14 iPhone Tips for Taking Better Facebook and Instagram Photos

By Melissa J. Perenson

Take better pictures for Facebook, Instagram, and more with these 14 tips on how to get the best results from your Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus camera.

Thanks to the smartphone in our pockets, photographing everything in our lives -- both the ordinary and the extraordinary -- has never been more accessible. And with platforms like Facebook and Instagram, we have instant platforms for sharing those photos. It's the golden age of photography.

Ready to up your game and make your pictures stand out from the crowd? Here are 10 tips for getting the best pictures you can from your iPhone. While some of these tips are specific to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, most of these will actually work on any phone.

Front and rear cameras of Apple's iPhone 6S

1. Pay attention to backgrounds

Busy backgrounds can be distracting, especially if you have a telephone pole coming out of your subject’s head, or used napkins on the table of your food shot. Take an extra moment to direct your image -- ask people to move around, or change your shooting angle to eliminate unwanted background elements. Shift things around on a table to get a cleaner shot.

A messy background

Messy background be gone

2. Keep an eye on the horizon

The iPhone’s built-in camera app has painfully few shooting options, but at least one happens to be incredibly valuable. Buried in Settings, Photos & Camera, you can enable grid lines that overlay a tic-tac-toe-like grid on your screen. That helps you shoot straight images, so your photos don't look like they were taken on a listing boat. Grid lines can also help you purposely skew your photos, to make angled shots that let you explore your creativity.

Guide lines make it easier to create balanced shots using the “Rule of Thirds,” a basic guideline for image composition. The points of intersection in the grid are generally the most effective spots to place your subject, as those are the areas where the human eye travels first. Images benefit from having your subject positioned off-center along one of the lines. Even when taking a landscape shot, avoid putting your horizon line dead center; instead, opt for putting the horizon line along the upper or lower guideline.

An example of the horizon in the top third of a photo for a pleasing composition.

With the horizon exactly in the middle, this is less interesting.

3. Lock your focus and exposure

Speaking of composition, most iPhones have the ability to lock the focus on a specific point in the scene, so you can maneuver the camera to achieve your desired composition.

Tap and hold your finger on your object of focus to engage the Auto-Focus lock. A focus box will pop up, as will an exposure adjustment to the left (see the sun? tap on that and then slide up and down to make that spot's exposure brighter, or darker). When the lock pops up on the top of the screen, you know the focus point has been locked, as has the exposure (if you made any adjustments).

Once you’ve set this, you can move the camera around to get a different composition—without affecting the exposure or the focus point. If you have locked the exposure, though, watch for the image suddenly getting too bright or too dark if you change the physical location. The lock will remain in place through multiple shots; to disengage it, just tap anywhere on the screen.

4. Set exposure manually

Unfortunately, the iPhone lacks the wealth of manual controls you'll find on most Android cameras. But you're not completely without tools, like the ability to set the exposure manually with your finger.

Usually, the exposure adjusts automatically based on where you tap on the screen, and that's often good enough. In tricky lighting though, you might want to manually take control of the exposure. Tap where you want to focus, then drag the sun (which appears to the right of the focus box) up or down to adjust the exposure.

If you tap and hold, the box and the exposure will become locked until you tap somewhere else on the screen.

5. Get more dynamic photos with Auto HDR

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography -- which combines shots with different exposure settings into a single composite image -- has earned a reputation as a niche pursuit, simply because the technique emphasized high contrast images with brilliant, hyper-realistic colors and detail. Oh, and when using a digital SLR, it's not particularly easy to do.

HDR combines multiple exposures to create the best overall composite image that makes great exposures by adding detail to dark shadows and preventing very bright highlights from over-exposing. This is a great way to exposure for a subject that’s standing in front of a bright window, for example.

By keeping HDR on Auto, the camera can adjust for tough-to-expose scenes by using HDR, when appropriate.

But phones like the iPhone changed that perspective by offering this mode as a one-tap way to also improve everyday photography. By using the iPhone's automatic HDR mode, it'll intelligently pick where it makes sense to use HDR for practical purposes, and when to avoid the mode because it won't add anything meaningful to the shot. To enable it, just tap HDR at the top of the camera app and choose Auto.

6. Use the flash sparingly

A flash is useful for adding light where there is none, of course. But most iPhones have a powerful LED flash that can often blow out image details and skew colors and skin tone. The camera’s lens has a relatively wide f/2.2 aperture, which means the camera can handle many low-light situations without injecting harsh, unnatural light.

Worse, flash photos often eliminate motion blur, but colors can appear off, the image will be unevenly lit, and details will be "blown out." If you have the time, experiment with shooting a flash photo -- and take a similar shot without.

Shadowy, unappealing flash photo

Even better: Carry a small LED light with you to shed extra light on your subject. You can buy a small light that attaches to the headphone port, or you can use a pocket-sized light for video and just hold it up to your subject. This trick can be handy for portraits of people, as well as for images of your artisanal pasta with organic kale.

