the other side, there were some great options.
We had two locations again…this was going to be great!

Timing’s everything

I got in contact with Uncle Jack to sort out a date for filming. Unfortunately, the first day that was an option for him was when I was going to be down at Warrnambool with the family, so I proposed a few dates in between when we got back from Warrnambool and when we headed to Sandy Point, but neither of these worked for him. Malpa were hoping to have the TVC’s ready for broadcast from Australia/Invasion Day, so our timelines were getting a bit tight. So I decided that if push came to shove, I could head back to Melbourne from Sandy Point to do the filming, and the return to Sandy the next day. The only day that didn’t work was Tuesday as that was when Josh and I were going to Tooraddin airfield for flying lessons, so I said to Uncle Jack “I can do any day after Tuesday”…and he said “Tuesday is great! Lock it in!”…and I thought ‘I think he’s messing with me!…but he’s somebody who has served time in Pentridge with Chopper…AND has worked with Hugh Jackman…I’m not going to risk it!’
So it was agreed that Josh and I would drive from Sandy Point to Tooraddin, have our flying lessons, then drive to Melbourne to film in the late arvo. I wasn’t going to be doing the edit, so I could just upload the footage overnight and we could head back to Sandy the next day.
Josh had been at the shoot 5 years ago…and I was keen for him to help out on this one as well.

Josh and Uncle Jack in 2016
Josh, Katie and Uncle Jack in 2021

Fuji comes through

I figured I was probably never going to get another chance to take some photos of Uncle Jack, and so decided to roll the dice and get in contact with Fujifilm Australia to see if I could borrow one of their Medium Format GFX cameras again. Against all the odds, and indeed against their better judgment, the magnificent Neil at Fujifilm made it happen! So I now had a confirmed time and location with an Australian National Treasure, a graffitied location that was going to make for an epic portrait, AND a medum format camera to take it with!
This was going to be great!!!

Can we shoot this on an iPhone?

Unfortunately the date I’d locked in with Uncle Jack didn’t work for the DOP (Director of Photography…cameraperson) that I had hoped to work with. This meant that I would have to shoot the video, and seeing as I didn’t have a camera that shot 4K (one of the requirements for the final product), I was going to have to hire a camera.
Now I CAN shoot on professional cameras, but in much the same way as I CAN eat an entire Tiramisu. Just because I can…doesn’t mean I should ( while both will lead to an amazing story to tell after the event…in reality, they will also lead to very high blood pressure, and no sleep).
If you’ve ever seen a film crew, you may ask yourself ‘What are ALL those people doing? Surely they don’t need all of them!’ And 90% of the time that’s true…but it’s in those critical 10% of times where you need a dedicated professional to get the best camera shot, or realise that that there was a background noise that ruined the take, or someone to say ‘you missed a line of dialogue here’, or to realise that the shot was a little out of focus…that can make a difference between the success and failure of your entire project.
With this in mind, I was a little wary of being the DOP, Director, Script supervisor, and sound recordist…especially if I was using a camera I didn’t know. So I asked to hire a friend’s camera that shot 4K and that I had shot on before…but promptly managed to miss this by a day.
So I suddenly had a script, an amazing actor, locations, a fancy stills camera…but no video camera that could shoot 4K!
Unless of course, I looked to use my new iPhone. After all, it shot 4K, did 10 bit colour, and had amazing autofocus & stabilisation. If I put my non-existent budget towards hiring some audio gear, and promoted Josh from ‘general dogsbody’ to ‘audio recordist’…and roped Katie into doing the clapper-board so that we could sync the audio, and using a reflector to bounce in light…then we might be able to make this work!
At the same time, who the hell turns up to a TVC shoot with a renowned Australian actor and says ‘Look, I’m a trained professional who clearly knows what he’s doing…now if you could just look at my phone and deliver your lines, that would be great!’?
So I did a LOT of YouTube research and eventually convinced myself that I could get the quality that I needed out of the iPhone…and acknowledged that one thing I do bring to a video or photo shoot is the ability to get people to relax and just be themselves. Could I do that while I was also trying work out f-stops and shutter speeds, and make sure I was in focus, and ensure I wasn’t moving the camera too much? Probably not.
Plus, if everything went to shit, I would at least have my phone handy to call my DOP and blame them for everything that had happened…or use Google maps to find the nearest deep hole I could throw myself into.

The shoot

Josh and I left Sandy Point at about 9.30am and arrived at Tooraddin airfield in time for our flights. Any day where flying a plane for the first time is the second most scary thing you will be doing that day, certainly makes for an interesting life.

Maverick and Goose…in that order

We then drove back to Melbourne, picked up the audio gear, learnt how to use it, waited for Katie to finish work, then drove to the location. On the way there I saw someone driving a scooter with grey hair billowing from under the helmet…as we drew alongside, I realised that it was Uncle Jack. The man knows how to make an entrance!

Once we are all at the location, we did a full run through of the script with a static camera…then did a variation with some camera moves, and took some stills.
We didn’t really have enough to make a strong TVC with, but we still had our hero location under the bridge to do, so everything was going to plan.
But as we were walking to the next location, I realised that 78 year old men don’t walk as fast 45 year old men who are running on adrenaline and anticipation. By the time we had passed the midway point between location one and two (the bridge between the two locations), I was starting to realise just how insane my idea of getting a shot from the top of nearby hill was. By the time we had crossed the bridge and I had explained that we just had to walk down the hill to the underside of the bridge…Uncle Jack said that he didn’t think he could make it down there.
So what could I do?! Explain to a man who had fought against great injustice and who had overcome greater barriers than I could ever understand, yet was still willing to donate his time for a charity…that it was really important to my sense of artistic closure that he should suck it up and press on? Or come up with an alternative location and realise that it’s not all about me?
So we improvised a second location…and it looked like balls…and then we filmed on the bridge as another option, but there was too much wind, and if we looked one way we had too much sun behind Uncle Jack…and if we faced the other way, we could see a housing development, that sort of ruined the vibe. But we got it done, and when the video came back from the editor, you’d never know there was a problem in the first place. Why? Because Uncle Jack Charles is a freaking genius, and the level of energy he brought to his performance could have carried any TVC…and because I wasn’t a jerk and insist he worked an Olympic distance cross-country event into a video shoot, he still returns my emails!

So what have I learnt?

  • Always take on projects that challenge (and scare) you
  • Plan meticulously…but make sure you can improvise if you have to
  • Trust the technology and play to your strengths
  • Fujifilm Australia really do support their photographers
  • Katie and Josh are the best video crew you could hope for
  • Uncle Jack Charles is a genuinely amazing person, and I’m incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with him

The TVC will be on SBS from today…and here are some stills from the day: