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Three Tips for Better Smartphone Photos

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

You’re out and about in the city and come upon a scene that you find compelling and picturesque. You’re enthralled by bright colors, twinkling lights, and interesting people doing terribly interesting things. You feel alive and don’t care who knows it; oh, how you wish you could share the wonders of your life with the world! Lucky for you, you have your very own smartphone and a sweet, sweet Instagram account on which to share fantastic photos with people around the world.

But sometimes, when you shoot photos with your phone, all you get are blurry images that don’t express the sense of wonder you felt. So how do you capture the ambiance and emotion of a three-dimensional live situation in a two-dimensional still image? As a professional photographer, that’s a question I need to answer with every shot.

Here are my three tips to help you take compelling photos your online fans will love.

Juxtapose, juxtapose, juxtapose

Not the literal meaning, but more how you choose to place (or pose) the subjects and objects in relation to each other in your photo.

Experiment with various angles when you find a scene to shoot. Search for objects or words that could add meaning or intrigue. Be on the lookout for people/situations you could incorporate into the photo.

The image below is an example of opportunistic juxtaposing. The words across the photo are mounted on the front door glass of the gallery, and the door was propped open when I walked by. Shooting the photo through the door glass gave the illusion of floating letters on the streetscape. Voila! Juxtaposed!

Off-center, please.

It may seem counterintuitive, but photos are infinitely more interesting if the subjects and objects of interest are not centered. The “rule of thirds” lays it out for us. If you divide your image into a grid of nine equal rectangles, the most interesting compositions happen when sightlines and objects or subjects fall either along the gridlines or on the intersection points.

In this image, the tree trunk follows one of the vertical lines at a third, and the dog sits at the intersection of two dividing lines. The image is more visually appealing than if the dog or the tree were centered in the frame. See below.

Centered: Not as cool! (Even though the dog is super cute.)

Like any rule, there are exceptions. Centering objects or subjects in an image can be effective and interesting, especially when the object itself is particularly compelling. However, when aiming for candid or artistic vibes, off-center is almost always the way to go.

See the (natural) light

“Photography” means “pictures of light,” which is the perfect way to think about your photos. For many images, it’s best to have enough light from a direction that illuminates the features you want to capture. A common lighting problem in many cell phone photos is bright backlighting, which tends to leave subjects and objects too dark to see. Fancy professional lighting equipment can take care of this problem, but cell phone cameras—even those with the little flash—aren’t generally capable of filling in the light.

Therefore, it’s always best to make as much use as possible of the natural or ambient light surrounding your subject. You can fix some images by editing after the fact (see Help me fix this! below), but it’s always better to address lighting issues while you’re shooting, if possible.

When you encounter a bright backlighting situation, the first thing you can do is use the focus tap on your phone to adjust your camera’s settings. On most smartphones, tapping the part of the image you want to be the focus of your photo not only adjusts the focus, but also adjusts the aperture to brighten that part of the image. However, if the backlighting is too bright, your cell phone camera will not be able to adjust for it.

If focus tapping doesn’t do the trick, try to re-pose your subjects or objects, or shoot from a different angle. In particular, rearrange the photo so that the natural or ambient light you have available to you shines on your subjects or at least is not directly behind them. This should adjust the illumination of your subject to varying degrees depending on the brightness of the light and the angle of the light compared to the camera phone.

Help me fix this!

Most smartphones have basic photo editing tools for adjustments if your image is still lacking after you shoot. You may want to try filters and see how each one changes your image. But editing tools offer more control over how you enhance the photo. The most useful editing tools on smartphones include cropping, exposure, and shadow settings.

Cropping can be used after the fact to adjust the image to comply with the “rule of thirds,” or to omit objects or subjects that you don’t want to appear. Even with this simple adjustment, you can dramatically alter the composition and vibe of your photo.

Exposure settings can be adjusted to change the brightness of the image. Increasing the exposure will make all of the colors appear whiter or brighter; decreasing the exposure will darken the image overall.

Adjusting shadow settings will change the darker parts of the image with minimal impact on the brighter parts. Increasing the shadow setting can reveal details in areas that initially appear mostly black. Decreasing the shadow setting can further darken the dark areas in your photo.

One more fancy resource

When you’ve finished polishing your photo and are ready to upload it to one of your social media accounts, you may find that the particular social media platform automatically changes the dimensions and proportions of your photo, which could omit important parts of your image.

Sprout Social provides a publicly-available, up-to-date resource listing major social media platforms with their corresponding image scales and recommended dimensions. Posting your photo at the scale and dimension recommended by the platform will ensure that your image uploads with the composition you intended.

Happy smartphone-photography! And remember if you need our assistance making your social media channels pop, we’re here for you.

Brian Hartman is Visual Storyteller for He has been taking photographs since his childhood in Kansas. Other things you might find Brian doing include writing, eating queso on a patio, playing music with toddlers, or planning his next road trip.

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