The Beginner’s Guide to Smartphone Photography

Photography has never been more accessible: people are constantly snapping shots. Selfies, the awesome burger shot, the don’t you wish you were me here shot. We’re highly visual creatures, so it’s no surprise that Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr and so many more image focused sites are taking off.

But taking great photos doesn’t have to be a huge investment. With so many people owning smartphones or tablets, you can use the materials you already have to take great shots. Here are just a few photos I’ve taken with my iPhone 5.

buds on tree, macrophotography, nature, pine tree, landscape, summer, vsco cam, smartphone photography, iphone photography, android photography, digital photography

redhead, young woman, woman in thought, thinking, self portrait, iphone photography, hipstamatic, android photography, digital photography

kitten, cat, animal photography, iphone photography, black and white , calico cat, kitten sitting, vsco cam

Anyone can take gorgeous shots, no fancy camera required.  If you’re interested in exploring photography, let me share the lessons I learned (mostly the hard way).

Before You Snap the Shot

1) Frame the shot

Seems self-explanatory, but taking a bit of time to think about what you want inside the image can be HUGE. For instance, with landscape, is there anything you can include to help show the size?

In this photo I purposefully put in the cars. They act as a visual aide: they help you realize how HUGE the rock actually is.

black and white rocks, landscape, mountain, rocky, cliff, iphone photography, smartphone photography, photography, morro bay

Another trick is the rule of thirds. Imagine your photo as a blank canvas divided into parts: three horizontally, and three vertically. This 3×3 grid can help you frame it dynamically. Our natural inclination is to put the main object front and center. But when it’s so centered, your eye sits there. Like a lazy couch potato, your eye doesn’t move around the page. So the photo feels less dynamic, less interesting to look at.

But what if you shift the subject to the left or right side of the frame? Suddenly, your eye has to work out a little around the frame. Being off-center, there’s a dynamism to your photo. Now the rule of thirds can be manipulated by cropping your photo afterwards. But taking a few minutes to play with how you set up the frame can make your edits afterwards a lot easier.

glasses, smartphone photography, glasses folded, minimalism, rule of thirds, photograph, vsco, iphone photography, android photography, phone photograph

2) Focus on the light

Okay, there’s nothing more annoying than a cute group shot…blinded by a backlight. And certain family members (who shall remain nameless) love taking photos with light in the background. What we often don’t realize is how awesome our own eyes are focusing and seeing the contrast between shadow and light. Cameras are getting better, but they are no substitute. And they struggle with nap, dog, black and white photograph, hipstamatic, animal photography, labrador, iphone photography, android photography, cell phone photograph

In this shot, the light shines over my dog, Hershey’s, face. It also shows you how little the camera can see of the shadows: her paw is almost all darkness in the foreground. Your eyes may be able to see the detail, but the camera will struggle with the shadows.

So please, look around: where is the light coming from? Is the sun shining behind what you want to focus on? Which way are shadows falling? If shadows are falling towards you, move so the light is behind you.

The light is your friend, but you have to move with it.

The other issue with light: clashing kinds of light. Indoor lighting is often a lot warmer than natural light. If you take a shot with both kinds of light, you may get a weird mixture of blue and yellow, which almost never looks good. If you can, try to capture only one kind of light. Can’t make it work? Take the photo into black and white, so you can avoid dealing with color all together.

sunlight, trees, forest, ray of light, vintage, iphone photography, smartphone photography,

Okay, but what if you’re trying to capture a sunset or a candle? Be sure that your phone is focusing on the light, a tap on-screen to where the sun light is can ensure the shot isn’t overexposed.

Light is one of my favorite parts of photography, it’s so hard to capture in any other medium. If you work with the light, you can show off so many beautiful things we see daily.

3) Tap for focus

So often, we just pull up the camera on our phones and snap! All done. Those little cameras can be pretty smart and autofocus to figure out lighting for us…But not always.

