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  • Writer's pictureDharma

Creative iPhone photography at home

A friend of mine recently told me about a photography competition being held during this lockdown (#stayhome amirite?), that requires participants to submit a photo taken on a smartphone at home. I like a good challenge, so while I typically don't submit photos to competitions, this piqued my interest.

Initially I thought maybe I'd style up something nice at home and shoot it. But then I figured - look, anybody can take photos of things in their home. People do this all the time. How do I take a photo at home, that doesn't feel like it's taken at home? A photo that transports you out of your home, something that is dynamic and different from a regular photo of your living room or pet, or the view out your window, or a selfie? Maybe even something that could've been taken in a studio with an expensive camera and studio gear, but was actually taken with a smartphone?

I couldn't shake the idea, it was stuck in my head. I knew that if I was going to do this, I would only do it if I could create a photo that looks and feels like it was wasn't shot at home with simple equipment, but in reality was shot only using items and materials that everyone probably already has at home.

This is the result:

It's not the sharpest or most noise-free image I've ever taken, but all in all I'm pretty pleased with it.

Here are two others that I liked, which I didn't submit.

The concept of the image came together pretty quickly.

The competition theme was about staying home during the COVID-19 lockdown. To me, this meant a photo about the lockdown experience as a Singaporean. So right away I knew I wanted to feature Singapore's national colors (red and white) prominently.

I also wanted to draw attention to the collective sacrifices that everyone has had to make to get us through the pandemic. In Singapore, so many have given up so much to keep people safe. Doctors and medical workers are on the front lines every day. Contact tracers work around the clock to trace and break the chain of transmission, and to keep the public updated of the progress we're making. Businesses have been suffering from the lockdowns, but they're biting the bullet anyway, closing restaurants, shops, offices, and ceasing on-site services. People have sacrificed their privacy and autonomy, giving up their freedom to roam without masks, to go to work, to visit family, friends, and loved ones, to go to parks and beaches. All of this, to try and collectively get past the pandemic with as few deaths as possible. So I wanted to take that concept of "blood, sweat, and tears" that describes the work and sacrifice that's going into the battle against COVID-19, and visualize it somehow.

As it turned out, a photographer friend of mine, Kai, had recently sent a link to a Nikon Europe tutorial by photographer Alex Stead on shooting plumes of color in water. I didn't watch the whole thing, but just clicked through to look at his setup. Basically, he was squirting or dripping paint into water, lighting it, and taking the photos. Pretty straightforward right?

I had been meaning to give this a try, so I used this as the base concept for the photo. Red plumes of liquid to bring to life the "blood" concept embodying sacrifice, and a white background for a minimalist contrast as well as to make up the national colors.

Here is what I used for the photo:

  • iPhone X

  • Vase

  • Water

  • Red dye

  • Regular white printer paper

  • Scotch tape

  • Sunlight

That's it. No fancy camera, no flashes or strobes, no special equipment.

Initially I thought of lighting the shot with a flashlight, but then I figured sunlight would be more straightforward, so sunlight it was.

Here's what the setup looked like. Honestly, it couldn't be simpler.

The paper serves two functions - it acts as a backdrop to contrast with the dye, and it reflects sunlight back at the dye, backlighting it. So you get plumes that are lit from both the front (sunlight) and back (reflected and diffused sunlight).


  1. Fill vase with water

  2. Tape paper to back of vase to form your backdrop

  3. Find a sunny spot at home

  4. Position your phone in front of the vase

  5. Drip some dye into the water

  6. Start snapping

Snap fast because the first few photos will be the nicest, when the water is still clear and the dye forms plumes as it spreads. Once the dye has circulated through the water, it'll turn reddish pink and you'll lose the stark contrast of of your dye against the white background.

Here's a short video clip of the process in action:

My vase had rather thick glass which distorted things and made focus a bit softer than I normally like.But hey, you work with what you've got. If you have access to a vase or some other clear container (like a fish tank perhaps) with thinner walls, that'll work better and give you sharper images and less distortion.

I also wanted to make the point that fun, and beautiful photography can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of the equipment you have. All you need is some creativity with how you set up and light shots. I hope this photo demonstrates that!

Have fun everyone and stay safe!


If you find these tips useful, please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.

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