How I Take and Edit Photos on My Phone

Volume 70 - nine minute read

Jan 19th, 2018

Photography has been one of my favorite hobbies for quite some time. I remember when Instagram first came out and I’d obsess over the filters and ability to share photos instantly with thousands of people. Although it has never been more than a hobby for me, I’ve learned more and more about the art of taking photos over the years.

Being that photography is just a hobby for me, I’ve never really considered putting much monetary investment into the hobby. While I do have a nice pocket-sized Sony α5100 Camera I use from time to time, it’s nothing compared to some of the cameras professional photographers have nowadays. Plus, as technology in our phones gets better and better, using my phone has been a more convenient option when an unexpected photo opportunity comes up.

After a few years of casually uploading these photos to places like Unsplash and Instagram, I’ve found questions about my photo process and requests come up constantly. I honestly don’t think my photos are anything that great, but I do think there are advantages to being able to improve your process and really step up your photo game with some small improvements. Today I’d love to casually take you along the process I take when taking photos on my iPhone 7 Plus. I’ll be using actual examples of photos I took this past week and explain everything from what apps I use, how I approach composition, how I edit and manage photos on my phone, and maybe even choosing the right photo for the right situation. I hope you will find this helpful and give you places to improve in your own mobile photography.


Hardware and Software

Photo by Dennis Cortés on Unsplash

iPhone 7 Plus Black 32GB - Starts at $699
Purchased this baby when it first came out in 2016, I couldn’t resist the Matte Black. The dual camera setup with Portrait Mode has been a real lifesaver in helping my quality of photos. Not as accurate as a DSLR of course, but with the right lighting it’s a game changer.

Photo from Halide

Halide App - $4.99
Although I usually prefer the stock iPhone camera app, Halide really comes in handy when trying to dial in on a specific type of photo or taking advantage of the manual focus functionality. Not to mention, it’s an all-around gorgeous app to look at which is a plus in my book.

Mocks from Focos

Focos App - Free with in-app purchases
While a bit buggy at times, Focos has been a really great find for me. Focos will take the digital blur data that your iPhone creates and allows you to tweak the bokeh and blur amount to your liking. Because the F-stop (ƒ) in iPhones is limited due to size, it can be difficult to get the aperture and blur amounts you’d like in your photos. Focos allows me to edit this to my liking to get a precise spot for blur and focus on subject matter. It’s free for the basic features but also has optional Pro upgrades if you’d like.

From VSCO and Instagram respectively

VSCO App + Instagram
I include these together because I use them very similarly. I’ll get into my editing process later in the article, but I think each has advantageous features for both sharing and editing of photos. I’m sure you already use these or something similar like Darkroom or Snapseed for editing, but these are what I use personally.


Preparation for the Photo

In my opinion, a photo is almost entirely based on the preparation you take before actually taking the photo. Scoping out what you want to take a photo of, the lighting of the space around the subject matter, the angle of that photo, the compositional aspects, the context of the photo, etc. Anyone can have an amazing camera that has a great auto sensor, but the composition and similar elements set the photographer apart from others. The same applies when using your phone as your tool of choice.

Having an eye for places with potential photo opportunities is something you can’t really learn, it just takes practice. Being intentional about finding places, colors, objects, patterns, etc. that resonate with you and your vision/style for your photography makes all the difference. Personally, I think that balance of elements in size/shape/color of your composition and the lighting (natural, soft light is best) make all the difference and should be your focus when finding areas to improve.

Keep an eye out, find great lighting, try things that might not work, take multiple shots, rinse, and repeat. Practice makes perfect!


Taking the Photo

The moment of truth! My approach to taking photos on my phone varies a bit based on the type of subject matter I’m shooting. While I’m no professional photographer, these guidelines may be helpful when lining up and taking your shot. I’ll even throw in some examples for reference!

Objects

Let’s start with objects! I think these are the easiest to take personally and most of the photos I upload tend to fall in this category. Objects allow you have the most flexibility for placement because they are well…inanimate. You’re able to easier set up surroundings and the shot to what works best of the object. Let me give you a few small guidelines I tend to keep in mind when taking these types of photos.

