This guide is intended for you if you currently own a smartphone (iPhone, Android, etc) and want to learn how to take better photos. Looking into the future, I see 99.9% of photographers using an iPhone or a smartphone for their image-making needs.
Why is the smartphone the best camera for photography?
The smartphone is the ideal camera for photography.
- It is always on you
- You can take photos without thinking
- It is easy to share your images
The key to becoming a great photographer is this:
- Take lots of photos
- Get feedback
With a smartphone, it is always on you (either in your front pocket or bag). So you never have an excuse for not taking a photograph.
I know that when I used to have a big DSLR, I would miss so many photo opportunities because I either left it at home or in my backpack (because it was too big, clunky, and heavy).
Furthermore, to transfer photos from a standard digital camera to your computer is a pain. In addition, you need to learn complicated post-processing/editing tools to modify your images. Then you have to export the images, and then share them.
It is far easier to make a photograph, quickly post-process it with an application on your phone, and then share it with friends, family, or your audience.
But isn’t the image quality not good enough?
I think a lot of photographers are overly-obsessed with “image quality” in terms of sharpness, resolution, and being able to create “bokeh” (the blurry background effect).
However the more I study photography — great photography is more about the composition, the light, and the emotion of a scene. Nowadays any modern smartphone can allow you to make incredible photographs.
Of course your photos won’t be as sharp as a high-end digital camera, but sharpness is overrated. A sharp photo isn’t a good photo. Often good photos aren’t very sharp, but still exude emotion, soul, and life.
If you want to be creative on a daily basis with your photography, optimize your camera for size and weight.
I think it is better to have a small camera (you bring with you everywhere you go) with worse image quality instead of a big camera (you rarely bring with you) with better image quality.
Capturing the moment is the most important thing.
I am also a big proponent of small mirrorless cameras and point-and-shoot cameras, as they are a good trade-off between size and image quality. However for the purposes of this guide, let us focus primarily on iPhones/smartphones.
Why do you want to make a photograph?
We all have a creative urge to make a photograph. We might have different reasons for making a photo — either documenting a moment that is personally-meaningful to us, to capture beauty (to hope to share with others), or for creating “art.”
Before you decide how you can make better photos, you need to decide why you make photos. Do you do it personally, as a private diary for yourself? Are you trying to gain more followers on social media? Are you trying to show off your lifestyle? Or are you trying to share the beautiful moments of your everyday life with others, to motivate, inspire, and uplift them?
There are no right or wrong answers. But really meditate on this question before you decide to move on.
What if my smartphone is really old?
There will always be a better, newer, and faster smartphone for photography out there. It seems every 6 months or so our smartphones are becoming outdated.
My simple suggestion is this: try to buy the most high-end smartphone for photography you can (within your budget). For some people that might be $300, others that might be $700.
As of 2016, the iPhone SE starts at $399 (for the lowest-end model). The camera on that phone is fantastic, and is probably the best bang-for-the-buck smartphone camera on the market.
Or just use the smartphone you already have. Honestly, don’t let the poor image quality of your smartphone deter you. If anything, it can be a “creative constraint” — meaning, you will need to focus more on capturing good light, emotions, and moments. If you can make great photos with a crappy smartphone, you will master photography quite quickly.
What to consider when shooting with a smartphone
This applies to all photography, but these are some things that make a great photograph:
- Composition: The shapes you include in your photos, including diagonals, horizontals, verticals, triangles, circles, and curves. You want to make photos that have movement, are dynamic, yet aren’t too cluttered.
- Framing: What do you decide to include or exclude from the frame? When you’re making a photograph, focus on the edges of the frame (and try to clean). A great photograph is more about removing superfluous elements from the frame — not adding.
- Emotion: How does a photograph make you feel? Is it a melancholy moment, a joyful moment, or exciting moment? A photograph without emotion is dead.
- Hand gestures: A good way to capture emotions in a photograph is to look for hand-gestures. A hand gesture can be someone walking on the streets shielding the sun from their eyes. It can be someone deep in thought, pushing their fingers against their forehead. It can be a middle-finger. It can be anything.
- Body language: Consider the way your subject is holding their body. Are they leaning towards you, away from you, hunched over, or stretched out? Body language will convey how they feel. This also ties in with emotion.
- Light: The biggest mistake that newbie photographers make. No matter how expensive your camera is, if your light isn’t good, your photo isn’t going to look nice. You want to photograph during “golden hour” (sunrise/sunset). Another good tip is to photograph things through window light or in a doorway. Or if the light isn’t on your side, use a flash. No amount of post-processing with any app is going to change the quality of the light in a photo.
