Opinion

How not to completely suck at mobile photography

There was a time when cameras on a phone were a rarity and something only the elite few had access to. Thankfully, those days are long gone as pretty much every phone sold today has a camera on its back (and often on the front as well). Suddenly, everyone is a photographer. Services such as Instagram are booming because people just can’t stop taking pictures and they also want to share it with the world.

Unfortunately, quite often these photos are just terrible. Poor composition, poor lighting, coupled with the inherent flaws of mobile phone photography means you end up with terrible results that have no place on your memory card, leave alone on a publicly accessible website.

So today I thought I will share some things I’ve learnt about photography over the years. These are things that everyone should know if they plan to take a picture, and especially if they plan on sharing it with others. Let us begin, then. 

Clean the goddamned lens

The lens is the window through which the sensor sees the world. If the lens is not clean, your photo is going to suck, plain and simple. You keep your windows clean, the windshield of your car clean, your spectacles clean. Why wouldn’t you keep your camera lens clean? It’s the same thing, basically.

Before taking a photo, and I mean every photo, check to see if your lens is clean. Chances are, it won’t. Lenses on phones are often placed in a position where you are most likely to put your finger when you hold the phone. Mostly, it would have greasy smudges and fingerprints. Just look at it at an angle and you’ll see the offending gunk occluding your precious lens. (To be precise, the lens cover. The actual lens is inside and inaccessible but since the cover is in the way you have to keep it clean. And I’ll keep referring it as the ‘lens’ to keep it simple.)

Cleaning the lens is not as simple as it might seem. Most people would just wipe it once on their clothes but this doesn’t help much. You often have to wipe repeatedly till it looks absolutely pristine when seen from an angle. Secondly, you have to choose the material you are wiping with carefully. Not only will it help reduce the cleaning time but also prevent damaging the lens by scratching it and defeating the entire purpose of cleaning the lens. Once you clean the lens make sure you stay clear of it during the entire duration of taking pictures or you’ll have to repeat the process again.

An unclean lens often results in chromatic aberration, also known as purple fringing. This results in purple distortion around edges of objects with high contrast (dark leaves of trees against the bright sky, for example). This happens because light refracts when it hits the gunk on the lens and gets messed up before it reaches the sensor. A badly smudged lens will just give images an ethereal look, like something out of a dream sequence. So just clean the goddamned thing before you take a picture.

Familiarize yourself with the camera application

Most smartphones these days come with fairly advanced default photo taking applications. Except for the iPhone, which still offers just flash and HDR options, like you’re some sort of Neanderthal or something. If you have any other phone, you will have options such as exposure, white balance, focusing mode, ISO level, etc. at your disposal. Some of them are useful, others are best left at their default settings and not messed with. I’ll just talk about a couple of useful ones here.

Focus mode: Most phones will let you change the focus mode from auto to macro, landscape and in some cases, disable it altogether. The important one here is macro, which in some phones can be a separate option found in Scene settings.

What macro does is it lets you get closer to your subject, which is handy when you are shooting, say, a closeup of a flower. In some phones you can get to the optical system’s closest focusing point without having to enable macro mode but in others you absolutely have to or the camera won’t even focus on things that are a foot away. So if you’re having a hard time focusing on something that is close, don’t forget to enable the macro mode.

White balance: The ambient light can greatly affect the way objects look in certain situations. What white balancing does is remove the color cast taking into consideration the type of room light and makes the object look natural. Usually, the auto white balance on phones does an admirable job but often it can get flummoxed in tricky lighting conditions. This is where the presets come into play. You will find options such as sunny, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, etc. in your phone’s camera settings. Each corresponds to a particular lighting condition and once enabled adjusts the camera color profile to remove the color cast for that particular lighting condition.

If you think the auto mode is doing a bad job of making the colors look natural, just flip through these settings to see if you can make things look better. You don’t have to select the precise setting for that lighting condition; often a completely unrelated setting can provide better results. Just go with whatever that looks best instead of always relying on the auto mode or the preset description.

