More than a few times, I’m sure you’ve been scrolling through Instagram wondering how people are taking such good photos. “That can’t be taken with an cellphone,” you think to yourself. Maybe they’re using a DSLR?
It’s no secret that smartphones, in general, have become excellent photography weapons in recent years. But how do you harness the full power of these phones is the question.
We’ll start off with some in-camera features that you can start using right away, followed by some photography tips.
Manual exposure and focus
Smartphones these days have the ability to manually change the exposure (brightness) and focus. When framing up your photo, tap once on the screen and a yellow square box will show up with a sun beside it. Hold and drag the sun up or down to adjust the brightness of the photo.
This is useful if it’s a really bright day and the subjects of your photo are too bright, you can manually bring the exposure down.
Alternatively, you can get really creative with this. Let’s say you’re in a forest at sunset and want to silhouette a subject in the photo and just capture the crisp sky. Just drag the slider down to reduce the brightness, making the forest and surroundings dark, and creating a rich yellow/red sky.
Locking exposure and focus
Have you ever had the perfect photo set up, but then it goes dark or way too bright with the slightest movement? Phones are always trying to get the perfect focus and exposure and are constantly readjusting in environments with differing light.
To counter this, the next step is locking your brightness and focus in once it’s perfect, so it doesn’t change again. You’ll then be able to get creative and change your angle without having to worry about your camera automatically adjusting its settings again.
Simply press and hold on the area of your screen for 1-2 seconds and “AE/AF lock” will flash on-screen. This means it’s locking in the aperture (more simply refers to the brightness) and autofocus, so you can now re-frame your shot freely without the brightness or focus changing.
These two tricks are the stepping stones to lighting up your Instagram feed with better photos!
HDR stands for high dynamic range, which means with it turned on, your camera is capturing a greater range of luminosity, colours and tones. What this means visually is that on a bright sunny day, if you’re taking a photo of your friends, the blue sky can be seen perfectly as well as the subjects of the photo, instead of having to pick between a properly exposed sky or subjects, which happens with HDR turned off.
How HDR works is that it takes multiple photos at different exposures simultaneously. It’ll capture the darkest parts of the image, the midtones, and the highlights all at a proper exposure. It then merges these photos into one.
Where this creates an issue is if you’re taking a photo of something moving fast. Because the camera has to take multiple photos in a burst, you can end up with a ghosting effect. If you’re at a concert where the band is moving a lot, with HDR on, their head could appear twice.
For the most part, your phone has such a fast burst rate that you won’t run into an issue for day-to-day use.
If you’re shooting a landscape, to enhance the photo, have something in the foreground, middle, and background for the eye to look at. One of my favourite photographers on Instagram is Kevin Russ and he does this masterfully.
Next time when shooting a landscape, pull back and look at your surroundings. Don’t just take a photo of a direct body of water, get more of the environment in the shot to make it more unique.
Use interesting light to your advantage
If there’s a sliver of light that you notice appears in your house for 10 minutes a day, use it to your advantage. Since smartphones don’t have the best dynamic range, you can get some interesting effects like the above photo by photographer Ben Schuyler.
Make sure your horizon line is always perfectly horizontal. There’s nothing worse than a nice beach photo, and the horizon line in the background is crooked. You can adjust this in your photos app after the fact if you select the crop tool.
Don’t use digital zoom
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Cameras on smartphones have a fixed focal length, so when you digitally zoom in with your fingers, all you’re doing is reducing the quality of the photo. Always stay at the widest the camera goes, and if you need to, crop your photo slightly after the fact.
Move with your feet, not your fingers!
Filters and Editing
Generally speaking, most filters on Instagram or external apps have really awful default filters. My advice is to not use them, or to just not use any overly stylized ones.
Instead, what you can do, without downloading another app you can use the manual adjustments built into photos in your phone. When you have a photo you want to edit, open it, and there are four buttons at the bottom of your screen (sharing, favourite, edit, trash). Select the three sliders (edit), then select the dial. You now have three options: light, colour, black and white.
When you go into each of these settings, there’s an advanced mode (select the three line icon) you can select to get into the fine details of the image.
My process is usually pretty simple. I’ll get the basic settings right by adjusting the exposure until it’s perfect, minor tweaks with the shadows and highlights until I’m satisfied, then bump up the contrast a bit and reduce the black point (this gives a bit of a faded/film look.) Try and stay away from using the saturation adjustments, as oversaturated photos can be a real killer of good photography.
For the “Instagram look,” I’d recommend downloading VSCO as they have a few great presets.
The main thing you want to note is that after editing, the image still looks natural and not processed. Once you add filters and heavily edit a photo too much, it can remove a lot of what makes the photo great.
Photo by Nakita Cheung on Unsplash