The Basics: How to take great photos on your smartphone
There's a lot of picture-taking potential sitting right there in your pocket. Here's a guide to not only taking photos on your phone, but taking well-lit, interesting and creative ones each and every time.By Nikki To
You’d think that switching from being a photographer who’s shot on DSLRs for over 10 years to cruising on something as simple as an iPhone would be a no brainer. Well, yes and no, it’s not rocket science but you do need to understand a few basic concepts if you want to nail your phone photos so they’re clear, interesting, well-lit and creative. There's a lot of picture-taking potential sitting right there in your pocket. Here are my top tips:
1. Go Au Natural
Meet soft, diffused natural light. He’s your new best friend (he’s been mine for a very long time). There are a few reasons why you should keep things natural. Firstly, the colour temperature of natural light (around 5000-6500K for all the 🤓 out there) means your image will reflect the most accurate colours of what you’re shooting. Shooting under artificial light often makes the colour go a bit weird. Tungsten light makes your photos look yellow, while fluoros often make them look too cold and green. You can adjust colour temperature during the editing process, but it can get tricky.
If you’re inside, a nice spot near a window is often the place to be. Make sure there are no lights on in the room, this can often catch you out! A handy piece of equipment I keep in my kit is a collapsible diffuser. Alternatively if you’re feeling resourceful, a translucent sheet such as a curtain can be used to diffuse light and soften shadows. Essentially you’re looking for something that can spread the light out evenly over your image. Shooting in direct sun is purely a creative choice. You either own the shadows or you don’t - if you get it right, hard shadows can make your shots look bold and eye-catching. Generally speaking though, food and drink looks more appetising in soft, diffused natural light. You decide, the power is yours.
A little note on shooting in low-light scenarios, this can get tricky as you usually find yourself relying on artificial light, no doubt it’s those pesky, yellow tungstens! If I absolutely have to shoot in these conditions then I normally adjust the colour of the shot when I edit (more on editing soon. Stay tuned.) Alternatively, if you want to use a source of light that’s less yellow, and similar to daylight, I’d grab a friend and get them to put on their iPhone torch. Use this as your main light source and if anything, you should get a better result in terms of colour. Try to hold the phone torch further away from your subject as this will spread the light out and reduce those crazy hard shadows. I’m not a massive phone flash fan, so I don’t tend to use it. Side note on photography etiquette too, I wouldn’t recommend ripping out the torch or flash when you’re dining out in restaurants. It’s a bit of a vibe crusher and can be pretty distracting for other customers who are trying to eat, I’d look at shooting in whatever light you have and fixing it up later. Alternatively, don’t shoot, just eat!
2. Expose Yourself
Exposure is all about how bright or dark your images are. When shooting on your smartphone, it’s important to get the best exposure possible for the lighting situation you’re working with. If you get this right, it’ll mean less editing for you in post.
Exposing is pretty straightforward, simply tap your screen on the area you want your camera to expose for. If you’re on an iPhone, You’ll see a little sun diagram pop up, slide this up and down and your exposure will change accordingly. The main thing to watch for is making sure your shot looks nice and bright, you don’t want to underexpose which would make your image look too dark. If you have quite a significant contrast in the level of light in your shot e.g. full sun and dark shadows, a general rule of thumb is to expose for the brightest part of your image so that you don’t lose too much detail in these highlighted areas. If you don’t, and your image is too bright, it can be hard to bring this information back i.e. reduce the brightness, when you edit.
3. Get Your Grid On
The grid is such a handy tool, I feel naked shooting without it! Once you get it on, you’ll never take it off. The grid is a set of vertical and horizontal lines that appear on your screen to help you frame your shot. With most smartphones, you can activate your grid via the main settings menu, for iPhone users go to Settings/Camera/Gid. I use the grid to frame up my shots, keep things straight and in perspective. The grid also helps with composition and defining the rule of thirds within your screen. When shooting food from overhead in particular, the grid really helps me find my centre point, maintaining perspective and avoids the dish looking distorted, like it’s tilting in an odd direction.
Which leads me on to… Perspective!
4. It's All About Perspective
Photos where the perspective and angles are all out of whack is one of my main causes for cringe when it comes to smartphone photography. Here are a couple of tips to help you to cut the cringe.
