WORKSHOP: Phone Photography

Your cell phone sucks. Period. It’ll never match up to the quality you’d get from a full sized DSLR or mirrorless camera like the Sony Alpha. However, your cell phone is great at one thing that standard DSLR’s are awful at doing: sharing photos.

The advent of apps like Instagram have transformed photography from an art form to high speed image consumption. It’s part of the reason why the app has become so popular so fast – and the tedious process of transferring photos from a DSLR to your cell phone or computer are antiquated by the ease and speed of sharing a photo to the web via a photo taken and stored directly from your cell phone.

But your cell phone photos don’t need to suck. There’s actually a lot of engineering, complexity, and technology that goes into making that little circle on the back of your device capture amazing images (if you know what you’re doing). Here are 3 ways you can enhance your photo-taking skills on your cell phone:

1 Lighting: Photography is all about lighting and controlling the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor. You can catch my workshop on camera lighting here, although your cell phone’s camera and camera app may not have all the features and controls needed to adjust things like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. However, your camera app, more than likely, has some kind of exposure control as it adjusts the image for brightness by tapping on a light or dark part of the screen. You’ll notice that tapping on a brighter part of the screen will darken the photo as your app auto-adjusts the camera settings. Doing the reverse (tapping on a dark spot of the image) will brighten the photo. Depending on the app you use, the exposure and focus will be locked until you tap somewhere else, exit the app, or change the scene entirely (which would tell the app to reset the exposure).

Watch how tapping on different gradients of light auto-adjusts the brightness of the image:

You’ll also notice that tapping on the screen will open exposure settings on the right hand side (location may differ depending on the phone/app). You can use this slider to manually adjust the brightness of your image.

Here are the settings showing the 3×3 grid on the Google Pixel 3a. Chances are, your camera app will have something similar to this.

Use these settings to get the perfect amount of light for your photos. Don’t make them too bright and don’t make them too dark. Your best bet is to tap on something right in the middle to balance your exposure. If the photo still doesn’t look right, consider changing your angle.

2 Composition: Most camera apps on cell phones have an option in their settings to show grid overlays on the screen. You should optimally select a 3×3 grid and follow the infamous Rule of Thirds to guide your composition. Following the grid and its intersections simply makes your photos more pleasant to see and eye-catching as there’s a pattern that the human eye (more likely, the brain) can about the 33.333% split in the frame from every edge. It’s best said here in a post I found by John Suler:

Why is the Rule of Thirds so important in visual design? The human mind doesn’t particularly like disorder and chaos. It naturally seeks out patterns and quickly detects their presence, sometimes on an involuntary, subconscious level. The three part geometry of the Rule of Thirds is particularly catchy to the eye. It feels interesting, dynamic. It conveys tension and energy, especially at the power points. 

Take a look at this photo below. First, notice how the “Rule of Thirds” is split – three equal sections from every edge of the photo.

Next, take a look at how the image is cropped to meet the horizontal and vertical lines. This technique gives the photo structure and order. There’s a pattern to follow in the aesthetics and it centers the image around the engine of the plane.

3 Angle: While related to composition, the angle in which you take a shot matters just as much. Angle focuses on a three-dimensional space rather than the two-dimensional Rule of Thirds. Your angle gives depth to your shot whereas the Rule of Thirds gives it flat structure. Imagine you’re at a party and a group of friends want to take a selfie together. These horrendous photos usually end up the same way: taken from above, looking down at the group. Most photos angled down at people are just ugly. Why? Because you’re literally looking down at the people in the photo. The faces are usually disproportionately enlarged and the background disproportionately small. You’ve all been reduced to insects on the ground from the perspective of a giant.

The only time you should angle your camera from the top-down is when you’re trying to illustrate scale, like this.

Pro-tip: the photo above utilizes the Rule of Thirds. Can you guess which intersection was used to frame the photo properly? If you guessed the bottom left intersection, you guessed correct. If you were to draw the grid, my face lines up with the bottom left intersection of the first vertical and last horizontal lines.

Now check out the portrait below and notice how I kept the camera level with the subjects and the horizon in the background.

Ignoring the grumpy baby, you’ll notice that the faces don’t look distorted and everything looks level and proportional. Shooting with your camera at about chest-height will get the best portrait photos. Why? Because most lenses, due to their circularity, will distort edges, giving a “fish-eye” effect to your photos. This is particularly true on cell phone cameras as the demand for selfies and group shots forces engineers and developers to make the lenses wider to cram more people onto a small sensor. But keep in mind that these wide-angle lenses also have the potential to make photos absolutely horrendous as they stretch faces and bodies found along the edges of the frame.

These aren’t the only guidelines to use when taking photos on your cell phone. There are lots of tutorials and videos you can find on YouTube, but these three tips can help you get started. Other things to keep in mind are never to zoom. Your cell phone doesn’t have the thickness to pack multiple pieces of glass for an optical zoom, so digital zoom is the best it can do. It quite literally just crops your photo and blows it up to fit your screen to mimic a zooming effect. This makes your photos grainy and blotched. Don’t do it.

Also, don’t just take pictures of the sky. We know the clouds were really pretty that day, but if your photo lacks a subject (be it a person, building, tree, etc…) you probably should pass on the photo altogether. The most interesting pics out there usually focus on one thing or person, isolating the subject from the chaos surrounding it. Don’t take photos of chaos. People usually gravitate to photography to get away from the realities of life, escaping into a fantasy played out by the story told in the photo.

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