The advent of smartphones has ushered in many earth-shattering cultural changes, not least the revolution in photography. We are living in a golden age, and our devices have made shutterbugs of us all, allowing us to capture all life’s moments big and small that in the past may have slipped by. It also means we’re deluged with photos—so many photos—most of them truly, patently terrible.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to improve your smartphone photo-taking skills, so we consulted with a couple of pros to guide us through the process. Arizona-based Nick Fornwalt is a professional cinematographer and photographer with a deep knowledge of the techniques for capturing interesting and attractive images. Sheldon Serkin, a native of Brooklyn, began shooting using just a smartphone five years ago and has gone on to become an award-winning photographer, and won the grand prize of last year’s prestigious Mobile Photography Awards.
Here are some of Fornwalt and Serkin’s top smartphone photography tips:
1. Change your latitude
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of amateur photographers is taking all their photos from the exact same position: eye level. Serkin says you can quickly boost your photo game by switching up your stance.
“Otherwise, all your shots have a sameness to them,” he explains. “So, for instance, if you’re shooting a kid, get down to their level. It’ll instantly change the way your photos look.”
2. Look for cloudy days
Logically, you might assume that bright sunlight is ideal for taking photos; however, the opposite is true.
“The sun produces a very harsh light that’s very unflattering,” Fornwalt says.
It also creates high contrast and shadows, which, depending on the subject, can be great, but are a challenge for portraits in particular. Cloudy days actually produce a diffuse light that’s more balanced, which is ideal.
3. Time your shots to the magic hour
Among pros, the end of the day is treasured not only because of happy hour, but also the magic hour: the 60 or so minutes before sunset when natural light is especially gorgeous.
“Sunlight comes toward the earth at a very low angle, leading it to be much less harsh and more flattering than in the middle of the afternoon,” Fornwalt says.
Similarly, the light just after dawn is also particularly great for shooting photographs (except for the obvious fact that it also requires getting up at dawn).
4. Shoot portraits in a new light
In essence, photography is simply a tool for recording light, and so figuring out how light works is essential.
“Try to shoot your subjects with soft light illuminating their face,” says Fornwalt. “Soft light includes indirect light sources, like sunlight bouncing off a white building, and diffused light sources, like sunlight passing through a thin white sheet.”
When shooting outdoors, keep an eye out for light-reflective sources—white tables, snow, your cooler’s lid—which you can use to enhance your shots or to shoot in ways you may not have considered before.
5. Play with shadows
“Most shadow or light problems that I see have to do with contrast in the images,” Fornwalt says. “For example, people often take a photo indoors against a large window and end up with a blown-out background and a dark, underexposed interior.”
Instead, Fornwall says to look for shots where the subject and the location share the same light as much as possible.
Serkin says a good rule of thumb for most shots is that light should always be coming from behind the photographer, or at least in front of the subject.
6. Be the zoom
Resist the urge to use your camera’s built-in zoom function whenever possible and instead use the all-natural zoom you were born with: your feet.
“Whenever possible you should move, and get good and close to your subject as you need,” Serkin says.
The reason is that your phone may rely on a digital zoom versus a mechanical or optical zoom. Digital zoom essentially blows up the photo and can produce a grainier, lower quality image on some settings.
7. Pull the trigger
In the days of film, photographers often used a shutter release cable to help keep their camera as steady as possible instead of jabbing the shutter button and causing a blurry photo. In the smartphone era, using the volume buttons instead of the onscreen shutter button can achieve the same effect.
Serkin suggests this trick for smartphone users with controller-enabled headphones: “Plug in your earphones, and you can use the volume button on the cable. This makes it super easy to snap a shot without moving your smartphone.”
8. Hit the app store
No matter what smartphone you have, the built-in camera apps are all pretty great, and offer a range of shooting modes and options. When it comes to editing your photos, however, a trip to your favorite app store helps.
“Most photos could be a little better—sometimes a lot better—with some tweaking,” Serkin says. “You can fix most anything now very easily—like contrast, or whether the photo is straight, or exposure—with even basic apps.”
There are dozens of photo apps, but Snapseed is a favorite among pros for being simple yet powerful.
9. Avoid clichés
Undoubtedly the most popular photographic formula in the world is subject A standing in front of object or location B, smiling. It’s a wonderful way of establishing a visual memoir for the future, no doubt, but Serkin suggests that casual snapshots are far better. His trick is to shoot a few photos while the subject is still getting themselves ready for the posed shot.
“That way you still get the posed photo as a backup, but you also have these candid shots of people smiling, or focusing or whatever,” he says. “I find they’re always more revealing about the subject and their personality or character than a posed photo.”
10. Just get the shot
Film is expensive, but digital is essentially free. That’s why Serkin says if you’re going to take a picture, go ahead and take five or ten or a few dozen.
“I take many, many, many photos,” Serkin says. “With a smartphone it’s so easy, and I have it on me all the time, and so there’s no reason not to.”
To get the best shots, Fornwalt says you also need to mix things up a bit and get outside your normal everyday experience.
“The best photos often come from unplanned moments, so explore places you’ve never been to before to find a great shot you wouldn’t have otherwise seen,” Fornwalt says.
11. Pick your palette
Black and white photos are a source of eternal confusion and curiosity. Why make a photo in two colors when you can have the rainbow?
Serkin offers this bit of wisdom: “A famous photographer said that you do color when you’re shooting someone’s clothes. You do black and white when you’re shooting them. I shoot a lot of black and white, but in color when it’s specifically part of the story or what I’m trying to communicate.”
12. Turn off your flash
Because the lenses and sensors in smartphones are so amazingly, ridiculously small, they sometimes have a hard time capturing quality images in low light, compared with dedicated cameras like a DSLR. “That’s what a flash is for,” you might say. However—in the hands of an amateur—photos that depend on flash are almost uniformly not great.
“It blasts out the image and can make everything look flat,” Serkin says.
Smartphones with very large apertures (f2.0 or lower), such as the Samsung Galaxy S® 6, fare better in low light situations.