The most popular camera ever created is not a camera in the old-fashioned sense, but the camera built into the smartphone you carry around in your pocket. These days, thanks to the advancements in technology, we can all be amateur photographers.
As we travel the world on vacation or business, we are primed to act fast when a good photo opportunity presents itself. From the tuk-tuk drivers of Thailand and the mules of Machu Picchu, to steam rising from the streets of NYC, amazing images are all around us waiting to be captured. Yet very few of us actually get a shot worthy of the moment. Too many of us point and click without understanding how to take or what even makes a good image. Luckily, capturing a better shot is very easy indeed, provided you follow a few simple rules.
1. Understand your phone
The phone you buy will have an instruction manual, an online manual. The temptation with any new smartphone is to remove its packaging and start pressing buttons, rather than sitting down and studying the manual. Even if you don't change a single setting on your phone, it will be configured to capture excellent images. But understanding what it can and cannot do will take your photography skills to the next level.
2. Keep it clean
Most smartphones are carried around in pockets or bags, stored among dust and debris that can damage the lens. Smudges and scratches on your lens will limit the light entering the camera's sensor, negatively impacting the final shot you capture. Keep the lens clean by wiping it with a soft cloth as needed.
3. Aim higher
Set your phone to the highest definition settings you can. This will make use of every last pixel your smartphone packs and make a huge difference in the quality of your shots. And while higher-res images do take up more space in your phone's memory, you can easily reduce their size in post-production.
4. Opt for good lighting
When shooting outdoors, seasoned photographers talk about a “magic hour" for taking photos. That's the small window every day when the light is at its peak. The sun is low in the sky, producing a soft, diffused, more flattering light which gives your images greater shape, depth and definition. You'll find it in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset.
5. Compose your shot
For the most professional composition, employ what the experts refer to as the “rule of thirds." When you look at your camera screen, imagine it divided into thirds cut horizontally and vertically. Any smartphone worth its name will have the option to turn this grid on for you and display it on every shot. The theory is that you'll get a better balanced image if it's off-center, so position your subjects along those lines or at the points where the lines cross, rather than just positioning them in the middle of the shot. There will be times where your subject can and should go in the middle, but the rule of thirds is generally a more creative option.
6. Work harder
The tendency in the modern age is to see a shot you want to take and click away indiscriminately, hoping that if you take enough shots, one of them will be gold. To get a better-than-average shot, however, you'll need to work harder. Not only by incorporating all of the rules outlined here, but also by “working" the scene. This means looking at your potential shot from multiple angles. It means waiting for the exact moment when the scene is worth capturing, not just snapping and running. You can still shoot multiple shots and select the best of them later, confident in the knowledge that you will have higher-quality shots to choose from.
7. Avoid the clutter
Sometimes the backdrop to your shot can be cluttered or plagued by bad light or conflicting colors. You have several options to work around this. Either shoot in black and white — a more forgiving option than color — or change the angle of your shot. Fill the frame with your subject to cut out the extraneous background, or shoot from a high or low position to take the distractions out of the equation.
8. Stay focused
Without sharp focus on your subject, your shot will most likely be discarded. On all modern smartphones your camera will automatically focus on what it considers to be the subject of your shot — a small square or circle should appear to show you where it's focusing, and it will automatically set the exposure. If you decide the focus should be elsewhere on the screen, you should be able to tap the screen and move the focus to where you want it to be.
9. Never zoom
Most smartphone cameras use a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom, meaning that the quality drops noticeably the closer in you zoom. Rather than zooming in with your camera, zoom in with your feet. Whenever and wherever possible, walk closer to your subject rather than zooming in on it. If it's not possible to move in closer to your shot, shoot without zoom and crop the image later to keep the quality as high as possible.
10. Burst mode
The best smartphones feature a burst mode that few people ever use or are even aware of. In burst mode, your phone captures dozens of photos in just a few seconds, piecing them together as one clear, blur-free shot. This makes it perfect for taking shots of a moving subject — a person diving into water, skateboarders, a dog chasing its tail. Holding down the shutter button activates burst mode on most phones.
11. Compose yourself
If you've taken all of the above into consideration but cannot keep your hands still when you take your shot, you'll be left with a blurred image and a lingering sense of disappointment. Still hands are vital in any shot, particularly when shooting in low light. So hold the phone with both hands and lock your upper arms in against your body to minimize movement. Or go pro by investing in a smartphone tripod which will allow you the ability to take advantage of your phone's timer option.
12. An appy ending
As this piece illustrates, there are many, many phone apps designed solely for the purpose of improving the quality of the photographs you take. None of them can make a bad shot good, but the best of them can help enhance the shots you take.
Key setting #1: The HDR
The HDR symbol you'll see on your mobile stands for “high dynamic range," referring to the ratio of light to dark in your photograph. Clicking to “on" results in your camera taking three shots of the same image, all three taken at different exposures. It then presents you with one regular photo and one HDR shot, the latter being more like the image your eye sees than the image the camera sees. HDR is particularly good for compositions with both very bright and very dark areas and works well on landscape shots, where you're often photographing a bright sky and dark foreground. In “Auto," your camera will decide if HDR is required.
Key setting #2: The flash
The little lightning icon is your camera's flash, available as “on," “off" or “auto." Don't make the mistake of thinking that adding the flash will improve your shot. The flash rarely makes a portrait shot look better — a burst of light can look harsh and the flash can leave your subject reeling from the light. Where the flash can help is if you have no choice but to shoot in dark conditions. The basic rule is that if you can, always light the scene with natural lighting. If it's too dark and the only way to add illumination, turn the phone flash on as a last resort.