Esther Beaton


Take better photos with your smartphone

You can take great photos with your smartphone – as long as you remember two things:

  1. The smartphone is for internet use only. The quality is not adequate for print, unless it’s postcard size or smaller. This is due the the small format, i.e., the sensor in the iPhone is smaller than your little fingernail. Others may argue that you can print larger, but really, I think the quality sucks.
  2. A good shot with your smartphone depends on your skills. You still have to employ the rules or techniques of photography, such as lighting, composition, angle, and know how the lens works.
Why use a smartphone?

Normally I use my Nikon DSLRs. But when I joined a group of scientists and volunteers from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy on a project in central New South Wales, I wanted to be free of a camera and just participate. They were conducting a fauna survey prior to the re-introduction of endangered species in the Pilliga forest. Plus, the AWC already had a staff photographer, and I didn’t want to intrude on his job.

The problem was, I couldn’t not take a photo. I was constantly pulling my iPhone out of my pocket whenever there was some interesting action. My professional habits are so ingrained I couldn’t hold them back. I found myself constantly saying ‘Oh do that again” or ” just step closer to that tree” or “turn this way slightly”. The people were nice enough to cooperate (wildlife would not have).

What can you do with a smartphone?

I didn’t use any extra equipment like lights or supplementary lenses, just the skills to compose a better scene. Nor did I do any post-processing. Here are some easy tips I’d like to share so you can have more confidence in your smartphone photography.

Eastern Stone Gecko
Yes- it IS possible to get an out of focus background with a smartphone. You have to position something in the foreground very close to the lens – like about 10 cm (4 “) away.


Get really close to people so the top of the head is very close to the top of the screen. And then “grab” a shot when they are looking away or talking to someone. These types of portraits are so refreshing instead of those looking straight into the lens.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Shooting over the shoulder guides the viewer’s attention into the scene and gets them interested in what the person is doing.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Because there was not that much going on in the scene when I was shooting over this person’s shoulder, I asked her to turn around and look at me. Again, much more interesting than facing the camera straight on.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
When people are in a group and involved in some activity, you normally get the backs of half of them. This makes the viewer feel excluded. But by waiting until everyone’s face is somewhat forward-facing, it improves the shot no end. And even more so when the composition has them all at staggered heights. This requires some patience but is rewarding when you do pull it off.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Catching people in mid-action is what we all hope for. But whatever they are doing and whatever angle I’ve chosen, I’m always aware of the lighting. It’s better to have the faces in shade rather than direct, strong sunlight. Notice in the other shots how faces are always evenly lit by whatever light is available.


Full shade is ideal for great portrait lighting. However the results were a bit bluish so I did warm up these two portraits afterwards. Note again the tight cropping, even where I chopped off a bit of the top of the head.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
A pano shot really helps to give an overall viewpoint and can work as the “establishing” shot for a story.


Yarrie Lake
Here’s a different kind of pano. This is just a short pan across the scene and is just right for creating this strikingly simple composition.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Smartphone shooters – in fact, most camera users – don’t frame tight enough. Getting a few ultra closeups gives a nice balance to an overall story or layout. It gives the viewer an “I can almost touch it” feeling.



Spiny-tailed Gecko
This gecko was hanging out on a piece of bark the same colour as it. I simply looked around for a more colourful piece of wood and placed him there to separate him for the background, as well as to add colour into an otherwise drab shot. Then I angled the composition because diagonal lines can add a bit more interest.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Speaking of diagonal lines, they always improve the composition, especially if they end at a good point of interest.


Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Always be thinking of how you can change your perspective. These funnel traps were being hung out to dry after cleaning and were quite interesting. But by getting underneath them and shooting into the sky they became weird objects of wonder.
Willing to try?

Next time you “grab” your smartphone, go ahead a take that shot. But then take a few more, utilising a bit more thought. With just another minute or two of your time, you’ll improve that first shot dramatically and have something useful and engaging to display in your blog or social media accounts.

Now that you’ve reviewed this tips - which are all about technique and not the equipment - what do you think is more important: the gear or the skills?


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