Smarter photography - tips and tricks for better photos with your smartphone

Smarter photography - tips and tricks for better photos with your smartphone

Do you need images for your website or blog, but don't have professional camera equipment, let alone any real knowledge of photography? Don't panic! You can still achieve some great results with just your smartphone. Photographer Johannes Mairhofer gives you tips and advice on smartphone photography. 

Photography is an exciting medium; it can arouse emotions and capture memories. Photos can be provocative, beautiful and interesting. Sometimes it’s just that one detail, a slightly changed view or an extended perspective, which turns a "trivial" photo into an exciting image.

In this article I’d like to show you the foundations of smartphone photography and leave you with some tips and tricks. I hope that by following these rules - or indeed breaking them on purpose - you’ll be able to take better photos. All my tips apply to "normal" smartphones. You don't need a special camera, specialist software or expensive technology. All you need to do is broaden your view and try to take photographs and not “snapshots”.

The guide will start with some technical tips, then touch on image design and composition and finally discuss my personal opinions on image editing. I include real examples, captured on a regular smartphone, throughout the text to give context and explain certain points.

#1 Technical tips for smartphone photography

The best camera is always the one you have with you. As this is usually your smartphone, I’d like to recommend some technical settings that can be made on almost all devices. You definitely don’t need any special apps to implement these tips.

Deactivate the flash

On most smartphones, the flash is located right next to the lens. This causes the flash to come directly from the front and shine straight into your subject’s face. This never looks good, especially with portraits. It casts ugly shadows and causes red eyes and pale skin.

The flash makes no sense at all with portraits because the flash isn’t strong enough to lighten the surroundings.

A prime example of this is taking photos with the flash on at a concert. The stage is likely illuminated by spotlights producing thousands of watts of power. A small mobile phone flash from the back rows has no effect at all other than to disturb the other concert guests. And let’s be honest here, how likely are you to ever look at these photos again anyway?

If you absolutely need to use a flash, for whatever reason, it helps to soften or disperse the light. A piece of paper, tissue, or even a piece of wax paper in front of the flash often works wonders. The light no longer comes from the front but is "scattered" by the material.

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

Show / display grid

I recommend inserting a grid to support the composition of the image. Depending on the operating system of the smartphone or the app used, you tend to have several variants to choose from. But the "rule of thirds" is quite sufficient to start with and available in almost all photo apps I’ve seen so far.

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

Smartphone photography example 1

This example makes it clearer. Here, the bench is the focus of the picture. Now imagine the grid mentioned above overlaying this image. You’ll notice the bench is aligned at the bottom right intersection of the grid lines. Of course, it doesn’t always to fit exactly to the millimeter, the grid should rather be seen as orientation for composing the image.

Set the highest resolution

Even though most photos you take will be used digitally and for the web, I still recommend setting the highest image resolution. Simply because storage space hardly costs anything anymore and you can then have the images printed - if you want to. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or amateur photographer, seeing your own photo printed in your hand or on the wall always feels great. 

Even with mid-range smartphones, you can now take photos that can easily be hung on the wall as posters in, for example, A2 format. Pictures hanging on the wall are viewed from a certain distance. Personally, I also find it’s the composition of the picture than touches me emotionally and not its technical perfection.

Save the location

The automatic Google archiving of photos and many image processing programs can read and process GPS data. This means that even years after the pictures were taken, it's 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 remember where your images were taken.

Image format

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

Focus = exposure

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

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

Only apply effects later

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

Even though some camera apps can apply effects of this kind directly while taking pictures, I recommend putting them on the images afterwards. If you apply the effect while taking the picture, the picture is already "broken". The effect is already there and you can’t change your mind about it later on.

If you only apply the effect or filter afterwards, you’re still flexible and have different options available. So you can try out different effects or leave them out altogether.

#2 Image composition in smartphone photography

All professional photographers are probably familiar with the phrase "you've got an expensive camera; it's bound to take good pictures". If we apply that logic to another profession, it's like coming into a kitchen and saying to the chef "wow, you have expensive pots and pans, you must make very tasty food!”

Depending on the purpose and requirements of a photo, an expensive (and still operable) camera may of course be the necessary choice to achieve the desired result. But nowadays if you just stay in the "automatic mode" with an expensive SLR camera, the photos are technically not really distinguishable from modern smartphone photos.

For private photography, social media or even websites and blogs, a smartphone is therefore often enough. 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's a danger you'll be snapping pictures instead of actually taking them. This is where "thinking in projects" and putting on your "project glasses" can help.

If you walk around the block at home or in the office, you'll probably see less exciting themes, whereas everywhere is full of exciting images when you're on holiday. The view in your own environment is "tired" and you're somehow "operationally blind" for exciting motives.

For example, put on the project glasses "green" or "structures" and then go on the lookout. Suddenly you'll see completely different things that fit into this image. 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, 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'd also say the footbridge the foreground, even though it goes into the middle ground and thus also guides the viewer's view to the mountains in the background.

Alignment

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's 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, the course of a river or railway tracks are built into your picture.

Parallels

Smartphone photography example 4

Especially when photographing architecture, it's a good idea 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.

Colors

Smartphone photography example 5

Recurring or repeating colors make the picture more harmonious. In this example, I was very lucky with the sky as it's usually much cloudier in Hamburg. The blue sky is mirrored in the blue tones on the Elbphilharmonie concert hall and makes the picture more pleasing.

Perspective

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

To consciously make great pictures, it's useful to think about a few things in advance. These thoughts could look like this, for example:

Play around and be courageous

Don't 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 - what I like doesn't have to be to your liking and vice versa.

Just try to walk around your block and take a picture through the project glasses of your choice (maybe start with "structure"). Apply or break the rules deliberately or simply ignore them altogether. 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 variants, to your friends and ask them and yourself which pictures are more pleasing, exciting, boring or "disturbing". You'll notice that often small changes in the angle can lead to big differences in the picture result.

Creative focus

A creative focus is important with pictures. 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's published, any personal rights must be respected which is usually not so relevant for private use.

For what?

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

Advantage?

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. Are you only taking a photo of 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 naturally not as relevant. However, if the pictures are published on your website or elsewhere, it's worth giving more thought to the motif and composition. You'll certainly notice the difference in the quality of the results!

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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 format 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 take a closer look at professional profile pictures of your contacts in professional social networks like LinkedIn.

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's usually more harmonious if the text is on a "calm" background, for example a sky, a wall, a lake or similar. Colorful and restless areas such as graffiti, branches or hedges are usually not ideal for adding text to.

#4 Image editing

Personally, I'm not a big fan of image editing or effects that distract from the actual image. In fact, it's rather the opposite. I see photos again and again, especially on Instagram, where I think: without the effect, the picture would be very boring and would probably not be published at all.

In contrast, what also often happens in my case is image development. In the field of professional photography anyway, because here all pictures are photographed as RAW files. 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 also want to develop your images, 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!

One final tip: it's really satisfying to hold your own printed photos in your hand. There are great print service providers out there, for example moo.com, where you can print your pictures in high quality and have them printed on e.g. postcards or business cards.

Try it out, it's definitely worth it!

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