Ever looked at a photo and were simply captivated by it? You didn’t know why, but the picture just looked beautiful to you. Then you look at your own photos, but they’re just not there yet.
What could be the difference? What makes certain photos look better than others? Could be that only DSLR-type cameras can take amazing photos compared to smartphones?
Well, there are a number of factors at play here. Of course, the camera you use makes a huge difference, but that’s not the only thing. After all, a camera is only as good as the person using it.
In this article, I will be looking at the various factors that contribute to what makes a photo look good, especially on a smartphone.
It is worth noting that none of the factors mentioned in this article can be singled out as solely responsible for how well your photos turn out. Each factor plays it’s own part, and together they can result in truly amazing images.
First and foremost, and in no particular order…
The first thing that people see when they look at a photograph is the subject-- who or what is in the frame. So, it goes without saying that having an interesting subject in your photo contributes quite a lot to how good the picture looks.
An interesting subject doesn’t have to be something completely new and out of this world. It can be anything, even regular everyday items like a mug, a flower, or just an ordinary person.
What’s so interesting about any of that? At face value, perhaps nothing. But you can make it interesting by focusing on a unique aspect of your subject.
Perhaps your subject is a person with strikingly beautiful eyes or an intriguing skin tone. Or perhaps in a field of many yellow flowers, for whatever reason, one is blue. Or maybe an old man with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen, but with only one tooth.
Ordinary peas arranged to resemble the peace symbol. A clever play on words and visuals
Even if your subject doesn’t posses any exotic or unique qualities, you can still make the subject interesting by the way you pose and position them. This is where some creativity comes into play, but more on that later.
I’d like to emphasize that when you think about the subject, don’t just think about the person or object you’re most interested in capturing. Think about all the elements that will be in the picture, too.
For example, what’s in the background? What can you put in or remove from the frame that will enhance the shot? Do you need to add anything to the foreground to create depth in the photo?
Giving your subject proper thought and consideration is the first step to taking great photos with your mobile phone.
Without lighting, photography is impossible. After all, it’s in the name itself. In order to get decent pictures from your smartphone camera, you need a reasonable amount of lighting. And because smartphone sensors are so tiny, the more lighting you can get, the more likely your photos will turn out well.
Daylight is usually the best option for smartphone cameras because there’s an abundance of natural light. It’s free and readily available anywhere.
The beautiful thing about day light is that it changes its characteristics depending on the time. Early morning and late afternoon are periods known as Golden Hour. Photos taken during this time have a beautiful golden glow and look really great.
The unfortunate reality is that smartphones don’t perform well in poor lighting. That’s why pictures don’t turn out that great at night. If you take photos where there’s not enough lighting, your pictures may come out looking dark or blurry. The solution is to find a spot that has a light and use that to illuminate your subject.
Remember, where there is no natural light, artificial lighting is your best friend.
While on the topic of artificial lighting, what most newcomers to photography don’t realise is that there’s more to it than just shining a light at your subject and then taking a photo.
Lighting can be used to create mood and atmosphere in your photo. For example, harsh lights cast deep shadows. These shadows can be used to create drama and mystery.
Shadows can also bring definition to the subject. Perhaps you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror under various lighting conditions and seen some differences in how you look. I’ve done that. And what I realised was that under certain lighting, my usually undefined body looked like it was somewhat a bit chiselled.
If you’re unsure about lighting, try out different setups and see what works for your shot. Even professionals have to move things around until they get the look they want. Do the same.
Composition in photography refers to the way all the elements in the image are positioned and arranged within the frame of the photo. In order to compose a visually pleasing photo, you need to know how to arrange the elements in the frame according to their importance.
A well composed shot will automatically bring attention to the subject when someone looks at a photo you took. One way to do this is to apply what is known as the Rule of Thirds.
To apply this composition technique, you need to imagine the photo has two evenly spaced lines running horizontally across and another two running down vertically, effectively dividing the photo into nine parts.
The idea behind this theory is that photos are more visually appealing when the subjects in them are aligned with the imaginary lines that divide the photo in thirds. Important features such as eyes and faces are usually framed where the lines intersect.
