- As a photojournalist, I’ve seen people make easily avoidable mistakes with their phone cameras.
- Lighting and angles are everything.
- For example, lighting your subject from the front — and not the back — will make for a better photo.
I went to school for photography and now I’m a photojournalist who travels around the world.
I didn’t have a camera growing up, so my first phone introduced me to the craft. Without it, I’m not sure where I’d be.
While I’ve heard many photographers gripe about the abundance of photos in the phone-camera age, I feel the opposite. I love that anyone can get into photography and want to help people take better pictures.
So I’ve identified common mistakes I see mobile photographers make and outlined how to avoid them.
Underexposing your photos is a classic mistake
In my opinion, one of the keys to a successful photograph is proper exposure. The image shouldn’t be too dark to see the shadows, and not so bright that parts of it are blown out.
I often see phone images that are too dark or too bright, so it’s worth checking to see if your smartphone camera allows you to manipulate the exposure before you take a photo.
On an iPhone, you can easily control the exposure. Just tap on the screen in camera mode and you’ll see a sun pop up. You can move the sun up and down to find right exposure.
I’ve found that adjusting the exposure is especially helpful when taking a photo in low-light situations.
In the below images, I wanted to capture a sunset landscape outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In my first photo on the left, I let my iPhone automatically select the exposure, but I couldn’t see the details in the shadows. So for the second image, I dragged the exposure up just enough to capture the foreground landscape without blowing out the sunset.
Lighting your subjects from the back is another no-no
Unfortunately, not all lighting is even.
When the sun is lighting up only a portion of the scene, I tend to see subjects standing in front of the light source. But lighting from behind leaves the whole front of your subject looking too dark.
When I see people taking portraits like this, I want to yell, “Turn around!”
Lighting subjects from the front means the light will face them, which I think usually results in a better image.
Sometimes, however, the background you want includes a source of light, such as a sunset.
In these cases, I’ve tried an alternative strategy — lighting from the side. This way, I am still able to capture the light and color of the sunset without darkening the subjects by having the sun itself in the frame.
The below images of me and my partner on a beach in Mexico are a good example.
Only shooting at eye level is a wasted opportunity
For tips on phone photography, I recently consulted Kiliii Yüyan, a National Geographic photographer who tells stories about how different cultures relate to the environment, from the Amazon to the Arctic seas.
He mentioned that he often sees people default to shooting at eye level with their phones, and noted that this doesn’t always produce the most interesting shot. I agree.
To find the perfect angle, Yüyan said to start by considering the ways shooting with a phone — that’s lightweight and thin — can open up a whole realm of possibilities.
“One good criterion is seeing how much depth an angle will show in a photograph,” Yüyan said.
For example, he said when photographing a child, an angle looking down at them will typically come out flat and boring. But shooting from beneath the child’s eye level looking up can better show the layers of the person and whatever is above them.
“We rarely get down below a child’s height to look up at the world, and that perspective can be magical,” he said.
Yüyan’s example reminded me of how I photograph my small dog when we’re outside. When I take pictures of her from above or straight on, I find that I can’t get a sense of her expression or personality, which makes the picture look boring to me.
But when I’ve snapped the picture while aiming up from ground level, I can see her explorative nature and the way she uses her environment to feel bigger, like perching on top of a rock on the edge of a creek.
No matter what you’re photographing, take your time, think about light and angles, and shoot away.