Smart Photography – Tips and Tricks for Better Photos With Your Smartphone

Johannes Mairhofer Updated on 20.10.2020
10 Min.
Last updated on 20.10.2020

You need images for your website or blog, but don't have professional camera equipment, let alone a real understanding of photography? No problem, because in many cases you can get great results with your smartphone. Photographer Johannes Mairhofer will show you what you should pay attention to when taking pictures with your smartphone.

Photography is an exciting medium. Photography can arouse emotions and capture memories. Photos can be provocative, beautiful and interesting. Often it is only a detail, a slightly changed view or an extended perspective that turns a "trivial" photo into an exciting picture.

In this text I would like to show you some basics, tips and tricks that can help you to get better photos if you follow them - or even break the rules on purpose. All my tips are designed to be applicable to both classic and "normal" smartphones. So you don't need a special camera, special software or expensive technology. All you need to do here is broaden your view and try to take pictures instead of "taking pictures".

The text is structured in a way that I would like to start with some technical tips, then explain something about image design and composition and finally discuss my personal opinion about image editing. The whole thing is enriched and explained by means of some examples, which of course were all created with a standard smartphone.

#1 Technology tips for smartphone photography

The best camera is always the one you have with you. Since this is probably in many cases the smartphone, I give here a few tips on technical settings that can be made on almost all smartphones. There is explicitly no special app necessary to implement the recommendations.

Disable flash

On most smartphones, the flash is located right next to the lens. This causes the flash to come directly from the front and flash directly into the face. This is never nice, especially with portraits, casts ugly shadows and causes red eyes and pale skin.

With landscapes, a flash makes no sense at all, because the flash power is not sufficient to brighten the surroundings.

This is then taken to the extreme at concerts. Imagine the stage is illuminated by spotlights that produce thousands of watts of power. A small mobile phone flash from the back rows has no direct effect here, except that it disturbs the other concert guests. Most of the time it is the case that you never look at these concert photos again.

But if lightning, for whatever reason, is absolutely necessary, the mitigation or scattering helps. Thus, a piece of paper, a speed or a piece of bread and butter paper held in front of the lightning often works wonders. The light no longer comes from the front, but is "scattered" by the fabric.

Even better, however, is an external light source from a different point than from the front. Here, a flashlight or the flashlight app of another smartphone can be used to illuminate the object or person to be photographed from a different angle. This usually makes the light appear much more harmonious and less "crass" - these tips can also be combined, e.g. an external light source with the paper in front of it.

Tip

If the person or object is illuminated with a candle, the whole picture looks even "warmer" and can produce particularly beautiful effects.

Show / display grid

To support the composition of the picture I recommend to insert a grid. Depending on the operating system of the smartphone or the app used, there are often even several variants to choose from. But the "rule of thirds" is quite sufficient for the beginning and available in almost all photo apps I have seen so far.

This grid divides the camera display into nine rectangles of equal size and helps to shape the image. This allows the center of gravity of the image to be aligned with the grid, because an image is more pleasing to the eye when this center of gravity is located at one of the intersections of the grid lines.

Smartphone photography example 1

It becomes clearer in this example. In this case, the bank is the focus of the picture. Now imagine the grid mentioned above on this picture. You will notice that the bench is aligned at the bottom right intersection of the grid lines. Of course, it does not always have to be exact to the millimeter, the grid serves more as an orientation for the composition of the picture.

Set the highest resolution

Even though most photos are probably mostly used digitally and for the web, I recommend you to set the highest resolution. This is quite banal because storage space doesn't cost anything more and the pictures can be printed. No matter if you are a professional or amateur photographer - seeing your own photo printed in your hand or on the wall is always a great feeling. 

Even with medium-priced smartphones, pictures can now be produced that can be easily hung on the wall as posters in e.g. DIN A2. Especially as the pictures hanging on the wall are viewed from a certain distance. Personally, I also find that pictures that touch emotionally are not created by technical perfection, but by the composition of the picture.

