Top 5 Cell Phone Photography Tips
I. Lighting is everything.
Try to photograph during the early morning or in the evening. I am never happy with how my photos turn out when photographing in broad daylight, even using a professional level camera. When the sun is high overhead, it casts unflattering shadows in the harsh light. Furthermore, because the light is coming from above, it flattens the elements in the photo. Side lighting, such as that found in the morning or evening, generates more dimensionality in the photo, allowing subjects to stand out in a flattering way. The light is also softer and more diffused and the colors more saturated without harshness of an afternoon sun.
Watch for good lighting situations. The wonderful thing about shooting with a phone is that it is always with you and generally accessible. If you are out checking livestock just before the sun goes down, take your phone! Pay attention to how the light filters through the trees or vegetation and how it changes as you move around. If you can, try taking some photos with your subjects backlit (where the sun is coming from behind your subject) and front lit (where the sun is coming from behind you, the photographer). If the sun is too high to effectively back light whatever you are photographing, get down low to shoot. Many of my favorite photos I have shot laying on my stomach out in the cow pasture.
Stormy days are your friend! A rainy, cloudy day with dramatic clouds makes for beautiful photos. Get out there and shoot; your phone will hold up to getting wet much better than a camera anyway. Stormy days make for beautiful, diffused lighting and rain makes everything look fresh and green. The colors are more vivid, the light is even and flattering, and the clouds can make for some very impactful photography.
If you are photographing people, or animals like dogs that are responsive to commands, have your subject turn one way or another to experiment with the light. My favorite type of light is that which lights my subject from the side because their features really stand out. However, back lighting in the right situations can make for a beautiful photo too! The key is a bit of experimentation to find which light makes for the most flattering and impactful photo. Lighting that creates dimension in the photo is especially key when photographing with a phone, since you don’t have the same depth of field or compression that you might otherwise have with a professional grade camera and telephoto/fast lens setup.
II. Pay attention to composition.
While lighting is the most crucial aspect of good photographs, composition comes in close second, especially when using a phone. You want to compose your photo well initially, because cell phone image quality does not allow for a lot of cropping or manipulation. Try to think about the rule of thirds when photographing and divide the frame into nine blocks in your mind when you shoot. Many cell phones can do this for you; in my Samsung I just activate “grid lines” in the camera settings.
Make sure your horizon line is not dead center halfway up the photo and try to position subjects in the left or right third of the frame if shooting horizontal photos. When photographing landscape style photos, try to include elements of the foreground, mid-range, and horizon.
If photographing a moving subject, make sure that you compose your photo to give the subject somewhere to go. You want the subject traveling through the photo, rather than off the frame right away. In other words, if your subject is moving from right to left across the frame, position your subject in the right-hand third of the photo. You want to give your subject somewhere “to go” in the photo. A subject that is moving in a direction that immediately leads out of the frame creates some confusion for a viewer and does not provide the feeling of movement you want to retain in an action photo.
Use the wide-angle lens native to most phones to your advantage. Shoot landscape photos from a low angle to capture the foreground, especially if there are some interesting elements like flowers or vegetation there. Or if you have a great sky to photograph, rotate your phone so that a large proportion of the photo features the sky.
III. Move around!
I cannot stress this enough. If you are not happy with the photos you are getting in a certain spot, move your feet. Try shooting from another angle before putting your phone away and giving up. If the light is terrible from one angle, try moving to the other side of your subject.
Try to avoid photographing small animals or children from above. Get down at their level. Doing so creates more flattering and realistic angles for the subject and therefore creates a photo that resonates more with your viewer. The human brain likes to have a sense of scale in an image; if you photograph subjects that are shorter than you from above, it is hard to determine the scale of the subject in its immediate environment.
That being said, occasionally photographing plants, products, or food from directly above can make for a unique viewpoint that is visually eye catching while still flattering. The key to photographing these still life subjects from above is side lighting that creates dimensionality in the photo. Window light is an incredible asset in these situations.