Exposure: In layman’s terms, exposure lets you choose how bright or dark the image should be. There is the default 0 setting, which can be changed from −2 to +2. I’ve rarely found myself increasing the exposure on a phone as it does that on its own quite well but often you have to reduce the exposure to prevent over-exposing the image.

In a bright scene, the camera automatically brings down the exposure. But often there is just one small bright point in an image that is not large enough to make the camera bring down the exposure on its own so you have to do it manually to prevent overexposing that point. When a subject is overexposed, the details on the surface are lost to just a bright, blown-up spot. Bringing down the exposure makes the details on that surface clearer.

Bringing down the exposure results in a darker image but remember, you can always make it brighter in post processing. But if you capture an overexposed, blown-up image, no image processing software in the world can recover the lost details because they were never captured in the first place. So if in doubt, always go with a lower exposure setting. Or you can use the HDR mode.

HDR mode: This is perhaps the best thing to happen to mobile phone cameras in recent times. The sensors on these things don’t have particularly wide dynamic range, i.e., they cannot capture details in bright and dark areas simultaneously without either overblowing one or making the latter look too dark. What HDR does is takes multiple shots in different exposure settings, from the lowest to the highest, and then combines them into one image. This way you get the details from the bright spots thanks to the low exposure images and the details from the dark spots from the high exposure images, all in one single photo.

What this results in is a flat image. The exposure is consistent across the frame. This can often make the image look unnatural but in some cases it can really make the image stand out.

If you’re taking images in very bright areas, it’s good idea to switch on the HDR mode. In many phones with HDR, the software will save two images, one with and one without HDR. You can then assess both and keep the one that looks the best.

Flash: Don’t be an idiot. Keep that thing switched off. Unless you are in a pitch dark room, in which case it’s a choice between not taking a photo and a taking a shitty one with flash. I’d still go with not taking a photo rather than using the flash.

LED flashes on phones are terrible and although they do illuminate the scene they do it in a bad way unlike the xenon flashes on cameras and some phones. So it’s best to keep them switched off at all times. No, no auto mode. Just switch the damn thing off.

ISO mode: This is one of those settings that you should just leave it at Auto. I’m only mentioning it because I never really got the point of having it on phone cameras without proper shutter speed and aperture value settings to go with it.

ISO setting basically decided how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the value, the more sensitive it is. This helps in low light conditions where you can bump up the ISO and then use a lower shutter speed (to reduce blur) to get a usable image. Unfortunately, boosting sensitivity amplifies the sensor output, and that’s all of it. So not just the photon data is amplified, it also amplifies the noise which at lower ISO ratings won’t be easily visible. This is why high ISO images are also noisier.

It’s best to leave this at Auto. I’ve personally never found any reason to change this setting on any of the phones I’ve used and neither should you.

It’s a good idea to familiarize with all the options you have in the camera software before taking pictures and more importantly, to set them to your preferred value so that when you start the camera you don’t have to waste precious time adjusting them and can just get on with the business of taking the actual photo.

Hold the phone properly while shooting

Apparently, it’s important for a lot of people to look cool while taking photos, which is why instead of using both hands like a sensible person they just use one and stick it out as if they are waiting for a hawk to come and land on it. There is a reason professional photographers don’t stick their DSLRs out in the air with one hand and neither should you.

  • Step one: Hold the phone with both hands, firmly.
  • Step two: Don’t keep your arms floating. Tuck them in and keep them flat against the side of your body as this stabilizes them. Do this every time unless it’s difficult to get a proper shot without raising your arms.
  • Step three: If you’re standing, sit. If you can’t sit, splay your legs a bit while standing so your upper body is more stable.
  • Step four: Hold your breath for a second for further stabilization. Even snipers do this shit before taking a shot so you know it’s legit.

