I’m willing to bet that you have a smartphone with a camera built into it. Yet I hear from so many people that they want to invest in a camera so that they can take better photos. In reality, you can take better photos with your smartphone without spending a dime! There aren’t any hidden tricks. I swear you can do these things without having “the eye” or “natural talent.” If you use them well, though, your family and friends just might think you do.
Choose Your Smartphone
You know I’m an advocate for using your camera phone instead of investing in a substantial camera rig. In fact, I recently had a conversation with Craig from Africa 4 Canadians about this very idea. Craig hooks up Canadians with spectacular trips to Africa. We were talking about how to get better photos on these adventures, and of course I recommended that his clients use their phones.
Here’s why: It’s far too easy to spend your entire trip staring at the back of your camera and fiddling with your equipment. Also, if you want to use that equipment well, you’ll need a lot of it. It would be easy to spend $5,000 to $7,500 on equipment for an amazing trip like this. But beyond the financial investment, there is the time investment. I find that many people spend too much time trying to set up a scene rather than enjoying the moment in front of them. Moms fiddle with props while their toddlers lose interest and teens take 20 selfies trying to get the exact right angle. Even I sometimes let my hot chocolate with a mound of whipped cream go cold as I try to get the most romantic, drool-worthy shot when I could just drink the dang thing, already!
I talked about this a bit in my episode on what camera is the right camera for you. The answer? The camera you have right now.
So how can you take better photos using just your smartphone? Here are my 5 ridiculously easy and free tips.
1. Look for More Light
It might seem like there’s plenty of light indoors with all of your lights on, but the truth is that your camera doesn’t work exactly like your eyes. Your eyes naturally adjusts to lighting conditions, but your camera cannot. This is especially the case for the camera in your phone.
Instead of taking all of your photos indoors, go outside outside.
If you can’t go outside, try making good use of a window. Have your subject stand to the side of the window, or you can stand between them and the window where you are not casting a you-shaped shadow.
There is one minor caveat to this. Make sure that you aren’t getting too much direct light. Direct light is what causes the squinting and racoon eyes when your kids are staring directly at the sun. So take your photos in the shade of a full tree, or a building, or something to ensure you get the best bright, but diffused lighting possible.
Here are a couple other things to keep in mind with regard to light.
Don’t use your flash. I know you might be thinking, “My camera phone has flash. I’ll just use that instead of going outside. Because pants are the worst.” Hold onto your sweats! Your smartphone’s flash is, at best, too harsh, and at worst, not powerful enough. Natural light is always best.
You might also try using your cameraphone’s HDR setting. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and in short it brings more details into your shadows and highlights. When you’re outside taking amazing photos with a clear sky behind you, try switching this setting on to get more detail in the sky.
2. Get Focused
Don’t you hate when you take the perfect photo… the best photo you’ve ever taken… and then you look closer and realize that it is, in fact, blurry? This happens to everyone; professionals included. And with your smartphone there is no excuse for settling for it.
Most smartphones have awesome auto focus. They will even recognize faces and bring them into focus for you. When your camera is having trouble focusing, however, try tapping on the screen on whatever you’d like to be in focus. Your phone will [try] to focus on that spot. (Sidetone: If you’re struggling with lighting, tapping on your subject will also make sure that whatever it is is properly lit.)
If you keep tapping on the screen and your photos are still coming out out of focus, there could be a couple things going on.
First, if you have a camera case that covers your screen in any way, that might be your problem. It’s kind of like looking through a window your dog or toddler slobbered on. Any obstruction will deteriorate the quality of your photos.
Next, is your camera lens clean? If there is any dust or scratches on your camera then your photos might come out fuzzy. This happens when we are pulling our phones in and out of our pockets. Try taking a very, very soft cloth to your camera lens.
You can also try getting closer to your subject. More on this below.
3. Use Portrait Mode
The new iPhones have an amazing portrait mode. What this setting does is focuses on your subject, and then blurs out the background. I love it, because this is actually how I prefer to shoot with my professional gear. Portrait mode helps you keep the focus the focus. It diminishes any distracting elements in the foreground or background.
That being said, don’t use fake blur. It was trendy not long ago to mimic the tilt-shift look with fake blurs, and some still love this effect. However, on the wrong photo this starts to look very fake.
4. Crop Your Photos, Don’t Zoom
Your smartphone doesn’t take quality photos from a distance, and its zoom capabilities are probably poor to nill. The truth is that most cameraphones don’t have a real zoom option. This is the difference between optical and digital zoom.
Optical zoom uses the glass in your lens to magnify your subject. 11 seasons of The Big Bang Theory hasn’t prepared me to explain the physics of it. But it’s the same as glasses make near- and far-sighted individuals save on headaches.
Digital zoom, which most smartphones use, simply crops your photo and then artificially enlarges it. The problem with this is that your photograph is made up of many tiny pixels. When you enlarge the photo, each pixel gets duplicated, and eventually the whole thing looks like a big blurry mess.
There are three ways around this tragedy of zooming.
You can get closer to your subject, as I already mentioned. Problem solved.
If that is not an option, take your photo without zooming and crop it after. This saves the final image from being stretched, so it still looks as sharp as it can.
And finally, you can also be conscious of which camera you are using. For example, your back camera (the one you use to photograph your dog) is almost always better quality than your front camera (the one you use for selfies). So whenever possible, use the back camera to take photos.
5. Brush Up On Photography Composition
Photography composition might seem complicated, but in reality it’s all about simplifying your image. I’ve spoken about this in a previous episode on improving your homemade family photos. I’m going to focus on 3 easy ideas here.
First, try eliminating distracting elements from your photos. If there’s a tree sprouting out of your tween’s head, a banister cutting through your husband’s neck, or someone else’s kid eating dirt in the background, move! Removing these distractions will immediately make your photo better.
Next, use the rule of thirds. Imagine splitting a photo into 9 equal parts. If your subject lines up with anywhere those parts meet or intersect, then you’re on the right path. And your camera phone might actually help you out with this. Some will show a grid while you’re taking a photo so that you can line up your subject. Next time you’re taking a portrait, try having your subject on the right-side of the photo instead of right in the middle.
And finally, use lines to frame your photos and direct your followers where to look. For example, stand in a doorway for your next smoochy selfie with your Valentine. Or instead of having your kids stand right in front of the backyard tree, have them stand to the side of it so that the trunk and branches frame their cute little faces perfectly.
Improve Your Smartphone Photos
I can tell you that good camera equipment is not inexpensive. You don’t need it. It’s true what they say that equipment doesn’t make the photographer. Don’t waste your money on camera gear you’re going to use once then ditch. Instead, you can use these 5 smartphone photography tricks to improve the photos you take with the camera in your pocket. Because the best camera you have is the one that’s always with you, and it’s totally free!
I hope that these tips will help you take better photos on the fly, while also saving you a lot of money, and a big headache, and help you get back to enjoying life with all those folks you’re snapping photos of.