30 Days of Mobile Photography

Lessons from my latest obsession


I’ve always wanted to get into photography. As a designer, it’s a natural extension of my work. As a creative, it’s another medium for storytelling. And yet, for whatever reason, I’ve never really gotten into it. Until now.

Over the last month, I’ve put a considerable amount of energy into learning photography. My goal: scratch a new creative itch and start developing some truths on photography. Starting with mobile photography was a conscious effort to focus on the fundamentals — composition, lighting, editing, storytelling — before worrying about the hardware. In other words, I wanted to see how far I could take my iPhone 6's camera before throwing money at the latest and greatest equipment.

If you’ve been following me on Instagram, I hope you’ve noticed a significant change in direction on what and how I’ve been posting. If you haven’t been, feel free to follow along while I continue to experiment.

Follow me on Instagram as I attempt to figure this photography thing out.

While I’ve only just scratched the surface, I wanted to sum up some of the key learnings I’ve picked up along the way.


Gear

ONLY THE BASICS

Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been shooting, editing, and posting with. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot less than you think.

iPhone 6: It’s true what they say about the best camera being the one you have on you. If you’re interested in the technical specs of the iPhone camera, you can read about it here.

Moment Lenses: Early in January, I picked up a wide angle and telephoto lens made by the fine folks at Moment. Based on my research, these were the best mobile lenses on the market based on their image quality and build. And man did they deliver. I rarely leave the house without one of the lenses in my pocket nowadays.

The Moment wide angle lens. Original photo: http://instagram.com/p/y6_Gr3pW8T/

The one downside to the Moment lenses is that they require a mounting plate to be adhered to the back of your iPhone (don’t worry, it comes off without residue). The mounting plate is made of black stainless steel and is only 0.3mm thick, so it actually doesn’t look half bad. That being said, I picked up an Air Jacket case in black, which fits perfectly over the mounting plate and adds some much needed grip to the iPhone 6's soapbar-like form factor.


Shooting

JUST GO OUT AND SHOOT

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned on how to get better at shooting.

Take a lot of photos. Like any craft, you only get better by practicing it. A lot. Take photos every day and everywhere you go. It’ll annoy your friends, but it’ll accelerate your learning. Taking a lot of photos is like giving yourself a chance to get all the bad shots out of your system. Eventually you’ll land a bunch of great ones, too.

Explore everything. Exploration is essential for finding inspiring settings to take photos in. Whether you just take a different route to work or go on an actual photowalk in a different part of town, you’re bound to be surprised by what you come across.

Original photo: http://instagram.com/p/y9jjBYJW_z/

Get over the awkwardness. One of the challenges with mobile photography is that your camera phone doesn’t exactly command the same kind of authority as a dedicated camera would, so you can sometimes find yourself feeling awkward when trying to capture a shot in the middle of the street on your own. Passerby’s can’t tell if you’re snapping a breathtakingly beautiful shot or just a selfie (I put on a duck face for both), but you’ll just need to get over the fear of looking “silly”. Fortunately, most of it is all in your head, which time and practice can help you overcome.

Bring friends. Having one or two people by your side not only helps to cut some of the aforementioned awkwardness, but it’s also great for bouncing ideas back and forth. Plus, friends can often double as subjects in photos when you’re having trouble with serendipity.

Yes, your camera roll will end up looking like this.

Take more photos than you need. There’s nothing worse than a near-perfect shot ruined by a smudge, or an awkward face, or something else you didn’t see at the time. And since you never want to miss out on a special moment, make sure you take multiple shots every time.

Find intriguing and/or relatable subjects. An interesting photo is going to feature a subject that makes you want to learn more (an incredible view of some mountains) or one that is relatable to the audience (a group of commuters getting off a streetcar). It’s through your choice of subject that you’ll be able to tell a captivating story (more on storytelling later).

Composition matters. How your subjects are juxtoposed against their surroundings can make or break a photo. Beyond the technical details around composition (e.g. the rule of thirds), you’ll want to pay attention to everything that falls inside your frame to ensure everything compliments the story you’re telling.

Examples of composition. Top left: on top of being blurry, the foot of the runner in the front is cut off. Top right: nicely centred, confident stride. Bottom left: the subject is centred, but the body language is all off. Bottom right: loved the blue, but didn’t catch the subject in right position.

Seek out the best lighting. Whenever you can, look for soft and well-distributed lighting (early mornings, mid-afternoons, or cloudy days are great for shooting outdoors). In other words, avoid shooting under harsh lighting, whether it be natural (e.g. a sunny day outside) or artificial (e.g. right under a lamp).

