The ST Guide To... taking pictures with your mobile phone

Try unusual angles for a different perspective. Neo Xiaobin
Remembering a few quick guidelines can help you take better photos on your handphone. Neo Xiaobin
Remember the golden ratio to give your compositions interest. Neo Xiaobin
Be aware of lighting conditions when shooting. Neo Xiaobin
Watch out for candid moments when you are shooting a group of people. Neo Xiaobin

If you see photography as a documentation method, the mobile camera is probably one of the most commonly used tool today. People take pictures of the food they're eating, outfits they're wearing, things they see and random people they meet.

Through social sharing sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, the "documentation of everything" is a modern-day visual storytelling phenomenon.

Technology has improved tremendously over the years. Gone are the days of low-resolution pixelated phone images from which you can barely make out details. The barriers of entry for photography have decreased significantly since the start of the 21st century, so much so that amateurs can always have a camera in their hands.

However, the camera is just a tool. A good camera doesn't guarantee good photographs. It just guarantees high-resolution images and more control over image making, which is what professional photographers want.

You can have a high-end DSLR camera and still end up with poor pictures because there is a difference between making a picture and snapping a photograph. Everyone is a photographer nowadays, but making good pictures involves heart and time, as well as some creativity, fun and an eye for details.

The advantage of a mobile camera is that most of the "hard work" is handled automatically by the phone, so all you have to focus on are composition, light, and capturing good moments. It is also a lot less conspicuous than the bigger DSLR camera, which is a good thing when you want to be a fly on the wall.

Powerful visuals evoke emotions in people. They can disturb or intrigue you, make you laugh or cry, and generally want to know more about the story behind it. Techniques such as composition and lighting aside, people connect with genuine and candid moments that they can identify with. As a photographer, in order to tell a powerful story visually, you have to care about what you're shooting.

Ultimately, photography is a way of expressing yourself, documenting moments, and making memories.

Understanding what you can and cannot do with your mobile camera is a good start for photography lovers.

Here are some tips on making good pictures with your phone camera.

1. Understand the light

You want to be able to light your subject well, so you need to know the lighting situation you are in and be wary of putting subjects in shadows.

Avoid shooting into bright lights because you will end up with subjects that are silhouetted. If you are shooting a portrait, ask your subject to turn towards the light source instead of standing in front of it.

Some mobile cameras come with built-in flash, but they're usually not powerful enough if you are shooting from a distance. Direct flash from the mobile camera is also not very flattering because although it lights up your subject, it is a harsh and direct light that washes the subject out.

If you are indoors, turn on the lights. Or if you are in a dark area, you can always have some fun lighting your subject with artificial lighting from an angle, such as a powerful torch light or a phone with a good flashlight app.

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2. Control your exposure and focus

Your mobile camera automatically exposes for the environment in the frame, so you have to tap the subject that you are trying to shoot and let your mobile camera adjust accordingly to make sure that whatever you are photographing is in focus.

3. Learn basic rules of photography

The 'rule of thirds' state that you do not place your subject squarely in the middle of your frame but a third of the way in.

A subject in the middle of the frame looks static to the viewer. The eye is drawn to it and then has nowhere to go because the subject is equal distance from all sides. An off-centre composition is more pleasing to the eye and looks more natural.

The rule also encourages a photographer to make creative use of the space around his subject hence making a more interesting image.

Do not tilt your images unnecessarily. You don't want your viewers to have to tilt their heads just to see your picture properly. Keep your horizons and lines straight. Make sure that you keep your phone steady when you take the pictures to ensure they are sharp and clear.

4. Break conventions and experiment

Basic rules of photography are like guidelines for beginners learning about visual communication. But the beauty of photography is also about breaking the rules and experimenting with angles, light and colours. Shoot from the floor level, or go higher and shoot from top down. You may be surprised by how certain normal scenes look totally different from another perspective.

Watch out for light and shadows, lines and textures, framing structures, reflection, high and low angles, colours and depth of field.

5. Avoid digital zoom and crop instead

Images degrade when we zoom, so the more you zoom in, the worse the image becomes. Today's technology means that mobile cameras allow for 8-megapixels of resolution or more, which means that you can crop the image you shot and still have a decent display on the web. But do that only you cannot get closer. If the subject is too far away to be seen properly, you won't be able get a decent shot anyway.

6. Watch out for candid moments

If you are lining up a group of people for a photograph, shoot some pictures before and after the actual "say cheese" shot. Sometimes you get better pictures from people when they are relaxed and not hamming it up for the camera. Candid moments that show real emotions and natural interaction between subjects in the frame make for more interesting pictures compared to posed shots.

7. Edit and use filters sparingly

There are plenty of good free and paid image editing apps like Snapseed, Adobe Photoshop Express and Filterstorm. You can use these if you need to make minor adjustments like cropping, contrast, colour temperature and sharpness.

However, many people seem to feel that adding filters and effects to their pictures are an instant way of making them great, so they don't pay much attention to actual composition when they shoot. But while filters and effects are fun to play with, editing apps and filters are not magic tools to salvage bad composition and major flaws. Also, keep your phone camera lens clean by giving them a wipe with a clean cloth occasionally if you do not want hazy blurred pictures.

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