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28 Ways to Take Better Smartphone Photos

28 Ways to Take Better Smartphone Photos


… Smartphones have made us all photographers, but they didn’t come with instruction manuals. Sure, I can recommend ways to drop bags of money on amazing new gear. But there are things you can do right now, at no cost, to improve your photo game—and some warnings you should note before you buy anything new.

Does someone you love take terrible photos? Please share these 28 simple rules.

1. When all your shots have the glossy blur of a sitcom daydream, that means your lens is dirty. Wipe away the goo every once in a while, OK?

2. There’s no slowing the little ones, but if you want to snap them mid-leap, you’ll need plenty of light. Open the blinds, turn on more lights or switch on your flash.

3. Sunset is actually the worst time to photograph a sunset. Hang around half an hour before or after, hopefully at happy hour, to catch more-colorful drama.

4. True story: Enough people have died while using selfie sticks that the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. Don’t be selfie-stupid.

5. Using a flash at an aquarium (all reflection, no fish!) or a rock concert (stage too far!) is an offense punishable by having your phone dropped in the toilet.A tourist takes a photograph of a shark swimming toward him at Australia’s Sydney Aquarium in 2014. Use a flash to photograph at an aquarium and you’ll risk getting lots of reflection and no fish. Photo: David Gray/Reuters

6. If I could hand out camera-phone licenses, this would be the test: Tap the object you want in focus, then look for a little box to pop up. Slide your finger up and down to make the shot brighter or darker. 

7. Taking photos for fellow tourists is a sacred duty. Don’t back up; you’ll turn smiling strangers into stick figures. Instead, step forward, to get as much of their faces as possible.

8. I’m pretty sure giving someone a double chin by shooting from below the face is a form of cyberbullying.

9. The surefire way to ruin a lovely photo is to put the light behind your subjects’ heads. Next time, turn the scene around or use HDR mode, which balances light and dark areas.

10. I have no objection if you take pictures of your dinner, but limit it to very special dishes. I’m thinking a birthday cake with sparklers and your name written in blue frosting.

11. Turn on Live Photos on newer iPhones. Children, pets and, yes, even grandparents are 10 times more delightful with a little motion—and you can share them to Facebook and iMessage.

12. You aren’t snapping enough photos. Take multiple shots of each scene. It isn’t like you’ll run out of film, and Mom’s eyes will be open in at least one of them. The above shot of me was from a burst of 21.

13. Boring photos have everything dead center, so think askew. Loved ones, castles and rainbows belong slightly off to the side.

14. When you’re ready to take a photo, exhale and shoot when your lungs are empty—that’s when you’re most steady. Or lean the camera against a rock. My dad carries a monopod, but tells everyone it’s a cane.

15. Pray for clouds. They’re like a giant version of those silver umbrellas you see at fashion shoots: Everything comes out evenly lighted, especially portraits.Experiment with shooting the most interesting thing in your photo slightly askew, not dead center, as in this photo taken in Cuba. Photo: Geoffrey Fowler/The Wall Street Journal

16. At night, flash makes humans look ghoulish. But on a sunny day, using flash makes shadows on faces less harsh.

17. Photo-app filters are the plastic surgery of photography. We can tell.

18. If you’ve gotten 50 hearts on an Instagram, you spend way too much time on your phone. Also: You’re ready to upgrade to a real camera and lenses.

19. Landscapes without people can be dull. If you are enraptured by a sweeping vista, learn from the old masters and anchor your shot with something about 10 feet away to bring the viewer in.

20. The best reason to buy a nice camera: Bigger sensors and lenses can take photos in bad lighting, where fun stuff happens. They also let you play with depth, artfully blurring the background.Sunset is actually a pretty bad time to take a good sunset photo. Aim for a half-hour before or after. Here's an example of a bad sunset photo. Photo: The Wall Street Journal

21. A GoPro is for adventure vacationing, and for accidentally dropping into the ocean. I’ve lost four GoPros. Attach a flotation device to yours, and download your footage every night via Wi-Fi to GoPro’s cloud service.

22. Many people with DSLRs don’t really need them. For the same money, you can get a pocket-size camera like Sony’s $1,000 RX-100 V, which takes amazing photos without need for a neck brace. 

23. Vacation photos are like Disneyland Goofy hats: The farther away you are from their origin, the lamer they get. So sort, edit and share while you’re still having a bon voyage.

24. For a serious photo vacation, get an SD card reader to transfer photos from your stand-alone to a tablet or phone, then edit with Adobe’s mobile Photoshop Lightroom, sold with its desktop version for $10 per month. Bonus: It backs up full-size files to the cloud.

25. Want your friends to think you’re from the future? Get a virtual-reality cam like Samsung’s Gear 360, which captures everything around it. You can share pics on Facebook—no VR visor necessary.

26. Most photo drones aren’t worth buying; the $1,000 DJI Mavic Pro is. Just know that, despite its collision-avoidance system, you will probably crash it.

27. Going for the drone? Don't terrorize people at the beach with your flying lawn mower camera.

28. If money is no object, my current favorite camera indulgence is Canon’s $3,500 5D Mark IV, and a lovely $900 fixed 35mm Sigma lens. If that isn’t luxe enough, the sensibly compact Leica Q costs $4,250.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at