A professional’s advice for better phone photos

Published May 11, 2018 11:25 am by Anthony Rizzo
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As a professional videographer and photographer, I stick to manual camera settings almost 100% of the time on the job—it allows for much more in-camera control over the final result. But certainly for amateurs—and even professionally—smartphones are changing everything. From major motion pictures being shot entirely on iPhones to Apple featuring user-generated shots on billboards, phone photography is having a moment.

And marketers everywhere are using improved phone camera technology to their advantage, whether snapping product shots or creating social media content. And we’ve got some tips on how to up your game in this realm. Before we go any further, here’s a PSA: phones certainly can’t replace the need for professional photo shoots; but they can serve as a valuable amendment.

The basics of phone photography

  • Spot metering and focusing

When using a phone camera in auto mode, tapping your finger on your desired focal point will set the focus and the exposure. Tap again in another place to change/reset. Play around with this as you set up your shot.

  • Rule of thirds

Any pleasing composition is often divided into thirds, vertically and horizontally in the frame of your image. Your phone might have a setting for “guides,” “grid,” or “grid lines.” If this principle is new to you, use the 3×3 guide to frame up your shot, distributing key focal points as evenly as possible along the grid. Eventually you’ll be able to do this naturally.

  • Editing

Today’s phone cameras have basic editing options, but there are apps that going even further (Snapseed and VSCO are two popular ones). Resist the urge to use a canned filter and instead, try manually adjusting the exposure, contrast and other elements of the photo.



Phone photography tips for landscapes/landscape portraits

When shooting landscapes, or portraits where you want to include the background, set your camera to HDR if you have the option. This will give you relatively equal clarity from the bright sky to the harsh shadows. If you’re shooting during the day, most of the time the sky will be the brightest portion of the frame and it often contributes to the beauty of your landscape. If HDR is not an option, use spot metering on a building, landmark or whoever is posing in your shot. If you don’t need to get a clear shot of the sky, just expose for your subject.

Phone photography tips for portraits

Natural, diffused light is your friend. It provides soft, flattering illumination with delicate shadows, giving your subjects attractive volume and tonality. Make sure the light is coming in at close to a 45-degree angle to the face of your subject.

It gets tricky in direct sunlight. I prefer to shoot with the subject’s back to the sun. Instead of blinding your friend and creating harsh shadows, they’ll end up with flattering, diffused light reflected off of the sky and environment. Without HDR though, the background might be over-exposed. Expose for the subject using spot metering. If the background is too bright or dark you might have to sacrifice it for the sake of a good portrait.

A note on the lens: Most phone cameras have a fixed-focal length and stay at a very wide-angle. Close shots with a wide lens accentuate features closer to the lens, like the nose, forehead or chin depending on the angle of the person’s face. Since most of us are stuck with a wide lens on our phones, I have found it best to not get too close to the subject: 5 feet away most often, or 3 feet for a more intimate shot.

Phone photography tips for food, products and other objects

Whether you are photographing food or a new product line, natural light from a 45-degree angle is still key here. If it is not available, any soft light from the same direction is best because this side angle gives you minimal shadows while still providing illumination to the top or front of your subject. For food photography, a popular camera angle is from the top-down so you can get the entire table setting; alternatively, try 45 degrees (like your light source but from a different direction). If you’re shooting smaller products with your phone on the fly (again, not always a replacement for a pro shoot!) you might also try a tabletop lightbox.

Any other tried-and-true phone photography tips? Share in the comments!