It's said that the best camera is the one you have with you, which for most of us means the mobile phone in our pockets. You'll already know that these are powerful devices, but it takes a little know-how to take great photos with your phone. Take better photos today with a few simple tips and guidelines from Gloucester outdoor family photographer, Christopher J.

(1) It's not all about the latest and greatest tech

This photo is perhaps one of the best landscape photos I've ever taken - it certainly went down well on my Instagram page when I posted it back in 2020. I took this photo of a dramatic sunset sky in the Cotswolds with my Samsung smartphone, a short time before I owned a 'professional level' camera.

For me it goes to show that you don't have to have the latest and greatest tech to create 'WOW' images! (for the tools of my trade today, check out this blog post: Behind the lens: what is takes to deliver a professional photography service).

So, what does it take?...

A dramatic and colourful sunset in the Cotswolds, taken with a Samsung S20 smartphone

© Christopher J Photography

(1) Understanding Lighting

In a previous blog post I discussed some great locations for taking family photos in Gloucester. Whilst location is important, having a good understanding of lighting is critical. You can still capture fantastic images in not-so-fantastic places if you've got the right lighting conditions. It's not so easy to do the same in a great location if the lighting is bad (which probably means, by my definition, that it's not a great location for family photos).

Knowing how to use light to your advantage will allow you to get the best out of any location and is the critical ingredient that will set your photos apart and make them album-worthy at the end of the year.

What is the best lighting for photos of people?

I often start answering this question with the type of light that's not great for photos of people. And that's the strong, direct midday sun. Direct light (without much cloud cover) is strong and directional. Strong shadows, unflattering dark eye sockets, and blown-out highlights are the hallmarks of harsh and bright light.

Soft, natural light is your [smartphone] camera's best friend. Available near windows and external glass doors (i.e., your patio doors) during daylight hours, even the brightest of midday suns can be diffused into more soft, and less directional light for your photos. Similarly, picking a space of open shade, when outdoors, can achieve the same effect. So long as there is open sky above your subject you should still be able to achieve lovely photos with soft skin and natural colours.

I took this photo of my wife Penny when we sat for dinner at a Miller & Carter's restaurant, in the corner of the otherwise dimly lit room and sat close to a large window. I noticed how the light was diffused as it came in through the window, gently lighting her face and then petering out into our surroundings. There is still a directional nature to this light, as it's coming in from the window, but we were a few feet back from it and so it's a fairly soft light - created by the large size of the window, relative to Penny. This is a flattering light source and perfect for portraits, particularly for children and women.

Edit photo of women dressed in black leaning forward at restaurant table and looking out towards the light of the window

Taken on my Samsung S20 smartphone

The best lighting for landscape images

The dramatic landscape picture shown in the title of this blog post was taken during the last hour before the sun set over the fields in the Cotswolds. The low angle of the sun cuts across a darkening cloudy sky, and created a beautiful concoction of reds, oranges and blues. The conditions were perfect... I couldn't have asked for a better scene on this day!

So how do we get pictures like these? For me the best lighting for landscape images is during golden hour: that first hour after sunrise, or the last hour before sunset. And often a little into 'blue hour', which is the short time following sunset. If you want the interest and wow-factor of a colourful sky, then you absolutely have to be photographing during this time.

The main reason I was able to get a photo as wonderful at this, is because I WAS THERE. Wow, Chris, no kidding!... my point is: if it's great scenes like this you're after, sometimes you've just got to get on out there, whether you know that scene is waiting for you or not. It's a very deliberate and proactive thing to be out for the sole purpose of capturing landscape scenes. Plan for it. You have to decide ahead of time that you're going to do this... let your husband know when you're planning on heading out in advance. Make sure he knows he's putting the kids to bed on his own that evening. If you don't, there'll be excuses and reasons why you can't head out, or it'll be too late on the night when you see great skies forming.

