Cellphone Photography 101

or How to get photos that look better than 90% of what everyone else is doing.

I’ll start with the simplest tricks and move to more complex stuff that requires some learning and thinking.

Choose a Subject

You can’t take a good picture if you don’t have a subject. Are you interested in the building, the person in front of the building, their shirt, or the logo on the breastpocket? Which one of those five dogs is it, or is it the group of dogs?

Give Some Thought to Framing

Make sure that your subject is clearly visible, and is obviously the subject. Move yourself around; move the phone around. Back and forth, side to side, up and down. Find an angle that gets your subject where you want them with the minimum of other cruft in the frame. Scoot over so that branch isn’t right behind Aunt Martha’s head. Lift up the camera so the top of the bench isn’t covering the bottom of the statue.

Wipe Off the Lens

Crud on the lens makes for a cruddy shot. Wipe it on your shirt or something.

Take Two or Three Shots and Pick the Best

Try a few different angles, or one close and one far. Then look them over, pick the best looking one, and delete the others.

Learn Your Editing Tools and Use Them Judiciously

Spend half a minute tuning up your selected shot. Most phones have a good basic photo editing app with a small number of sliders. Experiment and figure how to make it do your bidding. Your initial goal should be learning to make your photos look realistic but not overcooked.

Don’t ever use the “canned” filters with artsy names

Unless you’re trying to look like a low rent Instagram douchebag.

Use the “auto” adjustment

Open the photo in your camera roll, click “edit”, click “auto”. This will make indoor shots less beige and outdoor shots less washed out. It will probably punch up the color a bit, maybe sharpen the photo. About 75% of the time the results are pretty damn good (at least on my phone, a Google Pixel; probably goes for recent iPhones as well). Sometimes, especially if the lighting was unusual, the app will deliver something bad. In that case just discard the edit.

Crop, resize, level

Crop out distracting elements and change the aspect ratio to better emphasize your subject. You should also fix tilted shots so buildings and trees are vertical & the horizon is horizontal.

Manually adjust the look

I usually hit the “auto” button first, then open up the “advanced” sliders and tune up the results. Make small adjustments; you generally shouldn’t end up with any slider more than 1/3 of the way in either direction. To learn what’s what try dragging each slider all the way in either direction and look at what it does to your shot, then dial it way back. You don’t need to tweak all the knobs. I generally find that “saturation”, “warmth”, “shadows” and “contrast” are the most profitable to mess with.

Use Tap-To-Focus

Most cellphone cameras will focus on the point where you tap the screen. This can be really valuable when you’re doing close-up shots (e.g. flowers) or when the camera insists on paying attention to something you don’t want.

More Advanced Techniques

If you follow the simple tips above your pictures will be better than the casual phone snaps that almost everyone makes. To go beyond that you need to learn the basics of photo composition. I was going to write more, but I found an article that covers everything I would have said and more.