Three steps for taking better smartphone pictures

If there’s anything that photo sharing apps like Instagram have taught us, it’s that there are a lot of people who are really bad at taking pictures. Never before have so many poorly-lit, out-of-focus, over-filtered images been shared to so many people. In all likelihood (and backed by a statistical sampling of Instagram), you’re part of the problem.

I’m sorry that I have to be “that guy”, but you’re pictures suck. This is tough love. I care about you and I know you mean well, but no matter how tasty that burrito is or how cute your cat seems to be, the photos you’re taking just aren’t doing them justice.

Don’t worry though. Together, we can make them better. There are three simple things you can do that will make your smartphone pictures, if not artful, at least a lot less awful.

Get closer

A sure-fire way to take a horrible picture is to try to “fit everything in”. Sure, you want to capture an image of your friends, but you’re also trying to get the mountains in the background, the sign they’re standing next to, and the blueness of the sky. To get all these things in the frame, you’ve walked backwards thirty feet from your friends.

The resulting picture is a chaotic mess that’s not very interesting. Nothing stands out. The photo is just a random assortment of things and is probably out of focus.

Fill the frame with the subject.
Fill the frame with the subject.

Try this instead: pick one of those things (probably your friends) and use it to fill the frame. This means you’re probably going to be standing five feet away from your friends instead of thirty. The context of the moment you’re trying to capture will still be there, even if you feel like you’re compromising. Picking a subject to take a picture of instead of trying to capture everything will give you a photo that’s a lot more interesting and intimate.

Put the light behind you

Unless you’ve got some artsy plan to document the shadows of the world, you need to develop an awareness for light – you need to know where it’s coming from. A lot of potentially awesome photos are ruined by a complete lack of light-awareness by the photographer. They arrange their friends in front of a lamp and then everyone is sad when the resulting photo is a bunch of shadowy figures standing in front of what looks like the sun.

I only have two hands, so this isn't the best comparison, but you get the idea.
I only have two hands, so this isn’t the best comparison, but you get the idea.

Whether the light source is the actual sun or the bulbs in a ceiling fan, you want it to be behind you, ideally casting a soft light on whatever you’re trying to take a picture of. Lighting is a complex subject and there are a lot of different things to consider, but just getting the light source out of the frame will significantly improve your photos.

Less is more

Can you put a lo-fi-sepia-vignette filter on every picture you take? Yes. Should you? No.

While filters can add interest to some photos, they often just make a bad photo worse. If the picture doesn’t have a clear subject, or is out of focus, or is poorly lit to begin with, most filters are just going to suck out any of the remaining detail.

Number 2 is actually my favorite.
Number 2 is actually my favorite.

Instead of using filters as a crutch. Try adding more interest to your photos during the act of taking them. Experiment. Get up close to your subjects. Frame them from odd angles. Get above them, or below them. Most importantly, figure out what your smartphone’s camera can’t do and work within those constraints. Figure out how much light it needs, where it focuses best, and how it handles motion.

Do these things and you’ll be making the world a better place, with better, more interesting photos that are worth caring about. Please, I beg you, do these things.