How to take Better Photos with your Smartphone

Looking to make better photos with your smartphone? Our smartphones are increasingly more capable of making really great photos. But if you want to get the most out of that potential, here are a few tips to help you level up.

First, some arty stuff…

Consider the rules.

You may have heard of the Rule of Thirds. It’s a composition style created by Renaissance painters to include a background and therefore, context, in their paintings. And context makes the story.

If your subject is in the middle of the image, it’s considered static. Your eye is immediately drawn to the subject and stays there, because there’s an equal distance from all sides, and no ‘tension’ to hold your interest.

When your subject is closer to one of the edges, your eye has to move around the frame to find the subject. The viewer has to linger on the image, and it’s more interesting because your brain has to do a little work to find the subject and story. Above, Harlan and Linda are on the left third, leaving space for the eye to wander over the mountain range.

Your camera has a grid to help you with this. It breaks the horizontal screen down into nine rectangles: three horizontal and three vertical. Put your subject in the top, bottom, left or the right third of the screen–just not smack-dab in the middle.

In iOS, go to Settings and then Camera. Enable “Grid” to deploy a rule-of-thirds overlay in the Camera app. For Androids, go to Settings > Apps > Camera, and select “Grid Lines” to choose the rule-of-thirds overlay (or a square overlay for Instagram).

Near, Far, Low, High

The vast majority of photos are taken at eye level, from a person who is standing. Changing your body position immediately creates a different perspective on something we see from the same angle. Lay on the ground. Stand on a box. Get right up close. Stand really far away. Anything different from the usual is more interesting. Here, I held the camera above Harlan to focus on his tail, a contrasting puff ball to the texture of the straight trees around him.

Draw them in with Leading Lines

Our eyes like to follow lines. Using straight or circulinear lines leading to the subject or out of the frame creates a sense of movement through the story of the frame. Staircases, roads, building structures, tracks, paths–they all move our eye to the point of interest.

And now for some practical stuff…

Clean the lens

I don’t know about you but I get a lot of gunk on my smartphone lens. Dust, fingerprints, moisture, all of these reduce your photo’s sharpness, clarity and quality. Take a second to wipe the lens clear of streaks and enjoy a pristine view of your subject.

Ditch the digital zoom

As much as you’d like to zoom in on your kid running in a meadow, zooming in on them equals a really poor quality photo that only a parent can love.

Digital zoom shots are simply cropped and resized images–wholly unlike that of an actual zoom lens. Digital zoom gives you a grainy image, reduces the photo’s resolution, and amplifies your shaky hands. The best zoom your camera has is your feet. In general, avoid digital zoom as often as possible — just move closer to your subject by walking there. Or buy a telephoto lens for your smartphone.

Go to the light

Your smartphone’s LED flash is doing no one any favours–the colour is inconsistent and the photos are always grainy. Turn that thing off.

Instead, find other sources of light: candles, lamps, a selfie light… anything but that flash. Better yet, move your subject to the light source. If you’re really at a loss, use another smartphone’s flashlight function.

Maintain your focus

Your phone automatically focuses on the foreground, but maybe that’s not where you want the viewer to look. To change focus, tap the screen where you want to sharpen the view. If you want to take a series of photos, hold your finger on the screen until the AE/AF function pops up. Now the focus is locked at that distance, and won’t change when you click the shutter. This is super effective for changing the exposure of your photo, too. See the next point…

Expose yourself

Better photos with your smartphone do not have blown-out highlights! Our cameras want to focus on the nearest thing to the lens. Our eyes want to move to the lightest part of the frame. So when you’re standing in front of a majestic snow-coloured mountain, your face will be in focus and properly exposed, and the snow on the mountain will be totally blown out.

The most basic and effective way to improve your smartphone photos is to adjust the exposure—brightening or darkening a scene—and using it makes a huge difference to your photo’s quality. Use it to brighten your foodie photos, or to darken a portrait for a more drama and better skin colour.

On an iPhone, tap the screen to bring up the box and sun icon. Drag the sun down (darken) or up (brighten). Android phones usually have a +/- icon for exposure adjustment. The photo below, taken while trail running the Rockwall in Kootenay National Park, uses several of the techniques I discussed… which ones do you see?

woman trail running on the Rockwall trail, kootenay national park

The best camera is the one you have

You don’t need fancy hardware to take better photos with your smartphone. It’s a matter of learning to use the one you have. Take millions of photos and study them to understand what exactly is interesting to you. Are you drawn to light? Shadow? Contrast? Symmetry? Moment? Practicing your craft with the camera you have is the best way to get better at making photos.

Interested in learning more? Contact me here!

Author: bobbib

Bobbi Barbarich is a professional photographer who calls Nelson, British Columbia home--though she's comfortable pretty much anywhere. Whether she's preserving memories of the most important day in your life, or capturing an important moment for life, Bobbi's work is candid, unconventional and real. Bobbi has trained extensively with award-winning photographers Patrice Halley and Buffy Goodman, and she's won a few awards herself.

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