IV. Retain image quality.
Unfortunately, even the best and newest phones simply do not have the sensor size to capture low light situations without some blurring and noise. There is some creative editing that can overcome these issues, but I would recommend photographing with adequate light for best results. If you do shoot in the near-dark, try to focus on capturing silhouettes; if you don’t try to capture moving subjects or retain a lot of detail in the shadows, these images can still be beautiful.
No matter the light or time of day, phone images are inherently less sharp than those from a professional camera. One trick I have used to overcome lower quality is to use my panorama feature, which is included in most newer phones and essentially stitches a montage of images together to create one long landscape image.
However, the feature can be used in some other capacities, especially when photographing stationary subjects. Rather than panning in a horizontal motion like the feature was designed to be used, I will pan in vertical motion. In doing so, I can create a vertical image that is sharper and higher resolution than photos taken with the basic phone camera. This method can lead to some distortion if photographing taller things like trees or buildings, but it is a good trick to use in certain situations.
The panorama mode trick can also be used to generate a horizontal image. Hold your phone upright (not tipped over in landscape mode) and pan horizontally until you have captured the approximate size of your typical phone photo. While the dimensions will be similar, the resolution for the image captured in panorama mode will be substantially higher.
V. Edit your photos.
While editing can be frustrating and time-consuming, it can really elevate your photos. I edit many of the photos I take with my cell phone in Lightroom Mobile, which is far more expedient than editing on a desktop. If you purchase one thing to up your photography game, I recommend purchasing the monthly subscription of Lightroom. For $10/month, you get access to the Lightroom mobile and desktop applications and 1TB of cloud storage. There is also a free version of Lightroom available for mobile, but it does have some limitations, including users being unable to import presets or save their edited photos to the cloud. The paid version of Lightroom is worth it; I use it every day.
So, presets. Presets are essentially saved photo editing settings that are automatically applied to a photo with one click. However, they are not foolproof and often require some tweaking when applied to various lighting situations. Rather than purchasing presets and potentially spending a lot of money to achieve a look that may not fit well with your photos at all, edit your photos how you want and then create your own presets. Lightroom allows you to name, save, and then re-apply your presents to other photographs and it stores your presets for you to use in the future. This is a big reason to purchase the paid version of Lightroom, because creating presets can save you a lot of time once you have your settings where you like them.
Be consistent in your editing. Another area where presets can save you a lot of time and frustration is consistency in your editing. Consistent editing style is a skill that you must work to develop over time, but it will enable you to create a social media account or website that is visually appealing and cohesive. Play around with your settings on a given photo until you have it where you want it and then save your settings as a preset, adjusting only exposure and white balance on the remaining photos from the same shoot after you apply the preset you created.
Avoid doing too much! Don’t abuse the clarity or texture filters, don’t oversaturate your photos to otherworldly hues, and don’t desaturate everything until it looks like the Great Depression. Try to recreate what you remember in your mind’s eye and then add a little extra saturation, contrast, or shadow definition. You want your photos to be enhanced just enough that they catch the eye, but not so much that they are no longer believable or relatable.
The occasional black and white photo is great! I will tell you a little secret: many of the black and white photos you see on our social media accounts are edited that way because I couldn’t get them to look right in color. Whether that was because the white balance was just off no matter how much I tweaked them, the skin tones of my subject weren’t realistic in spite of my editing efforts, or there was so much noise and grain due to poor lighting, those photos just didn’t present well in color. Using black and white editing can sometimes save a photo that is terrible in color and turn it into something special. So, if you have been editing a photo for a long time and just cannot get it to work in color, try black and white before you throw it away!
Anyway, I hope there were some useful insights here that you can apply to your own photography. Taking great photos for your website and social media can be frustrating and humbling but improving your photography and editing skills is so rewarding. Does having expensive equipment camera equipment make it easier? Sure. But just remember that light, composition, creative angles, and some tasteful editing all come before pricey cameras in creating beautiful photos.