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:

The Time I Forgot My Camera Battery

I was sitting on a spit in Torch Lake, screwing an ND filter on to my camera and setting up a tripod when I went to go switch my camera on.

I had driven three hours that day, and stopped up in Antrim to pick up my younger brother for a few days of hiking and kayaking in the UP, and packed in a bit of a hurry earlier that morning. Three days ago, I had moved out of the house I was living in for the summer, and most of my stuff was still in boxes, ready to be moved again in three weeks.

So I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I opened up my camera to find it missing a battery. Annoyed, yes. Disappointed, for sure. But packing was a mess earlier that morning. I was bound to forget something.

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Spray Falls Overlook, ~ 3 miles into the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I hadn’t gotten a real chance to play with my camera in at least a good month, so I was bummed for that reason too. I seriously considered driving the three hours back to get it, or getting up early and driving into Traverse City to buy a new battery, but ended up deciding against both. Driving into Traverse would put us four hours behind schedule, and driving home overnight would just suck. Why did I need my camera so bad anyway?

I love taking pictures, I really do. I love playing with the settings on my camera, and taking long exposures, and I don’t even mind hauling a tripod and a backpack full of lens out four or five miles.

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One of the best swimming spots I have ever come across on a hike– also one of the coldest

But the reason I like taking pictures is less about the image itself, and more about the story. I like being able to take an image, and use that image as a hook. Here is a mountain top, or a cliff, or a lake. Let me tell you what I did there, and why going out and appreciating nature is so important. Isn’t all this worth protecting?

That’s why I like photography. Not necessarily for the art of it, though I enjoy that too. Photography and stories can connect people to nature, and help inspire them to action.

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The view into Lake Superior from the top of a cliff

So without use of a camera where did this leave me?

I still kayaked and hiked a total of 30 miles, got sunburnt, saw 5 waterfalls, and swam in Lake Superior. I still have photos, decent usable photos taken on my iPhone 5, pictured above. And I had a great time!

Not having a working DSLR didn’t ruin my trip at all– it just took away the pressure to take photos, and left room for a little more adventuring.