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Training staff to take good photos part 1: 9 practical tips for better phone photography

01.01.20

Camera phones have upped their game in recent years, and it’s now no longer necessary to have a clunky DSLR – in fact, the iphone in your colleague’s pocket may be the better answer to your photograph woes…

That said, not everyone knows how to get the best out of the computer in their pocket. So if you have a team member who’s agreed to take some social media snaps for you, but aren’t too confident with their phone’s camera yet, send them this list of tips to have a play with:

1. Find the good light – and make sure HDR mode is activated

If you’re inside, look for any natural light (i.e. windows and doors). If you’re taking a portrait of a person, look to have them face the window or the place where the natural light is coming from and tap the brightest part of the screen.

When you tap this part of the screen, the phone’s camera will do something called ‘metering’, where it balances the amount of light coming into the camera lens. If, by tapping the brightest part of the screen, it makes the rest of the photo too dark, tap in a slow radius around the brightest part of your image until the camera has readjusted and you have the best balance of light.

If you’re outside, and it’s a lovely sunny day, you want to look to avoid brightly lit areas: what you want, is shade. It seems counter-intuitive, because surely the more light, the better right?! Well, harsh sunlight (especially around 11am to 2pm) creates harsh shadows, and it’s difficult for a DSLR to handle these types of lighting situations, never mind a phone camera. Instead, look for a shady spot, and ideally with a plain background, for your photo. This will ensure nice, even light, and well-lit faces.

Secondly – make sure HDR is activated on your phone if possible. What this does is stitch together a couple of versions of the same photo for you, to get a photo which is lit up in the best way possible. Meaning if you’re outside in a sunny day, you’re much likely to get a nice blue sky and a well-lit subject in the frame with HDR than you are without it.

2. Utilize portrait mode and autofocus

Often the photos we love are ones that have a lot of something called bokeh or a shallow depth of field. These are the images with a sharp foreground object and a blurrier background: they guide our eyes and make the subject stand out. Nowadays, the phones we carry around in our pockets allow us to get that effect easily with something called Portrait Mode. (If you have an iphone 7 plus or above, you’ll have this feature. Don’t have an iphone? Check this list here to find out if you have an equivalent mode). It’s not quite the same as the effect produced by a DSLR, but the end result is often pretty good – definitely good enough for a quick social media photo, for sure!

Remember, when using portrait mode, that you need a reasonable amount of distance from the background to the subject. The further they are from the background, the easier it is to blur.

And autofocus: this is another thing that tappign the screen will give you. Tap on the object/person you would like to be in focus, and the camera should autofocus in for you. If you take the photo without doing this, you’re likely to come out with a blurrier image.

3. Never zoom!

Instead be confident and move yourself closer to the action. A camera phone’s zoom is one of its worst features: by zooming in you end up with smudgy, pixelated photos that are no good to anyone. Instead, be confident in your photography abilities (and reasons for being there!) and move your feet to take you closer to whatever you need to photograph. Obviously there’ll be times when you can’t do this, but 99% of the time, we can get a little closer, just for a second, and end up with a much better photo.

4. Make use of Burst Mode

Burst mode is a great one for getting photos of people who are talking – whether it’s people in a group, or a conference speaker, or people mingling over a cup of coffee at your charity’s event.

The reason Burst Mode is the best, is because we’re expressive creatures, and half the time we humans have no idea what our faces are doing while we’re focused on something else more important. Using burst mode you’ll take several shots at once, rather than just a single shot, and you’re more likely to get one or two photos of someone mid-way through a smile! They (and the comms team) will be grateful that you didn’t capture them with their concentrating-frowny face, and you can simply delete any photos from the burst that you don’t want to keep.

5. Look around for interesting angles

When we first start taking photographs we go for the obvious thing: lift the camera, snap a picture, done. But when you start getting into it you see that, simply by moving around the space, you can get a much more interesting shot. At your venue can you get up high, to snap an ‘overhead’ shot of people doing group work or collaborating? Maybe that looks like finding a chair to stand on, or a balcony, or the stage if there’s one set up.

Can you fill the image better by moving a couple of steps to your left or right? Do you get a better photo with the person filling the whole screen, or does it look great to leave a little empty space in the frame?

Which leads us onto…

6. The Rule of Thirds

There’s a well-known photography ‘rule’ called the Rule of Thirds. It’s a simple, but effective framing technique that will help add a bit of interest to your images. I’ll be covering this in more detail in a future post, but essentially, imagine your screen is split up into 6 squares (or, go into the camera settings on your phone – you should be able to add a grid to it). Each of these rows and grid columns create a ‘third’ on the screen, either vertically or horizontally. Now focus on lining up your subject in one of these thirds, or at the points your thirds intersect – play around with this, and you’ll soon start to see how much more visually interesting it can be than having your subject smack-bang in the middle of the image.

Now, rules are made to be broken of course! But you can’t break it until you’ve used it enough to understand it properly, so go ahead and play around with it!

7. Stability is Key

We don’t realise it, but we’re a lot shakier than we think. If there’s a surface you can rest your elbow on while you take the shot, you’ll have a much easier time of getting a sharp photo. If not, ask your comms team to consider investing in something like the Joby Gorilla tripod – its legs can be bent to wrap around surfaces so you can attach it almost anywhere, so not only is it great for adding general stability, but it also comes in handy for taking group pictures on a timer!

8. Watch out for your background

If you’re taking portraits or group shots, try to keep the background as plain as possible. Any white or light coloured walls are good. Remember if the wall has a strong colour painted on it (e.g. bright orange, or red or blue etc), then it will reflect onto the skin of anyone stood next to it, giving everyone in the image an odd tinge.

If you’re snapping photos as they happen, don’t worry so much, but if the background is ugly or messy or too similar to the ten great shots you already have, try to fill the screen as much as possible with your subject.

And finally…

9. Make sure your camera glass is clean!

You’ve kept your phone on a stable surface, you’ve tapped away to enable autofocus to work and still: your photo is blurry. The culprit might just be grease on the outside of our camera lens. Often our hands are the reason for a smudgy photo: they get oil and grease everywhere. If you have a glasses lens wipe then this is best to use, but at a pinch a soft t-shirt will do (cotton can still leave a bit of a greasy smear at times though).

Additional note for the Comms team: if you have an office camera, but the photos you get back with it are questionable at best, consider trading it out for a phone that is used as a camera at events. Your colleagues are likely to have a better understanding of how to use it, and most phone camera images these days are on a par with what comes out of a point and shoot. (And even if you have an office DSLR, if your team are stuck in Auto mode, you really might as well only be using a point and shoot most of the time).

Plus you’ll be able to receive images from events and fundraisers quicker, because there’s no need to wait for the SD card. So consider trading in that DSLR for a Pixel 3 or an iPhone 8 or above.


Are you training your team to take better phone photos? What’s been a key point in the training that’s improved their photos the most? Let’s hear it below, I’d love to know!

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