The truth is, I was searching for a poppy field the evening I took that photo. It so happened that I couldn't find the poppy field! But on the way home I noticed the stunning potential forming in the sky. I found a small off-road and pulled into a layby when I noticed these fantastic leading lines caused by the stone wall and the long grass. I set up my tripod and starting taking photos.

(Pro tip: keep a tripod in the boot!)

(3) Grasping some fundamentals

Have you heard of the exposure triangle? Don't worry, we're not about to transition into a geometry lesson.

Let's get straight to the [three] point(s).

1) Aperture

Aperture is a measure of how wide or narrow the lens' iris is that permits light to pass through to the camera's sensor when the shutter button is clicked. A wide aperture (non-intuitively known as having a low f-stop) allows more light to pass through to the sensor, all other things being equal. Apertures range from as wide as f1.8 to as narrow as f22. Different lenses have differing aperture capabilities, and typically a lens with wider aperture capabilities (aka "a fast lens") are more expensive.

Smartphones tend to have a wide aperture (for example, my Samsung's camera has an f1.8 aperture - there's that low f-stop I mentioned).

What happens when you have a large aperture? We know that more light passes through to your sensor. The by-product of this is a shallow depth of field. i.e., the plane of focus in your composition is going to be quite shallow, with most of your scene likely to be out of focus. Conversely, a narrow aperture (a high f-stop, like f16) will mean a deep depth of focus and, depending on where your focus point is, you could well have focus throughout most of your scene and 'into infinity'.

What aperture do you need for your photos? For many of us, we can't actually choose the aperture for the photos we take on our camera phones. So, to some extent this question is a bit of a moot point. As a portrait photographer, I want a lens with a wide aperture. This is how I will achieve that gorgeous mix of sharp, in-focus subjects (importantly, my subject's eyes) and those soft, buttery backgrounds. I love using a really wide aperture, between f1.4 and f2.2. I have a gorgeous SIGMA lens for my Sony camera, with a wide aperture of f1.4, that gives me really sharp but shallow plan of focus which helps 'frame' and emphasise my subject, particularly in for my outdoor portraits.

However, if you want as much of your scene in focus - for example, in landscape or architectural photos - you'll be using a much narrower aperture. The trade-off with the narrow aperture, of course, is that your lens won't permit as much light into the camera's sensor. So you (or your camera, if you're in auto mode!) will need to use one of the other two variables from the exposure triangle to properly expose your image.

2) ISO ("eye-so")

This isn't going to be the place to get into the "eye-so" / "eye es o" pronunciation debate. There is one, but park it for now. (It's "eye-so"!)

ISO refers to the light sensitivity of your camera's sensor. In auto mode, and in low-light conditions, our smartphones will tend to crank up the ISO of the sensor. The by-product of a high ISO (around 3200 on old DSLR cameras; modern cameras can still produce saleable photos at ISOs of 10,000+!) is that overly grainy output in your images. Typically these mean for a lower quality images when it comes to our smartphones.

Generally I will try and keep my ISO as low as possible when taking photos for clients. But what can we do to keep the ISO low on our smartphone cameras?... Let's take a look at shutter speed next.

(3) Shutter Speed

Probably the most obvious of the three parts of the exposure triangle, shutter speed describes the period of time for which the shutter on your camera remains open, and thus again influences how much light reaches our camera's sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the less light is allowed through to your sensor for any given combination of aperture & ISO. Additionally, the faster your shutter speed, the more likely your picture is to be sharp and in focus! A slow shutter speed means your images are susceptible to blur caused by either camera shake or movement in your scene.

When photographing people - particularly posed photos - unless you're going for an edgy artistic vibe, you're most likely to want sharp photos without any motion blur or camera shake. I tend to want a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second when doing portrait photography.

Bride and Groom running on the beach, captured with a low camera shutter speed creating intentional blur in the image

Intentional blur created by using a low shutter speed for an artistic effect

Why are my smartphone photos blurry?

