How to Take Better Photos on Your Phone
Gear lust is a real thing. From amateurs to professionals, I’ve seen all sorts of photographers get starry eyed thinking about the newest Fuji, Sony, Canon or Nikon (hello breathless tweets about how the D850 is the greatest camera ever made). There are definitely shots that require more than a phone but there’s also so much you can do with just a phone. I take most of my professional photography shots on my DSLR (a Canon 5d mk iii) but on trips and lazy days I always fall back on my phone. It’s way lighter and easier to keep with me. Plus there are all the spur of the moment things I want to capture.
I often get asked what camera I shoot on and I’m always happy to answer but I always want to add a little note about the awesomeness of using a phone for photography. Before getting all smitten with an expensive camera body, go out and create images with your phone. Here are some of my favorite tips for better phone photos.
Wipe your lens
This is the simplest tip ever and yet I find it necessary to share: clean your phone camera lens. We hold and touch our phones all the time. The camera gets smudgy. It happens. Before you take a phone, take a second to wipe your phone camera clean. Otherwise, you’ll get smudgy images.
For the first image on the left, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and took the photo right away. It's all soft and smudgy. On the right, the smudginess is magically gone. It's a simple thing to wipe your phone clean but it makes a difference.
Hunt for good light. Soft ambient light on a cloudy day, near a window is phenomenal. I hate passing up photo opportunities but I’ve learned over the years that if the light doesn’t work, the image won’t work at least with a phone where flash doesn't look great. Going back to the images above, I shot them on a tabletop with the top half of the image in direct sunlight and the bottom in the shade. For the bit in the sun, you can see that there are strong shadows and it's a bit harsh (this can be great when used thoughtfully). The images below were all shot away from direct sunlight but near a window.
Occasionally, I’ll take a photo in bad light if my cats are doing something particularly cute but those images end up in a sentimental folder not shared with anyone else. They're fun photos and I personally love them but they're not great images.
One of the most difficult aspects, in my opinion, of photography is creating compelling compositions. It’s tough. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to frame my images. Should I step closer? Should I shift things around? Sometimes in the middle of a shoot when I’m feeling a bit unsure if something looks good, I pull out my phone and snap a quick picture. With a phone, you have instantaneous feedback of how your composition looks without having to think about settings.
Now I’m going to say something that some photographers might not love but it helped me when I was starting out. If you’re struggling with image composition, spend a bit of time re-creating images that resonate with you by accomplished photographers. Small still lives are great for this. Look, I’m not advocating that you copy or pass someone else’s ideas as your own. This is purely an exercise to help you practice. Chances are that you’ll find it pretty challenging to recreate an image in exactly the same way but in the process of trying, you’ll learn new things about composition and you'll improve.
You’ve taken a photo in nice light. You made sure the composition looks good. Now edit your photos. I've thought a lot recently about what separates amateur photographers from professional photographers and one of things I think is consistent editing. On it's own the edited photo below on the right may not look that different but it's more about consistency across all of your images. Also, editing isn't a laborious process these days. There's a ton of great apps out there that make it incredibly simple to easily make small adjustments and improvements.
A few final thoughts
If you're itching to get more serious about photography or just trying to up your vacation photos, take a bit of time to work on improving your phone photos before buying a camera. Learning to think about light and composition will transfer over when you make the jump and it'll make it easier to focus on just getting the technical aspects of photography down.