Take Good Pictures, a “How To” You Didn’t Ask For

I occasionally get asked what kind of camera I have, presumably because people think a nice camera is the cause of good pictures (hint: it’s not). Yes. I have a DSLR, but it is entry level. I learned how to shoot in manual and raw and edit a little, which is why my photos are better than they would be with a point and shoot. But the vast majority of my photos are taken with my iPhone. So I thought I would share a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way for better cell phone photography.

(1) Pause for a beat before you take the photo. I know, kids and cats are fast, but you need to give your camera a second to auto adjust the exposure and focus and doing this will prevent blurry photos. Sure, I miss the occasional shot doing this. But I save way more. I also take about 10 pictures for every one I share. Patience, grasshopper.

(2) Straighten the [insert curse word of choice] horizon. Even Instagram has this feature. You have no excuse for your crooked pictures. And no, that intentional tilt does not improve your photo or make it artsy. This is ESPECIALLY true if your picture is OF THE ACTUAL HORIZON. If I see one more crooked beach picture this summer, I might cry.

(3) If you learn one rule of photography, make it the rule of thirds. I learned this – true story – when I got my photography badge in girl scouts and I’ve never looked back. Your subjects should not always be dead center in your photo. While a centered photo might seem instinctual, our brains don’t find that as pleasing for some reason. Instead, break your photo up into three horizontal lines and three vertical lines so you have nine squares. Put your subject at one of the four intersections or put your horizon at one of the horizontal lines. I don’t always do this when I take the photo, so I crop it. It’s not an absolute, but it’s a good general rule. Most apps will show you a grid like the photo above to make this easy.

(4) Edit. Even your iPhone pictures (or maybe especially your iPhone pictures) need a little post-process love. I think it underexposes pictures a bit so I bump up the exposure and brightness on 99.9% of the photos I post to Instagram. I use the Afterlight app to do this – it’s my favorite iPhone editing app. You’ll notice that every one of those photos above is edited a little. I can’t think of the last time I shared an unedited photo (other than this post).

(5) But lay off the filters. I was an early adopter of the Instagram filter. I can admit that. But I haven’t used one in months. I made a conscious decision to abandon the filters and add edits by hand and I am never going back. When I do use a filter, it’s usually a black & white filter in the Afterlight app. I feel like I have my own style now, instead of a mashup of pre-programmed filters.

My Instagram feed last January:

My Instagram feed at the time of this writing:

(I have also rejected the notion that all instagram photos must be square.)

(6) When taking photos of your kids (or other subjects that are low to the ground), get down to their level. It makes for a MUCH better photo. This is so instinctual to me that I couldn’t even find a good before and after to you. I spend half of my life crouching to E’s level, snapping photos. This might be my my knees are so crunchy, now that I think about it.

Bonus Tip: Don’t share 18 photos that are all the same. We don’t need to see 8 photos of your kid eating peas every single day. One daily pea picture will do. Pick your favorite and share that one – it gives it more impact and declutters your social media.

What are your cellphone photography tips and tricks? (I have more I could share if you guys like this post).

10 thoughts on “Take Good Pictures, a “How To” You Didn’t Ask For

  1. Suziqoregon August 21, 2014 / 8:14 am

    Great tips. Yes to bumping up the exposure and brightness on almost every photo. My fave editing app is photo toaster.


    • Michelle August 21, 2014 / 9:36 am

      I used to use phototoaster but I like afterlight better. Haven’t deleted phototoaster yet though. 🙂


  2. Bryan G. Robinson August 21, 2014 / 9:11 am

    But…but…but I like the artsy photo. 😉

    Otherwise 🙂 I like your advice here. My sister, who also is a photographer, is always telling me about the rule of thirds too.


    • Michelle August 21, 2014 / 9:38 am

      I see so many professional photographers doing the tilted shots so I guess some people like them. I am not one of those people.

      The rule of thirds is a good rule though. Pay attention when you’re watching television, you’ll see that they follow it.


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