Mobile phone photography – 5 tips for taking better photos

Last month we had our first mobile multimedia storytelling workshop with our volunteer bloggers and it went rather well! We made a start by sharing some basic tips for taking photos with our mobiles. I summarise those below.

We are planning to include a similar mini-workshop in each of our monthly bloggers meetings. Next, we will look at photo processing, sharing and putting together photo-stories – all using a mobile or a tablet. Later, we will take on mobile video and podcasting. Join us if you are interested in getting more out of your mobile phone or curious about getting involved with our blogging team. The next meeting is on 22nd of October, at 3pm, at the Community Garden polytunnel. If you have any questions contact Kaska via blog@tayportgarden.org.

Kaska and Dave will also be running a mobile and digital camera photo workshop together with a digital photo competition during the Ferryport Fruitfest – make sure you come and say hello!

And now it’s time for the tips:)

5 + 1 tips for taking better mobile phone photos

It is easy to get lazy with the modern point-and-click cameras on our mobile phones and let them do it all for you. Here are some tips on going beyond the fully automatic mode on your phone’s in-built camera app which should get you on the way to becoming a real mobile phone photography pro.

1. Re-focus away from the centre

A photo of red rosehips
Dog rose fruit in the native hedge at the Fruit Tree Walk, Scotscraig Drive. I made sure that the fruit were in focus by tapping on the screen over them.

Default setting on your camera app will automatically focus on a subject positioned at the centre of your screen. What if your subject is in the corner of the shot? Touch your screen to reposition the focus point (usually shown as a square or a circle) to sit on top of your subject before taking the photo. This should help you with using the rule of thirds for your composition – see below.

2. Adjust brightness of your subject manually

A daisy
A daisy in the lawn. In the top image the daisy is overexposed and detail of the petals is washed out. Manual adjustment of the exposure reveals the details of the flower.

When the shot contains both light and dark areas often the automatic average exposure will leave your subject too dark or too bright as it uses the average of the light across the whole image to set exposure (unless you changed the settings to a different measurement pattern). For example, when you are taking pictures of light-coloured small flowers with grass in the background, they are often much too bright and flower detail ends up washed out. Most phone apps have a means of adjusting the brightness of the image manually, after automatic exposure and focus is set. Sometimes it takes a bit of a rummage in the menus or Googling to find how to do this for your phone model. Having said that, my new Samsung phone seems to be much better at dealing with such overexposed objects and I do not have to use the manual exposure correction as much.

3. Zoom with your feet

Tayport Harbour flower boat. The top image was created by zooming onto it from a distance wich created a poor quality image. The bottom image was taken from up close.
Tayport Harbour flower boat. The top image was created by zooming onto it from a distance which created a poor quality image. The bottom image was taken from up close, resulting in much better resolution.

They say that one of the common beginner’s mistakes is for your subject to end up a tiny, unrecognisable object in the photo. With a ‘normal’ camera you would ‘solve’ this problem by zooming in. The vast majority of mobile phones use digital instead of optical zoom as they do not have proper lenses. This means that you lose resolution and photo quality when you zoom in on the subject and your photos come out pixelated or grainy. Avoid using zoom and get closer to what you are shooting instead. But beware – mobile camera lenses can also cause distortions (e.g. stretch out faces) and have problems focusing when you get very close.

4. Make your composition pop with the rule of thirds

View down the Tay from the Tayport Harbour. I used the Show Grid tool to help me compose the photo - you can see the fine gridlines in this screen capture.
View down the Tay from the Tayport Harbour. I used the Show Grid tool to help me compose the photo – you can see the fine gridlines in this screen capture. I aligned the horizon with the first line from the bottom.

This is one of the simplest rules for photography, yet it’s invaluable for making your photo compositions look great. The idea is that our eyes are naturally attracted to images that are divided into thirds, where the subject of the photo is slightly off-centre.

With the rule of thirds, normally you would imagine a grid of lines on your smartphone’s display, dividing it into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Try placing your subjects along those lines or at the points where the lines intersect. Do this with your horizon lines, too, so that your horizon never cuts through the center of your frame – as I have done in the image above.

You can turn on the grid in your phone’s settings to make it easier to get your eye in.

5. Add interest with light

A photo of a tree
Large cherry tree at the Fruit Tree Walk on Scotscraig Drive. Photo was taken in the late afternoon with the sun low over the horizon creating silhouette and shadow effects in the photo.

Good lighting makes for clearer images (although some newer phones also perform very well at low light levels). Use natural light or turn on your inside lights for well lit subjects. Most advice out there discourages use of flash and I usually have it turned off because it can produce harsh and washed out effects, does not really work at a distance and drains battery fast. However, it is handy for fill-in light for faces when you shoot your subjects against the light. Have a rummage in your settings to make sure you know how to turn it off and on.

Clearer images are not always the most interesting. They say that exploiting light to add interest to your photo is especially important in mobile photography because you can’t create much interest with the usual tricks using different focal lengths and varying depth of field (although newer phones have some capacity to do this).

Avoid ‘flat light’ which tends to create few shadows and even lighting, for example by avoiding shooting indoors with artificial light, at midday or with overcast skies. Try to find light with direction and colour, for example by shooting at sunrise or sunset, or using light coming through a window.

6. Explore features and customise

Each phone has a different camera app and they all have masses of features – take time to try them out and customise your settings, some examples are:

  • Food mode (I have just discovered this one on my new Samsung S7)
  • Panorama
  • Standard vs widescreen
  • HDR
  • Filters
  • AF/AE lock
  • Pro/manual mode
  • Difference in settings for your front and back camera

Search the internet for tips on photography specific to your phone model – there are plenty of blogs dedicated to mobile photography with loads of phone and app specific tips and step-by-step guides. If your basic camera app does not have all the features you want – consider finding an alternative from your app store.

Here are additional tips from each of the participants:

  • Cathy suggested that an interesting effect can be created in close ups by using a setting in the camera app which fakes depth of field by blurring the background and making the subject stand out.
  • Linda recommended that if you have an iPhone you should make sure that it is fully charged before you take it out for a photo session – using the camera drains its battery fast, even without the flash.
  • Ann warned about using the front-facing camera (selfie mode) for important photos which you might want to print. It has much lower resolution than the back-facing camera and the photos will be of very low quality.

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