Easy Hacks to Make Your Phone Photos Look Better
A conversation I often find myself in these days is talking about how great cameras on phones are.
Not everyone needs a DSLR camera. They’re expensive, can get heavy, and often the mental burden of looking after this expensive thing is enough to warrant not owning one. Beyond that, they’re confusing to some. So if you fit in to one of those groups and you don’t own a DSLR, you’re often left to work with what you have – and for most that’s a phone in your pocket.
There are a few tools, pieces of gear, and tricks you can exhaust that bring your photos and videos to the next level without breaking the bank. So if your selfie game needs to improve, or you want to do a better facebook live, or you’re just looking to maximize what you have, read on!
The first thing you can change before snapping that next photo is to consider the lighting. There’s almost always a way to improve the lighting of any given scenario. If you have any nearby lamps or lights you can flip on, try doing that, and try moving the lamp around if possible. This quick little trick can add light when you least thought you needed it. But it is a given. If you have a laptop, though, and a bit of patience, you can really adjust the lighting. Turn the lights off, and make the room as dark as possible. Fire up your laptop and open paint, or make the screen as bright white as possible. Set it down near your subject, or better, hold it vertically next to their face for a unique look. Here is an excellent video on using this technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4J2u8pZqIQ
Of course, there’s lots more to lighting a video or photo, especially if outside, or near windows. Consider ways you can even out the sunlight like bringing an umbrella outside, or by trying different angles until you get one that works. As you’ll find with lighting, it is entirely a game of trial and error until you get the look you want.
The next thing you’ll consider if shooting video – how the audio is coming through. I’ll dig into a few gear options shortly here, but without spending any money, there are a couple ways to improve your audio. If possible, pick a spot to shoot with little to no echo. A quick test to check for echo is just to simply shout. Then, consider that you can reduce how much of an echo you have by using a blanket, or multiple blankets. Even just having a subject stand on a soft surface like a carpet can soak up a bit of sound. The way to use blankets is to try to hang them or have one or two friends hold them up just behind the camera. The more “stuff” you can put in that space where you’re shooting that video, just off camera, the more chance you’ll reduce echo.
The final off-camera trick I’ll share is coming prepared. Have an idea or look you want to recreate. Have a concept or idea fleshed out before you shoot. Maybe write a little script you can memorize or write out to read off sheets of paper that are below the camera. Be confident in what you’re doing. Shoot in a spot where you’re allowed to. Turn off ringers, anything that makes noise, and try to make sure others are quiet.
The first tool that people disregard that most phones come with, is the 3x3 grid that can overlay your images and video on your phone (some phones call it the ‘assistive grid’) . It should look like the sample above. Since the 1700s, people have been observing what’s called the Rule of Thirds. For today’s purpose, what this rule tells us is that putting important elements at the intersection of these lines, or along these lines somewhere, is pleasing to the viewer. The idea here is that the image is well-balanced when you do this. Give it a try and be really thoughtful about following this rule, and you might find you like your images better. There's also an art in trying to break the rule of thirds on purpose to interest.
The next tool I can recommend you start using is actually after the image is taken. It’s the ‘edit’ function. This should let you make small revisions in brightness, contrast, sharpness, and more. Instagram and other social media apps have this function too – and they are super helpful in just bringing a bit more life to your photos. My advice here is just to play with the sliders on your phone until you’re happy. Now, I’ll also say it’s very easy to overuse these little sliders and adjustments, so just be mindful how intense the effect is.
The final in-camera trick, especially when it comes to stuff you plan on using later for a vlog or similar, is to save it to a spot where you’ll find it right away. This tip comes more as a workflow hack, but it’s super easy. Save your photo or video to a google drive or cloud-based storage service immediately. As soon as you have wifi, it’ll upload there (assuming you set your settings to do this), and it’ll be easy to find your ‘vlog’ or ‘share to social media’ folder on your computer. It also ensures that if anything happens to your phone, it is saved somewhere else. It’s a good little habit to get into – saving your pics and videos somewhere else.
Okay, so if you’re willing to spend a few dollars, there’s a couple items to look for that will drastically change your images, depending on what you’re actually shooting.
The first piece of gear is an LED light. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They also come in at a number of prices. A common one is the ring light. These are generally inexpensive and create a really unique look. You’re able to put your phone in the middle of these, and some even go right over the phone’s camera lens. Other LED lights come in little cubes and work off a separate battery. I love these because you can put them off camera, and again, drastically change the lighting using trial and error. Generally speaking, owning one or two LED lights will save you in a pinch.
The second piece of gear I’d encourage you to look into is a proper microphone. Audio quality gets overlooked so often, and it will be a gamechanger if you can get it right. I know that RODE produces a couple really nice microphones built specifically for phones – but you can also get their smartlav+ for things like vlogs as well. There’s a number of choices in microphones so do your research first.
Finally, the last piece of gear I can suggest you consider that will improve your day-to-day photos and videos from your phone is a decent phone. Now, this seems like a given, but the cameras on phones have drastically improved in the last couple years – and if you’re still using an old iphone model or anything pre-2016, you’re at a disadvantage out of the gate. New phones are coming out constantly, I know, and that noise is hard to cut through. But some sure-fire winners at the tip of my tongue (as of writing this) are Google’s pixel 3 or 4 (they just announced the 4), Huawei’s p20 or p30, iPhone 11 Pro or XR, or Samsung’s ‘10’ line.
Hopefully, you’re able to take at least one of these tricks away and use them at your next family gathering, event, in a vlog, or in a live stream. By no means is this a guide to better photos, but it should give you a look how I improve a shot when I look Through My Lens.