10 Tips to Taking Instagram Worthy Photos with your Phone

The built in camera on your phone means never having to miss that perfect shot again. If you’re like me, your phone is the one thing you never leave home without.

Thanks to the incredible built in cameras, your phone can take amazing photos with very little tweaking. No fiddling with lens or settings, just snap and shoot! A few extra hints will help you take a great shot the first time.

These beginner basic tips are designed to get you thinking about a shot before you take it. Once you’re aware of what to look for before you press the button, your photography will improve like crazy. 

  • Frame your shot by picking the focal point first
  • Consider where the light is coming from, always have it behind you
  • Take advantage of vertical and horizontal shots to get the best angle
  • Avoid digital zoom, use optical zoom if available
  • Focus on using the foreground as your subject
  • Be willing to be patient to get the right shot
  • Take multiple shots to try different viewpoints
  • Get people smiling with a simple funny question
  • Utilize timers and tripods especially for portraits
  • Closeups are the best way to shoot food and detail

10 Tips to get memorable photos with your Phone

1. Framing Your Shot

The first step to making your photo memorable is composing the shot in your viewfinder. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do you want the viewers eye to go
  • What’s the most important focal point to capture

Framing tips:

  • Crop out undesirable distractions like garbage cans, signs and extra people
  • People in the distance can give context

Try and crop your photo before you take it. In this photo the small red sailboat has been framed by the bridge and the river. Those elements are important to create a story for the boat, who’s sailing it and where they might be going.

Here’s a literal frame! This open window was an invitation to take a street shot from a different angle. 

TIP: Frame your picture by thinking about what will capture the moment


2. Consider Light Source

Consider the light source

After framing your shot, lighting is the single most important element to get right. It will make the difference between a sharp image or a blurry dark one. 

A full proof method is to always have your light source behind you when taking photos. You’ll never get a great photo shooting into the light. Take advantage of cloudy days or days without full sunshine to avoid shadows and light blowout.

The right lighting flatters your people shots too. Your subjects will thank you!  Indoors use natural light behind you to shoot a portrait that illuminates the face. 

 In this example, you can see the sun flare in the upper left corner, making the foreground dark and blurry.

Example of shooting into the sun

In this shot below the sun was setting behind me and cast the perfect warm glow over this beachside scene illuminating the houses and the beach. Taking a photo at this time of day can be much more effective than trying during the day when the sun is much brighter.

At the end of the day shadows are softer and details stand out like these oyster shells in the foreground.

Example of shooting away from the sun

TIP: Have any source of light behind you, whether a cloudy or sunny day.


3. Use Vertical & Horizontal Mode

Take photos with your phone in horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait) mode to try  different perspectives. Especially helpful if you’re posting to Instagram’s square format.

Sometimes you can squeeze in more of the scene or frame with a horizontal shot. Other times you need that extra vertical space to make sure you capture the sky and the ground in front of your focal point.

Typically landscape photos are best for … landscapes, long views, scenery and sea and mountain shots.

Vertical views suit people portraits, closeups and single objects or focal points you want to frame. 

Which perspective did you think worked best for this beach scene?

Vertical or portrait shot
Horizontal or landscape shot

TIP: Try both landscape and vertical shots to capture all perspectives.

4. Avoid Digital Zoom

Why is digital zoom bad? Most phone cameras allow you to zoom into a subject – make it larger – by magnification technology or digital zoom. But blowing up part of the image by increasing the size of the pixels results in a lower quality image. 

It’s similar to editing an image in photo editing software. Let’s say you’re editing a photo you shot on your phone and it’s 72 ppi (pixels per inch), fine for online or screen use.

But if you want to print a photo it usually requires an image with a higher resolution, of at least 300 ppi, to render a sharp crisp image on paper.

If you simply edit the 72 ppi up to 300 ppi you’re stretching a low resolution image to fill a higher file size. You haven’t actually made the image a higher resolution. You’ve just taken the 72 pixels and blown them up to 300.

72 ppi resolution is standard for online use

So it’s not worth it to try and enlarge an image digitally if the pixels aren’t there to support it.

Digital zoom does come in handy to temporarily zoom in on something in the distance to view it before you take your shot. But it’s not a good method to take a closeup from a distance.

Optical zoom will give you better results. Optical zoom uses a different lens to allow you to actually change the focal length between you and your camera and what you’re zooming in on.

Some new phones have built in optical zoom. I wanted to upgrade to the iPhone X for this reason, unfortunately the phone is just too big for my hands to hold safely!

TIP: If your only option is digital zoom, discover other ways of shooting your closeups.

5. Focus on the Foreground

Not quite a closeup but not a background shot, focusing on what’s in the foreground highlights your subject while keeping the background part of the frame.

When the foreground and backdrop relate they make for a more dramatic shot. Think of it as working together to tell a whole story. 

Here the fishing boat is in the foreground and the harbor is the background. We get to see where the boat docks and by seeing it surrounded by other boats, the blue sky, the buildings in the distance we see that this is an active working harbor.  

This bronze status is perched on a wall in front of a beautiful stone building. The statue is the main focal point of course but the surroundings give us some clues as to where this man may have been from. We see him clearly enough to know his clothes are from another time. 

The focus of this shot below is the bank of roses but we can clearly see the castle just behind them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    What story is this photo telling? It invites you in and makes you wonder what’s behind this building and how big is the castle we can see peeking around it. 

TIP: Try focusing on something in the foreground that adds visual interest and tells a story


6. Have Patience

Sometimes the best shots are taken on the fly, but others require a little patience. Walking along this river I noticed two white swans both bobbing for food. 

I was waiting for them to not only swim closer together so I could get them both in the shot but I wanted a least one to have their head out of the water. 

