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.


WORKSHOP: Basic DSLR Mechanics

Your camera is designed to do one thing: take photos. Other bells and whistles are nice but, at the end of the day, your lens, sensor, and shutter button are all that matter. Here’s a very quick breakdown of what happens inside your DSLR when shutter button is pressed.

After you attach the lens to the body, this is is how light passed through the camera and into the viewfinder, allowing you to see what you’re shooting at in real-time.

The next couple of diagrams show what the mirror does when the shutter button is pressed. The mirror flips upward so light can pass through the lens and directly to the sensor for the image to be captured. The longer the mirror stays up, the more light the sensor can absorb – and the brighter your image will be. Check my other Workshop on light control to learn more about shutter speed and manipulating your sensor’s access to light. For shutter speeds like 1/30 (or one-thirtieth of a second), the mirror will stay up longer, allowing for a bright photo. Shutter speeds like 1/800 (or one-eight-hundredth of a second), the mirror will shut up and down a lot faster, minimizing motion blur at the expense of light.

This graphic shows the movement of the mirror when the shutter button is pressed. Photographers with mirrorless cameras are missing exactly that – a mirror. For mirrorless users, light passes directly through the lens and onto the sensor; however, mirrorless camera must rely on a digital viewfinder (rather than an optical one shown here) to see what they’re shooting at. For older mirrorless cameras, this usually consumed extra battery life that a standard DSLR wouldn’t need. Mirrorless cameras today have mostly fixed this issue.

Another way to look at it is like this: Take a shutter speed of 1/30, for example. 1 ÷ 30 = 0.0333 seconds. That means your mirror will stay up for 0.0333 seconds before coming back down. At a shutter speed of 1/800, your mirror is retracted for only 0.00125 seconds (because 1 ÷ 800 = 0.00125). That’s not a lot of time for light to pass through your lens and onto the sensor. Images at a higher shutter speed will be less blurry but, since light is hitting the sensor for less time, images will also be significantly darker.

Photography is a lot about manipulating light. Actually, it’s all about light. The goal is to balance your shutter speed with aperture and ISO to capture the best amount of light.


WORKSHOP: Your DSLR & Light Control

Let’s get right to it – the three major factors that determine the quality of any photo you take with a DSLR (or any camera with manual settings).


Your aperture determines how blurry the background of your photo will be.

Higher Values: The higher this value is (eg: F32), the more in-focus background objects will appear. Higher aperture values will darken your photos as the lens allows less light reaching the sensor to reduce blur. To compensate of loss of light, lower your Shutter Speed and/or increase your ISO.

Lower Values: As values get lower in number (eg: F1.4), background objects will appear blurrier, giving your photos a “bokeh” effect. Lower aperture values will also brighten your photos. If your photos appear too bright, you may want to keep your ISO setting at the lowest value and your Shutter Speed higher.

Notice how the trees and hangar are blurred in the background but the aircraft is in-focus and sharp in the foreground?

Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed determines how blurry your photo will be when challenged with movement.

Higher Values: The higher the Shutter Speed, the less blurry your photos will be. As your Shutter Speed reaches higher values (eg: 1/1000), the shutter on your camera will open and close faster, causing less and less light to reach the sensor. This will make your photos darker since light has less of a chance to reach the sensor in time. You can compensate for this by increase ISO or lowering your Aperture.

Lower Values: The lower the Shutter Speed, the blurrier your photos will come out – if there is movement. Lower Shutter Speeds (eg: 1/2) keep the shutter on your camera open for a longer period of time, allowing more light to reach the sensor. However, if your hands are shaking or the subject you’re photographing is moving, lower Shutter Speeds will blur your photo as the sensor is exposed to light longer. If too much light is entering your sensor, increase your Aperture and keep your ISO at its lowest setting.


This is basically “fake light.”

Higher Values: Higher ISO values (eg: 25,600) will make your camera sensor more sensitive to light, but will increase the grain or “noise” in the photo. Higher ISO values are best used in low-light conditions such as indoor events or astrophotography, where shakiness and movement needs to be suppressed with higher shutter speeds or the use of a tripod.

Lower Values: Lower ISO values (eg: 50 or 100) will make your camera sensor less sensitive to light and will decrease the amount of grain or noise in the photo. Lower ISO values are best used in daylight conditions as you want to minimize the amount of light in your photos.


VIDEO: Fly-In On a Mountain

The Parrot Anafi has been my aerial travel companion for a few months. I made a video similar to this with the DJI Spark last Fall, but the image quality between the Spark and the Anafi is almost incomparable. So I gave the scenery another try and what a difference it is! (I’ll probably write separate post about the difference between a DJI drone and the Anafi).

Flying my drone in New Jersey and snagging sweet shots like this is tons of fun and New Jersey has a lot to offer when it comes to eye catching scenery. From mountains, to lakes, to rivers, and cities, you can’t go wrong flying (safely) around here.

roy michael antoun photography