We now take more pictures using smartphones every day than we do with “real” cameras. The problem is that most of them are pretty poor. They’re good enough for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Whatever, but wouldn’t pass any kind of real quality test.
But seeing as how phone cameras are getting better all the time, surely we can all get better pictures out of them. Well, yes, we can, and it’s not that difficult. All it needs is a few minutes getting to know your camera, and a little bit of thought. If you want more than just selfies, and want to have a go at something approaching real photography, your phone can do a decent job of it. As long as you know what to do.
There are 3 basic elements to any picture – light, composition, and subject. Each is important, and getting them right will make a massive difference to your pictures. They’re not complicated for our needs here, so take a second to digest the information on each. In no time at all, they will become second nature. Muscle memory will kick in before you realize, and better pictures will become effortless.
We’ll start with a slight disclaimer. We can’t hope to cover every camera in every phone. Nor can we cover every camera app in both app stores. We might mention features you don’t have, or not mention features you do. This guide isn’t about the specifics, it’s about some general techniques to get better smartphone pictures.
So, now that’s out of the way, we’ll continue.
If you’ve never heard about the “Rule of Threes”, make it your goal to take at least this one piece of information with you. Sometimes, we see a picture which we like but, if we were asked why we like it, we wouldn’t really be sure. Part of that is the composition, and part of composition is the rule of threes.
Your camera app may have an option to show a grid on the screen. This grid is normally two horizontal and two vertical lines which intersect 1/3 of the way in from each side, 1/3 from the bottom and top. These are the “thirds” we talk about, and here’s how you use them. If you don’t have the option to show a grid, then a little imagination will do the trick. Here’s the lines as they are when displayed, so you have an idea if you don’t show the grid
Hopefully, that gives you an idea of where the rule of thirds comes from, as the screen is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically.
If you are taking a shot which has any kind of horizon, try and put it along one of the horizontal lines. Whether you choose the top or bottom line will depend on what you want in the image. In our example above, you will see the top of the mountains are used on the bottom line. It doesn’t have to be exact, but should be close enough.
You may also have noticed one critical thing about the image above. That is that the rocks – known as a “cairn” – isn’t in the middle of the picture. If you have a single subject, the composition works better if you put them in line with one of the vertical lines. If it is a person, have them looking into the frame towards the biggest part) rather than out of it. In just a head and shoulders portrait, put one of your subject’s eyes at the top crossing points of the lines. This makes a much better balance.
This one simple observation will improve many a picture.
No picture works without light. Unfortunately, despite how many times manufacturers will tell you otherwise, smartphone flash is terrible. Even LED, even Dual Flash. It’s all terrible. Unless you’re taking a selfie in a dark room, you should try and avoid using it altogether. Your phone flash has an effective range of about 6-8 feet, which makes it useless for all but the quickest snapshot. Even then, it takes forever to actually kick in and take the shot. Seriously, try and avoid it.
Fortunately, many recent smartphones have some sort of image stabilization built in, which means we can get away with lower light. Low light means longer shutter speeds. Long shutter speeds means more shake because it’s difficult to hold anything dead still for a second or two. Image stabilization is a great benefit here.
However, if possible, try and include as much natural light as you can. This will improve the quality of the picture enormously. If you take a picture of someone, have the light off to one side. This creates nice shadows on the face, and means they don’t have to squint into the sun. It also means the camera isn’t being overloaded with light, and you won’t end up with a horribly bright background or, worse, an impossibly dark subject.
If you plan a photography trip, then try and avoid the midday sun. Midday has terribly harsh light, and flatters neither people, buildings nor landscapes. Morning or late afternoon/evening are much nicer times. The light is warmer, the shadows softer and the overall mood just much more pleasant.
If you are serious about photography, then you will probably end up favoring one particular area. It might be landscapes, people, architecture, abstract, black and white or any one of a thousand others. Each have their own specific requirements, but there are a couple of tips which carry through to most types of photography, and easily transfer to your smartphone.
If taking pictures of people, animals, still life or any other relatively compact subject, try and get down to what passes for eye level. With people, especially kids, the best images are when the shutter and eye are broadly in line. With still life, which can be anything from food photography to cars, to just about anything, imagine what eye level should be and use that. It might sound vague, but you will get used to it. If in doubt, try a few different levels.
Don’t always demand that your subject pose for you. Seize the moment. Often, candid pictures are the best kind. That unguarded moment that tells a story of its own.
Focus, focus, focus. Most smartphone cameras now have a touch focus feature. This is where you tap the screen on the point where you wish to focus. Use it, and use it well. It doesn’t always need to be the obvious point. Be creative, and see what happens.
With these handful of simple tips, you will improve your pictures instantly. They will also continue to improve with time. Be brave, and you never know where you’ll end up.
In Part 2 of this guide, we will look at some of the other features your smartphone has, to add a little creativity to your pictures.