- Aesthetics: The way you post-process your photo (changing the exposure, contrast, color or black and white settings) will change how the photo feels. I am a huge fan of presets, filters, and other effects which create a certain aesthetic. And no, adding a filter or preset is not “cheating.” Treat it like how a chef puts salt and pepper on their food — it enhances the taste. But a poor dish (no matter how much salt you add) won’t taste good. I also recommend not to over-process your photos (don’t add too much salt to your food).
Applications to install
There is a plethora of apps out there for post-processing your photos.
The ones I recommend are VSCO and Snapseed.
VSCO is a minimalist photo post-processing application that has many film-simulation presets that look aesthetically appealing. I think the presets on VSCO look better than on Snapseed.
Snapseed is a post-processing application made by Google. The benefit of Snapseed is that there is more functionality in terms of post-processing your photos. There are also presets. If you want more powerful features, use Snapseed.
Most photographers I know use a conjunction of VSCO and Snapseed.
For me personally, I will use VSCO for adding a preset, and might do some more subtle changes in Snapseed.
There are a lot of other apps out there, and feel free to experiment. But VSCO/Snapseed are the ones I recommend.
Editing vs post-processing
You might see that up until now, I’ve referred to modifying your images with presets or filters as “post-processing.”
This is intentional.
“Editing” is the art of selecting and choosing your best photographs. Just like a “photo editor” for a magazine— their job is to select the best photos for a story, the formatting. A photo editor’s jobs is not to sit in Photoshop and modify the look of photos all day.
“Post-processing” is the art of modifying the aesthetics of an image. This means changing the contrast, cropping, applying filters, presets, the brightness, sharpness, etc.
The problem is nowadays when people say they’re going to go “edit” their photos, they mean they’re going to post-process their photos.
The bigger problem is that there is little emphasis on selecting your best photos. There is too much emphasis on post-processing your photograph.
So realize that another huge part of photography is the art of selecting your best work (editing).
The difficulty of smartphone photography is that we take so many photos, and we have no idea what to share and what not to share.
Be selective in terms of deciding which photos to share and which photos not to share.
Tips on selecting your best photos (editing)
So let’s say you’ve taken a bunch of images. How do you know what photos to keep, and which photos not to keep?
My suggestion for a simple workflow in photo-selection:
- Look through your gallery of photos
- Flag certain photos as potentials (clicking the little heart in the iPhone or marking as “favorite” on other smartphones)
- Filter your photos you’ve “favorited” (go to the “favorites” folder in the iPhone Photos app, or to your gallery of favorites in your smartphone)
- Asking yourself: does this photograph have a good composition and emotion? Also ask yourself, “When I share this photo, will it bring value to someone else’s life?” If so, move to the next step.
- Open the photograph in your post-processing app (VSCO/Snapseed/etc) and apply a preset, change the exposure, contrast, and export.
- Decide which social media platform to share it on.
I love sharing photographs online. However there is a dark side to it.
Sometimes we over-share. We get addicted to getting lots of “likes” on social media. We forget the joy and the art of the process of making photographs. We focus too much on the external affirmation of others.
Before you share a photograph, ask yourself: “Do I like the photograph?” Don’t share photos that you don’t like yourself.
Furthermore, think to yourself: “Am I adding value, excitement, happiness, and joy to the life of others by sharing this photograph? Or am I simply satisfying my own ego, and trying to show off?” Does the world really need to know you’re drinking a cappuccino? Or drinking a beer on the beach? Wouldn’t you rather share something artistic that will make someone’s life a little less miserable?
If you want to make better compositions on your smartphone, the best advice I can give is to make the simplest photograph possible.
Another mistake that beginner photographers make is they start with the subject, and totally disregard the background.
Do the opposite: start with a simple background (just a white wall, or textured background) and then ask your subject to move, or wait for them to get into position.
Furthermore, make sure that the edges of the frame are clean. Often a lot of photographers crop their photos because the backgrounds are distracting, because the edges of the frame are too loose.
Starting off, just throw your subject somewhere in the middle of the frame. Then focus on framing your photo so the edges of the frame are clean. Then generally your subject will look fine.
Furthermore, if you want more dynamic images— play with your perspectives. Don’t always just shoot head-on at eye-level. Crouch down really low, to get really epic low angles. Perhaps stand on top of a chair and shoot looking down.
Also try to incorporate diagonals into your images. You can do this by looking for diagonal lines in the background or scene, or simply by tilting your camera a little to the left or the right.
