Have you ever been frustrated by the photos that you take on your Android phone, and wish they could be better? Or maybe you’re not frustrated, but you’re an avid pixelist wanting to get more out of your shots? Here are some tips and tricks that might help.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is probably the easiest trick to master, and yet it’s still a powerful tool. You can find this rule in photography as well as traditional art, like painting. It involves breaking up your photo into nine sections into a grid, and aligning subjects where the lines intersect, like this:
The idea is that when the subject is off-center, the human brain will find it more interesting to look at, rather than if the subject was positioned in the middle. Now, the rule of thirds doesn’t apply in all situations, like product photography. But it’s a good technique to start incorporating into your shots, whether you’re shooting with a smartphone or a DSLR.
Cropping tools are usually built into standard camera apps or post-processing apps, which I’ll cover below. There are also more compositional rules, like the Golden Ratio, but the rule of thirds is a good way to start.
Light is Everything
Something that can make or break a good shot is lighting. Choosing a light source is one of the most important aspects of photography, and can take up an entire article by itself. But sometimes you don’t have control over the lighting, if you’re outdoors. What you can control is the time of day you go out. The sun’s rays change depending on how high or low it is in the sky. Four terms to remember: Golden Hour, Twilight, Moonlight, Daylight.
- Golden Hour: There are two Golden Hours – Morning and Evening. Morning Golden Hour is when the sun’s angle in the sky is from -4° – 6°. With Evening Golden Hour, the sun is at 6° to -4°. Golden Hour is when the sun is at such a low angle that light travels through a greater depth of atmosphere. As the name suggest, the light will appear soft and golden, and looks fantastic with outdoor landscapes and portraits.
- Twilight: As with Golden Hour, there are two aspects of twilight – Morning and Evening. In Morning Twilight, the angle of the sun is from -12° to -4°. Evening Twilight is from -4° to -12°. Twilight is the period of time just before the sun rises, and just after. This period is also called the Blue Hour, because the sunlight gives the sky a deep blue/purple hue with a cool color temperature. Blue Hour is useful for cityscapes, or romantic scenes like couples sitting together.
- Moonlight: Moonlight or nighttime is between evening and morning twilight, when the sun’s angle is below -12°. For this period you’ll need to use long-exposure in order to get viable photos. At this point you can’t see the horizon with the naked eye anymore.
- Daylight: Daylight is when the sun is above 6° in the sky, and is the period of time between morning and evening Golden Hour. In this period, shadows can be harsh and highlights are more likely to get blown out due to the stronger light. You usually want to avoid taking portraiture during this time, as the strong light will make people squint and the shadows can block their facial features.
Good Android apps for sunlight include Golden Hour, The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Exsate Golden Hour. Check out this science video that explains the speed of dark, but gives a good explanation of sunlight.
Never, ever, use zoom when you’re shooting on a smartphone. The end. There’s a big difference between digital zoom and optical zoom.
- Digital Zoom isn’t really zooming at all, it’s a software trick to magnify the screen on your phone to make the subject appear closer, but it makes your photo grainy and blurry, and just plain awful looking.
- Optical Zoom is what you’ll find on most SLR and DSLR cameras. Optical zoom is when the actual lens moves forward, closer to your subject. It helps ensure close-up subjects remain crisp and in focus.
If you’re using a smartphone for photography, please don’t use digital zoom. Get as close to the subject as possible, then take the picture.
Depth is an important concept, and using it in your photos can enhance them to a large degree. Photography is a 2D medium trying to capture a 3D world, so if you use a sense of depth in your photos, you’re already doing well. An example of using depth is called bokeh.
Bokeh is a Japanese word meaning “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.” It’s considered an aesthetically pleasing element to photos, and if you can successfully pull it off, your photos will look great. A good, legitimate bokeh technique can really only be pulled off with a DSLR camera. You can replicate the effects on a smartphone by using the blur tool in an app, but it’s not quite the same.
Using a smartphone, you can use a shallow depth of field as a way of using live blur, which is common in macro photography. As you can see in the photo below, I used a blur effect in post-processing in order to bring more attention to the letters in the snow.
As you can see in the background, the blurring creates some circular points of light. Those circles are a feature of traditional bokeh.
Photo Editing & Camera Apps
As with lighting, photo editing or post-processing can take up an entire article by itself, so we’ll just cover the basics here. Google’s own camera app has some basic editing built-in, like filters, cropping, and the Auto Enhance button. I’m here to help you do manual editing because Auto Enhance may not have your best interests in mind.
Shadows & Highlights should generally be balanced and opposite from one another. Blown out highlights, as you can see in my photo of the camera, don’t look good, and neither do deep shadows, unless you want a noir look. It takes a practiced eye to use the correct settings, but as a general rule of thumb, remember this: boost shadows and reduce highlights equally. For example, if you boost your shadows to around 25%, then your highlights should be set at around -25%. Of course, not every photo will need exact opposite settings, but it’s a good beginning.
Filters come in all shapes, sizes, hues, etc. There are thousands of filters, and which one to use is largely up to you, so I won’t go into these much. There are good and bad filters, but since photography is about showing other people how YOU see the world, filter choice can’t really be dictated.
Blur is a good tool to use as I said above, even if you’re adding it after the fact. Use blur as a way to bring attention to a particular area in your photo.
Use this article as a starting point and not the only authority on smartphone photography. Some other websites to check out are:
Pixel Magazine – this doesn’t offer lessons, but it has funny photographer comics. The people behind Pixel Magazine are Polarr. Polarr is a fantastic photo editing app, and is available on Android, Mac OS X, Windows, iOS and Chrome OS. Check out Polarr here.
iPhone Photography School – I know, it features iPhoneography but it still offers valuable tips and tricks. This website can get kind of spammy, but still offers insights and apps to use.