Six Ways to Make the Most of Your Phone Camera

A little over a year ago I invested in a DSLR camera as I got more into photography. I poured myself into online blogs, Outdoor Photographer magazine, and outdoor Instagram accounts to figure out how to make the most of said camera and how to become a “photographer”.

And I learned a lot— I learned about ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure. What I learned more than all of the technicalities is that a lot of photography, rather most of photography, is not about the camera. It’s more about the light, the rule of thirds, angles, editing, and luck.

A nice camera like a DSLR will give you a higher quality image, more creative freedom, and the ability to shoot in low light, but that doesn’t mean that your smartphone can’t crank out good images. They say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and I tend to agree.

I have used my phone to take pictures when I didn’t have access to my camera (the time I forgot my camera battery), or brought the wrong lens, or didn’t have time to pull my camera out of my bag.

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This photo was taken early in the morning on my phone when I realized I brought a telephoto lens that wouldn’t fit the canoe in the image. Oops.

Learn the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the idea of dividing a photo, or any art, into thirds in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing. This applies in a few ways. It can apply to the placement of the horizon line—you could have 2/3 of a photo be sky, or 1/3. It can apply to foreground as well in the same way. The rule of thirds also applies to photo subjects as well— you can shoot to have a subject take up about a third of a photo, or sit at a certain third. Usually, I tend to go either for dead center or off to one side.

In the photo above, shot on an iPhone 5s, I placed the horizon line in the top third of the photo, and centered the canoe, with roughly one third of the image on either side of the canoe.

 

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Taken in the backcountry of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, iPhone 5s

Look for Light

Lighting is one of the best things about photography and I will stand by that statement—any subject can be interesting in the right light. I took this photo on the aforementioned old iPhone, with a cracked screen, but it did the trick.

About an hour before sunset, the “golden hour” rays light up the conifers, the water, and the rocks and made for a good photo despite the lack of DSLR.

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Straighten Your Horizon Line

See that line, where the sky meets the sea? STRAIGHTEN IT. This is my single biggest photo pet peeve—lopsided horizon lines. This photo doesn’t have nearly the same effect with the horizon line askew.

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Trinity College Dublin, after a rainstorm, taken before I knew what DSLR meant

Learn What Editing Can Do for You

This one is an old photo, from well before I got a “real” camera and knew anything about photography. Through Adobe Lightroom, my editing tool of choice, I was able to make this photo more striking than before.

On this particular photo I…

  • Decreased the luminance of the blue in the sky, which intensifies the blue
  • Used the “sharpen” tool to increase pixel definition. The sharpen tool is can sort of “fake” a higher quality when it comes to smartphone photos
  • Decreased the “lights” and increased the “darks”. This takes parts of the photo that are overexposed and darkens them, while lightening up parts that were in shadows
  • Straightened the horizon line (see previous)

In hindsight, I think that the red jacket is a little too bright, and the buildings have a blue cast, which I could remove in Lightroom by selectively decreasing the saturation of the color blue or purple.

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Taken near Stonehenge, England, back when I thought filters were super cool

Go Easy on the Filters

On the subject of lackluster editing, check out the number I did on this circa 2015 photo of a field of poppies. Crooked horizon line (ew I hate it), the red is a little intense, and the blue of the sky is obviously the Instagram filter “clarendon”.

As a rule now, I try and keep my edits minimal. If I am going to increase vibrance or put a certain cast on a photo, I only do so about approximately 10-15%. Any more than this and generally a photo will look hyper-edited.

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Out a plane window this summer, camera stowed in a carry on

Be Flexible

For this photo out a plane window near Salt Lake City, I leaned over my youngest sister and took exactly one photo. It could’ve turned out better, and I would’ve like to have taken multiple shots, but sometimes you just play with the cards you’ve been dealt.

 

Overall, none of these are steadfast rules, just suggestions based on my limited experience. If hyper-edited is your style, go for it! Experiment some. Some people are purists, who don’t edit photos at all—more power to them! Some people like wild horizon lines, and the rule of thirds isn’t really a rule at all. Plus, at the end of the day, I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Further resources:

You Are Strong

Strength is not the absence of weakness.

It isn’t never being scared, or sad, or heartbroken.

 

Strength is not taking failure, or rejection, or grief gracefully—

And it isn’t even the ability to stand after you fall.

 

Sometimes strength is just getting through it.

And it’s not pretty, or romantic, but it’s real.

 

I wrote this quickly, a few times over.

First, I scrawled it in the bottom of my notebook, in more words, and less pointed. I wrote it as a reminder, and then I didn’t look back at it for a few months.

