Better Phone Photography

Don Orkoskey | June 22, 2020

Thank you for your interest in our Better Phone Photography Workshop. This is a companion article focused on the items we discuss in class. The goal of this article and the workshop is to help you take better photos with your phone. Learn to get the most out of your phone’s camera. Understand the limitations of phone photography and learn how to push the boundaries. The lessons from this class transfer to larger more complex cameras and serve as a great foundation for better photography with your phone or with more advanced cameras.


Exposure is the recording of light on a photographic surface. In phone photography that surface is a digital camera sensor. The amount of light and how we focus it onto the sensor are critical to the end result. We use a lens to help focus the light and we use a measure of time to limit the amount of light that strikes the sensor.

A photographic exposure is made by capturing light on a sensitive surface. In fact we can can make exposures without a lens. Our skin is photo sensitive and tan-lines are an example of creating an exposure without a lens or even a camera.

Mastering the art of photography requires understanding the technical aspects of exposure. Learning to manipulate light via changes to your exposure settings allows you to create the image that you wish to create. Some of those settings can’t be changed in our phone but learning about them is still important. This will allow us to transfer our knowledge to cameras that do allow us to change these settings.


In larger cameras you would also have a diaphragm inside the lens with an aperture that helps control the amount of light that strikes the sensor. Camera phones have a fixed aperture. As a result we’re limited to controlling our exposure by varying time. The aperture also helps control the depth of field which is a area in front of and behind what we’re focusing on that is acceptably sharp. Smartphones with their fixed aperture can only change the depth of field by focusing on items closer and further from the camera itself. The closer you focus the narrower the depth of field becomes.

Shutter Speed

The time of our exposure is referred to as the shutter speed. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, (1/2, 1/4, .. 1/30, 1/60, 1/120, 1/250). Camera phones have an electronic shutter. This means that the sensor is turned on then back off in those fractions of a second. In larger cameras there is a physical barrier in front of the sensor that prevents light from striking the sensor. This barrier is moved or opened for the length of the exposure.


There is one more setting that affects exposure; ISO. Your ISO is a measure of the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. It works by turning on or off individual pixels. The higher your ISO the more sensitive your camera is and the lower the level of light needed to make a good exposure becomes. However high ISO will result in digital noise, or grain. At a really high ISO this noise shows up as colorful static.


Better Phone Photos Night

Composition is the arrangement of elements in a work of art or media. Once you understand the technical aspects of photography you can begin to control our composition. Composition relies on the frame which contains and constrains your work. You can crop your photos to different sizes however they’re most often displayed in some sort of rectangle. Understanding these limitations and working within them gives us the framework to use geometry to create interesting images.

Composition is how we imply a sense of order in our photos. It’s how we tell a coherent story to our viewer. If we want to communicate a clear message composition is critical to that clarity.

Composition Tools

The following are a few commonly employed photography composition tools that you can use to make better phone photographs:

  • The Rule of Thirds – divide your frame in 3rd both vertically and horizontally. Put items of interest on or along these lines. Our brains find images more comfortable when we see things in the center of an image. Moving them to these lines, or lines of 5th even can create a sense of unbalance that our brains wish to see corrected.
  • Symmetry – The opposite of the rule of thirds is creating symmetrical balance in your image by center weighting it or by dividing it directly in half. This can be a comforting or even powerful statement but it can also be boring so be careful.
  • Guiding Lines – Using lines to guide the viewer through an image can help keep or move their attention where you want it. These can be implied lines such as those given by the shape of objects in the frame. They can be explicit such as lines on a road, power lines, or designs in textiles.
  • Shapes – Creating strong shapes (triangles, rectangles framing the subject within the frame, etc) work the same way that lines do by guiding the viewer to what you wish to call their attention to. These can also show perspective, scale, or can suggest harmony or discord.

There is a lot of information on the internet about photography composition for those interested in reading more. Additionally we are planning a composition class for later this year. Please check back here for more information.

