One day, far into the future, digital archaeologists will dig through layers of Internet topsoil and come upon a point in human history flooded by terrible brunch photos. The ubiquity of cameras means everyone is now a photographer, to the degree that knowing the alphabet makes any 7-year-old a novelist.
In terms of megapixels, your iPhone camera is ahead of the $100 PowerShot you packed to Good Charlotte concerts in middle school. What’s more, the cost barrier to real cameras, like, badass-detachable-lens-DSLR-catch-a-hummingbird-in-flight cameras, is lower than ever.
So, how do you differentiate yourself from the pack and sow your Instagram or Flickr with beautiful images? Consider this your free photography primer. Class is in session.
If there’s one principle that will make your photos dramatically better, it’s how you frame your subject.
There’s this thing called the rule of thirds. Imagine your screen or viewfinder is cut by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, making four intersection points around a central box. Actually, most cameras (real and mobile) have an option for this viewfinder to actually appear.
Our natural tendency is to put photo subjects in that center box. But our natural tendencies produce bad photos. Offset your subject by putting them on one of those four intersections. And any lines, like the horizon, tops of buildings, or somebody’s eye level should go on one of the horizontal thirds - not the center.
Shots composed like this are much more pleasing to the eye. Look at award-winning photographs. Subjects rarely occupy the middle of the frame, unless they’re staring straight at the lens.
So, if you’re not centering, where should the extra room go? Great question. Give your subject more room in the direction action is happening. If a person is facing to the right on your screen, give more space to the right. If someone is throwing a ball, give more room in front of them than behind. This relieves tension for the viewer.
In essence, photography uses light to print an image onto film or a computer chip. Just like with your eye, everything in the photo depends on the available light. Use it to your advantage. Natural light will make your photos awesome.
Rule of thumb: When using the sun as your light source, stand between it and your subject, and allow the sun to hit the subject at an oblique angle. This will give you a nice profile with some shadow instead of a flat, washed-out image.
Oh, and let's get one thing out of the way right now about mobile photography: stop using your stupid flash. It will never, ever, ever, make a picture better. If you’re in a dark restaurant, don’t use your flash. If you’re at a concert at midnight, don’t use your flash. If you were with Bane in the black prison hole in the third Batman movie and you wanted to take a selfie, you’d still ruin it by using your flash.
The flash on your phone or even the one attached to the top of your DSLR basically gives you an unregulated burst of light. It is why every picture you’ve ever taken after 9 p.m. looks like a crime scene photo. Instead, try to use whatever light is available to make the picture happen. This is a lot easier with DSLRs because you can alter shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (more on those later).
Tip: If your food is so gorgeous that you must snap a picture of it, instead of using your cell flash, have a friend shine their mobile flashlight through a napkin (acting as an impromptu diffuser) and take a flash-less photo, or have them bounce it off a white plate, onto the food while you shoot. Both of these methods soften the light, and therefore, the contrast on the photo.
The Technical Stuff
Okay, all the aforementioned tips are applicable to any level of photography, including mobile. But assuming you have or may someday have a camera with changeable settings, you’ll want to be familiar with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
This is how fast the shutter moves to capture your image. We’ll wait while you let that bit of hidden knowledge soak in.
Despite being obvious, it’s pretty important. The faster the shutter moves, the more instantaneous your picture. Or, the slower it moves, the more blur in your picture. Sports photos = crazy fast shutter speed, like thousandths of a second. Cityscape images with the headlights all blurring into colorful rails of light = very slow shutter speed.
The thing is that the lower your shutter speed, the brighter your picture because there’s more time for light to enter your lens. That’s the trade-off. So if you’re in a dark room, not using your flash, you’ll probably need a lower shutter speed, but may wind up with some blurry images since even slight movements of the camera can show up when the picture takes longer to capture.
This measures the opening in the camera behind the shutter that allows light to hit the computer chip. It also controls something called depth of field, which defines how much of your photo will be in focus (as opposed to being blurry).
Aperture is measured in something called F-stops. The higher the F-stop, the darker the image and the greater the depth of field. So, for example, f/8 is a long depth of field and needs more lighting, either by the sun, or artificial means. f/2.8 is a shorter depth of field, but performs better in low light.
So for landscapes, where you want a lot in focus, you want that f/8 (or something similar). Portraits (yes, including selfies) need a shorter depth of field and more light, so you'd go with the f/2.8.
The base level of light hitting your image sensor. It determines what you do next with shutter speed and aperture. Higher ISO means you can use higher shutter speeds, meaning less blur. Good, right?
Well, here's the trade-off: Higher ISOs mean more noise in the image. When you see a lot of reddish-purple grains in your image, that’s a too-high ISO. ISO 100 is a base level. A lot of people just leave it on the auto setting.
Photographing Your Significant Other
Okay, just a parting word of advice. Most of the time, pictures aren’t as flattering as we’d like them to be. Let me rephrase. Most of the time, pictures aren’t as flattering as your girlfriend or boyfriend would like them to be, and that’s your fault. Keep the both of you happy by learning how to do it better.
Whenever possible, shoot at a downward angle. This accentuates things like nice cheekbones, catchlights in the eyes from the sun, and carefully crafted hairstyles. An upward angle, on the other hand draws out such desirable features as the double chin, the protruding stomach, and the flared nostril. Your call.
Also, people look better when you shoot them at an angle instead of straight-on. This highlights their profile — the contours of their face, the subtle shadows on their skin — instead of flattening them out.
And finally, when doing the infamous couple-selfie, make sure you and your SO look at the little lens instead of the big screen. Otherwise your gaze will be slightly and annoyingly off-center, like something caught your attention at the last second.
So there you have it. Put those into practice, and the Instagram likes and Facebook compliments will start rolling in. You’re an artist now, just like Ansel Adams. Only difference is that instead of gallery exhibitions, you parlay your art for electronic affirmation on social media. Nothing wrong with that.