These days, smartphone photography is the only photography that many people know about. But for others, it’s simply another medium to express themselves in. That’s the case for acclaimed National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez, who we talked with to get his take on the best smartphone photography tips and mistakes to avoid. After all, if you can’t take advice from someone who’s photographed rain forests, caves, jungles, and, currently, the seven wonders of the world on different types of Lumias, who can you trust?
Most of Alvarez’s tips were given during a recent trip to Alaska that I went with on with Microsoft. As someone who’s lived most of her life with a camera phone and used to think someday I’d be a photographer, I definitely take these tips to heart and think you will, too. All the photos ahead were either shot on a Lumia 640 XL or iPhone 5C — try and see if you can spot the difference!
For starters, think about how you’re framing your photo. “Pay attention to the frame, what’s in the frame, and what’s out of it,” says Alvarez. “Just by moving the center of your frame a bit, it can become better.”
Your smartphone can go places nothing else can. “Shoot everywhere! It’s a phone and doesn’t weigh anything,” says Alvarez. “You can shoot perspective you’d never see. You can put the camera in places you can never get a big camera — take advantage of that.”
Take a ton of photos and play with your settings, he advises. “The basic mistake [that most people do] is that people see something they like and take a photo and walk away,” says Alvarez. “You can experiment with ISO, exposure, and shutter speeds to let more light in — especially when the light gets weird. That does require a lot of experimentation and that means shooting a lot. It just requires a lot of images to get one that’s sharp, so shoot and shoot and shoot.”
“Images are poems. They hit you emotionally first and that’s why we love and cherish them,” says Alvarez. “But those poems are entirely constructed out of light, so you have to pay attention to what the light falls on.”
And if you’re a fan of sunsets and that lighting, start taking your photos during the new golden hour. “The new golden hour is the time after the sun goes down but before it gets dark. There’s still light in the sky, still blue, and a mix of colors. It’s the new time to shoot with smartphones because it performs well after the sun goes down.”
“It’s a communication device,” says Alvarez. “Not only do you have a great camera in your hand, but you have a great platform. You can use the images and the ability to share it and reinforce relationships. Making a photograph of someone is a great way to know a person.”
Think about what you want to remember seeing. “[People] just want to record the thing and not think about what they see. But just by using one of these tips, they can make an image that is worth remembering.”
That also means you shouldn’t settle for a far-away photo. “In general, people don’t get close enough and you can always get closer.”
“People show too many photographs on social media,” says Alvarez. “Show one photo, not all photos of an event.”
“The best camera in the world is the one in your hand,” says Alvarez. “And for most of us, it’s going to be a phone. Images are moments and they happen and if you don’t have a camera, you don’t have a photograph.”
He says certain things are too personal to be photographed with a DSLR, which is why smartphone cameras are so important — they let you explore your life in a way you wouldn’t normally. “Using a phone is very natural and lets you keep a visual diary and go back and see what you were thinking about and interested in.”