Five ways to improve your smartphone photography

As a professional family photographer, and contributing editor to Digital SLR Photography magazine, you'd expect me to be a huge advocate of digital SLR cameras – and you're right, I am. Their beautiful bokeh, fast lenses and superb image quality are hard to beat, BUT the ones worth having are not often the best for everyday pictures. They're heavy and cumbersome, which is why even I have invested in a Fujifilm X100S and Samsung Galaxy S7 (no the iPhone does not have the best camera, trust me!) for grabbing my own family's everyday moments. About once a month I'll bring out my pro Nikon gear to capture considered candids of my boys, but as a mum I can't have my DSLR around my neck permanently and this is where my other cameras come out to play. 


Image quality is EXTREMELY important to me and your smartphone or premium compacts are never going to give you the quality of professional kit, but there are techniques you can use to get the best from them. Here are just a few...


1. Look for the light

This is a big one. The quality of light is really important for all photography but most vital when working with lower-spec cameras and smartphones. You want even, soft lighting but a lot of it as these cameras often don't handle contrast or low light very well. Your best light will be in the early and late hours of the day when the sun is lowest in the sky, under open shade when the sun is high or on an overcast day. When shooting off-the-cuff family pictures we're rarely blessed with the perfect light – forced to shoot indoors or on a sunny day when shadows across faces ruin portraits. When this is the case, try to direct your family's activities to the shade, by a window or find a composition that embraces the use of hard shadows for more creative shots.


2.     Capture the moment

When photographing people, the first shot is rarely THE shot. By the time you see a moment, touch the screen to focus and your phone responds – you’ve missed it. One way to improve your chances of getting that split-second candid is to keep your finger on the shutter button instead of releasing it; your camera phone will fire a sequence of images one of which will hopefully be your prized picture.

3.     Use the HDR function


What is HDR? It stands for High-Dynamic Range. Simply put different cameras have boundaries for the amount of detail it can capture in the highlights and shadows. Professional photographers know how to maximise these parameters to capture the most detail for incredible image quality, however for some cameras (especially smartphones) your dynamic range is limited and you need to know how to work within these parameters for best image quality. Some smartphones have a HDR feature that lets you expand the dynamic range of your shot; this feature take three or so frames at different exposures and blends them together for the image you see. 

It's very useful if your subject is backlit as this often causes your camera to put them in silhouette due to the limited dynamic range of your camera but the high dynamic range of the image. So if you’ve got it: use it!


 4.     Concentrate on composition

There are no hard-and-fast rules for composition, look at them as guidelines. If your camera has a grid view, turn it on so you can see where the lines intersect and use it to place your subject on an intersecting third (see below). Don’t be afraid to experiment either though, unexpected crops and overhead viewpoints make some of the most interesting pictures. Symmetrical shots often look superb cropped to square format too, so have a play around as your smartphone will offer lot of options. To add depth to your images, get close to foreground elements and focus on the subject in the middle-distance (see images above and below as examples of what I mean) as this is a quick way to add interest to your images.



5.     Light first; location last

Lighting is so important that I've included it twice. Your smartphone's camera can’t capture as much tonal information as a digital SLR so you need to learn how to work with what you have, especially when indoors. Turn off overhead lights as they'll often cast ugly shadows under the eyes and leave images with an overly warm or cool colour cast; try to always opt for natural light. To evenly light your subject, have them face a window and make sure your back is to the light as you photograph to get a bright complexion and darker background for added 'pop'. 

In an ideal world, you'll live in a clutter-free show home so no matter where the moment happens it's picture perfect, but family homes are rarely that and you cannot expect miracles from your smartphone. If you have a blank wall or clean space, great! but otherwise focus on capturing the moment as it happens in the best light possible.

The cheeky grin (below) was well worth the snapshot on my Samsung regardless of the less than perfect background. I was cooking dinner when he wondered in having clearly been up to no good and the window light was lovely. 


While the best camera is the one with you, a moment like this would have looked wall-worthy if shot correctly using a digital SLR camera. A smartphone is no replacement for professional photography but knowing how to get the most from your own CSC or DSLR camera will help you populate your family albums with quality pictures when your chosen professional isn't at hand. 

If you want to learn how to take control of your camera for better family pictures, hop on one of my workshops for some one-on-one, hands-on advice and tuition. Hope to see you at one soon!