11 composition tips for taking great photos with your iPhone

By , Sep 23, 2013

iPhone Compositon Tips

Thanks to its great photo quality and the unparalleled selection of photo apps, the iPhone has become the world’s most popular digital camera. However, even an excellent camera and world-class photo editing tools can’t turn a bad photo into a good one, and the easiest way to improve the quality of your photos is to learn composition.

In this article, you’re going to discover 11 simple and highly effective composition tips that will greatly enhance the quality of the photos you take with your iPhone…

1. Turn on the grid

One of the most crucial tools for improving composition is built right into your iPhone’s camera. Yes, I’m talking about gridlines, which are two horizontal and two vertical lines separating the iPhone’s screen into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically.

Grid in iOS 6

To turn on the gridlines in iOS 6, simply tap on the options panel at the top of the camera window, and make sure that the “Grid” slider is turned on. To turn on gridlines in iOS 7, go to Settings, scroll down to Photos & Camera, and then turn the Grid slider on.

To turn on the gridlines, simply tap on the options panel at the top of the camera window, and make sure that the “Grid” slider is turned on. Gridlines are absolutely essential for following the rule of thirds (the next tip) and for other applications such as keeping the horizon straight. I recommend that you keep the gridlines on at all times until you automatically think about the scene in terms of composition.

2. Follow the rule of thirds

The primary application of gridlines is the rule of thirds. In a nutshell, the rule of thirds is a guideline suggesting that the most important part(s) of the image – known as the subject(s) of the image – should lie at one of the four points where the gridlines intersect.

These four points are the most powerful areas of the image, and our eyes are naturally attracted to these areas first. So whatever you really want to emphasize in an image – like the human silhouette in the photo below – should go to one of the four intersection points.

Rule of Thirds Snapseed

While it’s best to apply the rule of thirds when you’re taking photos, you can also do it in cropping. The iPhone’s 8-megapixel sensor gives you plenty of room for improving your images through cropping, as I’m doing here using the Snapseed app.

The rule of thirds also suggests that the most important lines in the photo – both horizontal and vertical – should be placed along one of the gridlines. In this example I’ve followed this guideline by placing the horizon along the top horizontal gridline.

Following the rule of thirds has allowed me to create a more harmonious composition, while at the same time emphasizing the bizarre walk-on-the water nature of the photo.

Rule of Thirds

3. Don’t place your subject in the center

A common mistake made by novice photographers is to put the main subject of the photo – like the lighthouse in this example – right in the center of the image.

Poor Composition

This of course contradicts the rule of thirds, which states that the main subject should be located at one of the four intersection points. Even if you don’t want to follow the rule of thirds religiously, it’s a good idea to not place your main subject at the center of the image.

Better Composition

Placing the main subject even slightly off the center makes the composition a lot more harmonious, while at the same time putting more emphasis on the subject.

4. Balance the image diagonally

One of the most important compositional guidelines is the diagonal principle. In a nutshell, the diagonal principle states that the most important parts of the image (the main subjects) should be placed along the diagonal.

If all the crucial areas of the image are located either at the top or the bottom, or on the left or the right side, the image is out of balance. The solution is to place the main subjects of the photo along the diagonal, as seen in the example below.

Diagonal Composition

In this photo the most important subjects are the red rocks at the top left and the smaller gray rocks at the bottom right. If there was nothing of interest at the bottom right, the photo would be out of balance. By aligning the crucial parts of the composition diagonally, I was able to balance the image both horizontally and vertically.

5. Make use of leading lines

Leading lines are lines that quite literally lead our eyes in a particular direction. Ideally, leading lines should not be perfectly horizontal or vertical, and they should lead our eyes towards the main subject. Different roads and footpaths are commonly used as leading lines, though almost any distinct lines can be used for this purpose.

Leading Lines

In this photo the wooden bridge works as a leading line as it draws our attention towards the waterfall in the background.

Leading Lines Beach

In this photo the paths of dry sand that go through the scene diagonally from bottom left function as a leading lines, drawing our eyes directly to the main subject of the photo.

6. Follow the direction of movement

Even though photography is a stationary medium, photos often have an implicit direction of movement. The human eye is very used to people, animals, bikes and cars moving forward, and it naturally expects to see the same in a stationary scene. And whenever there’s any kind of movement, our eyes naturally tend to follow in that direction.

Beach Cyclist

So whenever you capture a scene that has an implicit movement – like the bike moving to the right in the photo above – you should leave enough space inside the frame for the eye to follow that movement. If this bike was positioned towards the right side, the eye would quickly go off the frame and the resulting composition wouldn’t be harmonious.

7. Focus on eyes in portraits

In portrait photography a person is always going to be the main subject of your photo. But how can we apply the rule of thirds if a person’s face takes up almost the entire frame?

iPhone Portrait Tips

When you first look at a person – in real life or in a photo – the first thing you naturally look at is that person’s eyes. So in portraits, the most important part of the image is a person’s eyes, which are followed by their face and finally their body.

To apply the rule of thirds to portrait photography, you should always place the eyes of the subject at one of the top intersections of the gridlines. Which one of the two? That’s what the next tip is for.

8. Follow the gaze of your subject

Remember the tip about following the direction of movement? The same idea also applies to portrait photography as human eyes naturally want to follow the gaze of another person to see what they’re looking at. So in portraits you should always place your subject so that there’s enough space in the direction towards which the subject is looking.