I wrote it again as I bounced back from a rough week. I wrote it as I mulled over what had happened, and why, and how I should handle it all. That time I wrote it as a mantra—it is okay to not be okay.

I’m writing it again now, more fluidly. I mulled it over this weekend, choosing the right words, cutting and snipping.

It is important to remember that the moment you are in does not define you. You are not your weakest moment, and you aren’t what others see you as. You get to choose who you are.

And imperviousness to weakness, that does not make you strong. It is okay to not be okay. That is normal, I promise.

So this is just a reminder that you are strong—

Even when you are tired, sad, or scared, when you feel like you’ve failed, when you feel rejected and alone, you are still strong, even if you don’t believe it.

There is strength in putting yourself back together, sure, and in turning the other cheek, and all of the things that we usually name strong. But even when you don’t weather it gracefully, even when you feel like you’ve failed, and don’t have a shred of dignity left at all, and you don’t feel strong, just remember that you are.

Because just getting through it makes you strong too—and I will believe that you are strong even if you don’t.

Hey, I hope you have a great day. You have got this.

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Make the Mistake

I don’t want to be the person to tell you that all mistakes are good, or that even the worst things you will grow from, because frankly that’s obnoxious. Maybe it is true that even the hard, sucky, parts of life make us stronger, but I don’t think telling anyone in the hard, sucky parts how they’re going to grow from it is necessarily helpful. They won’t hear you.

I don’t think that you can stop people from making mistakes either—you can’t look at someone you know, gauge exactly where they are going, and then tell them what they’re doing is a mistake. First off, you could be wrong. Second, even if you are right, there are a lot of mistakes people have to make for themselves.

I have stayed out later than I should have, and gone out with people I knew it wouldn’t work with, and forgiven people I shouldn’t have given a second chance. I have run farther than I should have, against advice, I have worked on projects I was told were hopeless. I have drunk near gallons of coffee past 7 pm. As a result, I have gotten overuse injuries, had whole projects scraped, and laid awake in bed wondering why the hell I needed a large black coffee at 7 pm anyhow. And honestly that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing—

Be it your 7 pm coffee or something much, much bigger, some mistakes are worth making.

Maybe it is a mistake to get up at 2 am and drive to try and catch the Northern Lights the night before you have to work. Maybe you’ll regret it in the morning. Maybe not though.

Maybe it is a mistake to pursue a relationship with someone you know is probably not the best choice. Maybe you’ll regret it in a year. Maybe you’ll regret it tomorrow.

Maybe you shouldn’t try climb that mountain, or hike that hike alone. Maybe you shouldn’t stay out late, and you should’ve gone to bed. Maybe you should’ve planned better or paid more attention, maybe you shouldn’t have invested so much in that particular person.

But maybe not—

If you didn’t make any mistakes, what kind of stories would you have to tell? And I know I’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but I don’t regret staying out too late, or drinking too much coffee, or blowing off sleep to look at the stars. I don’t regret some of the bigger mistakes too.

So you know what? Make your mistakes, because they are yours. You get to make mistakes, and you get to show up to class hungover, and you get to date boys your friends don’t like, and eat too much pizza, and blow off studying sometimes. You get to get lost in the woods and pull yourself out, and you get to have hard moments completely of your own creation.

Make the mistake. Some mistakes are worth making. And maybe some mistakes are not even really mistakes at all.

 

How to Have a Bad Camping Trip

It’s not exactly a secret that camping, hiking, and road tripping have highs and lows. The feeling when you reach the top of the mountain is great, but first you had to climb it. And by climb it, I mean probably go a few days without a shower, scrape yourself up quite a bit, make a lot of mistakes, get in arguments with your group members, and probably get pretty lost too.

Good camping trips have bad moments, and even “bad trips” have good moments too.

So what can lead to a bad trip, and how can you avoid it?

Not being involved in planning

One of the things that I have seen negatively affect several people’s trips is not doing any planning and “just tagging along”. If you don’t know what the plan is or where you’re going, you might miss out on things you wanted to do, or end up doing more than you wanted. And if you didn’t help make the plan, or at least know the plan, you aren’t going to be as invested in said plan.

An easy fix to this is to, at the very least, know a rough itinerary. Better yet, actually get involved and collaborate with the people who are making the plan. I have found that sitting down, face to face, and telling people the things that you want to do or don’t want to do works best.

Being too involved in planning

This is a trap that I usually fall into—I am known for making an elaborate plan, down to the hour, running it briefly by other group members, and then getting frustrated when parts of that plan fall through. Realistically, you can’t plan for everything, and you have to be adaptable to have a good time.

Besides, as much as I love planning down to the hour, some of the best adventures I have had have been unplanned and spontaneous.