So let’s say you’re taking a picture of someone at the beach. The most important thing in that photo is the person in it. Instead of positioning them in the middle of the frame, position the subject off centre to the right or left where the vertical lines run down. If it’s a full body shot, then you’ll have to position the head around where the vertical and horizontal lines cross in the top left or top right.
In the beginning, you might struggle to figure out where to draw the imaginary lines but luckily that shouldn’t be a problem on your smartphone. Your camera app can overlay a grid on your screen that will help you apply the rule of thirds in your photos.
Another rule to apply is the Rule of Space. So, if your subject is not facing the camera directly, then there should be enough space in the direction the subject is facing. This is called ‘active space’. The area behind the subject is known as ‘dead space’. Frame your shot in such a way that there’s more active space than dead space.
Framing your shot in such a way that there is little active space compared to dead space makes the photo look a bit unnatural and imbalanced, especially if the subject is alone in the frame.
However, this is acceptable if there is someone or something else of interest behind the subject, in which case the second subject can be positioned in the first subject’s dead space within the frame of the shot.
Sometimes Simplification is key in composing amazing photos. This is where the image is stripped down to its most important elements that support what the image is trying to say. This is so that the eye doesn’t get distracted by anything else in the frame and wander off.
An important thing to remember when framing a shot with people is to not cut them off at the joints. This ends up making them look dismembered.
Also, avoid chopping the tops of people’s heads off by giving them little to no head room. Make sure you give your subjects enough head room but not too much unless there’s something happening above the subject’s head.
However, when taking a close up shot focusing on a detail on the face (such as eyes), then it’s acceptable to chop of parts of the head to in order to get close enough to get the shot you want.
The same rule apply to other subjects, living or inanimate.
The most obvious factor of them all-- picture quality. This is mostly dependent on the specifications of the phone’s camera, but there are also some other contributing factors to picture quality.
First, let’s look at…
The most important thing is the size of your mobile camera’s image sensor. Smartphone image sensors are notoriously small, though some that are bit bigger than others. Smartphone cameras with bigger sensors usually outperform ones with small sensors.
A popular camera spec that speaks to picture quality is the megapixels. The more megapixels your phone’s camera has, the more detailed the image it produces. Also, the larger you can print your shots in high quality.
For a list of smartphones with high megapixel cameras (some as high as 108MP!), check out this list.
However, don’t fall for all the hype around megapixels. You can read the truth about megapixels here.
While of the subject of megapixels, the size of each pixel matters. The bigger the pixel, the more light can be captured by the pixel’s photosites. This means better performance, especially when there’s poor lighting.
There are several other smartphone camera specs that contribute to picture quality such as the quality of the lens, the aperture, optical zoom (versus digital zoom), and others. You can read about them all in great detail here.
Exposure is key to great photos. Underexposed shots are really underwhelming, and overexposed shots result in loss of detail in the highlights.
If you’re shooting in Auto mode, the camera will automatically adjust the picture’s exposure accordingly. Most of the time the camera does this adequately but it can get it wrong, especially when it’s analyzing the entire scene to calculate the ideal exposure settings.
If you feel like the exposure could go up or down a notch, you can adjust the Exposure Value (EV) in your camera app, if it has this feature. You can also opt to use spot or centre-weighted metering.
These two settings are part of what’s known as the Exposure Triangle, which you need to be very familiar with if you’re going to take pictures in Manual mode.
If your camera app doesn’t have a Manual (or Pro) mode, then you may need to download a good third-party camera app.
ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor to light. Adjusting shutter speed determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. These two settings (together with aperture) can get you really well-exposed shots.
However, as already mentioned, you need to be familiar with ISO and shutter speed because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could easily ruin a potentially good photo.
Which brings me to my next point…
No Noise or blur
So, increasing the ISO level can brighten your photos, which is a good thing. However, too much of a good thing can be bad. The more you increase the ISO, the more you’ll start to notice noise in your pictures.
To avoid this, pay attention to the photo as you increase the ISO level. If you start noticing noise, set the ISO back to a level where noise is not apparent.
I can’t say at which ISO value is ideal because the point at which noise becomes visible differs from camera to camera. You’ll need to play around with your camera app to figure it out.
You may find that your picture is still underexposed after setting ISO to a decent, noiseless level. If that's the case, you can try any of these other ways to improve the brightness of your photos especially in low light without introducing noise.