Use the best app for the job. Here are a few recommended ones for shooting (iOS only):

  • Native Camera: I’ve tried a handful of camera apps and I still default to the native app 99% of the time. It may not have the most features, but it’s by far the most responsive and reliable camera app on iOS.
  • Manual: If you want more granular control over your focus, ISO, and shutter speed, this is a great app to get. It can be a bit slow to load at times, so I recommend only using it when you have a bit of setup time before a shot.
  • Moment: I haven’t played with this app too much, but one of the most intriguing features is that it can save photos as TIFFs, which can give you a higher quality photo to work with.
  • Slow Shutter!: If you want motion blur or light trails in your photos, this is a dead simple app to play around with. There are more intricate apps out there for motion photography, but none as straight forward as this.
  • Cortex Camera: A great app for snapping photos in low light (e.g. at night). You’ll need to be able to hold your camera still for a few seconds, but it’ll create a far less grainy shot than the native camera app. Pro tip: use the volume buttons on your earphones to activate the shutter to avoid shaking your phone.

Editing

“WE’LL DO IT IN POST…”

A large part of editing on your phone is about using the right apps. The other (and more challenging) part is about finding your style.

It probably took me a couple hundred photos over the first two weeks to arrive at some kind of consistent style. And even then, I know it’ll continue to evolve as I keep going. Truthfully, it’s about trial and error, so make sure you give yourself a chance to experiment with different aesthetics. This is where shooting frequently is going to help a lot.

When it comes to editing though, I follow a pretty consistent workflow that leverages a common set of apps. I’ll outline some of the primary ones I use in the example below and list off a few more at the end of this section.

Step 1: Review the shots. Since I always take multiple shots of the same thing, I always start the process by reviewing all of them before selecting the one I want to work with. Using the Photos app, I’ll use the native Favourite feature to mark a photo as ready for editing.

Reviewing the full set of shots and selecting the best one to move forward with. Photos that are ready for editing are ‘Favourited’ for easy access in editing apps.

Step 2: Correct the lines. Perspective, lens distortion, or just an odd camera angle can often affect the direction of the lines in your photo. For me, I prefer my lines to be perfectly parallel or perpendicular to one another, especially if I’m looking at the subject straight-on. Overall, I feel like this creates a much cleaner aesthetic and helps to focus the eyes on the things that matter. So, to accomplish this, I use an app called SKRWT that allows me to skew a photo in a number of different ways to correct the lines in the photo.

Correcting perspective, lens distortion, and odd camera angles using SKRWT. The app offers a handful of options, including rotation, horizontal skewing, and vertical skewing, to help line everything up neatly.

Step 3: Correct colours. Next, I open up the newly saved photo in an app called Snapseed. This app has a ton of features and I’ve actually seen some mobile photographers do all of their editing with just this app. That being said, I only use Snapseed for a few of its features. One of these is called Selective Adjust and is used to correct the brightness, contrast, and saturation of specific colour ranges. For example, the red coat in this photo offers a really nice contrast against the yellow doors, but it’s looking a little dull. So, using Selective Adjust, I can highlight just the red parts of the photo, and increase the brightness and contrast just a bit to make the coat more vibrant.

Correcting colours using Snapseed’s handy Selective Adjust feature.

Step 4: Apply filters and final adjustments. After all the initial corrections to perspective and colours, I bring the photo into VSCO Cam to apply the finishing touches. I typically start by choosing a filter (I have a handful that are my go-to’s) and then move on to make finer adjustments to sharpness, exposure, contrast, etc.

Filters and final adjustments using VSCO Cam. One of the best things about this app, and why I like keep it as the last step in editing, is that it allows me to return to the photo later on to tweak the settings in case I change my mind about something.

And voila! The final product:

Final cropped photo: http://instagram.com/p/ykIQj6pWwq/

And for comparison, the raw photo:

Different photos will always require a different combination of apps. Certain apps like VSCOcam and Snapseed are multi-purpose, while others are great for one specific task. Here are a few that weren’t used in the above example but are worth checking out:

  • TouchRetouch: Great for removing blemishes and other distractions from your photos.
  • Photoshop Express: A multi-purpose app, but I only use it for its Reduce Noise feature.
  • Mextures: This app allows you to layer on some pretty unique filters and textures on top of each other for more creative pieces.

Posting

STORYTELLING

Whether you’re posting on Flickr, 500px, Instagram, or your own portfolio, one of the joys of taking a great photo comes from having others see and appreciate your hard work. Given that I was focused on mobile photography, Instagram was the obvious go-to for me. Here’s what I’ve learned* so far about posting on one of the fastest growing photo sharing platforms.

* These lessons aren’t necessarily relevant to those who post leisurely on Instagram, which I recognize is the vast majority of users.

Don’t do it for the likes. There’s a fine line between chasing likes and wanting your content consumed and appreciated. The difference is that optimizing for the latter encourages you to create quality content as the means of increasing engagement, whereas chasing likes can lead you down a very different path. If you focus first on quality, you’ll not only acquire more meaningful likes and comments, but your work will also be far more authentic.