9. Keep it simple

Steve Jobs used to say “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and he was clearly onto something. One of the easiest ways to create a well-composed photo is to keep the scene simple and clear of any distractions. The following photo has only one subject, which gives the scene perfect clarity, which ultimately results in harmony.

Simple iPhone Photo

10. Make use of empty space

This photo illustrates another important compositional principle: the use of empty space in photography. In general, compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds work great for portrait or landscape photos, but not necessarily for square compositions.

With Instagram being an exclusively square medium, a lot of people are struggling with square composition. One thing that works extremely well for square images (but not so much for other aspect ratios) is placing your subject at the very edge of the scene, and leaving everything else unoccupied as seen in the photo above.

11. Break all the rules

Finally, don’t let any of these compositional guidelines restrict your creativity. While these principles are certainly useful in many photographic situations, it’s far more important that you keep experimenting and stay creative at all times. This following photo breaks several compositional guidelines that I explained in this tutorial, and yet I love it exactly like this.

Breaking Composition Rules

Emil Pakarklis is the founder of iPhone Photography School, a website that helps people take better photos with the iPhone.

  • Share:
  • Follow:
  • Ariel


  • Jonathan

    An excellent guide for us iPhone photographers. Thank you.

    • Thanks Jonathan!

      • Alex Marwaha

        no, thank you. WE all appreciate it. now I don’t need to angrily tap everywhere to focus.

      • Jonathan

        My pleasure. Keep it up! I look forward to learning more 🙂

  • chumawumba

    12. Don’t use zoom after 5X

    • Actually I never use it. There’s always the option to crop afterwards 🙂

  • looks like its a paid post ..

  • Bdyzr76

    This is a great article… I appreciate the time you took to put it together.. I have recently gotten into the world of Nikon via a D600 and these tips are not only great for my new iPhone 5s, but as well my Nikon.. Keep them coming..

  • Great information.

  • Diego Gastón Milano

    VERY nice tidbits! I find it amusing to realize I’ve been using some of these without even noticing; I’ll definitely play around with the others! 🙂

    • Thanks Diego! That’s the thing about composition – once you get good you start following many of these rules subconsciously.

      • Diego Gastón Milano

        I just subscribed last night, I’m almost done watching the videos. I’ve used Snapseed quite a lot and it IS indeed a very powerful tool although I wasn’t that familiar with the Tune section so great tips.
        Have you ever tried Mextures?

      • Tune image is where most of the action happens.

        Not yet, but Mextures is on my list of apps to try. It can be hard to keep up with so many good apps out there…

  • Jeff Ramirez

    I knew about the rule of third, but these other tips are new to me! Thanks!

  • Jo

    nice article

  • kokeropie

    Great tips indeed 🙂
    Thanks for sharing 😉

  • diggitydang

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing!

  • Apanizo2

    Was just looking for something about this yesterday !

  • Markus Hudobnik

    Thank you, love the guide! I’ve been messing around with photography for awhile now with my iphone, so this guide helps even more! Now I just need to travel and/or move somewhere more exciting. I live in Phoenix and it’s all desert.

    • That’s funny. I’ve never been to Phoenix but I think there would be so many amazing things to shoot in that area 🙂

    • Anthony Greene

      Phoenix is plenty to shoot photography. Take advantage of the national parks and such you have in AZ. I live in a place where there isn’t much, so you’re pretty lucky if you ask me!

      • Markus Hudobnik

        Trust me I have!

  • Mike

    Love the guide. Thanks for sharing!

  • D.

    Very well written article. Great points that I’ll definitely use. Thanks Emil!!!

  • Chris Wagers

    Another very informative article here on iDB. Thank you!

  • Tobo

    Very great article. I’ll read it again. 🙂

  • John Gwarilla

    Step 11: Forget everything we just said! hahaha

  • James Ursini

    Anyone recommend some great camera apps? I heard ProCamera is great as well as Camera+ (Using an iPhone 5)

    • These two are really good, and Camera Awesome is also similar. You can also try VSCO, many people really love it.

  • Jonathan

    You mistyped your username somehow.

    • anonymous

      Thanks..try it now

      • Jonathan

        Works! Love your photos! I’m going to follow you, so my username is @Firebirdflame 😉

  • Nipasaurus

    This will make my nude photo-shoots even better!

  • H5ire

    Useful Article…
    + “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Steve Jobs.!!
    Makes article Great.!! 🙂

  • Robert Lancaster

    Fantastic article!
    Really glad you’ve joined MobiTog!

  • Arjay Dioquino Antonio

    Very useful info. Thanks for sharing.

  • This is a lovely post Emil. A lot of these techniques work for photography in general. I have a DSLR and an iPhone and honestly I am learning how to set the scene with my iPhone (I use it more than my DSLR). I would love to interview you.

  • Jerry

    Wow I learned a lot in just this article. Thanks!!

  • Ash Frog

    Thank you so much! I felt like I’ve just been shooting in the dark waiting for a good photo until I read this guide.

  • Micha Müller

    I like nr. 11

  • I can’t get a better tutorial than this!!!! Nice job Emil 🙂

  • TAA

    Great article! Loved it! What is the location of the photo with the waterfall in the background and wood walkways? So pretty!

  • Thanks I am new to photography and I assumed I knew the rule of thirds, boy was I off. I get my my first IPhone this week 😉