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.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Camera and Photography Edition

While most smartphones and even tablets nowadays have great cameras attached to them, they still can’t beat the quality of a dedicated camera. In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of digital phototography, it’s easy to get left behind on what makes and models are the best. And if you’re pondering the idea of giving that special someone a snapper this Holiday season, this is where our camera and photography gift guide will come in handy.

Let’s take a look at some of the best point-and-shoots and DSLRs money can buy.

Point-and-Shoots

Shopping on a budget:

Canon PowerShot A2200

  • 14.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 4x optical zoom
  • 720p at 30 fps HD video
  • Less than $90

The A2200 is the perfect camera that will take decent photos and decent HD video, yet isn’t so expensive that you must baby it. If your special someone has clumsy hands, consider getting them this cheap, but still very decent shooter.

I can splurge just a little:

Canon ELPH 300 HS

  • 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 5x optical zoom
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $150-$160

If you’re looking to get a little more out of your photos and videos, Canon’s ELPH 300 HS is a very good option. On top of the already-mentioned specs above, the 300 HS has a wide 24mm lens, an 8.0fps burst mode and comes packing with a DIGIC 4 processor (the same one that’s in the 1D Mark IV). Overall, it’ll take really great photos and videos without overdoing it for the novice crowd.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH25

  • 16.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 8x optical zoom
  • 720p at 24 fps HD video
  • $150-$160

If you’re looking for something with a little extra megapixelage and zoomage, you can’t beat Panasonic’s DMC-FH25. The 16.1 megapixel sensor is sure to impress and the 8x optical zoom is certainly nothing to scowl at. If you’re wanting to negotiate between quality images and price, the DMC-FH25 is a safe bet.

Get Me The Best Point-and-Shoot You Got:

Canon PowerShot S100

  • 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 5x optical zoom
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $420-$470

From its face, it doesn’t seem to be much different from the 300 HS mentioned earlier, but take a deeper look inside and you’ll find full manual controls, ability to shoot in RAW, GPS capabilities and the new DIGIC 5 processor powering it all. If you have the cash and want to give your sweetheart the best compact camera around, this is it.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

  • 10.1 megapixel CCD sensor
  • 3.8x optical zoom
  • 720p at 30 fps HD video
  • $340-$360

If you’re looking for a slightly cheaper alternative to the S100, then the LX5 just might suit your fancy. The specs are just slightly less impressive, but it still comes with full manual controls and all of the goodies that point-and-shoot photo-taking enthusiasts love, including its own mount for an external flash.

DSLRs

I’m Not Made of Money:

Nikon D3000

  • 10.2 megapixel DX sensor
  • 18-55 mm VR IS Lens
  • Six auto-focus settings
  • $450-$460

If your sweetheart is just starting out with photography and you just happen to not have a full wallet, you’re in luck because the D3000 is a good starter camera for photo enthusiasts because of its great user-friendliness. For a DSLR like this under $500, you really can’t go wrong.

Canon EOS Rebel T3

  • 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 720p at 30fps HD video
  • Live View
  • $470-$500

The Rebel T3 is also a good budget option if you prefer to go with the Canon brand. It has all the bells and whistles a budget DSLR should have and is topped off with 720p HD video capabilities, making it a great device for budget video-making hobbyists as well.

I Need A Little More Oomph:

Canon EOS 7D

  • 18 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 8.0 fps continuous shooting
  • 1080p at 30 fps and 720p at 60 fps HD video
  • $1,600

If you’re looking for something with a little extra kick (okay, a lot more), the 7D boasts quite the spec sheet while keeping the price at a respectable level. It comes with a 28-135mm lens, although I personally suggest springing for the 18-135mm option for just a tad more. You’ll thank me later.

Gimme Something I Can Really Use!

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

  • 21.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
  • ISO sensitivity up to 25,600
  • 1080p at 30 fps Full HD video
  • $2,800-$3,000

While there are DSLRs out there with better spec sheets and with more to come (EOS-1D X), the 5D Mark II is one of the few that strikes a good balance between resolution, quality and performance. It’s definitely the camera to get for that special someone if you have the wallet for it.