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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

Jeff's 20 best smartphone photo tips

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

The number one question I used to get was "What kind of camera should I buy?"

It later got eclipsed by "Is the new iPhone worth it?" and "Are the pictures on the new iPhone really that much better?"

Now, in putting together the "Photowalks with Jefferson Graham" TV series (watch free on Tubi) I get one question more than any other: What are your best smartphone photo tips to improve my photography?

Thanks for asking! I've got some ideas.

Here are my top 20 picks.

  • Timing is everything. Most great photos are taken early in the morning or during the "Magic" hour of pre-sunset and sunset, because that's when the light is softest and shows off the best colors. Yes, you can get great stuff during the day as well, but trust me, you'll do better if you adhere to these two rules.

  • Keep moving until you get it right. Sometimes you'll look through the camera and the shot is yucky, most noticeably when you're doing a portrait of someone and the light is awful. I've got a good solution. Move the subject and/or yourself to try different variations. Go left, right, north and south until you get it right. Odds are, one of those will work.

  • Shade is your best friend. People look like raccoons when photographed in mid-day, harsh sunlight. I've got an easy fix: look for the shade. I did portraits in the park this weekend, where virtually the entire park was covered with sunlight. Solution: I put my subject under a tree and all was well.

  • Watch out for clutter. Often times we take photos and aren't paying attention to the background. Then we notice trees growing out of people's heads, or garbage cans in the shot. Pay attention to these details, and get as tight as you can to eliminate the distractions.

  • Put something interesting in the foreground. If you're shooting a sunset, a couple holding hands and looking at the sun can add a lot to your photo. If you're lucky enough to have a pier, as in below, use it to your advantage. Putting subjects in the foreground help bring the photo to another level.

  • Steady your shot. Put both hands on the smartphone. The new phones have wonderful image stabilization capabilities, but you can make it easier of yourself by putting both hands on the phone to make it steadier. Because no one likes a fuzzy photo, right? That said, if you're shooting in low light, one great trick to steady the shot is to place the phone against a book, a ledge, something to lean it again.

  • Selfie timer. Put on your smartphone camera timer (usually available in 3 or 10 second increments) to give you time to compose your shot. More importantly, it will save you the bother of having to press the shutter button while you're posing, and will make for a better shot.

  • Ditch the smartphone flash. Photos taken with the harsh, glaring light of the smartphone flash look just awful. The low-light capabilities of newer smartphones are so good, you don't need the flash. Trust me on this one. Turn it off, please!

  • Shoot sideways. When you turn the camera vertically you're cutting off half of the picture. So when you post it, there's big bodies of empty space. I have a better idea! Hold the camera horizontally and let us see more of the picture.

  • When shooting a sunset, stick around. Sunsets are awesome, but often times, the best colors come in five of ten minutes after the sun sets. Bring some warm clothes and don't be in a rush to leave!

  • Have fun with slow-mo and time-lapse. You can do some amazing things on your smartphone. Slow motion videos look awesome and time-lapse are a great way to speed up the world and watch it fly by you. Timelapses are especially fun when you can see clouds fly by. You'll need a tripod and patience to do a great timelapse because you can't hold the camera steady for an hour, which is the amount of time you'll need to get a good one to two minutes of footage. Slow mo is so slow, you don't have to worry about a tripod. You can get away with hand held.

  • Shoot lots. Because you can. There is a theory that if you just shoot non-stop, the odds of insurance are that at least one of the shots will be printable. Which is true, but it helps if you follow the other rules, like shooting at the right time, making sure there's no clutter in the frame and moving around to get the best shot. Either way, experiment like crazy and don't be conservative. You can always delete the misses later.

  • Experiment, part 2: Shoot every shot with all the tools at your disposal. Most of the newer smartphones have three lenses, for ultra-wide, wide and portrait. Or, in other words, close-up, medium and wide. Take every shot with all three to give you more options.

  • Use the volume button to snap the shutter. Using the volume button on the side of the phone to snap the shutter can result in a steadier shot.

  • Burst mode. Smartphones don't do a great job with indoor sports. But for outdoor games like soccer and baseball, use the burst mode feature to take multiple shots in a row. Odds are you'll be more likely to stop action this way. On newer iPhones, slide the shutter button to the left to kick in burst mode.

  • Clean the lens, dummy! You can dramatically improve your photos by taking your shirt or a cloth, and wiping smudge off your lens. It's easy to do and will cost you nothing.

  • Change setting from HEIC to JPG (iPhone specific). Apple phones are default set to HEIC, a new image standard for smaller files, to help you not run out of storage. All well and good, but too many websites won't accept HEIC files for upload, like Wordpress and Pinterest, so we recommend sticking with JPG for now.

  • Use Live photos for long exposures (iPhone specific) With the camera on Live, which adds a few seconds of video to your image, you can also choose to run the video as loops or as a "long exposure" with flowing water. To get the effect, take the picture, then open the Photos app, swipe up, and choose the Long Exposure effect. That easy,

  • Adjust exposure. Smartphones by default shoot in automatic mode, leaving you little choice if the robot decides to over or under-expose the photo. Take some action and decide for yourself. On newer iPhones the exposure tool is in that same menu with Live Photos, timer and Flash. Click the middle arrow at the top of the screen in the camera app to open it up. On Android phones, in camera app, go to the right of the Photo button in the camera app and select "More," which brings you to Pro level. Exposure adjustment is available there.

  • Use apps to "develop" your photos. Average images taken on smartphones look great, but you can always do better. And filters on apps like Instagram can take it too far. I like to use Adobe Lightroom Mobile (free) to boost the blacks, darken the sky, adjust the colors and such. Give it a try!

Shot in Live Photos Long Exposure mode on iPhone

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