Everybody wants a great picture of their summer vacation. Now, capturing those great pictures is downright easy because the mobile device that’s (probably) in your pocket not only functions as a computer, notebook, calendar, and GPS — it also doubles as a high-powered camera. Here’s how to take stunning vacation photos with nothing more than your iPhone:

Vacation Preparation with an iPhone
Image by photobyphotoboy

iPhone Camera: Basic Specs

The built-in “iSight” iPhone 6s camera uses a fixed “prime” lens (equivalent to 30mm SLR lens) with 12-megapixel resolution (up from 8MP on the iPhone 6). Translation: The iPhone 6s takes sharper photos in lots of different lighting conditions. It also has autofocus, auto contrast for harsh or low-light, and defaults to “burst mode” to capture multiple action shots.

With each update, the iPhone camera is getting closer to perfect — but you can make it even better with a few tweaks.

Photo Settings You Should Change

Auto HDR

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is actually kind of a big deal, and worth understanding a little better.

Essentially, “dynamic range” is the smartphone version of f-stops on a DSLR, (the opening that lets light through the lens). On the iPhone, HDR shows up as the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of a photo — the washed-out sky on a sunny day, and the shadows on someone’s face while they’re standing under a tree. The more dynamic range a camera has, the better it can compensate for dramatic contrast and allow for a balanced exposure of lights and darks.
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But tweaking ISO on a smartphone isn’t easy, so that’s where Auto HDR comes in. Auto HDR balances lighting extremes using an algorithm that combines multiple shots into one finished picture. When HDR is turned on, your phone takes three pictures at different exposure levels then compiles the high and low contrast from each photo into one final image. But while Auto HDR is amazing, it has limitations when it comes to moving subjects, so experiment in different light and see which option works best for you.

Best uses: Auto HDR is great for landscapes, direct sunlight, and low-light or backlit photos.

Friends at the beach
Image by Syda Productions

Photo Grid

Apple removed the grid-view option from the traditional controls in the photo app, but the grid is still available via the “Photo & Camera” tab in Settings. Simply toggle it on and enjoy perfectly framed subjects every time (more on that later).

Live Photos

Live photos are a powerful new feature for capturing life’s impromptu moments, but they eat up storage quickly, meaning this feature should be used with caution.

When Live Photos are enabled, your phone automatically captures three seconds of audio and video (1.5 seconds before and after you press the shutter), meaning that every photo is also a three-second video. While this is great for action shots, it’s an inefficient use of storage space on vacation where every megabyte matters.

If space is scarce, toggle Live Photos off by tapping the yellow circle at the top of the camera app.

Image by Max Topchii

Framing Your Subject Using the Rule of Thirds

Now that you have a better idea of your phone’s specs and settings, it’s time to forget all that. You don’t need to know anything about aperture, depth of field or contrast ratios to take a great picture. All of that helps, but captivating photos are all about how you frame your subject.

If you haven’t turned on grid view in your settings, imagine a hashtag overlaid on your screen (like the image above in the Live Photos section). The Rule of Thirds states that you should align the interesting parts of your subject — the horizon, buildings, a tree, a subject’s eyes — with the grid’s lines and intersections for maximum dramatic effect.

The eye is naturally drawn along these lines, even when there’s no visible grid, so create pleasing shots by placing the best parts of your shot along the grid. Fight the temptation to center your subject, and you’ll be surprised with the results of this simple adjustment.

Best use: Line the horizon up with the bottom line of the grid, and place your subject’s eyes and face at intersections whenever possible.

Understanding Lighting

Knowing how your smartphone reacts to different lighting situations is key to taking good photos. Smartphones typically handle sunny outdoor environments and well-lit interiors well; ambient light is great, direct sunlight is fine, but backlighting is harder. However, if tweaking ISO and exposure isn’t your thing, don’t download a complicated “pro” photo app.

To master lighting, you only need to know two numbers: Aperture and sensor size.

The iPhone 6s camera has a 1.22μm resolution sensor and an f/2.2 aperture, which is a measure of how much light hits the sensor. Basically, a low aperture number means it opens wider and more light gets in. The bigger the sensor number, the better sharpness, especially in low-light. For comparison, the Google Nexus 6P has a wider aperture (f/2.0) and a larger sensor (1.55 μm), so it takes sharper images, most notably in low-light or indoors.