Save location

Many programs for image management and processing or the automatic archiving of Google photos can read and process GPS data. This means that even years after the pictures were taken, it is still possible to track where they were taken. That sounds banal at first. But with the flood of images we produce every day, it's quite possible that you won't know exactly where your images were taken.

Picture format

The most pleasing to the human eye is still the 4:3 landscape format. With this format, the chip built into the camera is also used most effectively.

Focus = Exposure

Usually, most camera apps use a touch to set the focus on the desired area in the photos. In addition, it is usually not only the focus (sharpness) but also the exposure (brightness) that is set here. This means that the software in the camera app calculates the "technically optimal average exposure value" from the entire image. This can influence the image effect of the photo, intentionally or unintentionally.

Try this out by focusing on something in the foreground, e.g. a person, and focusing on the sunset in the background.

Effects please after taking the photo

Of course, this is always a matter of taste, but I'm not a fan of effects, as they are often used as filters in Instagram. In my opinion they distract too much from the actual image.

If you do want to use them, please do so afterwards, even though some camera apps can apply effects of this kind directly while taking pictures. But if the effect is already applied while taking a picture, the picture is already "broken" - the effect is already there and you can't decide against it afterwards.

If you apply the effect or filter only afterwards, you remain flexible and leave all possibilities open. So you can try out different effects afterwards - or leave them out altogether.

#2 Image design in smartphone photography

The saying "You've got an expensive camera, it's bound to take good pictures" is probably familiar to all professional photographers. Transferred to another profession, it's like coming into the kitchen to a cook and saying "Wow, you have expensive pots and pans, you'll probably make some very tasty food!

Depending on the purpose and requirements of a photo, of course sometimes an expensive camera (which must be operable) is the necessary choice to achieve the desired result. But if one stays with expensive SLR cameras only in the "automatic mode", nowadays many pictures with the photos from a modern smartphone are technically not really distinguishable.

For private photography, social media or even websites and blogs, a smartphone is therefore often sufficient. Especially if you know a few rules and follow them (or break them deliberately), you can create great pictures even with a smartphone.

The "Project Glasses"

If you don't have a specific project in mind but simply want to "take pictures", there is a danger that you will take pictures instead of actually taking them. This is where "thinking in projects" and putting on "project glasses" helps.

If you walk "around the block" at home or in the office, you will probably see less exciting motifs, whereas on holiday everything is full of exciting pictures. The view in your own environment is "tired" - you are "operationally blind" for exciting motives.

For example, put on the project glasses "green" or "structures" and then go on the search. Suddenly you will see completely different things, which will fit to these same glasses. This often helps you to see new and interesting photo motifs in familiar surroundings.

Foreground and background

Smartphone photography example 2

An image always consists of foreground and background. Sometimes a middle ground is added. In my example, which was taken at the Chiemsee, the boat is clearly in the foreground and is oriented in the rule of thirds at the intersection of the lines at the bottom right. The mountains are in the background.

I would also call the footbridge the foreground, although it goes into the middle ground and thus also guides the viewer's view to the mountains in the background.

Line management

Smartphone photography example 3

By deliberately choosing lines, the viewer's gaze can be directed and thus influence the composition of the picture or the way it is viewed. In the example, the arrangement of the boats directs the viewer's gaze towards the centre of the picture and, like the jetty above, leads to the background. This becomes even more extreme if, for example, river courses or railway tracks are built into your picture.

Parallels

Smartphone photography example 4

Especially when photographing architecture, it is recommended to pay attention to recurring lines and parallel straight lines. In this example, the transitions of the two towers are parallel to each other and additionally at right angles to the actual towers. This creates a symmetry that makes the image more harmonious.

Colours

Smartphone photography example 5

Recurring or repeating colours make the picture more harmonious. In this example I was very lucky with the sky, because it is often cloudier in Hamburg. So the blue sky is repeated in the blue tones on the Elbphilharmonie and makes the picture more pleasing.