I experimented with taking vertical and horizontal or landscape shots. I was trying to get both swans in my frame with the backdrop of the historic buildings. The buildings give context to where the swans where swimming and add a lot of visual detail don’t you think? 

If I had zoomed in on the swans I would have lost the buildings.

A closeup of the swans would have been nice, but having the colorful stone buildings as a backdrop tells a complete story and helps me remember the day and place I took the photos.

TIP: Be willing to wait and keep taking shots until you get what you want 


7. Take Multiples

Don’t just take horizontal and vertical shots, try taking different angles too. 

When capturing this street scene I tried to visually crop out signs and people as much as possible to let the street take center stage and create a mood. 

Taken from center of bridge but signage in the way
Taken from same location but turned left to crop out signage

I kept changing the angle slightly until I got most of what I wanted into the photo while cropping out signs. 

Same location but walked closer to get more of lamp and building

You never know until you get home and look at your photos on your laptop or computer which photo will best reflect what you were trying to catch.

This is especially true when taking photos of family and friends. Not everyone will be looking at the camera at the same time especially if you’re taking pics of kids.

TIP: Try taking different shots from different angles to give yourself options.


8. Get a Smile

Talking of people shots, it’s good to have a go to “line”  to relax your subjects. The last thing you want is forced expressions or fake smiles!

Saying “cheese” is a classic but try out different banter for different groups. A little humor helps to make everyone relax and break into a smile.

Keep the mood light. Take your shots as quickly and painlessly as possible so kids or their parents won’t start fidgeting before you get the shot.

You can’t go wrong by flattering your subjects first to get them relaxed and in a good mood. Warm them up by chatting naturally so they forget they’re going to get their picture taken.

“So all of you lovely people are looking so fantastically gorgeous today! What’s your secret?”

While they’re thinking of the answer, jump in and ask them to say “funny money” for you then take your shots.

Those two words will make their mouths form in a more natural shape than “cheese” and the idea will tickle their funny bone too which should help the happy looks last longer.

TIP: Lighten up the mood first before you start taking group or people pics.

9. Use a Tripod and Timer

The next step up from a selfie stick is getting one with a tripod function. 

A selfie stick with tripod gives you the option of taking posed shots inside or out. Perfect for taking some professional looking shots for your Linkedin profile or a family get together.

Some selfie sticks come with a mini remote control that you pair with your camera phone through Bluetooth. The idea is you can take the remote in your hand and click from anywhere within range to take your photo.

I’ve found that using the camera’s timer function is less fiddly and gives the same result as a remote.

Another advantage to using a tripod is it allows you to use the back camera to take photos instead of the front facing “selfie” camera. The back camera has almost twice as many megapixels to take a better quality shot.

Use a tripod with a timer to help the phone stay completely still with no shaking.

Attach your phone to the tripod slot. Check in the preview screen that you’ll be able to fit everyone in the shot.

On iPhone where you set the timer to 5 or 10 seconds

Set the timer for 5 or 10 seconds. I use 10 seconds for posed selfies or group shots to allow enough time to pose. 

Press the shutter or camera button.

The camera will blink rapidly while it takes a burst of 10 photos. Once the blinking stops, your photo is ready to view. 

The burst mode takes 10 shots and the Photos app chooses the best one. You can delete any extras you don’t need to save space on your phone.

TIP – Use a timer with a tripod to take better selfies

10. When to Take a Closeup

Sometimes a closeup is the best way to capture a moment or a place. Taking a shot of a distant mountain range covered in snow may seem dramatic when you see it with your eyes. But squeezed into a small image, it can lose it’s grandeur. 

Instead a closeup of a snow covered tree with the mountains in the background makes you feel the cold, see how white the snow is and gives you context to focus on.

Would you rather take an amazing closeup or a meh long distance shot. It’s a lot easier to get a great closeup with a phone camera than a landscape shot. Although I’ve taken some amazing nature shots with my iPhone, phones naturally excel at closeups.

A closeup is the best option for; people, nature, animals, food, to capture a mood, and symbols

Framing is especially important with closeups. When you decide on your closeup subject walk right up to it. In this example, the historic marker is easy to read and is framed by the stone its mounted on with no other distractions.

By focusing just on the marker, you can see the texture of the metal, read the words clearly and almost feel the age of it because you’re so close.  

Food closeups naturally focus on the food alone, because that’s your subject. Unless the plate or dish it’s on adds to the composition, it’s better to just get in as tight as you can.

Notice how you can almost see the texture of the custard tart? You can imagine yourself taking a bite of this because it’s in your face and you can almost taste it.

In this shot, I wanted to focus on the seagulls. Ideally I would have only had beach and sky as their backdrop, but because of where the light source – sun – I was limited to the angle I could take it from. I couldn’t quite crop out the people.

The best I could do was get as close in to take their picture as I could. But by making this photo about the gulls they become the important focal point. You’re not trying to show the whole beach experience, just one piece of it.

Now for a people shot. Although you’re aware of the background, it’s not meant to be important in this closeup photo. With a portrait the focus should be on the subject and getting that lighting and expression just right so the viewer can see clearly what their mood might be.

You should be able to see the expression in the eyes and what kind of smile is playing on their lips. Your closeup should tell a little story about that moment in that persons life.

TIP: Use a closeup when you really want to get to know a subject

Taking photos and especially videos devours memory, so find a way to keep your phone charged while shooting. A dead or low battery could ruin a perfect shot. 

Don’t forget to pack a back up power supply or your phone’s power cord for the car or train if you’re going to be away for the day.

Now you’ve got some beginner photography tips to practice, don’t be afraid of deleting photos that don’t make the cut. Scroll through your photos in a week or so and trash the practice shots. Helps to conserve memory on your phone and in iCloud too.

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