Six easy things you can do now to improve your smartphone photography

By the Rev. Steven D. Martin

You might have noticed that cameras are everywhere: surveillance cameras, parents with big Nikon DSLRs and, of course, mobile phones with cameras. Everything is being documented, posted, shared, liked, commented on and reposted. Never before have so many photos been made and seen, and the number is increasing every day.

While this is bad news for those who take photos for a living (remember when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its 28 full-time photojournalists in 2013?), all big changes present big opportunities. For the activist community and others wanting to change the world for the better, the day has come to plaster the world with images of beauty, humanity, injustice and despair. In other words, we can bring to light the majesty of human life and show how it can, and must, be made better.

Undoubtedly, 2017 is the year of the smartphone camera. There’s never been a greater need for excellent photos that tell important stories, and it’s never been easier to create those photos and pepper the world with them! With this in mind, I created smartphoneactivist.com as part of my mission to improve the world’s photographs, especially those made by activists seeking to build a more just society.

I have found that it’s easy to make small changes to the way you take photos, and, by doing so, you make enormous strides ahead in photo quality. To quote the great photographer of the 20th century, Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

All of these tips are simple. All of them, though, require that you take a split second to think before you snap. So, without further ado, here are six easy things you can do to start making photographs instead of merely taking them:

1. Don’t center your subject.

Placing your subject in the center of the frame is a common mistake, and the psychology of it is fairly simple: You expect the camera to see as your eye does. The two cannot compare, as your eye connects to your brain, which is integrating the image with a lifetime of information and context. Your eye notices certain things while filtering out others. Your eye and brain see in three dimensions. None of these things are true with a camera.

There are a few major differences between your eyes and your camera: For starters, your eye doesn’t have a frame around it. Your camera places one neatly around the subject.

How do you improve your photo? By using the “rule of thirds.” Turn on your camera and view your subject on the screen. Now imagine that the screen has a tic-tac-toe board superimposed over it. Try lining up the subject on one of those lines, or at the point where two lines cross. It’s an ancient rule that will instantly improve your photos.

Science says your eyes naturally gravitate toward the lines of intersection: It is as if they will be magically drawn to the part of the frame you chose for the subject! Also, when you place the horizon, for example, on one of the two horizontal lines in the frame, it makes either the sky or the ground a context for your subject, and therefore part of the story. We’ll discuss context later. In short, using the rule of thirds improves nearly every picture you’ll take.

For this shot of the Capitol, the photo in the middle aligns the horizon on the third of the screen at the bottom of the frame. This emphasizes the sky and gives a greater sense of grandeur to the Capitol dome.

2. Choose the camera’s orientation to fit the scene you’re capturing.

We are so used to holding our phones vertically that we take most of our photos this way. Centuries ago, artists turned their rectangular frames vertically for portraits and horizontally for landscapes. Thus, we refer to these modes today as “portrait” and “landscape” orientations.

Take a split second and consider which orientation is best for the photo or video you’re trying to make. This step requires a bit of active viewing, or thinking before clicking. Remember that you’re placing the reality in front of you inside a frame that has its own limitations, and, by doing so, you’re interpreting the reality in front of you. Frame your photo in such a way that it tells a story to the people who will see it.

3. Snap away.

Back in the old days, we used film. It was expensive to take pictures. It made sense to take one picture and move on; today, it does not.

When shooting with my big professional camera, I set the shutter to rapid fire pictures in quick succession. Why? If you’re taking pictures of a speaker at a podium, you can take five pictures and get only one that doesn’t have the speaker’s face wildly contorted. If you take just one, you’re likely to have a photo that you can’t use, or doesn’t tell the story you want told.

Most smartphones today have plenty of memory and cloud features that allow you to store lots of photos on them. So take several pictures of everything! Fire away! By taking more pictures, you’re more likely to get one you can use.

4. Give your subject context.

When you first meet someone, you usually ask a couple of questions that give you some context on their lives: where they grew up, where they went to school, etc. We need a few facts to help make sense of the person we’ve just met. The same is true with a photograph.

Photographs tell better stories if the main subject has context in the frame. Again, this story-telling requires a little active viewing. Look around and see if you can identify helpful elements that might be included in the frame with the primary subject. A photo of a rock formation at a national park shows a rock; but if a person is standing beside the rock, your photo tells a story about how huge it is. Likewise, if you’re marching in a protest and you stop at the White House, a photo of fellow protesters with the White House in the background tells a story. Include a few clever signs in your photo, and it tells an even better story!

5. Clean your lens.

Smartphones are used for many things, and our hands are all over them. Most of the time, our phones have smudges on the lenses, and even the slightest smudge will distort the photo. Lighting conditions can make it worse.

People tease me when they see me cleaning the lens because I’m so compulsive about it. Clean your lens every time you take your phone out to make a photograph. Every time! It takes only a second, and with a clean lens, an iPhone 7+ can make a photo or video that rivals the most expensive professional gear.

Cleaning is especially important when using a phone to capture Facebook Live video. A smudged lens will make your video fuzzy around the edges and remove detail. It looks amateurish. A clean lens can make it look like you hired a film crew to capture your event. It’s that easy.

6. Simple tools can make a huge difference.

If you want to take your photos and video to the next level, buy a selfie stick. Seriously.

With a selfie stick you can:

  • Make your photos more interesting by getting a different perspective. You can take the picture from high above, from down on the ground or out to the side.
  • Capture video that’s more stable and clear. Holding your phone with a selfie stick during a Facebook Live session will keep it from being as jerky as it would be if you held your phone in your hand. Your viewers will appreciate it!
  • Take off the clip that holds your phone and put it on a standard tripod. The screw thread is the same size, and now you have an inexpensive mount that will affix your phone to a tripod. It’s great when shooting all kinds of videos.

If you want to kick it up a notch, spend a few more dollars and get a gimbal stabilizer for your phone. This cool gadget costs a good bit more than a selfie stick but offers ultra-smooth video for all the stories you want to tell. You can check out my recommendations and purchase one at smartphoneactivist.com. A few other goodies are listed there, too.

It’s never been easier to take good photos, and the photos we activists take have never been more important. Use your smartphone cameras to tell stories — important stories — that help tell the truth, promote justice and improve life for everyone. All it takes to make better photographs is to pay closer attention to a few simple details.


The Rev. Steven D. Martin is director of communications at the National Council of Churches USA. To learn more and keep this conversation going, visit him at smartphoneactivist.com or his YouTube channel or Facebook page, where he posts new videos every so often.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.