Point of view

Especially the two architectural images from the last examples show that a change of perspective often leads to better or more exciting results. In general, it helps not always to look "straight ahead" and at eye level, but to consciously direct the gaze upwards or downwards in order to look for perspectives that are not commonplace.

#3 From the idea to the picture

In order to consciously make great pictures, it is useful to think about a few things in advance. These thoughts can look like this, for example:

Play and courage

Do not see the rules as strict guidelines, but as ideas and impulses. Try to "play" and be courageous. The nice thing about digital photography is that you can just try everything. Pictures are also usually a matter of taste, because what I like doesn't have to please you and vice versa.

Just try to walk around your block and take a picture directly with project glasses of your choice (maybe start with "structure"). Apply the rules consciously and break or ignore them. Maybe change the viewing angle by a few centimeters and observe how the images and their effect change.

Tip

Afterwards, show the result, or both, to your friends and ask them (and yourself) which pictures are more pleasing, exciting, boring or "disturbing". You will notice that often small changes of the angle can lead to big differences in the picture result.

Creative focus

With pictures a creative focus is important. What is the picture about, what do I want to say? Should the picture be "pleasing" or do I rather want to provoke or deliberately "disturb" the viewer?

For whom?

Who's the photo for? Should it only be used privately or even published? If it is published, any personal rights must be respected, which is usually less relevant for private use.

For what?

For which medium should the photo be used? Is it "only" online or is it printed somewhere? If it is printed, for example, the technical quality is more important than if it is only displayed on screens.

Use?

When asking how much effort and consideration should be put into a photo, you must of course first be clear about the use and purpose of the image. Do you only photograph the timetable to know when the last bus is coming? If a picture has a purely personal documentary purpose, the focus of the design is of course quite irrelevant. However, if the pictures are published on your website or elsewhere, it is worth giving more thought to the motif and composition. You will see the difference in the quality of the results!

WordPress Optimize images for

Photos that you want to include on your website should be optimized for web use. This is a simple and important step to improve your load time. Which ones WordPress -Plugins help you with image optimization, you can find out in this article.

Read pictures

In Europe we "read" images, just like texts, from left to right. Square pictures are very fashionable at Instagram, but the most natural for us is the landscape format, as this comes closest to the human gaze.

When you take a portrait photo, it is usually more pleasing if the person looks into the camera or "into the picture". This becomes clear, for example, when you look at professional profile pictures of your contacts in professional social networks like XING or LinkedIn consciously.

Sharepics

When you take pictures for your website, blog or social media, you often want to add text to the picture later. Keep this aspect in mind when taking pictures and leave some space for it. It is usually more harmonious if the text is on a "calm" background, for example a sky, a wall, a lake or similar. Colourful and restless areas such as graffiti, branches or hedges are usually not very suitable here.

#4 Image editing

Personally, I'm not a big fan of image editing or effects that distract from the actual image. On the contrary, especially with Instagram I see photos again and again where it becomes clear: Without the effect, the picture would be very boring and would probably not be published at all.

What, on the other hand, also often happens to me is image development. In the field of professional photography anyway, because here all pictures are photographed as RAW. But also in smartphone photography I sometimes optimize images by slightly intensifying existing conditions. Colors are then, for example, intensified, contrasts are increased or pictures are rotated or tilted.

If you want to do the same, I recommend the following software:

  • Paid for PC and MAC: Lightroom & Photoshop
  • Open Source for PC, MAC and Linux: Darktable & Gimp
  • App for smartphones: Google Snapseed

Print!

A tip at the end: It's really great to have your own printed photos in your hand. There are great print service providers here, for example moo.com, where you can print your pictures in high quality and have them printed on postcards or business cards, for example.

Try it out, it's definitely worth it!

Johannes is very curious and has already reached various stages in his career. From a trained IT specialist to a freelance photographer, he is versatile and can therefore put on the different "glasses" of his customers. Today he works as a freelance photographer and consultant for WordPress and photography. [Photo: Dennis Weißmantel]

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