Firstly, your angle. Generally speaking, there are three common angles you can shoot from; straight-on, overhead or at 45 degrees (which is straight-on but raised up slightly so you’re shooting down at an angle). I steer towards the first two when I’m shooting on my phone, I find shooting at 45 degrees on your phone can sometimes throw your subject out of perspective, particularly when shooting drinks and bottles. Having said that, if you do want to show both top and side detail, embrace the 45 degree angle and try and keep an eye on the perspective of your subject by keeping distance between the camera and subject or by zooming in slightly. Shoot straight-on if your subject has side detail that you want to show off e.g. the innards of a sandwich, the layers in a slice of cake or a burger, this is also a good angle for shooting drinks.
Shooting overhead is great when you have some pretty plated food in dishes, platters, whole-table settings or produce. Pizza – definitely overhead. As you can see, it really varies depending on what you’re shooting, but overhead tends to work better with things that don’t have too much height. One thing to remember with both of these angles is to keep your camera parallel to your subject, this will do wonders for your perspective.
Secondly, and this might be a little controversial for some, from time to time I (sparingly) use the zoom when shooting. Often when you physically hold your camera close to your subject, let’s say you‘re shooting a drink front on and you move your camera closer to the drink to capture more detail, you’ll often notice a slight distortion in the look of your shot, almost like the drink is bulging. To avoid this, I often keep distance between the camera and the subject but slightly zoom in. If your camera has an optical zoom (iPhone users will recognise the little 1x and 2x symbol), this should still be ok, as you’re essentially employing a longer lens to capture your shot. Most of the newer smartphones who still have digital zoom claim to have technology that’s just as good as optical zooming so give it a god. Be a bit more careful if you’re on an older phone and always use sparingly as you don’t want to compromise on quality by zooming in too much.
5. Portrait Mode
We’ll do a more extensive look into Portrait Mode later on, but for now I’ve got a quick rundown on the basics. The iPhone’s Portrait Mode allows you to select a focal point in your frame with the rest of the image blurring out. This essentially creates depth of field in your images and allows your eye to hone in on the point that you’ve pulled focus on. If you want to nail your shots on Portrait Mode, you generally want to keep things bright and simple. This function works best when there’s lots of bright light. The ideal position between the camera and your subject is roughly 2.5m. Portrait Mode also tends to work well when you have distance between your focal point and background, the larger the distance the more obvious the ‘blurring’ effect. Lastly, always remember, tap to focus!
My last and final point is my favourite because it’s the most fun. Taking your time to compose your shot gives you the freedom to cultivate a look and style that you can own. Whether you keep things minimal or style it up with a few props, here are a few points to keep in mind when you’re shooting.
Background: More often than not, keeping your background pretty neutral and simple is the way to go. This is great if you want to keep a fairly minimal and graphic look, shooting plates of food from above for instance.
do a great job at this, Clayton Wells knows how to shoot a top down in diffused natural light on his phone, right in front of their big windows. A clean background is also good if you want to start introducing props to tell a bit more of a story.
Rule of thirds: this principle looks at dividing your frame up into thirds (via two equally
spaced horizontal and vertical lines) and positioning subjects in your shot along these lines or the points at which they meet. The idea is that this particular spacing and often the negative space that can arise from such spacing is pretty pleasing to our eye. Spatially, it works. I find this technique particularly useful when I’m shooting overhead.
Seeing shapes: When I’m shooting dishes or a table setting from overhead, I often stop thinking about what I’m shooting literally and start composing the shot based on space and shapes. Looking at dishes and drinks as just lil' ol’ circles, thinking about the negative space between them and how more irregular shapes such as cutlery or table linen, can intersect to tell a more interesting story. I see things pretty graphically so this technique helps me a lot compositionally.
There you have it, I don't want to see no more blurry, wonky smartphone photos, people. You have the intel and we can’t wait to see what you create. We also run workshops for groups or individuals who want to learn more - it's perfect for marketing teams, restaurants, cafe teams or anyone in food who runs a social media account. Get in touch with us to enquire. Sign up to our newsletter for more of The Basics.
Accounts we love and admire for their food/drink smartphone skills: