The line between photography and “photography” is long gone. But just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t mean you can’t still make your mobile photos stand out from the stream.
While you might not be inhaling darkroom chemicals like our non-digital forebears, the craft of mobile photography is an art unto itself—and it can be taken to the next level. Even traditional DSLR and film photographers might have a thing or two to learn in the transition.
1. Tap to Focus
Remember: You are smarter than your iPhone. Tapping your screen to focus your shot is a no brainer once you get in the habit of it, and it can make all the difference.
Generally, smartphones have solid autofocus, but they don't always know exactly what you're looking at. Smartphone lenses likes faces and objects in the foreground, but won’t read your mind if you’d rather focus on a more offbeat part of the shot. Even more importantly, tapping to focus guarantees that the camera will meter the light off of the subject that you’re actually shooting instead of just averaging the exposure across the shot—a sure-fire way to a disappointing picture.
2. Mind The Light
Your smartphone camera probably does a great many things right, but even the very best still struggle with proper exposure. I have an iPhone 5S, inarguably one of the best smartphone cameras on the market, and it still can’t figure the damn light out most of the time. To be fair, most proper digital cameras struggle with exposure too, which is why most serious photographers shoot in RAW mode, which captures more image data and allows exposure to be adjusted after the fact.
The smartphone has no such advantage. HDR is about as close as it gets, but shooting in HDR mode often yields mixed results, (which I’ll discuss more in a bit). That means the burden is on you, the photographer.
Don’t shoot directly into backlit scenes unless it’s unavoidable. Try to position your shot so that the light is falling on your subject. Avoid taking a shot that has both very dark and very well-lit areas, unless you want to emphasize the contrast. And while it might run counter to common sense, avoid flash in dark settings unless you’re a fan of that “still out at the bar at 3 a.m.” ambiance.
3. Understand HDR
Oh, HDR. Misunderstood by many and abused by some, HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range.” It’s a technique that takes aim at the perennial photography problem of mixed lighting, and it's likely built right into your smartphone's native camera app—but it’s no silver bullet.
HDR mode actually takes multiple shots instead of just one, bracketing shots for you then splicing together the same image at different exposures. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, figuring out when to use HDR can be tricky. An image shot in HDR mode is very vulnerable to blur, so avoid shooting anything in motion—squirmy friends and high velocity cats included.
HDR shines in landscape shots. We've all taken a picture set against a perfect blue sky and been frustrated when the background looks like an overcast day, or some kind of blown out, post-apocalyptic nothingness. HDR is perfect for scenarios like this—just remember to toggle the setting off once you've taken your shot as it can cause serious blur in other shooting conditions.
4. Organize Like A Pro
Photo organization is a necessary evil for any semi-serious photographer. On proper computers, photographers craft all kinds of elaborate workflows meant to minimize the agony of processing hundreds or thousands of photos. On a smartphone, keeping a photo collection nice and orderly is no less of a chore, but there are a few tricks that make things more manageable.
Some apps like the awesome Camera+ (iOS only, unfortunately), store photos in a sort of staging area, letting you only save the best pics to your phone's photo gallery. Historically, I've found Android to have far superior native support for photo organization, but the launch of iOS 7 changed things for the better. In iOS 7, the photo gallery can be viewed in "moments", "collections" or years, allowing the shutter-happy among us to zoom out and prune as needed.
On either OS, take full advantage of albums for shots you intend to share. Making a folder for which pictures you want to share where is smart, since you might plan to email some to friends, share others to Facebook and post more selective shots to Instagram, for example.
5. Follow These Editing Rules
Sure, you're shooting with a smartphone, not a high-powered DSLR, but there's still plenty of post-processing to play around with. When editing your photos, following a few simple rules can go a long way.
For one, don't crop aggressively—you'll throw off the effect of your smartphone's natural focal length and things will look cramped. (For the record, zooming is best avoided too, unless you're doing it with your feet.) Keep things natural. Raise saturation and contrast in moderation, even if you're tempted to make your shot look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Edit with the intention to bring out the best in your shot and evoke a particular mood.
6. Post-Process With Apps
Android offers some awesome native editing tools that are powerful but easy to overlook. On the iPhone, you're best going with a third-party app. Beyond Camera+, mentioned earlier, some of my favorites are Snapseed (available on iOS and Android)—an app acquired by Google last year and now powering Android's awesome native editing tools—and VSCO Cam (available on iOS, in beta for Android). Awesome new photo apps are popping up all the time, so dive into Google Play or the iPhone app store and see what's new.
These six guidelines only scratch the surface of what's possible in mobile photography. Today's top smartphones take great photos out of the box, but a great photo is not an excellent photo. By heeding a few simple rules and experimenting with a handful of more advanced techniques, you can ascend to a lofty plane of smartphone photography reserved for the best of the best.