Smartphone photo tips for the holidays
[Editor's note: This is an updated version of a previous article.]
These days, everyone is a photographer. We’re taking more photos than ever, but most of those photos aren’t being captured with digital SLRs or even compact cameras. Instead, we’re living in the Age of Smartphone Photography. Just consider Instragram: On Thanksgiving day, more than 200 photos were posted every second.
And now, the holidays are looming. If you plan on capturing a few photographic moments with your iPhone, Android phone, or any other mobile device, consider these tips for taking better photos. Some of these basic lighting and flash tips will come in handy if you’re using a full-fledged camera, too.
Beware of backlighting
This is good advice for any camera, but a smartphone camera is especially vulnerable to bad lighting. When you compose your family holiday portraits, don’t position yourself so that there are bright lights–the sun, indoor lamps, a wall of Christmas lights, and so on–behind your subject. Make sure the light source in your scene is behind you or off to the side, and if there are windows behind your subject, it might be a good idea to close the blinds or shades. Otherwise you’ll be capturing a bunch of silhouettes.
Light up the room
If your light source isn’t behind your subject, your smartphone camera will appreciate the extra illumination. If you’re shooting indoors and have the ability to plan ahead, make your setting smartphone-friendly by turning on lights and pulling back window curtains to let sunlight into the space.
Step up to some camera apps
The camera app that comes with your phone is perfectly adequate (if somewhat minimalist) most of the time. But what if you want to capture the light trails of cars driving past a nighttime holiday display? Or maybe you want to use your phone’s digital zoom while shooting a video of kids unwrapping presents? If so, it’s time to check out one of the many camera apps in your phone’s app store. On the iPhone, I highly recommend Top Camera, which does all the above and more. If you’re looking for other camera-enhancing apps, we have several great suggestions for iPhones and Android phones.
Adjust the focus and exposure
Your phone probably does a reasonable job of auto-focusing when you tap the shutter release, but you can make sure that you’re focusing on the right part of the photo by tapping it. Almost all smartphones will lock the focus on the part of the scene where you tap your finger. Many phones also adjust the exposure in a scene based on where you tap. You can prove it to yourself by pointing your phone at an extremely backlit scene. Tap the shadow foreground, and the phone will try to expose for the darkest part of the scene, brightening the shot overall. Now tap the bright area, and you’ll see the shadows plunge into darkness. Use this feature to ensure the most important parts of your shot are well exposed.
Turn off the flash
I’m not a big fan of using the flash when taking photos. It often creates ugly photos with harsh lighting, and the effect is even worse when you’re using a smartphone. To take better low-light photos without using the flash, increase the ISO in your phone’s camera options (if possible) or use the camera’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode. HDR mode usually combines several photos taken at different exposures for a better shot that has a far deeper tonal range. On many smartphones, HDR mode simulates this effect without taking several photos, and can give you better results in low-light situations than invoking the flash. If you use Instagram, you can also brighten up low-light shots by tapping the little “sun” icon in the lower left corner while reviewing your images.
Add a lens
Practically every smartphone out there has a fixed focal length, meaning that you can’t zoom in and out like you do with most standalone cameras. To expand your creative options, you can attach a lens onto the front of your smartphone; there are both wide-angle and telephoto lenses that clip onto the front of your phone. A little geeky? Sure. But if you ask me, it doesn’t look much geekier than taking photos with an iPad. This is also a good idea for a stocking stuffer, as Amazon has several lenses for the iPhone on sale.