One of the quickest and most accessible ways of improving your photographic skills is to use the camera that most of us have readily to hand almost wherever we go: our phones.
While it might feel like cellphone cameras are lightyears behind the cameras professional photographers use on shoots, the truth is that they are, generally speaking, quite capable little devices.
If you’re considering taking photography more seriously and have toyed with the idea of buying a fancier camera, it is probably worthwhile spending some time making sure you’ve got the most out of what you already have. I promise you that what you will learn from the experience will benefit you should you ever choose to move onto more technically advanced equipment.
Below are some quick points to consider which will immediately make a difference to how you shoot with your phone’s camera. Rather than focus on specific scenarios, instead I’m going to try to be as general as I can with these tips so that you can apply them to a range of applications.
The focus is the key to an image that looks professional. If your focus is wrong (or not present), your photo will immediately feel as though something is missing.
Your focus should be the first place your eye naturally travels to in a composition. Your point of focus could be a face, the eyes or your fluffy duck bao. Usually all it takes is a tap on the relevant spot on your phone’s screen to set the focal point to where it needs to be.
Balance depends largely on what effect you’re trying to achieve with your photograph. Are you trying to look closely at a single subject, or are you trying to communicate energy and busyness? Either way, you need to make sure that the viewer’s eye will first and foremost be drawn to the main focal point before being led anywhere else. If there’s too much happening, the eye doesn’t know where to go and that can be disturbing.
For the most part, ‘less is more’ is a good philosophy to follow when composing shots. Rather err on the side of having fewer elements than cluttering up your photographs unnecessarily.
Look to the light:
Lighting is crucial in taking a good photograph and it can make all the difference between an image that is flat or full of life and interest.
The first technique you can apply to your phone photography skillset is to look at where your sources of light are, and then consider how they work with the subject you’re shooting.
Pay attention to how the light is falling on the subject and check that it has clear light and dark areas. This adds dimensionality and structure to your subject. Side lighting next to a window is mostly always a winner for food photography, young persons’ and elderly persons’ portraiture, allowing for textures to be highlighted and amplified.
The more contrast you can add to your image, the richer the highlights will become as will the overall mood you will add to the finished product. Alternatively, making your subject look directly into the light at the window can be very flattering for softening the structure. Light can help to emphasise details, but it can also be used to hide blemishes or imperfections. Likewise, a lack of light can also conceal, but you need to be mindful of where shadows are falling. Light from above, like indoor downlighting is the WORST for portraits, so take your subject outside in the shade rather if you can. If that’s not possible keep moving your subject further back from the light to reduce the harsh shadows.
Try photographing food in direct sunlight. This will add sparkle, structure and interesting play on light and shadow.
Rule of thirds:
While it can be tempting to put the subject of your photograph right in the centre, it’s usually a lot more visually interesting to have the point of interest over to the left or right third of the image. Try placing your subject in the bottom third of the image as well, or make clear divisions in a set of 3 for interest.
Most phone cameras come with an option to turn on an onscreen grid you can use to keep details aligned correctly and to see where your subject needs to be.
Food has a face:
This might sound a bit odd, but each dish you photograph will have a specific point where it can be shot in the most flattering way, and part of a photographer’s skillset is finding this point. This is the food’s ‘face’.
A good rule of thumb here is to find an angle where you can see each element of the dish clearly. Each component is essential to the dish as a whole, so you need to see it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they all need to be in focus, mind you… Mostly food is shot from above as a flatlay so you can see every component, but there is a definite upside down and right way up. It’s hard to point to where every dish’s face is in a blog post as every dish is different. Mostly, wait staff will put it down correctly in front of you, but not all food you may want to photograph is served to a table. You will need to figure it out by what looks right in the moment to you, while still keeping the rule of thirds in mind.
Be mindful of what’s behind your subject and make sure there’s nothing to distract the eye. This doesn’t mean there should be nothing in the background; instead you should make sure that what is coming through in the images is exactly what you want to see. Don’t like the fire hydrant in the background? Change your angle. On the other hand, cleverly using the background at hand can tell a story better than words.
Here’s one tip from fellow food photographer Hein van Tonder: When shooting food, it’s also worth scouting around to find an interesting surface to shoot on as this can contribute enormously to the story of the image. Remember, no one is going to be able to tell where you shot something, so if you see that the texture of the floor or a chair is amazing, use it as a backdrop. No one is going to be any the wiser.
Be wary of the flash:
Commercial flashes are almost always diffused or bounced off a surface, but because most phones have the flash right next to the lens, it’s difficult to achieve the same effect. Generally speaking, you should only ever flash when there is NO other option to get more light on your subject and what kind of conditions would there be that would make you do that? Honestly…
Don’t use the zoom:
The vast majority of phone cameras use digital zooming, which produces grainy images. If you need to take an image of something far away, the best solution really is to get closer, or bank on the fact that you’re not going to be able to get an amazingly crisp image.
Play with shapes and design:
Group circles together or use leading lines to direct the eye to the subject. They eye should travel in and loop around within the frame, keeping the viewer engaged. Find patterns and fill the frame with the symmetry or move lines around in several compositions to see the effect it has, calm or tense? Use lines that point to a subject to lead the eye in.
Play around with angles, but don’t go too far:
While it’s good to see how changing your angle to the subject can change an image dramatically, you should try to practice restraint with how you vary the angle. Extreme angles tend to work only in a limited number of instances.
That being said, you’re only really going to know where the limits are when you’ve gone too far a few times. The beauty of digital photography of any kind is that you can see the result of your work immediately and gauge from there whether or not your experiment has borne fruit or not.
Any variation of height will distort perspective when looking at a person, and that can change how that person is perceived through the image. Shooting from above makes subjects seem smaller while shooting from below makes them look bigger. Only employ an angle if it communicates what you want it to. There is the culture of women employing the ‘shoot from above so you don’t see my double chin” method. If these are your concerns make sure you also shoot with your face illuminated straight on, like shooting facing a window. This ‘smooths’ any textures one might like to avoid on the face.
Tell a story
One of the key details that separates excellent photographs from mediocre ones in their ability to engage the viewer in a story. This doesn’t necessarily mean one has to build a narrative into every picture, but rather that there is enough information present in the image for the viewer to be able to construct a narrative of their own.
Liquid and glass are two of my favourite elements to play with in photography. Add lights and you have an endless stream of possibilities to explore. I found this tip really pushed me to find better compositions, in phone photography but also in my work. Give yourself a little project to go out and find reflections and find a way to make a good composition from it. City lights, car windows, a silver teapot, or just photograph water on the ground after the rain and find the subject reflected only in the water.
Find the shadows:
Photographing food in direct sunlight has been met with mixed reviews but I love it. I love to find the natural shapes that form as shadows adding dimensions to the dish. Sometimes an interesting shadow on the floor can ‘fill’ the empty space around your subject. Search for floor shadows or leaves shadowing a white wall.If I find a beautiful shadow on the floor, sometimes I stand waiting for the perfect moment when someone walks through it to create my story.
Keep your lines straight
Don’t ever tilt the horizon line. Many people feel like shooting with a slight slant will add dynamicism and a sense of fun to an image, but in reality it just makes the image feel clumsy. Dynamics and fun come from other elements of composition like light, shadow, contrast, gradients and colour.
This guide is aimed at people using the information to take better photographs with their phones, but the principles can be applied to any form of photography or other image making. Taking the time to consider these elements will immediately make a difference in the types of images you compose and capture, and the results will speak for themselves.
If you’ve used some of these techniques or have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you have found it beneficial. Happy creating!
This post was inspired by an article I participated in on Food24 by Katy Rose.