Expecting things to go smoothly

If you expect your entire trip to go off without a hitch, you’re a whole lot more likely to be upset when things go wrong. You can plan ahead for things that might happen—print out maps for when you lose cell service, bring extra food and socks, have a first aid kit—and all of that is a good idea, but that’s not really what I am getting at.

Having a backup plan doesn’t grantee that you won’t be in a situation you didn’t plan for. And that’s fine—just know that you are probably going to reach a point where you have to deal with something you didn’t expect. As long as you are okay with things going wrong here and there, and know that it is going to happen, those road bumps won’t seem so big.

Expecting things to go poorly

Recently, I went on a camping trip that I thought for sure I was going to hate. And for a while I was right—it was 90 degrees, I was trying to keep track and take care of people, lift heavy boxes, and take photos all at the same time. For the first day, I didn’t have any fun.

I realized halfway through that the reason things were going poorly was because I expected them too. Even before I showed up, I had already told people what a drag I thought this was going to be. Of course I was having a bad time—I had already decided too.

Once I realized that I was having a bad time because of my own attitude, things got a lot better—time passed quicker, I was more engaged and less tired, and I ended up having a pretty good time!

So the moral of the story? Attitude makes a huge difference .

Not doing any research

Spontaneous trips are fun, but not knowing the area you are traveling to can be more stressful than anything else. It’s good to know what campgrounds are in the area, what gas stations are around and open, what the terrain of the trails is, and what wildlife you need to be aware of. 

Not taking time for you

Even when traveling with a group of people it is important to take time for yourself. Take the time to be alone for a second, take the time to make your coffee in the morning, and take the time to see the things you want to see.

Having a second to catch your breath can change your outlook on an entire trip. 

Don’t listen to the concerns of your group members

It’s important to think about what you want, yes, but it is just as important to listen to the people you are traveling with. A lot of the arguments and bickering I have seen traveling were caused by miscommunications.

Make sure you are all on the same page about timing, what sort of hikes/adventures you want to have, and how long you are willing to spend places.

Go with people who have similar interests

Miscommunication aside, it can be hard to travel with just “anyone”. I am a fast-paced, early morning kind of person, and have traveled with people who are slower, and want to sleep in. It was hard for me to spend the morning hours waiting for them to be ready to travel.

Overall, a good camping trip is a matter of perspective. All trips have high points and low points, they just do. You can’t always change the situation, the people you’re with, the trail or even the weather, but you can change the way you react. Take a second to breathe, because you’re going to have a great time.

The Harder Hikes

I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.

It is hard.

It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.

It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.

It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.

It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.

It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.

But listen—

 We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.

Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.

It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.

And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.

No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.

I guess I don’t want easy. I guess I want good.

The Moments That Make Us

I like to think I have a handle on things—we all do. We all think we know exactly what we’re going to do tomorrow, and we have this rough idea of what next the year, or the next five look like.

We think we know what we’re eating for dinner tonight, we think we will have a boring day tomorrow, we think that we have control.

We don’t have control, and I think to some extent we know that too, but it’s a lot easier to hold on to the idea that we know what is coming tomorrow than to embrace the idea that we actually have no idea.

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A moment I was sitting in a storm, and suddenly it stopped raining and the sky lit up

And then it hits us—you are doing so well, everything is so normal and then one day something happens. Maybe it’s small. Maybe someone says something that alters your perspective a little and it snowballs. Maybe it’s not small—maybe it’s big and it clearly changes everything. But either way, the earth shifts beneath your feet, and suddenly you are looking at things from a different place than you were yesterday.

The moments that change us—they are big and small, they are significant in their own way, and they make you who they are. Sometimes they hurt—a lot. Sometimes you feel it like a physical pain.

We don’t get to choose when everything changes and we don’t pick how. You don’t get to choose the moments you remember, the ones you think of, the moments that follow you.

It’ll knock you down, leave you bruised, and it will change you. It is scary to have something happen and all the sudden things are different.

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A moment I realized that I could choose to enjoy even a crappy day, or week, or month

But guess what.

The moments that knock us down, that make us feel confused and scared and weak, the moments that hurt viscerally—they are the moments that make the rest of life so much more vibrant. They stick, they make us uncomfortable, and ultimately yes, they change us. But that’s part of living—growing, changing.

So yeah, it’s hard, and you will change, and it will be uncomfortable and you won’t always like it. But it’s going to be okay, and you are going to be stronger tomorrow.

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A shot of my sister, who has been there for so many moments and would stick it out through so many more

No matter where you are right now, one day you are going to be happy with yourself. And without the moments that changed you,  the moments that made you, you wouldn’t be the person you are going to be. So hang in there—one day you’re going to look back and tell someone about the moment that changed you, and how it made you who you are.