7. Skip the digital zoom

We see it all the time: An iPhone held in the air, its operator pinching the screen to zoom into the action. While you may see the framing you want when you do this, the image itself will bitterly disappoint. That’s because the digital zoom doesn't magnify the picture, like you'd get from a traditional camera. Instead, it just enlarges all the pixels, killing clarity and detail in the process.

You’re better off taking a full resolution image, then cropping into the area you want after-the-fact. If you really need to use your iPhone for images that require a lens with longer reach, consider buying an accessory like the Olloclip iPhone Telephoto lens ($99.99), which delivers 2x zoom. Or, consider buying a point-and-shoot camera (read sister site Techwalla's Digital Camera Shopping 101).

The digital zoom creates a blurry photo with poor details.

The same photo, without zooming, is sharper.

8. Create animated Live Photos

Live Photos is a nifty feature that approximates the effect of animated GIF, but it's only available on the iPhone 6S and newer phones. Tap the non-descript circle in the center of the left navigation panel on the camera app to enable this feature. The camera snaps a still photo, and captures 1.5 seconds of 15 frames per second video before and after the photo.

The resulting .jpg and .mov files generated as the “Live Photo” can be viewed in the Photos app, as well as shared to Facebook, iMessage, and Tumblr, but not Instagram. To share your Live Photos to Instagram or other social platforms, you’ll need to convert the Live Photo to a GIF or MOV either using an app such as Lively, or your computer. Live Photos is great for animating an object making small movements, like a boat in the water or a flag in the wind or balloons in the air.

9. Freeze action with burst mode

Don’t miss a moment with burst mode, which lets you catch fast moving kids and pets which are too quick for a single shot. Tap and hold on the shutter button, or press and hold the volume up button to fire off a burst. Don’t be concerned about filling the buffer: We've fired off over 50-shots with no issues!

10. Take stills while shooting video

Sometimes, you just want to do it all, like take videos and photos at the same time. You can do that with the iPhone while shooting a video, simply by tapping on the round, solid button that appears on screen while the video is going. It'll snap stills and keep shooting video, uninterrupted -- you can take 8-megapixel images while capturing 4K video at 30fps.

11. Choose your picture type

The iPhone has several photo capture modes (not to mention a couple of video capture modes). Choose from among standard photo, square, and panorama modes, each the better choice for different output and environments. Panorama is a great choice for landscapes, for example. Hold the camera vertically and pan slowly to the right, while the camera stitches the images together behind the scenes. Just keep a steady hand, otherwise you'll end up with weird stitching artifacts as seen in the image here.

Panorama mode for sweeping view

The standard photo mode shoots in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means you’ll need to crop your image if you plan to post to Instagram. If your sole destination for your images is Instagram, then choose the square mode; this way, you can frame your shot as intended from the get-go, and you eliminate the extra step of cropping in Instagram or other apps. If your images are intended for your Facebook cover photo, keep in mind that image is 851 pixels wide by 315 pixels high, so you'll need to crop whatever image you shoot accordingly. The iPhone's 12-megapixel camera captures quite large images at 4032 by 3024 pixels.

12. Use the built-in editing tools

The iPhone has some solid built-in editing tools, all accessible from the Photos app. You can tap the magic wand in the upper right (or top left, depending upon how you’re holding the phone) to automagically adjust the image. Tweakers can make change light, color, and black-and-white adjustments. The savvy can do so by manually entering values; or, if you prefer choosing by look, you can slide through a carousel of pre-adjusted options to find the exposure, coloring, and tone you prefer.

Exposure edits by look

Adjusting exposure

You can also use the cropping tool to crop and straighten an image; select from a handful of filters; and remove red-eye.

Straighten and crop an image

13. Don’t forget to use the buttons

The volume up and down buttons can both double as a way to take a shot (or burst of shots). By forgoing the camera shutter button on the front of the screen, you can keep a better grip on the phone itself—and therefore eliminate a source of motion. Consider other creative ways of stabilizing your phone while out and about, such as leaning the phone against a flat surface, or consider buying a mini-tripod such as the Joby GorillaPod ($29.95). And Apple's earbuds let you snap photos with the volume control, acting sort of like a wired remote control.

Use volume buttons to shoot photos

14. Use the timer to take selfies

The “selfie” has quickly become entrenched in our modern lexicon. While some phones and cameras have a so-called “selfie” mode, the iPhone keeps it simple and has an easy-to-access timer button. Tap on the timer (found at the top of the camera screen) to get a 3- or 10-second countdown before the camera will go off.

The self-timer countdown, to make it easier to take shots--and selfies.

The timer is also convenient for rear-facing camera shots, particularly if you’re shooting at night and trying to hold the camera phone as steady as possible.