How To Take Excellent, Customized Photographs With Just a Smartphone
by Pam Neely last updated on 0

How To Take Excellent, Customized Photographs With Just a Smartphone

Have you heard of “The Visual Web?” It refers to how the Internet is becoming an increasingly image-based medium, rather than a text-based medium. Aside from selfies, there are plenty of reasons why the web is becoming more and more visual. For starters, our brains are wired to prefer images. We process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. 90% of the information sent to our brains is visual. So it’s no surprise we also tend to share images online far more readily than text. Most of us prefer to look at an infographic rather than to read an article.

If you’re trying to promote yourself or a business or a product, and you’re stuck with using only words, you’re not getting anywhere near the results you could be getting. Images get attention.

But most of us are actually pretty good at using images. Anyone who’s done social media marketing has learned how much of a lift they can get with the right image. And it’s increasingly rare to see a blog post that has no images. There are whole platforms now that are image-based, like Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube, not to mention the number of images on Facebook and Twitter.

But which images do most people use? Unfortunately, that’s where some of us are missing the boat. Too many marketers reach for stock photos for their images, or head to the copyright free image sites. That’s not a terrible thing (the image above is from the marvelous copyright free image site, But it’s a missed opportunity. And when too many marketers use the same image over and over again, it can be downright embarrassing.

So what’s the alternative? Well, the best marketers and high-end ad agencies make a point of avoiding stock photos. They can afford to go out and hire professional photographers. They do full-scale photo shoots.

The rest of us? Well, not too many of us can afford a photo shoot. Especially just for a blog post image. Or can we?

The truth is, taking your own photos is not terribly time consuming, and it doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to cost much money, either. You don’t need a thousand-dollar camera to take surprisingly nice photos. In face, most of you probably have all the camera you need. It’s your phone.

With a little knowledge and a few choice apps, and maybe one or two pieces of gear, your phone can take original, good-quality images. Maybe even surprisingly good images. Being able to do that opens up a whole world of expression for you, whether you’re a blogger, a consultant, or a small business.

To give you a little confidence to try your hand at photos, I’ve collected a few simple tips for taking better photographs, plus a few ideas for what to photograph. None of these tips require any advanced skills. While there are a few things you could buy, nothing costs much more than $50, and none of it’s required. So give this a read and try even one or two of the ideas mentioned here. Then get ready to be free from stock photo addiction.

How to take excellent photos with just a smartphone:

  1. Crop rather than zoom.
  2. Don’t be afraid to get up close.
  3. Try out panorama.
  4. Try HDR Mode.
  5. Try some image editing apps.
  6. Accept that controlling background or foreground blur is hard.
  7. Don’t use the flash.
  8. Use natural light… or fake it.
  9. Invest in a lens kit.
  10. Keep it clean.
  11. Use the rule of thirds.


Three Ideas For What To Photograph

1) Just write.

I’m pretty sure I can say that everyone reading this has enough creative skills to write out a headline on a piece of paper.

This is so simple it might seem obvious, but a handwritten headline can be more interesting than you’d think. Your handwriting says all kinds of things about you – there’s a reason there’s a whole field of study dedicated to handwriting analysis. No one will ever make a digital typeface that’s as interesting as your handwriting.

Take this a step further: You don’t have to write with just pen and paper. Consider crayons, markers, paint and brushes. Even whiteboards.

Example of customized photographs from uses whiteboard illustrations uses whiteboard illustrations on a regular basis.


2) Draw something. Even if you draw badly.

People love cartoons. They love doodles. You don’t have to be Bill Watterson, the guy who created the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes to draw a usable image, or a cartoon, or even a squiggle.

Here’s an example of a drawing some people might call “bad”… but it is a perfectly serviceable drawing, and it is actually quite charming. It’s imperfection shows us far more than a stock photo ever could.

Example of customized photographs of drawing bad but still charming

Here’s another example. This is one of James Clear’s excellent illustrations:

Example of customized photographs from James Clear’s excellent illustrations

3) Find action figures.

Have you seen any of those photographs with Lego figures or army figures? Bloggers and marketers use them to illustrate a point. In a sense, the action figures end up being models in a very simple photo shoot.

If you’ve ever needed an excuse to play with toys again, here it is. There’s no reason at all you can’t create an image like this. Borrow a toy from your child, or go to a second hand store or a giveaway store (like a Goodwill store in the United States). Find a few small cheap toys that will suit your purpose.

You can also buy new action figures, like this set from Legos. It’s a little pricey at $47, but there are enough figures here to creatively illustrate dozens of blog posts.

Example of customized photographs of use Lego as an action figure

Tips To Take Good, If Not Great Photographs With Your Phone

1) Crop rather than zoom.