Doing this will do two things. First, it will not make you look like a complete noob and two, you will end up with a photo that doesn’t look like someone pressed the shutter and then threw the phone in the air. A blurry photo is a bad photo. Hold your camera or your phone properly and you won’t have to worry about blur again.

If you’re recording videos, you should avoid blocking the microphone, which is usually at the bottom of the phone (the right side, when held sideways). Some phones have two microphones these days so make sure you cover neither of them. And please, for the love of God, don’t hold the phone in portrait mode (vertically) while recording a video. There is a reason movie screens are horizontal and not vertical. No one in their right mind records videos in portrait mode. Turn that shit around.

Your body can only be stable to a particular point so for even more stability, just place the phone on a solid surface while shooting. If there are controls on the side, make sure you don’t activate them when keeping the phone on a surface. Make sure you don’t tilt the phone when it’s on its edge or you’ll defeat the purpose of using a surface for stabilizing. And if you really want to go pro, get a tripod. There are special ones sold for phones these days that are not too expensive.

Composition

I’ve said before on Twitter that composition can make a break a photo. It doesn’t matter what subject you are shooting or what equipment you have if you composed the shot badly (although an expert could salvage it with some cropping in post-processing). Composition is basically how you arrange your subject(s) in your image frame. And often, the middle of the frame is not the best place.

This is the best time to familiarize yourself with the rule of thirds. Divide the frame into nine parts. Use the guideline mode which adds physical lines to the viewfinder to guide you (these are only added to the viewfinder and not the actual photo). Then, place the subject along one of the vertical or horizontal lines.

Notice how none of these lines are in the middle but closer to the side. That’s where the subject should ideally be in a frame. The middle of the frame is usually a boring place to keep your subject. Place it where the guidelines tell you and you instantly make the photo more interesting. If you’re capturing a sunset, for example, place the horizon on the top or bottom line, depending upon whether the sky or the water is more interesting and thus which one you’d like to highlight more. Often, it’s the sky, so place the horizon on the lower third line. If it’s a small object, place it at the point where the guidelines intersect.

Note that it doesn’t always have to be this way. In some cases a subject looks better in the center. This is something you only learn with experience and by looking at great example of photography on sites like Flickr or 500px. It also helps if you have a photographer’s eye.

Composition is not just adjusting the camera to frame the shot better but also manipulating the subject itself so it gets framed better. You can’t move a sunset around but you can move that plate of food to get a better shot. Clear out unnecessary obstacles in your path. If there are people or cars passing by, wait till they are gone or are fewer. Being patient often provides better results in photography.

Other ways to get a better shot is by adjusting the height of the camera. Shoot from slightly above or below for a more dramatic look. Don’t shoot things head-on but at an angle. You don’t necessarily have to get the entire subject in the frame every time. Just get the important bits and frame them properly and the photo should look fine.

Lighting

Lighting is incredibly important in photography. Too much or too little can ruin your photos. Avoid shooting in the dark. This is especially true for mobile phone cameras because they are worse at handling low light than point or shoot or DSLRs. It causes them them bump up the shutter speed and ISO which results in noisier, blurrier photos.

In bright light, never shoot directly into the light, even if you have HDR mode. The light source should always be behind you. If you’re at a restaurant and shooting someone with a light source directly above them, make them lean back a little to prevent their own hair and facial features cast shadows on their face. If you’re shooting something glossy, adjust the subject or the camera to avoid catching the reflected light. And using flash is bad enough but if you fire a flash at a glossy subject and have it reflected back at you I’ll personally come over and slap the shit out of you.

When is it a good time to use the digital zoom?

Never.

Take multiple shots

The first picture is rarely perfect. Nor is the second or the third. It’s always a good idea to take multiple images. You can always delete the ones you don’t like later. Sometimes it’s hard to see if the camera has focussed properly or if the shot is blurry on mobile phone screens so if you take multiple shots you have a greater chance of ending up with a usable shot.

