In recent years, Bangladeshi photojournalist Jashim Salam (@jashimsalam) has covered stories about some of the most pressing issues of our time, from climate change to conflict. He’s met people from all over the world, and he’s learned an important photography lesson along the way: high-end gear is nice, but it isn’t everything.
Over the last few decades, mobile phones have become ubiquitous. They’ve given us the power to take pictures almost anywhere at any time. For professional photographers, they offer a unique alternative to bulkier, more expensive cameras because they’re quick, easy to use, and unobtrusive.
Salam uses his phone when he wants to get back to the basics, remove distractions, and focus on what matters most. He tells us, “Sometimes, I feel that removing those higher-end technical aspects of picture-taking allows me to be more spontaneous in my storytelling.” As camera phones continue to improve, more photographers are following suit.
We asked ten photographers working across different genres and countries to tell us how they create timeless and unforgettable images using only their phones. Read on to learn their best tips for improving your mobile photography skills.
Toggle on the grid in your camera settings.
Magali Chesnel (@magalichesnel) is an award-winning French photographer currently based in Switzerland. She recommends using your phone’s grid feature to line up the horizon and perfect your angles.
“This tool helps you compose your photos,” she explains. “It’s one of the easiest and best ways to improve your mobile photos and make them more balanced. I always look for symmetry, proportion, and harmony.” Use the rule of thirds, or bisect your photo across the middle.
Carry a lens cloth.
“Our phones are usually in our pockets or bags, so the lens collects all kinds of lint and dust,” Chesnel adds. “It can be very frustrating to discover smudges, blurs, or dust spots on a photo. Cleaning your lens regularly will save you time in post-processing.”
“Taking photos with high-contrast scenes can be a problem when it comes to exposure,” Chesnel explains. “To overcome this, HDR (High Dynamic Range) will allow you to capture detail, both in terms of shadow, as well as highlights, with perfect exposure throughout the entire scene.”
On a mobile device, an HDR photo automatically combines three different exposures in one image. To take an HDR photo on an iPhone, select HDR at the top of your screen, and make sure you’ve checked “Auto” or “On.”
If you choose “Auto,” your camera will decide whether an image works best with HDR or not. If you select “On,” your camera will save two versions--one with HDR and one without--so you can choose. HDR won’t always be appropriate, so use your best judgment on a case-by-case basis.
Adjust your exposure manually.
Adrienne Pitts is a London-based photographer who shares her adventures around the world via her popular Instagram account @hellopoe. “So many people tell me that they get frustrated taking photos on their mobile phone because they come out too dark, or the scene doesn’t look the same as it does in real life,” she admits.
“Many people don’t realize that by holding your finger down on an area of the screen (on iPhone), you can choose to expose for that specific zone by sliding your finger up or down to change your exposure. I also recommend turning off that flash, unless that is the specific aesthetic you are going for.”
When in doubt, underexpose.
“I always underexpose the scene a bit so I can correct the exposure in post-processing,” Dutch landscape and architecture photographer Robert-Paul Jansen (@robertpaul) tells us. “That way, you don’t get those overblown highlights.”
Try the AE/AF Lock.
London-based street photographer Raphael de Vannoise (@raphaeldevannoise) uses his phone the same way he would any other camera; in addition to setting his exposure, he also manually adjusts his focal length to the equivalent of the 50mm lens, the same as his reflex camera.
He then will use the AE/AF function to control focus and composition of the image. “I often take an extra two seconds to lock the AE/AF (Auto Exposure/Auto Focus) function,” he tells us. “It’s easy with a phone and useful when composing your image and choosing the right exposure for your subject.” To turn on the lock, tap and hold your finger where you’d like to focus. When “AE/AF Lock” appears at the top of the screen, you’re good to go.
Jen Pollack Bianco (@lax2nrt) is a travel photographer based in Seattle. She tells us, “Mobile phone technology is getting better by leaps and bounds, but one of the weak spots is still in telephoto technology.”
The solution? Instead of zooming in on a faraway subject, try to get close to it yourself. Bianco explains, “You might have to walk a little to get the shot you want, but that’s okay because you’re not carrying around a heavy camera.”
Watch the edges of your frame.
“When taking pictures with my phone, I always try to get the frame right as there is not much space for cropping,” Asu Robson (@asurobson), a photographer based in Istanbul and Newcastle, explains. “Other adjustments can be made with various editing apps, but if the frame is not right, cropping will probably not produce the desired effect.”
Because you’ll have less leeway than you would with a traditional camera, make sure the corners and sides of your frame are clear of any unwanted elements.
Shoot at sunrise and sunset.
“If you are taking landscape photos, the best time of day to do this is early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is at an angle,” South African photographer Jessica Notelo (@jessicanotelo) advises. “This will highlight the shapes and colors of the landscape beautifully. For portraits, make sure the light source (be it the sun, a torch, light from a window, etc.) is not coming from directly behind the subject. Though backlit photos and silhouettes are beautiful, most phones struggle with this type of lighting.”
This tip comes to us from Jędrzej Franek (@archi.grafia), an urban architecture and street photographer based in Poznań, Poland. “Treat your phone like a DSLR,” he suggests. “Use manual mode--or applications that allow it--and shoot RAW files. Many people let these details go, but it can determine whether a photo is printable or not. That’s important when you think about exhibitions and selling prints.”
Master editing apps.
“The process of creating an image I’m proud of only begins with composition and snapping,” Worcestershire-based photographer Catherine Cliffe (@bodneyboo) explains. Even when she’s out in the field, she’s thinking about how she’ll edit her images later.
“Filters and textures can change the scene from something that looks nice to something a bit more special,” she continues. “I like to add an extra layer of mood and drama. The seamless link between taking photos on my mobile and easily accessing editing apps is part of what makes mobile photography so appealing.”
A number of the photographers we interviewed echoed this sentiment. When it comes to apps, they recommend Lightroom Mobile, Snapseed, VSCO, and Enlight, though the possibilities are endless. Spend some time trying out different apps and figure out what combination works best for your aesthetic. When it comes to editing, a little goes a long way.
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