Bottom line: The flash on most smartphones is pretty bad, so if grainy low-light photos are a deal-breaker, invest in a smartphone with a wide aperture and a large sensor. You can’t tweak these hardware limitations.

Kids Jumping Into the Lake
Image by Brocreative

Burst Mode: Capturing Action Shots

In case you’re not aware, burst mode — rapid back-to-back shots — is always on for iPhone cameras. Seriously. There’s no way to turn it off.

The good news: You don’t need to change any settings to capture a ton of photos during your daughter’s big penalty kick. Just flick open your camera, and hold the shutter button on the display for as many back-to-back photos as you want.

The bad news: You may end up with a few dozen photos of your family posing at the beach, which eats up storage space.

Best use: Let burst mode rip for action shots — you can edit them into a neat time-lapse later. Designate the volume buttons for single, one-off photos and eliminate wasted storage space.

Camera Accessories: Attachable Lenses, Lights, and Tripods

The iPhone can do a lot of amazing things, but zooming isn’t one of them. The prime lens (30mm equivalent) captures fantastic shots within a set focal length, but anything outside of that range simple isn’t going to be that great. Digital zoom isn’t true zoom — it’s just cropping a photo and readjusting the pixels so it looks closer. That’s why you should never zoom on your camera. Ever.

via olloclip

Attachable Lenses 

Instead, invest in an attachable lens like the 4-in-1 Ollo Clip. This external lens kit provides a wide-angle lens (widens the standard field of view), a fish-eye lens for 180 degree visibility, and 10x and 15x macro lenses for getting up close and personal with a subject. The macro lenses are ideal for nature photography, but you have to great very close and personal to get into focus, so make sure your subject isn’t poisonous.


As mentioned earlier, the built-in flash on most smartphones is pretty terrible. A solution to that is the Manfrotto Klyp Case with built-in LED light display. The case is as close to a DSLR kit as you’d reasonably want to carry with you at all times, but if lighting is a concern, look no further. It also includes a tripod mount for a decent mobile studio rig.


A steady hand is a rare gift, especially after that third margarita. Take yourself out of the equation with a simple tripod clip. The adjustable tripod clip from WizGear is simple and effective for mounting your camera on any standard tripod, from professional rigs to tabletop GorillaPods.


Battery Saving Tips & Storage Solutions

What’s the point of having the best camera in the world, if you don’t have any room to store pictures, or enough battery power to take them? Maximize storage and battery life with these simple tips:

  • Turn airplane mode on when you’re in photo mode.
  • If airplane mode isn’t an option, you can toggle to low power mode. Doing so turns off email fetching, reduces screen brightness, cancels unnecessary animated wallpapers and motion graphics, lowers your CPU performance, and locks your screen quickly (which can be kind of annoying).
  • If you have to stay fully functional, check which apps are consuming the most battery power in your settings by clicking Battery Usage, and do your best to keep them closed. Web browsers and Facebook are classic battery hogs. You can also check General>Storage>Manage Storage for large unnecessary apps. Anything over a GB that you won’t use on vacation needs to go.
  • A portable charger, like the Anker 6700mAh, can be pre-charged in the hotel room and brought out for day trips to keep your phone fully charged.

Other tips include turning off Live Photos and Photo Stream, as well as turning off the option to “Keep Normal Photo” when HDR is enabled in order to avoid duplicates.

Video: 60fps Is Just Right

Your camera’s video settings are complicated and nuanced, but there’s one setting you should change immediately: Frames per second (fps).

Select: Settings>Photos & Camera>Camera/Record Video>1080p HD at 60 fps.

Choosing 60fps is the Goldilocks of vacation video: Perfect rate for capturing rich, vibrant vacation video without completely destroying your phone’s storage. 30fps is blurry, and 4k video files are enormous. Make the switch to 60fps and film everything just right.

Young couple camping
Image by Monkey Business Images

The Best Camera…

As the old saying goes, “The best camera is the one you’ve got with you.” Follow these simple tips and capture every moment with better photos than ever, right on your iPhone.

Top image by Bon Appetit