One of the ways you can do so is to slow down the shutter speed to give the sensor more time to absorb light.
The problem with this is that it can cause your photos to be blurry. If the sensor is set to receive light over a longer period of time, any movement of the camera will be recorded.
This results in pictures that aren’t clear, and it can create a ‘ghosty’ effect in your shots. The slower the shutter speed, the brighter the image becomes but also the blurrier it can get.
The best way to avoid any camera movement if your shutter is set to a slow speed is to keep your shots steady. You can do this by resting your arms or phone against something that will keep your hands from shaking.
My advise is that you use a camera support system such as a tripod. It is an inexpensive investment that will definitely change your smartphone photography game for the better. Just make sure you get a reliable, top-quality smartphone mount to go with it.
If you don't already own a tripod, I recommend you do so for very good reasons. But first, you need to consider these important points before you invest in one. This will help you get the right tripod for your phone and your needs.
However, it’s not just a slow shutter speed and shaky camera that can cause your images to be blurry. I have written an article about what causes blur and possible solutions for it. I recommend you give it a read through, should you be experiencing problems with constantly blurry photos from your phone.
Although this point pretty much falls under the blur issue mentioned above, it deserves its own special mention. This is because even though using a tripod can curb blur caused by movement when using a slow shutter speed, if the focus is off, your picture will be blurry.
Focus can be set automatically by smartphones, and they can do that pretty well. However, sometimes the phone can get it wrong. This is especially true in low light situations, depending on the type of focus your mobile device employs.
Focus can also be adjusted manually by means of a slider in your camera app. This can come in handy when the phone camera struggles with focusing automatically for whatever reason. The sharper the focus, the better the photo.
A lot of people rely on editing to make their photos look great, which is not entirely a bad thing. After all, that is what editing is for. However, great care should be taken when editing to avoid potentially ruining what could have been a great photo.
Think of editing as spice for your food. No matter how much spice you add to badly prepared food, you cannot make a terrible meal taste any better. In fact, you might make everything even worse by adding more.
The same applies to photos. You cannot make a bad photo look good by just slapping filters and effects onto it. Oftentimes, the best editing is minimal and subtle. You just need to capture great visuals first.
Of course, what type of editing is required and how much of it needs to be done all depends on the image you have captured. Use your own discretion to determine what looks good and avoid overkill.
Adhering to everything that I’ve already mentioned will put you well on your way to taking really fantastic photos with your phone. But if you want to take your photos to the next level, you have to inject some creativity into your work.
Creativity can be applied anywhere. You can be creative with the subject you choose to shoot, and how you photograph them. You can use shadows and lighting to create mood and capture some really captivating photographs.
It’s all about thinking outside the box. For example, instead of taking a photo of an everyday subject straight on, consider different angles from above, below, the side, etc. Unique perspectives usually result in very interesting pictures. Using reflections can also add a bit of an edge to your photos, too.
Creativity is also about breaking the rules. As much as these rules give guidelines on how to frame and compose your shots, you are free to do whatever you want. However, you need to understand and respect the rules before you can break them.
Creativity doesn’t happen by chance, it’s art. But, unfortunately, creativity cannot be taught. It’s innate-- it should come naturally.
If you feel like you’re not the creative type, it’s not the end of the world. Creative as I’d like to think I am, I feel like there are other people in the world that are far more creative than I am, and their work shows it. But that doesn’t worry me, nor should it worry you.
If you’re not all that creative, then find inspiration from those who are. Look at other people’s work you admire, and analyse it. Look at how they use lighting in their shots. Study how they compose their shots, and do the same.
But don’t just copy others, add your own flavour to it. Take one thing and do it differently. You may apply your own way of using colour or texture, for example. It may take time but you’ll find your own voice.
Creativity can also be applied when you edit. If you use a pro-level photo editing app like Snapseed, there’s almost no limit to what you can do to make your images look exactly the way you want them to. If you have access to desktop software such as Photoshop, you can even do super cool effects like surreal photography and photo blending.
At the end of the day, creativity is subjective. Do with it what makes sense to you.
This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things that make a photo look good. However, I personally feel that it covers the basics. By mastering these basics, your photos will surely improve. And the only way to master these basics is to practice, practice, and practice some more.