The zoom function on smartphone cameras is not your friend. Even a modest zoom creates a low-quality image. If you want a larger view of something, just take the photo then crop it down later in an image-editing app.

I broke this rule and used the zoom when I took this photo. The image quality suffered… but I didn’t have to go to the hospital. Next time I’ll skip the zoom and crop the image.

Example of customized photographs of zoom will have a bad quality


2) Don’t be afraid to get up close.

When it’s safe, smartphone cameras are pretty good at taking photos of things close up, even compared to super-expensive “real” cameras. This is because smartphones have small sensors that create what photographers call a wide depth of field.

A wide depth of field means you can get tiny objects in focus that more expensive cameras with larger sensors and longer lenses would have a hard time with. Some smartphones have a “macro” view or setting specifically for small objects.


3) Try out panorama.

This is a newish feature on iPhones, but many other smartphones have it. Discovering the panorama feature on my phone was actually what sparked this post. Panorama shots are well suited to blog post headers and Twitter and LinkedIn header images. Here’s a panorama photo I took recently at the National Gallery, in Washington DC:

Example of customized photographs of panorama shot from Washington DC


4) Try HDR Mode.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It’s a feature available on Samsung Galaxy phones and other devices.  HDR lets you get far more detail from shadows that you otherwise would see. It works by taking two photographs of the image, and merging them. The result is you can see into the shadows – and take far better photographs.


5) Try some image editing apps.

Almost no professional photographers use the filters a smartphone’s default camera app offers. They all download specific apps for editing photos. Then the photographers take their raw photos with their iPhone (or Android phone or Galaxy phone), and import them into the photo editing apps for improvements.

Here are some app suggestions for each kind of phone:

  • For Android devices: Camera Zoom FX
  • For Windows phones made by Nokia: Nokia Camera
  • For iOS devices: Camera+ and ProCamera. ClearCam for high resolution shots.

Take note: There are whole posts dedicated to the best apps for each kind of phone, and new apps come along all the time. I encourage you to do some research, try a bunch of apps, and see which ones work best for you.


6) Accept that controlling background or foreground blur is hard.

This is one thing smartphone cameras just aren’t good at. Because of that, there are some filters (and entire apps) that attempt to fake a blurry background or foreground. Use these at your peril – most photographers think they look awful… and most regular people do too.

This is the best I could do with a blurred foreground shot. This particular example is cheating a bit, because the “foreground” is all of two inches in front of the background.

Example of customized photographs of fake blurry background and foreground


7) Don’t use the flash.

Smartphone flash is another thing that’s not your friend. It almost always results in demon eyes in people, and the strips out highlights and creates shadows elsewhere. Even a strategically placed flashlight can sometimes do a better job than the flash.


8) Use natural light… or fake it.

Really want a fix for lighting? Go outdoors and find some bright but indirect light. Position yourself so the sun is behind you.

Or get yourself a proper light kit. There’s a really nice one available on Amazon for $54. That’s not cheap, but you’ll immediately take drastically better stills.

Example of customized photographs of try a light kit
There are also portable light sources for smartphones like the Mudder® Mini LED Light Portable Pocket Spotlight. They cost about $30. The reviews are mixed, but if you wanted something to carry in your pocket, and $30 fits your budget, it’s worth a try.


9) Invest in a lens kit.

There are entire blog posts written about which lens kit to pick, and the best lens kit depends on which phone you’ve got. The good news is they’re not terribly expensive, and they’re super portable – you can carry one around in a purse or backpack.

Expect to pay anywhere from $12 to $60 for a decent lens kit. Most kits include a fisheye, a wide angle and a macro lens. Be 100% sure whatever you get will fit on your phone, and your phone’s protective case.


10) Keep it clean.

A dirty camera lens can muss up weeks of photos. It’s really common to not even realize how dirty a lens is until you’ve cleaned it. A silk cloth is good for this – or whatever works well to clean your glasses.


11) Use the rule of thirds.

This is a composition rule that will make your photographs look more balanced and more visually interesting. The rule of thirds is to divide your image up into thirds, both by height and by width, like the image below. Then place points of interest in the photograph (or drawing, or painting) along the lines that create those thirds, especially where the lines intersect.

Example of customized photographs of use the rule of thirds
Once you know the rule of thirds, you’ll see it everywhere. Look for how people bend or even break the rule of thirds, sometimes to excellent effect.


Over to you

That’s my short list of essential tips for how to take better photographs with your smartphone, and how to break away from stock photo addiction.

What are your thoughts about creating your own photographs? Do you have a smartphone photography tip I didn’t include here? Let us know in the comments.

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