A wise photographer once said the best camera is the one you have with you. And that is true to an extent. But if you compare the latest professional DSLR camera to any smartphone on the market, the professional camera is going to come out on top every time. That being said, it’s perfectly possible to take great photos with any half-decent smartphone from the past five years. You just need to know and apply a few simple photography techniques.
The great thing about the seven techniques I will walk you through today is that even practising just a single one of them will help you take better photos.
Time-tested photography techniques that will work on any smartphone
We’re all about keeping it simple at Digiplanet… Technology doesn’t have to be tricky. And most modern smartphones are very smart about how they process images without any input from you.
Here are seven time-tested, analogue, real-world techniques that will serve you well on any smartphone and, for that matter, any other camera you carry around. I’ve modified a couple to suit smartphones, but these techniques have been around since long before the first smartphone was even thought up. Each of them will help you take better photos regardless of which device you’re using.
Make sure you have enough light
We’ll start off this guide with something a bit basic. Photos are recordings of light (just like songs are recordings of sound). The camera sensor in your phone needs to be exposed to a certain amount of light to put together a viewable photo.
The more light the better (to a point). It means your sensor won’t have to work as hard to record the scene you want to save for the ages. This is important, because the harder the camera sensor must work the more noise there will be in your image, which makes the image quality drop. There will also be more camera shake because it takes the camera sensor longer to record the image (exposure time), and colours and contrast won’t be as nice.
Modern phones like the iPhone 11 are getting incredibly good at taking photos in low light through some seriously smart image processing. Nevertheless, there’s no real substitute for photographing in a lit-up room or landscape.
So, before you start snapping away, what can you do to increase the amount of light in your scene? It could be something as simple as turning on a couple of lamps or opening some blinds if you’re indoors. If you’re outdoors, look for well-lit areas that will naturally provide lots of light to work with.
Watch where the light is coming from
Next time you pull your phone out to take a few photos, keep these simple steps in mind:
- Seek out soft, warm light from a lower angle to take better photos, such as sunlight in the early morning or late afternoon.
- When possible, keep your back to the sun or whatever else the main source of light is for your photo.
- Tap the subject of your photo before taking a picture to help your phone work out how much light it needs to capture.
Ever heard of the golden hour? It’s like happy hour for photographers, only there is usually no alcohol involved and there’s two of them each day. (You win some, you lose some…) The golden hour is a brief period just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sunlight is golden and lovely and comes at you from a low angle. This light is ideal for taking photos outdoors, whether of landscapes or people. It will really make your photos pop on any smartphone.
The same goes for indoors photography. Instead of relying on ceiling lamps to light up your subject, find a source of light that comes in from a lower angle. This could be daylight from a window or light from a floor lamp. If you’re photographing people, this will minimise unflattering shadows and make your photos much better.
The next step is to photograph using light that comes from somewhere behind you. It’s not a fixed rule, especially if Instagrammers have anything to say about it. But if you want an effortless way to improve your photos using light, start doing this and you will instantly get better photos with any smartphone.
Oh, and that thing about tapping the subject of your photo on the screen before snapping away? That’s about as technical as we’re going to get in this post. Smartphones and other cameras use a lot of smarts to measure light and work out how long a photo needs to be exposed to make it look as close as possible to what the human eye sees. Too short an exposure gives you a dark, grey, and muddled photograph. Expose your photo for too long and it’ll end up too bright and washed out.
Most of the time, your smartphone will work this all out by itself. But if the subject of your photo, like your super-cute baby-boy, looks muddled or washed out, tap his face on the screen. This will tell your phone to concentrate on measuring the light on his face and set a suitable exposure time.
Keep steady for better photos
Lighting is the painter’s equivalent of mixing and using colours to make the key details – your subject – stand out. As for keeping your camera steady, that’s the painter’s equivalent of using the right brush for the job and making sure each brushstroke lands where it should.
Any movement of your smartphone while taking pictures is bad. Okay? While many phones come with digital or physical image stabilisation, this will only help so much. So as a rule, the more shaking or moving around of your phone while shooting, the blurrier your images will be.
To help keep your phone still and take clearer photos, try this technique:
- Use both hands to hold your phone, taking care not to cover the lens.
- Bend your elbows and tuck them in so your upper arms rest on the sides of your chest.
- Breathe out and pause when you’re ready to shoot.
- Gently press the shutter release button on the screen using your thumb.
- Breathe again!
Using both hands and resting your bent arms alongside your chest lets you hold your phone much more still than using one hand on an outstretched arm. It also means you will be less likely to wobble your phone while trying to hit the shutter button.
The breathing part is a shooting technique. (As in actual weapons.) A marksman or sniper (might want to correct me or elaborate on this, but from what I’ve learnt) will breathe out to a point where no more air comes out unless forced, then hold their breath. This stops your breathing from moving the weapon (or in your case, camera) while aiming and firing. For bonus points, time your shots in-between heartbeats. (We’re splitting hairs here – this probably matters far more for snipers than photographers.)
As for the shutter release, tapping or pressing gently cuts that last bit of potential movement that could kill your image quality. Newer touch screens are super sensitive, so it shouldn’t take much to release the shutter. If you do struggle with the on-screen button, you might be better off using the volume button (or in the case of some phones, the power button) to snap your photo.