As mentioned earlier, no matter how expensive your camera is, you won’t make a good photograph in bad light.
What is “bad light”? Whenever you photograph in the middle of the day or afternoon (usually between 11am-3pm) the light is very harsh. So if you’ve ever photographed your subject in the direct sun, and their skin turns bright-white, or their face is in a shadow, this is “bad light.”
If you want a great photograph, you want to shoot during “golden hour” (sunrise or sunset). They call it “golden hour” because the light has a lovely soft, golden-color during those times in the day. Try to shoot during those times for beautiful light.
Furthermore, if you’re photographing something during the day, you can use window-light. Have your subject stand (or be placed on a table) next to a window with natural-light streaming through. The light will be softened by the window, which makes for beautiful, soft-white light.
Another tip: when the light is harsh, use a flash. The flash will add contrast to your photograph, saturate your colors, and fill in any shadows in the face of your subject. Because smartphone cameras usually have weak flashes, you might need to put your camera really close to their face.
Another tip I learned from my friend Josh White is to use an “external flash” by using someone else’s smartphone. Take a smartphone of a friend, and turn on the flashlight setting. Then cover their flashlight with a small tissue to make the light more soft. Then move it around on the subject’s face, and use your smartphone to make a nice photograph. It is like a mini-studio.
Another tip: learn how to use the “exposure-compensation” on your smartphone. Essentially what that means is to adjust the brightness of your photo. To make it brighter, and make it darker. If you want to adjust the exposure on an iPhone, you click on your subject to focus, and then you can drag your thumb down or up to make your photo either darker or brighter. Or depending on your smartphone, you might need to go into the settings to adjust the exposure compensation.
If you’re photographing and your photos are too bright, lower your exposure-compensation. If you’re photographing and your photos are too bright, increase your exposure-compensation.
Why do my photos look so grainy in the dark?
If you’ve ever shot with a smartphone indoors, at night, or in the dark (without a flash) you will notice the photos look very grainy/noisy/pixely.
The reason that happens is because the sensor of the smartphone camera is very small. Small sensors struggle to let in enough light in dark situations. Therefore the darker your scene is, the more “grainy/noisy/pixely” your photos will look.
The only solution is to use your camera’s flash, or use a camera with a larger-sensor (higher-end digital cameras).
My suggestion is just use a flash. Or be creative and lower your exposure-compensation, and intentionally make someone’s face a silhouette. This will add more mystery to your photo, which is sometimes more interesting.
Furthermore, I’ve discovered that grainy/noisy/pixely photos in black-and-white actually look more charming. So if you have a photograph which you love (but the image quality doesn’t look great), I suggest shooting or converting the image into black-and-white.
iPhone/Smartphone Photography tips
Here are some tips I wish I knew if I started photography all over again:
- Keep your images consistent: If you’re a beginner, start off by using the same preset/filter for a year on all your photos. This will give your photos a consistent aesthetic look. And it will add your signature stamp/style on your photos. By using too many different filters, your portfolio of images will look too random and cluttered. Also this will allow your stream of images on social media to look consistent.
- Print your work: Don’t just share your smartphone photos on social media. Print them out as well. Smartphone cameras have enough megapixels to make nice 4×6 prints, sometimes even 12×18 prints (or even bigger). There is a great charm of printed photos, that will bring you more personal joy and satisfaction than just looking on your phone or computer.
- Let your photos “marinate” before sharing them: The problem we have with smartphones is that we share too many of our photos. Instead, share less. I also recommend letting your photos sit and “marinate” on your phone for either a couple of days (sometimes even a few weeks) before sharing them. Do you remember the good old days of film when we had to wait before our photos got processed? The delay of our photos give us more excitement, and also helps us distance ourselves from our photos. Then we can judge our photos more objectively.
- Don’t wish to upgrade your camera: When many of us start shooting with our smartphones, we want to be taken more “seriously” and therefore we invest thousands of dollars in high-end digital cameras. My suggestion: try to master shooting photography on your smartphone (at least 1 year) before deciding to upgrade. Ironically enough, some of the best photographers I know have shot with both high-end digital cameras and their iPhones— and they prefer shooting on a smartphone. And buying a more expensive camera won’t make you a better photographer, it will only mean you own a more expensive camera.
- Invest your money into photo books, education, and travel: Think the benefit of saving all this money by *not* buying expensive photography gear. You can use that money to buy photo books (artistic or educational), to take photography workshops (to learn how to make better photos), or travel (one of the best experiences that money can buy). Buy experiences, not gear.