Snap Happy: 10 Tips to Help You Take Better Photos with Your Smartphone

by Amy Carruthers

It’s the million-dollar question: Are we born with a good eye for photography, or is it something we can learn?

I used to believe that great photographers burst forth into this world with an innate mastery of light and endless source of creative concepts.

But after running my own boutique photography company, I realized that everyone starts at the beginning. And everyone—from photo enthusiast to seasoned pro—acquires know-how and talent over time.

Maybe you’re a social media manager who needs to develop a steady stream of visually-stunning content. Or, you’re an influencer who wants to take better product photos. Or, perhaps you just crave some swoon-worthy images of everyday life.

No matter your depth of experience or level of creativity, I'm here to help.

Below, I’ve condensed more than 10 years of experience into 10 practical tips you can follow to take better photos with your smartphone—and convince everyone that you were born this way:

1.     Use the camera you have
Yeah, I have a baller camera. I love it. But when I travel, hike, explore my city or spend time with family and friends, I leave the “big” camera at home. I love using my mobile phone (Samsung Galaxy s8) to take photos because it’s always with me, easy to use, unobtrusive and I can quickly edit and share my images.

So many folks wait to take photos with a to-be-purchased “good” camera. When they finally pull the trigger, a learning period follows. And once they feel comfortable using the new camera, they have to remember to grab it on-the-go.

Your life is happening right now. Fleeting moments are happening right now. Capture those memories right now with the camera you have.

2.     See the light
I’m obsessed with light. I look for it everywhere. Anyone who has ever taken a walk with me has, at some point, turned around to find that I stopped way back because…oh my gosh, look at that sunflare.

The trick to taking great photos isn’t a trick at all—it’s just a matter of finding the right light. You can find it too by practicing these three tips:

Slow down and look around. Take a moment to be aware of bright areas hit with a direct light source, notice when light shines through an object and casts a shadow across another object, look at rays of sunshine streaming through your windows in the morning—interesting shadows and highlights are always around you.

IMG_20170130_122231_781.JPG

Show the light who’s boss. If you want to take a picture, but it looks too dark, take control of the scene: Try moving closer to a light source, like a window or an open doorway, or head outside. And if you need to stay put, use a portable source to brighten the scene—like a lamp, candle, flashlight or even the glow from someone else’s phone. Or, simply wait for your subject to move into the right light.

Experiment with exposures. When taking photos with your phone, tap on a dark area of the scene and everything will appear brighter. Likewise, tap on a lighter part of the scene and everything will appear darker. Or, simply tap your screen to slide the exposure up or down. Play with this feature to see how it changes the look and feel of your images.

3.     Turn your camera
Seriously, though…turn your camera. Our first instinct is to take pictures vertically because we naturally hold our phones this way. And, yes, sometimes a vertical composition is exactly what you need to capture the scene or tell a story (like photographing a person standing next to a giant Sequoia tree). But, for every vertical photo you take, try turning your camera horizontally to see how it impacts the composition and tells a completely different story.  

4.     Go wide, then get close
When I was in college, my professor told us the best poems are both telescopic and microscopic. The same applies to photography. When you’re taking a photo, think in terms of storytelling—what story will your images tell when shown side-by-side?

For every scene you photograph, try capturing one photo of each:

Telescopic. Stand back and take a wide-angle view of the scene to set the stage and show where you are.

Microscopic. Get close to highlight the details. The little things tell a specific story, elicit an emotion and make your story more personal. Who are you with? What are you doing? Why did you choose to visit this place or be with these people? How do you feel?

5.     Move your body
Even the most seasoned pros get stuck over-shooting from a certain angle because it looks pretty, the light is right and we’re confident it’s the best perspective. After all these years, I’m still guilty of what I call “putting roots down” during a shoot. It’s easy to believe that your first idea is your best. But when you move, you see things you might not have noticed the first time.

Next time, take the first photo you think of—then challenge yourself to take at least three more from totally different perspectives (above, below, eye-level, full length, up-close, etc.) and see which one is best.

Honestly, when I challenge myself to do this, I almost always choose my last shot over my first.

6.     Build context
What if you couldn’t explain your photo in a conversation or with a social media caption? How would you shoot differently? What would you need to include to make sure the viewer knows what you are trying to say or how you feel?

Context.

If you look at the image and feel like something is missing or it doesn’t look as dramatic or interesting as it feels in-the-moment, try including an object, person or more details to add visual cues about the scene.

7.     Add interest
Keep your eyes open for things that create visual interest and make your images more eye-catching. This could be as simple as a pop of color, layers of texture and pattern, reflections in glass or water, or a framing element.

Not sure what to look for? You can easily train yourself to spot interesting elements by taking a quick scroll through Instagram or Pinterest boards. Get a sense for what draws your eye, what color palettes you love and what makes you happy.

There is no right answer here—it’s different for everyone. And, sometimes what you look for might change depending on your situation. If you visit Las Vegas, you may gravitate toward vibrant colors, bright lights, vintage signs and bold patterns. And if you’re relaxing at the beach, you may seek out muted, peaceful colors to match the mood and experience.

8.     Pop that color
Remember that “big” camera I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Even near-perfect, out-of-camera images are slightly dull and need some color love.

When I’m shooting professionally, I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to edit my images. But, if you’re shooting and processing on your phone, countless photo-processing apps are available to make the images pop.

My personal favorite right now is A Color Story. It’s the closest I can get to my professional color using a wide range of manual controls and an even wider range of ready-made presets to enhance the images. I also love that I can create and save my own presets for the times when I have several, similar images to edit.

No matter what app you use, my suggestion is to keep it simple: Use the app to bring out the best in your images without making them feel too overworked.

Try following these five easy steps for processing phone photos:

Choose a few favorites. Go through your shots, delete the ones that didn’t work and choose a few images you’d like to process.

Crop. Before you get started on the next steps, take a moment to crop into your photo for visual interest or crop out distracting details that take away from your subject or story.

Straighten. Almost every photo app has a tool that allows you to straighten a crooked image. Instagram offers a killer tool that gives you additional control over perspective. (I highly encourage you to play around with this one—it’s my favorite!) Taking the extra step to straighten your image and fix perspective will make the final photo feel finished and more professional. This is particularly true of images that include a horizon line like the beach or a city street.

Pop the color. Now it’s time to play with color. I have a handful of favorite presets that work for most photos (in A Color Story, you can mark your favorite presets and see them all in one place so you don’t have to try to remember them every time). The same preset will not necessarily work for every image; try clicking on several different ones to see what works best. Also, be sure to play with the opacity; try lowering the preset to 50% or less to see how it looks.

Sharpen. The final step is to sharpen your image. Again, less is best here. You just want to bring out the detail but not make it look too “crunchy.” Start with 15–20% opacity and see how you like it.

9.     Shoot often
By taking lots of photos, you’re flexing your creative mind. The more photographs you take, the more your subconscious mind will be on the lookout for photo opportunities. Over time, you’ll start to see things you never noticed before. Those things were always there of course; but, when you gain more experience, you’ll know exactly what to look for.

10.  Play
Photography should be fun! I’ve been shooting professionally for many moons, and you know what? I still love it. The key is to shoot what you love, play and experiment. If you let yourself do this, you’ll never feel like photography is a chore.

Okay, now…breathe.

You definitely don’t have to memorize all 10 tips to become a better photographer. Ease in by choosing a few of these suggestions, try them out and see how they impact your photos. Once you master those tips, try adding a few more.

For now, go enjoy the beautiful world around you, pay attention, take photos and always remember to enjoy yourself.