Photography & Design Principles

In addition to composition there are photography and design principles that can help us to better communicate our intentions or the message of our photograph. These principles have been used throughout the history of art. In a way they are the foundation of the language of visual arts such as painting and photography. There are competing schools of thought as to how many principles there are, how they’re defined, and how they’re applied. Most photography educators focus on between 7 and 12 key design principles but they don’t always agree on which of those are foundational. Here are a few sample lists from around the internet. Understanding these will help your photography composition and story telling to be more clear.

  • rhythm, emphasis, unity and movement, balance, pattern, and contrast
  • Emphasis, Balance and Alignment, Contrast, Repetition, Proportion, Movement and White Space
  • Contrast, Balance, Emphasis, Movement, White Space, Proportion, Hierarchy, Repetition, Rhythm, Pattern, Unity, and Variety
  • B& patterns, texture, symmetry, asymmetry, depth of field, lines, curves, frames, contrast, color, viewpoint, depth, negative space, filled space, foreground, background, visual tension, shapes

As you can see there are many overlapping principles but the order and at times the principle themselves are disputed. Like language the more fluent you become in each of these principles the clearer the message you can create with your photos. I recommend taking them one at a time and spending a week or more creating dozens or even hundreds of photos that focus on one photography design principle each. Train your brain, eyes, and muscles to incorporate these principles and your photography work will shine.

Phone Photography Restrictions

Phone photography comes with a lot of restrictions. Using a fixed aperture means that we can’t control our depth of field. Objects we don’t want to be in focus might be and objects we want in focus might not be. Changing our angle can help with this. We can get closer to our subject or we can move so we’re looking at the subject from a different place to eliminate things from our background or foreground but sometimes we don’t have those choices. We also need to back up if we want more things in focus than what we’re getting but that can sometimes make our subject appear smaller than we want.

Our electronic shutter might take a while to turn on costing us an action photo. Our shutter speed is often slow as a result of our fixed small aperture. As a result action is hard to capture and low light photography requires an extra steady hand as anyone who has ever taken a bathroom selfie can attest to.

Phone Photography Advantages

Phone photography has some big advantages. We take our phone everywhere and the old saying holds, the best camera is the one you have with you. Our phones are also more discrete allowing us to sneak candid photos without being noticed. They can also fit into smaller places and because their lenses are often close to the edge of the phone they can be placed close to surfaces and can create compelling images as a result. They can often focus on objects much closer to the lens than a larger camera can due to the proximity of the sensor.

There are fewer moving parts. This allows smartphones to be lighter, more compact, and sturdier. The small size of our smartphones make them easier to hold for long periods of time. The ability to quickly switch from video to photo and to take photos and video at the same time makes them a convenient tool if we’re doing both.

As people rely on their phone cameras more and more manufacturers are making them better and better. They are getting faster, better in low light conditions, coming with different built-in lenses allowing for different types of photos. They’re getting smarter in their ability to read a scene and create a proper exposure. The dynamic range of smartphone cameras is also growing. These advancements push not only phone cameras but they also lead to these advancements being transferred to larger cameras thanks to the smartphone’s consumer demand.

Phone Photography Modifiers

Phone photography has limitations but thanks to the explosion of phone photography modifiers you can now do more than ever. For only a few dollars you can add telephoto, fish-eye, or macro lenses onto the end of your phone camera giving you more options for what you’re photographing.

There are even off-camera-flash systems coming onto the market for smartphones. These allow you to add additional light to your scene. The results are more interesting phone photos. Coupling off-camera-flash and a clip-on lens modifier gives you the power to control your phone photography like never before.

Software Modifications

Thanks to software modifications add-on hardware modifiers are not the only means of adding extra control. Many smartphones offer us some level of exposure control through a manual or “pro” mode. If your camera doesn’t you can download a 3rd party camera app that will give you some extra control. Being able to set your shutter speed can allow you to blur motion or even freeze it. Some even allow you to save your photos in a RAW image format which allows you to edit them without losing details.

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