Help your small camera out: Tap on your subject. That helps the camera know what you want to focus on, and can ensure you get the right amount of exposure/light on the image.

Feel like it’s too dark or light? Sometimes, I’ll tap on other areas of the screen that are lighter or darker, depending on what I’m trying to do. This helps the camera adjust so my shots come out better.

This too can be fixed a bit with post editing, but it’s easier to tweak if you’re closer to what you want.

hand, shirt, reaching, portrait, iphone photography, black and white photograph, smartphone photography, jewelry, bracelets

After You Click: Post Editing

Hopefully, if you follow the above tips, you won’t have to do as much post editing. If you’re looking for apps with post editing ability, here are some functions you should look for:

  • Cropping: or an ability to trim down the image.
  • Tilt: I’m not always a straight shot, this helps ensure I get straight lines and a cleaner finish.
  • Exposure: Critical for lighting touch ups.
  • Highlight/Shadow: Sometimes you don’t want to change the overall lighting, but bring down the highlights, or shadows. Looking for apps that allow you to change only the ends of the spectrum can be super helpful techniques, especially for glare or ultra-dark parts of the photo.

The Apps I use:

I can’t speak for Android, but on the iPhone, there are some editing options you can do directly inside the photo app. They are nice, but basic. They certainly don’t give me the stylized look I love. Here are the apps I use that help me give my photos the finish I want.

Classic finish: VSCO Cam

The main app I use for post editing is VSCO Cam. This free app is awesome: it allows you to not only do some great editing, but comes with fantastic presets that give you a lot of the basic power of photoshop, without all the bells and whistles that can confuse a beginner.

dulles airport, architecture, modern, pattern, glass, black and white photography, smartphone photography, iphone photography, vsco cam


europe, river, water, old city, sunset, urban, city, iphone photography, smartphone photography, vsco cam, travel photography

There are some presets you can use inside the app which you’d have to buy, but even the ones that come for free are great, and my main go-tos. The above two photos were done with filters that come at no additional charge.

If you want to give your photos a sleek, classy face lift, I can’t recommend this app enough.

Retro Surprise: Hipstamatic

The other app I love is Hipstamatic. This is a very different kind of app: I do no post-edit on these images. It tries to recreate the analog experience, so you never know exactly what you’re going to get. All these photos come in a square frame. But there’s a huge variety of looks depending on what lens, film and flash you use. Here are two examples:

tea, mug, cafe, retro tea, cuppa, cup, warm, happy, hipstamatic, iphone photography, smartphone photography, android photography

portrait, woman, young woman, long hair, red head, lost in thought, thinking, iphone photography, smartphone photography, hipstamatic, smartphone photography


One of the fun parts of Hipstamatic is the lack of control: shake your camera, and shoot. You have no idea what lens, film, or flash you’re using. Yes, it does lead to a lot of trial and error. But it’s digital photography: you can delete whatever you don’t like.

This app takes some getting used to. I’ve learned my way around the app mostly through trial and error. It’s not for everyone.

But, if you love the old analog look of photos like me, then this is a great app to explore/play with. It starts off at $1.99 in the iTunes app store. Adding additional packs (different films and lenses) will cost more. I always say, start with the original, and if you enjoy it, build up.

I won’t lie to you: photography, like any skill, takes time. Explore the kinds of subjects you enjoy and what looks/feels you enjoy best. Even after two years, I’m still just beginning to explore photography. A friend of mine recently showed me a double exposure app that I’m playing with (and may share it here!)

But, if you already have a smartphone, you already have a great camera for learning photography without spending hundreds of dollars on fancy equipment. And if you do want to go further? Well, all that equipment will still be there in a year or two.

At the very least, you’ll have a few more ideas of ways to show off your vacation, or avoid a photo filled with backlight.

Do you have a favorite photo app? Let me know what it is in the comments below!


  1. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Cheers!

    1. That’s quite strange, I can’t seem to figure it out from inside of wordpress. Is there anything at the bottom of the email that will allow you to unsubscribe yourself?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *