1. Got Light?
The word ‘photography’ literally means “writing with light”. There are many different types of light, which means that we use this light differently. You want to look for the best light… the warm, oblique sunlight at the beginning and end of the day yields a rich, golden light with long shadows that is gorgeous for dramatic landscape photos.
Sunny day photography can be a real challenge due to the extreme contrast. The overhead light produces harsh shadows making people look like raccoons. Consider shooting for black and white (B&W) in this case, where the wide dynamic range can give you some really effective B&W images. Or, use that contrast as a feature of your image.
Overcast days are the absolute best for most photography as the cloud cover acts as a gigantic diffuser, giving us lovely soft, even light. Great for portraits and any kind of closeup or product work.
Often, it’s the light through the clouds that triggers me to frame and make an image.
2. Get it together!
OK, so you’ve got an idea in mind… Let’s look at some composition tips and techniques so you can present an image that grabs and holds onto the eye. The first guideline is don’t put your subject dead centre in the frame. This tends to give the image a static look. If you move the subject off centre, generally on a Rule of Thirds grid intersections, the image is much stronger dynamically. This grid (and others), is available in your camera app and provides easy-to-use guide for composition.
In the image below, the interesting trees are placed in the upper-right third and the shoreline runs diagonal from the lower-left third, leading the eye.
Place your horizons on the upper or lower third, depending on what is more visually appealing, and should therefore have more space.
Use leading lines, especially diagonal lines, to which the human eye is drawn, to lead people through your image, from the foreground to the background. Putting something close in the foreground will help to add perspective to your picture. Use foreground objects, such as tree branches, signs, etc, to frame the centre of interest.
In this image, the tidal lines in the beach sand lead our eyes to the figure in the distance.
Here is an example of using a foreground feature to add depth to the scene behind. The flowers provide a framing element that uses the space in that area, adding balance to the boats.
Get close! Until you are right on top of something, the smartphone lenses don’t show wide angle distortion, so fill that frame with your subject. In the image below, I used a Lens Blur function to give very shallow depth-of-field.
Try different aspect ratios to force you to compose differently. See the picture a different way. Use the 1:1 (square) Instagram-type format, or try to recreate a cinematic experience by shooting or cropping to a wide-angle aspect ratio.
3. Hold still would ya!
The number one cause of fuzzy pictures is motion blur where you move the camera during the exposure. Mostly, this movement is accidental, but nonetheless, it is enough to significantly degrade the image. The more you can support your smartphone, the clearer the resulting image will be.
Try to brace one edge of your phone against a wall, lamppost, whatever (you get the idea). I often carry around a small leather beanbag I made many years ago. It weighs almost nothing, takes up very little space, but can be effectively used to provide a stable base, so, better picture.
Finally, another tip for sharper pictures is that when you are taking the image, don’t just tap the shutter button… press and hold it, and only then slowly release your finger. You’ll get far less accidental movement this way. Alternately, use the volume button on your headphone cord to actually trip the shutter — it will remove any mechanical linkage and you’ll get less camera movement. This is also a great strategy for taking phone pictures without most people even noticing you.
Balancing your phone/tablet on your knee can get you pretty steady, and who really notices these days in offices… everyone has a small screen they are glued to.
4. Timing is everything!
There’s an old photography adage about “the decisive moment”. This simply implies that inevitably, there are actual decisive moments during an event. Even if it is something as small as a person’s eyes shifting their focus, etc. if you are photographing someone, there will be moments that are simply more pleasing or more disturbing. It is these moments that provide compelling images.
Here’s an image I took during a meeting with a colleague. She was unaware that I had started to snap some pictures. It’s the beauty of the innocent pose that gives the image appeal.
You will all recognize this concept for your own pictures, and of those of other artists. The trick is to be able to watch, and finally, almost anticipate what your subject might do. Take this a step further by looking for an interesting background where your subjects can be seen. For example, I will often see a visually interesting background as a backdrop for photographing passersby, or, just watching what’s going on around you…
5. It ain’t over until it’s over!
One of the great joys for me as a photographer is that there’s more to a good image than just the original capture. Post processing your images adds an extra dimension that really finishes the picture.
I currently shoot an iPhone 6 using ProCamera (6.2) as my camera app because it offers an excellent range of features rivaling most point-and-shoot cameras. Included in those features is an easy way to separate focus and exposure. (The iPhone’s built-in camera app now allows this too.)
I expose for the brightest area in the images (by dragging the Exposure cursor over that area) and then recover the darker shadows later by using other apps. This ensures that your highlights retain some measure of detail.
Note that there is an HDR mode that you may be tempted to use, but use it sparingly as it can quickly degrade an image. I find this type of processing far more effective to do it after the fact as noted below.
The apps that I use the most on the iPhone include the following:
This is my go-to editor for preliminary adjustments. Generally, I use the Tune Image tool and use the Brightness/Ambiance/Contrast/Shadows controls to get a dramatic look. (I don’t really care for the app’s built-in Drama filter.) I will also add some Structure and Sharpening from the Details tool. I then save a copy of the resulting file for further work.
Most often, for that result we just saved, next in line is a trip through the Painteresque app that I use to add some details and contrast that gives the image some “tooth”, which I find quite pleasing. I have a few custom presets that essentially dial-down the ‘Painteresque’ effect. It’s extremely effective to emphasis textures and clouds etc.
Up until recently, I had struggled with app after app trying to find an effective B&W processing process. I like to have an easy to use way to choose brightness, contrast and tone, then easily add grain and/or a vignette, and this app does it beautifully. It’s a snap to alter these parameters and the results are just great.
Sometimes, I’ll see a stylized, more “artistic” view of one of my images. Indeed, many of the landscapes I shoot are perfect for portraying in other “mediums” (digitally, of course) such as water colours, oils, or even graphic or marker pen. The app I like the best for its results in this category is Brushstroke. It’s easy to open one of your images and then choose from a number of styles (including some In-App-Purchases). The results can be quite compelling and gives you yet another look for your images.
The bottom line:
The bottom line, of course, is just get out there and shoot stuff!