Photos by Dennis Cortés on Unsplash

Angle is Everything
The angle at which you take your photos can really make a difference with objects. It’s a bit difficult to give a definitive guide on angle, but it’s something to keep in mind and you’ll learn over time. For example, a top angle down is a go-to for most as it simplifies the amount of visual distractions and appears to put objects on one plane, typically leading to a more visually appealing photo. With practice and time, being able to see other angle opportunities starts to develop and you can use that to your liking as you see in the first and second photo examples above.

Keep it Minimal and Focused
The word minimal is all the rage now, but it really helps make any photo better if you tend to struggle with composition. Intentional and focused photography is pleasing to the eye and usually makes the photo process quicker than staging a more complex photo. A great example of this is Andrew Kim’s Instagram.

Say Yes to Edges
Using the edges of objects to your advantage comes in handy. You can use edges of objects to define and frame the rest of your shot. You can also use bleed of edges outside of the photo to add focus and interest to specific angles of an object. Use this in different ways to bring interest and attention to parts of your photo and frame objects in certain ways based on the look you are hoping to achieve.

People

Portraits of people can be some of the most difficult pictures to take, but also filled with the most opportunity. Emotions, lighting, interaction, motion, and more can be achieved with a human subject.

Photos by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Lighting and color are the foundational elements here that I think make the most impact. Natural lighting makes this easiest, while mixing the subject’s outfit and skin color to compliment the surrounding elements.

Again, like most aspects of photography this comes with practice. Observing how others approach their composition and techniques here can come in handy when you’re trying to improve. Lauren Randolph and my friend Sam Frawley are just two of many examples for great work in this field.

Places

Photos of places are my favorite type of photos to take and also view. Guidelines here are a bit tough to pinpoint but a lot of the same tactics I’ve mentioned already are applicable here.

Photos by Dennis Cortés on Unsplash

Another guideline I personally like to have here is compositional awareness and typically symmetry. Symmetry seems to help create a pleasing composition most easily and allows you to use skewed versions of symmetry that still work well overall. The one and only Trashhand has an incredible eye for composition of places and tends to be a reference for me constantly when taking photos of places. Erica Choi and Maura Stoffer have a great eye for interior photography. Dan Eden and Sebastiaan de With have some great photos of places more focused on the outside world instead that I envy.


Editing the Photo

Ah yes, the most opinionated part of photography. Jokes aside, this is certainly the most subjective part of photography. Personal style can really shine here depending on how you want to portray your work.

As a result, I can’t really give a “here’s the best way to do this” explanation. Instead, I’m going to give an overview of how I personally approach editing on my phone. I typically go with a similar starting point and each photo of course has differences depending on the photo. I’ll provide the editing formula screens from VSCO, and the before and after of the photo.

I use VSCO 95% of the time for editing and tend to stray away from using filters usually. I rarely find a filter that works exactly for the look I’m going for so I edit all my photos from scratch typically. May be a little more work, but becomes quite natural after time. I should really just make a recipe I can start with haha.

My Typical VSCO Formula

  • Upping the exposure quite a bit (between 3–4.5 usually)
  • Reducing contrast a small amount (around -0.5–1.0)
  • Making the temperature a bit on the cooler side (around -0.5–1.0)
  • Boosting the saturation to really bring out some of the colors (typically between 0.5–2.5)
  • Sharpening the image a tad (around 1–3 works best I think)

Examples

Here’s some recent before and afters from the past two weeks shot on my phone and edited with VSCO. Original first, editing screen second, then final for last.

When it comes to editing photos, I think it comes down to experimentation to get what you’re looking for. The trend nowadays is to have a pretty bright photo and neutral colors with one or two accents. While I do think trends can be important, trying new approaches to editing photos is important.


Annnnnd that’s about all I can give you in terms of this article. My process is nothing crazy, but I hope you found this helpful for your own on-the-go photo taking process. A little bit different from my usual types of articles but it’s fun to write about other interests I have once in a while. Hope you enjoyed!

Dennis Cortés
Designer & Illustrator that codes, writes, and makes music
www.cortes.us