There's a good reason for this: You're in auto mode and your camera is deciding your shutter speed for you. Perhaps, to properly expose the scene, your camera has dropped your shutter speed to something like 1/25th of a second. But your subject was moving (or maybe you were), and the light trail from that movement has literally drawn across your smartphone's camera sensor. a la motion blur. Enter 'pro mode' on you camera settings. Perhaps tease up that ISO manually, allowing you to keep that shutter speed a little faster. Ultimately, without better light, you'll face a trade-off between having sharp photos, and having a photo without too much grain. Grain isn't always bad, mind you. In fact, a lot of photographic filters (like the ones built into Instagram stories, for example) involve a little bit of artificial grain. And it's a popular effect amongst some prolific photographer creators out there.

(3) Getting the right exposure 'dialled in', as they say.

So how can we mitigate against our cameras choosing the 'wrong' exposure settings for us? The answer is likely to be a combination of at least two of the following:

1) Find the best lighting for your scene.

2) Use a tripod to avoid camera shake and/ or motion blur.

3) Get into your smartphone camera's pro mode!

In my Samsung's Pro Mode, shown below, I can't choose the camera's aperture. But I can choose its shutter speed and the ISO (the sensor's 'sensitivity' to the available light). I've already mentioned I like to keep the shutter speed at a certain minimum, and for cleanest images I'll want that ISO down low too.

I'll start with the right shutter speed, in Pro Mode. You need to suit the shutter speed to the subject matter: you can afford a slower shutter speed for a still scene, like for a landscape photo (you'll need a tripod to rid of any potential camera shake on behalf of you, the photographer). But for portraits, the shutter speed needs to increase slightly to reduce the risk of any motion blur on behalf of any of your moving subjects. And if you're taking photos of your kids with your smartphone, it's likely they're moving... fast! So I'd start with a shutter speed of 1/250ths of a second for younger kids, in particular.

Then it's a matter of dialling up that ISO until either (a) the 'EV' reading (Exposure Value) on the screen is zero or close-to zero or (b) you like and are happy with the exposure you're seeing on your camera screen. You can get away with slightly less than zero EV, by the way. But a EV reading greater than 1 and you're likely losing some detail in your highlights e.g. the sky and other brighter parts of the image. It's impossible to save or recover that detail in any editing you might like to perform on your images.

(Note: In the image below, my EV reading is -2.0, because I took this screenshot in a dimly lit living room, and the combination of ISO and shutter speed is not enough to properly expose this scene (this scene: the arm of my sofa!)... this 'scene' is therefore underexposed (let's ignore the terrible subject matter for the purposes of landing this point!).

Smartphone display screen showing additional camera options including pro mode
Smartphone display screen showing camera in Pro Mode, for taking better photos with your phone.

Better control over your images

This beautiful scene here was taken on Caswell Bay in Swansea. By taking control over my smartphone camera, using it in Pro mode, I was able to dial down the exposure by maintaining a low ISO (which keeps the image as clean and free from grain as possible) and increasing the shutter speed. The sky is exposed wonderfully, with no lost details. And the silhouettes of my subjects are just fantastic - exactly what I was going for.

I have of course performed a little 'post-production' on this an many of the images in the blog post, and understanding some simple editing tips can really elevate photos into artistry... but more on that another day!

A great smartphone photo showing the silhouette of a family stood in the low tide a Swansea beach, against a cloudy sky

(4) Composing your scene

Composition can make or break an image. If you're looking at a photo that is otherwise exposed perfectly, but the composition hasn't been considered then it's probably not going to feel like a great photograph. Good composition can make a photo more visually appealing, drawing a viewer into your image and -importantly - keeping them there, creating impact and telling a story.

There are a few composition techniques to think about when 'framing' your photo. They can be considered as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, but here's a few classics to get you started:

The rule of thirds

Imagine dividing your frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Adopting the rule of thirds can mean one of the following:

1) Placing your subject along one of the outer vertical lines (for a landscape orientation, like you see in the image here with the boy on a scooter).