Mind the background
I learnt this next technique in my high-school TV production class many moons ago, back when VHS tapes were not something you’d only find in museums and video cameras were big enough that they sat on your shoulder. Just goes to show that the technique we’re about to look at now is time-tested and true and has been for a long time.
To really focus attention on your subject, you want your subject to stand out from the background. There’s a couple of ways to do this:
- Light up your subject and place them/it against a darker background to create contrast and, once again, make your photos pop.
- Move your subject away from things in the background, especially walls. This helps remove distracting shadows and might also make the background go a little blurry while your subject stays in focus.
Use the rule of thirds
It’s time to talk about composition. There’s a lot of rules and theories as to how you can use composition to super-charge your photography and take pictures that are interesting to look at. But we’re all for keeping it simple and picking the low-hanging fruits. The easiest technique for composing your photos is the rule of thirds:
- Place your subject or key details one-third of the way into your photo. That’s one-third from either the top, bottom, left or right edge.
- Place the most important detail where two imaginary lines of thirds meet.
Imagine, for a second, if you could draw a grid on the smartphone screen to help you work out where “one-third of the way into your photo” is. Scratch that… You can do that on most modern smartphones. If the 1/3 grid lines are not showing already, you’ll have to do a quick search to work out how to. I suggest googling “turn on camera grid phone type” and replace phone type with the type of phone you have.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll have two horizontal and two vertical lines showing on the screen. These lines tell you exactly where one-third into the photo is. All you need to do then is frame the photo such that the subject or most interesting detail is on or near one of those lines.
As an example, if you’re photographing a person’s face from close up, place their eyes along the top horizontal line. If you’re photographing a couple standing together, but from a bit further away, frame the photo such that one of the vertical lines is just in between them and with their heads along the top horizontal line.
Not photographing people? No problem! Say you’re at the beach and you pull out the camera to snap a photo of some impressive waves and a bit of sky in the background: Aim to have the horizon along the top horizontal line. Or let’s say the waves aren’t that impressive but there’s a storm brewing out at sea… You’ll want to focus more on the sky, so place the horizon along the bottom horizontal line.
Like all rules, the rule of thirds is there for you to break. Once you’re used to applying that rule, start experimenting with other ways of framing your photos to get interesting results.
Find an unusual angle
Warning: Super simple tip coming up!
Our first instinct when taking photos tends to be to place the camera at our own eye level. And why not? For more than a century we’ve had to practically jam the camera viewfinder into our eyeball to get an idea of what we’re photographing.
Over the past 20 years though, most digital cameras and smartphones have either offered a screen as an alternative to the viewfinder or done away with the viewfinder altogether. So why do we still place our smartphones at eye level when taking pictures at least 90%. Percent. Of. The. Time? (I made that stat up, but my gut feeling says it’s close to the truth.)
Think about what the world looks like to your kids who are half your size… What about your German shepherd dog? Or your teacup chihuahua? Or that mushroom on your lawn? Not that mushrooms can see, but my point is…
- Take photos from different perspectives!
All you have to do is stop, think, lower (or raise) your smartphone, look at the screen to see the world from a new perspective, hit the shutter button and you’re done!
“But hey!” I hear you say. “That mushroom perspective… Does that mean I have to crawl around in the grass?” To that I say, it’s entirely up to you my friend. Crawl around in the grass. It’ll give you more of a personal feel for the life of a mushroom. But look, your smartphone has a big screen and if you crouch down and hold your phone upside down near the ground you’ll get the camera lens right down at ground level for a rarely seen view of the world.
This last tip is more of a box-ticking exercise and a reminder to check one little detail before your photo.
- Is your subject sharp? If not, tap the screen to focus on the subject!
Smartphones and other modern cameras are good at automatically making the subject of your photo sharp. Long story short, if the subject (e.g. a face) of your photo is the nearest thing to your camera and doesn’t sit right on the edge of the frame, your smartphone should have no problem setting a good focus. Your photo will turn out great and little Johnny’s beaming face will be sharp and beautiful.
Problems arise when there are multiple objects in the photo at about the same distance, or when the subject is too close. The autofocus may end up throwing its arms in the air, scream “I’m outta here” and just focus on the background instead.
To help the poor fella out, all you need to do is tap on the part of the image that you want to be in focus. Our autofocus friend will thank you profusely and sharpen up the subject quick smart.
(Pro tip: When photographing people or animals, make sure their eyes are sharp and in focus!)
This was a long post on how to improve your smartphone photography on any phone from the past five years. Well done for sticking with us to the end.
You’ve learnt about light, keeping your camera stable, minding the background, composing your photos using the rule of thirds, finding unusual perspectives and helping your smartphone focus on the right thing in the photo.
I wouldn’t expect you to now run out and apply all seven tips straight away. Unless you want to, of course! A more enjoyable and easy way would be to pick one tip every few days and apply it every time you take a photo. Every. Single. Time. Until the technique becomes muscle memory and you don’t even need to think about it anymore.
After you’ve worked through all seven tips and internalised them, you will have a handy arsenal of photography tips and techniques that will make your photos so much more interesting and enjoyable. And then it’s time to start breaking the rules!
Have fun shooting and let me know in the comments if these tips helped you out!