Take Better Phone Photos: 5 Tips for Harnessing the Power of the Camera Phone

October 24, 2018

 

How many times have you missed the perfect shot field-side or in a dark lounge because you fumbled the camera on your smart phone? Popular Mechanics is to the rescue this month in our technology section. Having tested the new iPhone XS, these tips for taking perfect phone photos will get you solidly positioned among friends and family during the holidays as the go-to amateur photographer of the group. You’re welcome. 

 

It’s not just that smart phone designers can pack fantastic image sensors and lenses into a device that fits in your pocket. Today’s powerhouse phones also lean on their computing prowess, relying on smart software tricks to deliver stunning photos. 


I still love standalone cameras, but the new iPhone XS set a bar for phone photography so high during my recent test that I have a hard time convincing myself to bring out my mirrorless Olympus.


To get the most out of that amazing camera in your pocket, you need to follow classic photography advice while also tapping into techniques specific to AI-powered phone cameras like the new iPhone, Samsung Note 9, and Google’s forthcoming new phone.


1. Let the Device Handle It
While testing the iPhone XS Max camera, I instinctively set it on a handrail for stability, but the professional photographer I was with told me not to bother. New phones use software and sensors to predict shaky hands and stabilize the image. So let the phone do its magic and focus on the photo (on older phones, though, a device like a grip still does wonders).


The same goes for the old practice of tap-to-focus. Most new phones analyze what’s in its field-of-view to nail the focus and exposure as soon as you point the camera at your target. Yes, you can tap on a specific area to calibrate the white balance or brightness, but generally, the phone knows best.


2. Turn on HDR
High dynamic range means that when you hit the shutter, the camera captures multiple versions of a single image at different settings. Software then assembles the best elements into a single exceptional photograph. For example, say a group photo captures everyone’s faces in proper lighting, but blows out the sky in the background. HDR can combine a frame with the well-lit humans with a frame featuring a beautiful blue sky. Modern phones are good at this, so unless you like the challenge of chasing the one perfect exposure, leave it on.


Pro tip: if your phone has an option to “Keep Original/Normal Photo,” uncheck it. If you don’t, you’ll end up with duplicates of every shot you take—the original, and the HDR version. That just eats up your storage.


3. Stop Holding Your Phone Like That
You’ve no doubt seen the way most people hold their phones while taking a photo: carefully balancing the glass rectangle in one hand, and either contorting that thumb or using the other hand to tap the on-screen shutter button. I used to do this, too, and I think it’s a habit that stems from the worry that covering the back of the phone will obscure the lens. But remember, your phone’s camera lens is tucked into a corner on the back. Holding a phone as you would in normal use works brilliantly.


While testing iPhone XS Max, I watched the aforementioned pro photographer hold his phone with a wide grip around the back, and using his thumb (he’s a lefty) to hit the volume button to take a photo. You have to contort your hand a bit to get into landscape mode, but the benefits are the same. It’s much easier to point, and the secure grip minimizes your chances of an expensive drop.


4. It’s Okay To Shoot Faces From Below
The classic rule is that photographing from below adds chins to people. But here again, software is coming to the rescue. The iPhone’s Portrait Mode corrects distortions that would otherwise look unflattering. Now this perspective is often the best way to capture someone’s face.


5. Get the Grid
Most phones have a setting that will display a 3 x 3 grid on the screen while shooting. This is a guide for the Rule of Thirds, a classic composition technique in which you place the focus of the photo at the intersections of those lines. It’s why you see professional portraits with the subject’s eyes around 2/3 of the way up the page, and the top of his or her head cut off. 


It’s not law, but aiming for those lines, rather than at the center of the frame, will conspicuously improve almost any shot.


Reprinted with permission from Popular Mechanics.
 

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