October 20, 2018

How to take better photos with your smartphone

Here’s a question for you: At a gathering with friends when you want to take a photograph, do you reach for a digital camera or your phone? According to David Hume Kennerly, author of “On the iPhone: Secrets and Tips From a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer,” “The best camera is the one you have with you.” And that camera is more than likely the one on your smartphone. 

With more than 1.8 billion photos uploaded every day on social media sites, most of them taken on smartphones, we’re a generation that obviously loves to take pictures. But as you’ve probably noticed from your Facebook newsfeed, most of these photos could use some improvement. Here, then, are some simple tips for taking better photos on your smartphone, or even your tablet. Best of all, they won’t require you to use any fancy apps or add-on lenses. You already have everything you need in the palm of your hand.

Use the “rule of thirds”

Using the “rule of thirds,” this photo, taken with an iPhone, is composed with the foreground on the bottom third, and my dog Gershwin’s face at the intersection of a horizontal and vertical line. iPhone photo by Jonathan Fong

When composing a shot, resist the tendency to position your subject smack dab in the middle. Photographers and other visual artists use the “rule of thirds,” in which the subject is off center to provide more balance and visual interest. To apply this guideline, imagine the photo divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, so that the two vertical lines intersect the two horizontal lines. Then, place the subject of the photo along one of these lines, or at the intersection of the lines. To more easily apply this rule, turn on the grid function of your smartphone’s camera, and those lines will appear on your viewfinder. Just go to your camera’s settings to enable the grid.

Get closer

One of Kennerly’s tips is to get closer to your subjects. A big advantage of a smartphone is that its size makes it easier to shoot at close range without being intrusive. If you’re photographing children or pets, kneel down to their level. I often do this when taking photos of my dogs. The shots look so much more compelling when they’re taken at eye level.

Turn off the flash

The flash is not your friend. A smartphone camera’s built-in flash gives people washed-out, yellow skin tones and red eyes, like they’re extras in “Children of the Corn.” Disable the flash and rely on available light. When you look for light, you’ll be surprised how many interesting sources you’ll find. As Kennerly notes, “It can be fireworks over the Washington Monument or a shard of light funneling through a hole in the wall onto the face of a sleeping child. The possibilities remain endless.”

Use AE/AF lock

The AE/AF lock can be helpful in difficult lighting situations. iPhone photo by Sara Budisantoso

If you’ve ever taken a photograph where there is high contrast in lighting (e.g., part of the shot is in the shadows, and part of it is in bright sunlight), you know it’s a challenge to get the right exposure and focus. Frequently, your subject will be completely in the dark while the rest of the photo is washed out. The AE/AF lock solves this problem. Just place your finger on the screen where the lighting is good, hold it there until the AE/AF indicator goes on, and then move the camera to your desired subject. The photo maintains the good lighting conditions that you locked in. 


HDR improves the range of exposure in high-contrast situations for more even lighting. iPhone photo by Lynn Pelkey

Another smartphone function to improve uneven lighting conditions is HDR. You may have noticed the letters “HDR” on the camera screen but weren’t sure what they meant. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. When you turn on HDR, your camera takes three photos at different exposures, and then highlights the best of each photo, combining the three into one HDR photo. HDR works really well for landscape shots in which the sky is much brighter than the land, or for portrait shots in bright sunlight, which can cause harsh shadows on the face. HDR evens out the lighting so everything looks better.

Be square

There’s just something about the square format that makes your photos look more vibrant. For one, it forces you to leave out extraneous elements that don’t fit in the frame. Without these distractions, the eye is immediately drawn to the subject. Black-and-white photos look particularly striking in the square format. And another benefit: Square photos on Facebook are displayed larger than vertical or horizontal ones.

Take candids

Most photos that you take of people will be posed — that’s inevitable. But the more interesting photographs are the ones taken when people are not looking at the camera. Having an unobtrusive smartphone makes this possible. Kennerly advocates, “Photograph your family when they aren’t paying attention to you.” These unguarded moments create a naturalistic honesty in the photographs that can’t be replicated with a posed smile. If you’re in a situation, such as a wedding, at which you and several other photographers are aiming cameras at the same subject, take your photos when the subject is looking at the other photographers instead of at you. You and your smartphone might just capture a more fascinating image than the professional photographer. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at