2) Placing the focus of your picture within one of the outer thirds

3) Placing one or more objects of focus on one of the intersection points, where the lines cross one another.

In this picture of my son at the local skatepark, by keeping him on the outer-right third, and showing the scene into which he faces in the left-most two thirds of the photo, it tells us - as viewers - more about what's going on. This is a simple example of how composition tells us a story about what is happening in the picture.

Young boy with red helmet riding a scooter up a ramp in a skate park on an overcast day.

The Rule of Thirds: Imagining our scene split into thirds like this and placing our subject along or within an outer section, or on one of the 4 intersects achieves a simple but effect composition.

The rule of thirds is also a really useful guideline when composing a landscape, as placing the horizon line on the lower or upper gridline often makes for an interesting composition.

You can see an example of this by referring back to the picture above, with the family standing in the low tide at the beach. You'll notice the horizon line placed on where you can image the bottom line of the grid to lie... do you know what my only regret is about this picture? It's that the horizon line cuts straight through the two grown-up's heads! If I had raised my phone up higher, I could have kept their heads within that bottom third and beneath that horizon line. But I'm being overly self critical now!

Depth of Field

We've already talked a bit about the technicality of our lens' aperture and the effect that has on an image's depth of field. It's a composition tool. By keeping the subject of our picture literally in focus, whilst either the foreground and/ or background remain out of focus or blurry, we allow the viewer's eyes to be drawn to the in-focus area i.e. the part of the picture that's actually important.

A lot of today's smartphones now have a 'portrait' mode which attempts to emulate this effect, applying artificial blur around the person you're photographing. This is an extremely clever bit of tech! I've seen people using it well.

Amazingly, these phones also give you the ability to control the extent to which the artificial effect is applied. My tip for portrait mode is to dial it down a little. Because the blur is artificial, I feel it can often look a little overcooked.

Close-up portrait of women carrying her small dog outside under the green shade of a tree

The otherwise busy background becomes blurry because of the shallow depth of field, and therefore doesn't become a distraction for the subject in this image.

Leading Lines

You can use leading lines from roads, path, stairways... anything that draws your attention into the picture and towards the subject. You're effectively guiding the viewer across the important parts of your image, and it's often a very aesthetic look.

This next image was taken on an older Samsung smartphone camera (I think it was the S7), from a bridge in Stratford Upon Avon. The leading line is created by the riverside, drawing us in first to the incandescently lit riverside restaurant. We're automatically drawn to the lightest parts of an image, so I find myself drawn first to the restaurant, and then up to the tall chimney stack an into the evening sky, and then pulled back down towards the bridge at the end of our leading line.

Stratford Upon Avon Riverside restaurant seen at night, lit by incandescent lighting.

Another way to create composition in images is through contrast. We've already discussed depth of field, which creates a contrast between the part of the image which is in focus and the parts which are not. You can also play with other contrasts in your compositions: bright & dark, light & heavy, little & large, opposing colours of the colour wheel. This is where art comes in to play; you can learn the technicalities of exposure, and the 'rules' of composition, but you must inject yourself into your photography, and remember that some rules can be broken.

One thing at a time

There's quite a bit of content to consider here, so if I was to recommend starting with one thing on your path to better smartphone photos, it would be to study lighting. Basic understanding of the exposure triangle is the key to elevate yourself from auto and into manual mode, and then to truly study and to think and be conscious of light - how it falls on your subjects, interesting contrasts of light and dark, and so on - will really make the difference between photos you'll be pleased to look back on, share and even print, and the endless reems of images that live to be forgotten, collecting on your phone's memory card or (hopefully) 'the cloud'.

And for a couple of other interesting ideas, check out the last few tips on this blog post from PC Mag to take your pursuit to another level!