A few tips to take better photos from just your phone camera

Many people have more time on their hands now and want to learn new skills. Perhaps this is you and you’d like to improve your photography knowledge. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an expensive camera to take good photographs; you just need a basic understanding of light and composition. A camera is just a tool, after all; and the best tool is the one you have with you.

Sure, you probably won’t be charging $200 an hour for a professional photo shoot on your iPhone. But these cameras have come a long way in recent years and are miles ahead of the point and shoots of even just a few years ago. I am an experienced photographer with six years shooting portraits and street photography, and time before that as a photojournalist. I thought I’d offer some photography 101 tips for you to shoot better camera phone photos. All these photos on this blog post I shot with my iPhone 6s. In fact, I have been shooting more with that camera than my Nikon D5100 recently. It’s more convenient, and less obtrusive.

Light

First, let’s talk about light. Why do your photos taken outside at noon on a summer’s day always appear hot and full of contrasts? It’s because of the height of the sun in the sky and what that does to light. Let’s talk about something called an exposure triangle. Even on a phone camera, you can practice these principles.

The exposure triangle is a photography term that refers to the aperture (the opening in the lens through which light passes to enter the camera), shutter speed, and ISO (aka the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor). All these things must work together in order to create a correct exposure – one that is in focus, and not overexposed (the photo has too much light and is too bright) nor underexposed (too little light was recorded and the photo appears dark). Now, “correct” exposure is one of those rules that can be broken for effect, but only until you understand how they work and why they are important.

Now, you can’t manually control the shutter speed, ISO, or the aperture on a phone camera. That is the beauty of a DSLR, or a digital single-lens reflex camera. But a phone camera is a cheaper alternative, and one that you likely already have with you; who doesn’t have a smart phone these days? (I see you, flip phone and landline aficionados!)

On a phone camera, it is more about controlling your external circumstances in order to take a better photo. For example, you can control how much light enters the lens by shooting at different times of day. You can control the shutter speed to a certain extent by waiting until your subject is in focus before snapping the photo. You can understand that certain kinds of action sequences will never capture well with the limitations of a cell phone, no matter how advanced the technology.

Golden Hour

One of the foremost principles in photography is understanding which times of day provide the best photography light. “Golden Hour” is a term that is used to refer to an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset. Daylight is softer at this hour, without the sharp shadows of when the sun is higher in the sky. You can take some truly amazing natural light photographs only by sticking to this magic hour.

Try it with your selfies. Some of the best light in any house or studio is shot through a window. See where the direction of the sun is in comparison to the windows in your house (and I dearly hope you have windows). The window, especially if it has a curtain, often acts as a kind of a softbox for the light outside, softening it still further. Run a light capturing experiment. Take photos from the best-lit part of your house at different times of day. Try golden hour. Try high noon. Take photos of all different angles; pointing away from the window, toward the window, and spin around in a circle. (Just don’t take blurry selfies!) Record what times of day at which each photo was shot at. Even better if your window faces the sun from the south.

If you try this experiment of mine, feel free to share your photos and use the hashtag #spaceshipselfietest. I would love to see your results.

Composition

The final principle to talk about is something called “composition.” This word has so many different meanings in art. In music, it is a score of notes that are arranged in such a way as to form a symphony. In photography, composition too is an arrangement of parts.

Composition has different elements. For example: How do you deal with textures, shapes and patterns? We call them “leading lines” — when you capture the symmetry of lines in such a way that the eye naturally follows them in a pleasingly framed way. What’s the subject of the photograph and how do you position it in the frame? Do you have a cluttered background, or a clean background? How does the clutter in the background serve the story of the photograph? Since a photograph is a manufactured story, how we manufacture the elements of the story must make sense.

There’s also depth of field. This is to say, the distance between the nearest and the farthest elements of a scene, that provide context to the setting. Your camera will only be able to focus sharply on one object out of many in the scene, so how do you show distance, texture, depth? That is partly the artist’s choice. Sometimes you will see other elements in the photograph blurry around the focal point to show that depth.

You can draw inspiration from paintings, drawings and illustrations. A lot of people diss on photography because they don’t think it’s artistic. Anyone can do it because it is so accessible. So it is often seen as a “lesser than” art. It doesn’t take much of an eye to take a photograph. Or does it? Your “eye” as they call it in photography is what makes the photograph art.

Thus we come to the principle of the “Rule of Thirds.” This is another one of those “rules” that you must understand well in order to break it well. You can tell a novice because they immediately scoff at this concept and will break this rule poorly. One must master these basics in order to make a more sophisticated rendition of them.

The rule of thirds is a compositional element in which the image is broken up into three parts, both horizontally and vertically. The subject of the image is placed where those “leading lines” connect. This composition is pleasing to the human brain. We want to know where we should focus our attention. Try it. Try placing the subject of your image at the center of the frame, off to the left, off to the right. You can even do this with your selfies. See how differently your perception of the image changes.

Conclusion

So with a little understanding of the limitations of your device, a perception of light, and an idea of how to look in order to compose an image, you too can create better photographs, even with a smart phone. The elegance of this instrument is that you can take 1,000 photographs and delete them all if they suck. But try taking your cell phone photographs with a little more intention behind them, and watch how they will change and improve.

Good luck, and as they say in photography, just go shoot, already!

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