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Master these three levels of smartphone photography

Rembrandt lighting (left) and rim lighting (right)

Credit: Copyright: Jo Bradford

You no longer need a DSLR camera to capture great photos. Your smartphone can do the job just as well.

Jo Bradford is a professional smartphone photographer, university lecturer and published author on the subject, who has just published her book Smart Photos: 52 ideas to take your smartphone photography to the next level.

The book offers a range of practical, creative and original techniques for capturing professional photos using your phone. She spoke to about a handful of news apps and clever DIY hacks.

All of these techniques can be used on iPhone or Android devices using the built-in camera app, but the book recommends some additional paid apps.

The basics

Clean your camera lens before taking pictures. Fingerprints and smudges ruin photos, so bring lens wipes with you.

When using your camera app, tap the screen where the most interesting element of your photo is. This will lock focus and exposure. When you smash humans, tap their eyes.

Have a storage box on you or in your car with handy DIY items, including masking tape, black cardboard or paper, aluminum foil, a large dark cloth and, if you can, a small stool. Other useful equipment to have around are a selfie stick and a tripod. Read on to find out why.

Beginner: height, scale and framing

You may remember how the media was criticized during the pandemic for showing that people would not observe social distancing on crowded beaches. The flattened angle at which the photos were taken made the beaches look more crowded than they actually were.

Using an elevated vantage point can depict a scene in a captivating shot. Find a nearby bench or vantage point (like a pier) for an aerial shot. Alternatively, you can bring a small stepladder with you or use a selfie stick. In all these cases, this is where a lightweight smartphone shines.

Elevated vantage point

Elevation is also useful for covering protests, as it helps to get a better idea of ​​crowd density. Use a shutter release (a Bluetooth-powered device) to connect to your phone and take photos from above, or use your phone’s timer mode.

Achieve a stable shot by securing a strong body line. Lock your elbows into your rib cage, interlace your fingers to hold the selfie stick, and rotate your body side to side for stability. On the ground, tripods can give you extra stability and there are cell phone holders that can screw onto the tripods.

Capture a sense of scale by having large objects in the background, such as buildings, which then frame the main subject: in this case, people on the beach. The trick is to tilt your phone to match the angle of whatever you’re shooting.

Looking at the beach shot (above), Bradford says: “There I made sure the top of the camera was not tilted forward as that would instantly make the buildings in the background were falling.”

To fix a wobbly photo, you can use a free post-editing app called Snapseed to straighten perspective.

This all works for close-up photos, too, a technique called camera inversion, which can make small objects look big. The same rules apply: frame the shot and level it up. But you’ll want to lock your exposure and focus to get a clear image.

Intermediate: control the light

“It used to be that photographers struggled to take pictures with any camera in low-light situations, but that’s where smartphones excel,” says Bradford.

She says Night Mode on iPhones 11 and above can recognize low-light situations and take a series of photos to generate a cleaner composite image because it gathers more light each time. User can also increase the timer to get a clearer photo.

A more advanced photographer can control the light to improve their shots. Rembrandt lighting is a powerful technique for taking a picture of a person: perfect for your spotlight or feature room.

Rembrandt lighting

Place a direct, moving light source (like a lamp) near the subject.

If your light source is too large, you can narrow it down using a snoot (see right), which you can make from black paper rolled up into a cone shape.

Then place a backdrop behind them. Black is the preferred color to absorb all the light, but lighter colors can also be used. Avoid anything patterned. It is an inexpensive option when there is no good background available.

“I can show up anywhere and get a really pro-level photo using this background fabric, and knowing that I don’t have to provide my own light,” says Bradford. “Rembrandt is such a classic and easy to shoot photograph, but it’s only made by people who understand lighting.”

The Rembrandt lighting trick is to bring out the perfect triangle on the cheekbone (see above) and the shadow that forms on the jawline. Move your light source until the nose casts a shadow and take a straight, horizontal shot. It’s not just limited to people either, the same technique can work for product photography.

News articles can often be very dependent on stock images. Why not create your own? A good understanding of lighting is crucial for a technique known as flatbed composition.

Flat composition

Get creative with your color schemes, but think carefully about the spacing of the elements and how they fit into your setting.

Lay the whole thing on a board next to a source of natural light (normally a window during the day) and use reflective material (aluminum foil is a go-to option, white paper also works) to reflect the source of light.

With light coming from two directions, this minimizes the shadows objects will cast around them. It also prevents a shadow from being cast on your image by yourself. There is no need to select shadows that form inside elements, such as the stapler in the lower left corner.

Smartphones will also automatically take care of white balance, which photographers normally have to fiddle with to balance color temperatures. Bradford recommends trusting the smartphone and post-editing the image in the free Snapseed app afterwards, if necessary.

Advanced: silhouettes and anonymity

Masters of light control can use it to darken and hide details. Edge lighting can provide a striking side profile of someone who wishes to remain anonymous.

This technique relies on Rembrandt lighting, but this time the light source goes behind the subject, with a dark background behind everything. Bring the light source closer to the subject until it is out of sight and the light forms a silhouette around it.

Greater anonymity is achieved by increasing the distance between photographer and subject. You can also move the light source away from the subject to allow more light to spill around the edges and darken its image.

The closer you are to the subject, the clearer the details become. It could be a good artistic choice for a well-known person with a recognizable facial profile.

Where focusing on the eyes isn’t an option, the nose is a good substitute. Tap it on your smartphone screen to bring it into focus. Adjust exposure on your smartphone’s camera app to control anonymity as well. Ideally, the exposure should be on its minimum setting here. Don’t forget to use a snoot to help reduce the light source.

Edge lighting includes all other techniques. Bradford says, “Controlling your lighting and your point of view is key to growing you from an average photographer to someone who can elevate their production to something spectacular.”

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