Tips from a professional for smartphone photography at the holidays

Photographers at The Denver Post are often asked about cameras. There isn’t a week that goes by that one of us doesn’t hear, “What’s the best camera to buy?” People see our professional gear and want to know, “What camera will help me get photos of my kids playing sports that aren’t blurry?” or, “What camera takes great landscapes, but is light so I can carry it while hiking?”

In photojournalism, there’s an age-old saying: the best camera is the one you have with you. So, we often respond that their phone camera is all they need. People are usually very surprised by this and ask, “Then why do you have those big cameras hanging from your shoulders?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t better cameras out there. There are, and we use them. What I am saying is that your cell phone camera is quite capable of doing a great job. To prove the point, all the images included in this article were taken with my iPhone.

If you have the funds, interest, and time to buy a fancy camera like the ones we use for our job, and learn how to use it, they are much better than phone cameras. But even as professionals, Post photographers often use our phones for our personal lives. I lug two big cameras around all day for work, so when I am off the clock, the last thing I want to do is carry those things around some more. On vacations or while doing family activities, I almost always rely on my phone camera to capture moments that are truly important to me.

With nearly 20 years of professional experience as a photographer for The Denver Post, being a dad of two active kids where I am constantly taking photos of them in their activities, and having a camera in my hands since I was five years old, I’ve learned a few simple tricks along the way that help me capture the moments I want, no matter what type of camera is in my hands.

The following tips to take great pictures with your phone require no change to your settings or functions on your camera phone or any camera you chose to use. These are things to think about when you are making photographs, and if you do, it will elevate your photography.

Use light to your advantage

Photography is all about light. No matter what camera you are using, that doesn’t change. So, taking photos in interesting light will make interesting pictures. Think about the time of day you are making photos. If you are photographing indoors, is there better light in a different room or a different part of the room? Can you add light to change the mood of your images?

For example, you are driving home late one night and see your neighborhood park has a Christmas tree all lit up. You think it would make a good photo for your holiday cards. It is too late to stop that night so you make plans to come back. This is when you need to think about light. You know the photo is about the lit-up tree, so right away you know that you want to photograph the tree when the tree lights are on. But, is there a specific time that might elevate the photo? If you photograph the tree in the noon sun, you probably won’t be able to see the lights on the tree. Think about early morning or evening, for example. Before the sky goes totally dark, you might be able to see the horizon line in the background and capture a deep blue color in the sky. Or do you want the background to be totally black and isolate the lit tree during a darker part of the night? It’s all up to you, but know that photographing the tree in different light will change your image.

You can do fun things to add different types of light. Park your car where your headlights help illuminate the scene. Maybe use a flashlight to do the same thing. Try out different things, and see what works for you. If you change the light of a scene you are photographing, you change the mood of that image. Find the right light that gives you the mood you are going for in your picture. Photojournalists often say, “Go early and stay late.” Sometimes you have to be patient to make the photos you want. Sometimes you have to wait for the light you want.

Crop with your feet

These days most phone cameras have the ability to zoom in and out with the flick of your finger, but remember to use your legs. It’s often better to move further in or out of a situation rather than zooming with your camera. For example, if you’re able to go down to floor level to take pictures of your kids during a holiday recital, the images at eye level will often feel more personal and dynamic than those shot from the school bleachers.

Watch your backgrounds

Watch what you’re putting in your background. A clean and simple background can often elevate your images. Sometimes it’s nice to have things in the background that add information to what the scene is about, but remember what’s important in your photo. Try to have what’s important be the star of your image. So, if you have all the cousins lined up on the ski hill and the background behind them is a distracting orange fence that pushes skiers to the chairlift lane, that bright fence on the white snow hill will carry your eyes away from the cousins and to the fence. Consider what’s important in your image and look for a background that highlights rather than distracts from what you want to focus on.

Remember the details

This brings me to an important idea to remember: don’t overlook the details. Sometimes we get in the bad habit of just photographing the big picture. The kids are tearing open presents Christmas morning, and it looks like a tornado went through your living room. Yes, it’s great to photograph your kids during all the madness, but sometimes it’s the little details that will make photos you will cherish. After the chaos of Christmas morning, go back into the room and look around. All the wrapping paper is scattered along the rug. Ribbons and bows tossed freely. Photographing the little details can add photos that bring you closer to something. A detail can tell you more. They can also be artful and graphic in nature, which sometimes can make frame-worthy photography.

You’ll miss 100% of the photos you don’t take

Last, but definitely not least, if you don’t take the photo, you won’t have the photo. One of the best things about digital photography is you’re not buying film or paying for processing. Why not try? Even if you don’t make a great picture, the process of doing it will teach you more about what to do next time. And like in the game of golf, it’s ok to call a mulligan. You can do it again. If your kids are dancing in the holiday parade, but you end up not getting the photos you wanted, you can try again. Your kids will still look super cute in their costumes after the parade is over. You really wanted to send grandpa and grandma a great picture of them during the performance, but from where you were seated, the kids were in complete shadow. There is nothing wrong with taking a few photos of the cute kiddos after the performance. The costumes are still on. You find a street light they can stand near for better light, and you make some fun photos where they look great, and best of all grandpa and grandma can see their faces and costumes. The photos might not be from the performance, but most likely you won’t care once you see the new photos you made.

The photo department here at The Denver Post hopes you all have a safe and wonderful holiday season, and I hope these tips help you capture the season a little better in your photos. Happy holidays from all of us.

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