Tell stories to bring your photos to life. Your photo’s description is more than just a field for a caption, it’s an opportunity to convey a meaningful message about the photo you’re posting — what you were thinking about when you took the shot, what the photo reminds you of, or some other kind of commentary. This has been a challenging commitment at times (I’ve even delayed posting photos on a few occasions because I hadn’t written a compelling enough story), but it’s always added an extra sense of depth and relatedness to the work.

“When I was young, I thought I was going to be an architect. Every now and again though, when I see places like this, I realize how I would have been a pretty shitty architect.” Original photo: http://instagram.com/p/yFH9dKJW4u/

Hashtags. Speaking of captions, let’s talk about hashtags. Hashtags typically serve 2 purposes: to provide additional context and commentary, or to increase discoverability. Given that I’m only just starting to build an audience around my photos, using hashtags to aid discoverability is still important (and it actually works quite well). However, I’ve observed that users with a large enough base of followers don’t need to employ this technique, so their hashtag usage is far more minimal. Whichever approach you’re taking, try to use it in moderation. ☺

Timeliness matters. Or at least the perception of timeliness does. That is, post morning shots in the morning, night shots at night. A photo of a snow storm should also be posted while it’s still snowing outside. This is because, unless you’re posting a throwback, a photo that appears to be timely (even if it’s not) is more relatable. This helps the user view the photo how you would have when you took the shot originally.

Day and night — these photos can be made more relatable if posted at the time depicted in the photo. Original photos: http://instagram.com/p/yrkk5HpW3t/, http://instagram.com/p/zLjkL9JW5G/

It’s okay to have a posting schedule. While you may not be chasing likes, you still want your work to be consumed and engaged with by the most amount of people. As such, you may want to consider posting when your followers are most active. I’ve been actively experimenting with different posting schedules, and recently I’ve settled on posting during commuting hours — right before and right after work. Again, like hashtags, this technique matters less as your audience grows.

My posting habits, according to Iconosquare. The black circles represent the days and times that I post, while the grey circles represent when my followers engage with those posts.

Results

SO FAR SO GOOD

Since starting this journey in early January, I’ve posted 32 photos with a focus on:

  • Improving the way I shoot (composition, subjects, lighting)
  • Mastering editing techniques and developing my “signature”
  • Telling compelling stories that bring my photos to life
  • Optimizing visibility and discoverability of my photos

Engagement on Instagram has acted as validation for whether or not I was heading in the right direction. That is, if I was successful in the efforts listed above, I should see an increase in likes and comments on my posts. But since I wanted the engagement to be meaningful and a true reflection of the quality of my photos, I also avoided posting any personal content (photos of myself, friends, work, events, etc) that could trigger engagement for other reasons.

And what do you know, things have been looking pretty good:

Total number of likes and average likes per media month over month. Notice the jump in January and February. Source: Iconosquare.
Total number of comments and average comments per media month over month. Another healthy jump in January and February. Source: Iconosquare.

At the end of the day, the likes and comments, while super interesting to examine, are simply a nice bonus on top of the creative fulfilment that comes with learning a new craft. I’m proud of how much I’ve been able to pick up and a bit giddy over what I’ve been able to accomplish with photography in just a few short weeks. There’s a ton more to learn and a lifetime’s worth of polish to add, but I’m excited to take it one day at a time.


Resources

LEARN FROM THE BEST

I definitely had a lot of help over the past month of learning photography. In addition to a massive amount of trial and error, there have been a few key resources and people that have accelerated this entire process.

Skillshare has been instrumental for me for learning the fundamentals of shooting (both with your phone and with a dedicated camera) and editing. I highly recommend the following classes:

Iconosquare is a great little web app that provides some helpful statistics on your Instagram account. Early on, I relied on Iconosquare a lot to figure out my posting schedule when I didn’t have enough data points for myself. I rely on it far less now, but still check it occasionally to get a snapshot of my progress.

Friends have been an invaluable part of this process (both on and off of Instagram). Big hugs especially to @vinnyverma and @sllychn for not only putting up with and fuelling my latest obsession, but also teaching me a crap ton along the way. Also, huge high fives to all the new and old supporters on Instagram that continue to support the learning process post after post (@timgaweco, @stratosferik, @maddthman, @tyunikov, to name a few).


Follow Along

IT’S MORE FUN WITH FRIENDS

If my obsessive approach to everything I do (including photography) is your cup of tea, I invite you to follow me on Instagram. I can promise an ever-evolving visual aesthetic, open sharing of newly acquired truths on photography, and a personal ban on selfies.

Don’t hold me too long to that last one though. ☺

Original photo: http://instagram.com/p/zNEOZ5JW-f/

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