You don’t have to share it

Just because you took a photo doesn’t mean you have to upload it. It’s important to show some self restraint and not upload everything you shoot if you want people to take you seriously. My Instagram account would have had nine trillion photos by now if I had uploaded every one of them, often several of the same subject. At the moment you take the photo you might think it is awesome and everyone should see it when it actually isn’t, something even you’d agree to if you see it, say, 24 hours later. So sit on it for a while and only if you really think it is good then upload it.

Instagram

Instagram has grown immensely popular these days so I thought I should have a section dedicated to it. One of the challenges Instagram provides is a 1:1 crop for the frame, i.e., a square frame. Composing a shot for such a crop is difficult and you can’t really apply the rule of thirds as liberally as you can in a 4:3 or 3:4 crop. In fact, it’s the exact opposite here; the subject often looks the best bang in the middle of that square. As such you have to readjust yourself for this new crop factor. Even Instagram offers guidelines now so you can use them but it’s usually best to keep the subject in the middle.

Now, Instagram has its own camera application but it has absolutely no shooting options other than the flash setting. I prefer taking a photo in the main camera app and then opening it in Instagram. This lets me make full use of the settings I discussed earlier to get a better picture than what is possible with the Instagram app. You just have to remember this photo will later be cropped into a 1:1 frame so shoot accordingly in the main camera app.

Once you shoot the image, crop it properly in the Instagram app. As mentioned before, you don’t have to have the entire subject in the frame. Some of the more interesting shots are where you only see a portion of the subject with some negative space on the side. Don’t flood your frame with the subject; provide some breathing room for the eyes.

Then comes the filters. A lot of people like hating on Instagram filters but I think they do two important things. First, they make the image look more interesting and secondly helps mask the poor quality of most mobile phone cameras. While selecting a filter, consider the mood of the situation and the subject. While we all have our favorites, try not to use the same ones repeatedly. Choose the one that brings out the subject and presents an appropriate mood that you may want to convey. Don’t forget to try all of them; some filters that look awful with certain photos can look just right with others. Also, there is nothing wrong with not using any filter at all; some images look better that way.

Instagram also offers an option create a false sense of depth of field by blurring certain section of the image. Unfortunately, this often gets abused a lot. Don’t just randomly blur out content. If you didn’t want it in the image you shouldn’t have shot it or cropped it out. You can use the horizontal blur to create a sense of depth of field or the spot blur to bring the attention to a particular point. Don’t do it unnecessarily, though.

There is also a little tool that lets you rotate an image. Of course, it’s usually used to turn an image the right side up if captured wrongly by an overzealous accelerometer. But you’d be surprised how often some thing looks good sideways. Just spin an image around a couple of times and you might get a more interesting photo with the subject sideways or upside down than with the right side up.

Lastly, and this is something not everyone will agree to, but Instagram is not a general image sharing service. I often see people uploading every photo they take on Instagram and then sharing it on other sites from there. I personally think Instagram should be reserved for your best photos and everything else should just be uploaded directly to Twitter or Facebook separately. Like I said, this is my point of view and not everyone will agree to this, seeing as how Instagram doesn’t have any hard and fast rules about this. I just think it’s a good idea to reserve at least one place for all your best photos, something you’d want to go back and look maybe a year or two later. Pretty sure you won’t be interested in that random shot of a chocolate wrapper on your desk a year later. Nor is anyone else, for that matter.

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That is really all I can think of right now. I might update the article later if I think of something to add.

These are things I feel everyone should keep in mind. Other than really basic stuff like keeping your memory card free and having adequate battery. And if you really are into mobile photography, just invest in a phone with a good camera. There is nothing sadder than seeing a technically good picture ruined by a terrible camera. A good camera phone can really make even mediocre shots look good. Couple that with the things I discussed above and you can easily get above average results.

So give the things I talked above a try and let me know how it goes. You can find me on Twitter at @krazyfrog.