10 essentials for smartphone photography

Kyle's Pixel XL

So, you want to take better photos? You've realized that one of the keys to having a great social media presence is consistently great content, but don't know where to begin? No matter your objectives - from earning publicity for your business, to gaining exposure for your personal brand, to all-out fame and fortune, these photography essentials will assist in making your content dreams come true. Whether you are using an iPhone, a point-and-shoot, or DSLR, these 10 photography tips will definitely give you a leg up. 

1) Before you take a photo, think about its composition.

This is Photography 101. In fact, successful composition is the difference between merely capturing an image and taking a thoughtful photo. This seems intuitive enough, but just opening your Instagram explore tab will likely unveil an avalanche of poorly composed images. So, how do you make sure your images are photos? The secret lies in being able to answer yes to these four questions before you snap:

  • Is there a clearly defined subject and background? No? Then what exactly are you photographing and why?

  • Is there a sense of balance? Consider the weight of everything in your photo.

  • Is there a purposeful point of view? Play with perspective. Taking photos from a unique angle can make them more memorable and help to develop your own style.

  • Is there a degree of simplicity? While busy photos can work, it is generally best not to confuse or overwhelm your viewer. Unless, of course, that is what you are going for.

Did you answer "no" to any of these questions? If so, start over or accept mediocrity.


2) Know how to use your camera.

This should go without saying, but take some time to review all of the capabilities of your camera. Since most smartphones don't come with detailed instructions these days, do a quick Google search and read up on the camera yours it equipped with. It's capabilities will ultimately determine what kind of photos you can take and their quality. Also, be sure your camera's lens is clean. Further, be sure you tap the screen of your smartphone to focus the camera on your subject and ensure that lighting is optimized.

3) Use natural and ambient light.

We used to go so far as to say, "Death before flash!" Think about it, though. When was the last time you saw a great smartphone photo taken with a flash? Without getting too much into the science of light, just know that directly bombarding your subject with harsh lighting is generally going to make your photo look over-exposed and often accentuate undesirable details. This applies to direct sunlight, too.

Instead of using flash, first look to take advantage of other sources of light in your environment. Typically what is ideal for social media photography is what's called ambient, indirect, and diffused light. A great example of this kind of light is what pours through a window in the afternoon (see the coffee photo below). This gives you a chance to play with shadows, while enveloping your subject in a warm, even embrace of light. Even when the ambient light does not seem ideal, snap a photo anyway. One of the advantages of digital photography on a smartphone is that there are several options for adjusting your photo after the fact. While it will never be a good as capturing a photo in ideal lighting, using your favorite photo editing app to adjust things like exposure, highlights, shadows, and contrast can definitely improve the situation.


4) Use grid lines.

Have you heard of the Rule of Thirds?  It is a popular photographic composition principle. Using it as a guideline can add desirable interest to your photos. Imagine your image as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Instead of centering your subject, the Rule of Thirds suggests placing it off-center along these lines and their intersections. Now that you know about this, you'll start seeing how often it is used in photography all around you. So, how do you make use of it? There are two options:

  • Activate a grid on your camera: iPhones and Androids both have the option to turn on grid lines while you are using the camera. Look in the settings for a 3x3 grid, which divides your screen perfectly into the Rule of Thirds.

  • Use grid lines when you crop your photo: Most photo-editing programs have an option to turn on grid lines while editing a photo. This is particularly useful in cropping your image to conform to the Rule of Thirds. Instagram even has this built-in to their cropping tool.

Personally, we prefer the second method, as we find an on-screen grid distracts from capturing the essence of a situation. However, if you are going to use this method, it is wise to capture more than you think you need in your image. This way you can re-compose and crop as needed when you edit. In other words, take your photo with your crop in mind.


5) Edit your photos.

In these digital days, chances are that most of the photos you find yourself admiring have been edited or manipulated in some way. And, why not? It has never been easier to improve your photos. As we mentioned earlier, there exists a whole assortment of apps available that literally enable you to do it at the click of a button.

Let's face it, cameras (and their users) aren't always perfect. With the use of filters and other adjustments, you can actually correct an image to better match what you had in mind. All from your phone, you can crop a photo to frame a subject correctly, while also adjusting important things like brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness.

You can easily play around with adjustments under Instagram's edit tab, or download another app like VSCO for even more filter and editing options.

Pro Tips:

  • Always sharpen your photos to some degree. Every social media platform compresses your uploaded images, immediately reducing their quality.

  • Straighten your images, when applicable. If something is slightly or needlessly askew, it can throw off the balance of your photo.

  • Cool off your image. The human eye tends to be more attracted to blue and white tones. This can be achieved by adjusting your images temperature and/or pulling out some saturation. Give it a try and see what looks best.

6) Embrace negative space.

So, what is negative space? Simply, it is the area around your main subject. By cleverly making intentional use of this space, you can draw attention to your subject and even evoke certain emotions from your viewer. The easiest way to do this is by referring back to one of our four composition questions: Is there a degree of simplicity? Think open sky, a wall painted a solid color, or any other large expanse that can be used as a background for your subject.

Hearst Building


7) Look for symmetry.

"The desire for symmetry, for balance, for rhythm in form as well as in sound, is one of the most inveterate of human instincts." -Edith Wharton

Looking for and utilizing symmetry is one of the easiest ways to create a pleasing and balanced photo. In photography, this usually means creating an image that can be divided into two equal parts. However, this doesn't need to be perfectly precise, as there are plenty of examples of rough symmetry all around us. After all, it is one of our human instincts to seek out and create balance. In doing so, remember use those handy grid lines to line everything up!

South Williamsburg


8) Look for repetition.

In particular, look for patterns. One of anything is happenstance. Two of anything is a coincidence. Three of anything signifies a pattern, and patterns are pleasing to eye. They can occur in nature or be man-made, and appear whenever strong visual elements like lines, shapes, forms, and colors are repeated over and over again. A great example of this is a tiled floor, which can be beautiful on its own or serve as a striking background. Sometimes patterns can be more subtle, or appear as a result of seeking out symmetry in our environment (like with the railing in the photo above).

9) Use leading lines.

The use of a leading line is another useful composition technique that can be used to draw a viewer's attention to the subject. Think of it as paving a path for your viewer's eye to follow through your photograph. They can be used for emphasis, to tell a narrative, or to create a correlation between objects. They can be straight or winding, natural or man-made -- think rocks, roads, fences, train tracks, staircases, sunlight, shadows, or anything in a row. The use of leading lines creates a sense of purpose, especially when understated.

Greenpoint Ferry


10) Keep it candid.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So, how many words is your photo worth? This brings up the important concept of narrative.

Posed photos can certainly serve a purpose, but candid shots have the potential of being far more interesting. Why? They almost always tell a story. While posed shots can certainly do the same, candid shots capture the energy and emotion of the moment. This is particularly important for content you choose to share on social media, as your audience is generally following you for a glimpse into your life or brand's lifestyle.

"But, I might not get the photo I want?!" Yes, while keeping it candid may not guarantee you a particular result, you could also end up with a perfect moment that you would have otherwise missed or never seen. Some of our favorite photos are the result of throwing ourselves into the moment with our camera and snapping away. Take as many photos as you can! Having options are your friend. No photographer consistently nails a desired shot on first try. And, quite often, a better photo presents itself when you are "working the shot." Look below.

New Orleans

Now, go out and practice! And, feel free to tag us on Instagram when you come up with something that makes you particularly proud (@kyle4d@rachel4d@fordmarketinglab).