Photographs have the power to tell stories, engage emotions, and inspire action — without using a single word. That’s why marketers rely on them to connect with their audiences across markets, channels, and devices.
To keep pace with the ever-growing need for compelling visual imagery, marketers are relying less on expensive equipment and formal photoshoots, and more on smartphones. Not only has the technology in smartphone cameras advanced significantly in recent years, but they allow images to be created quickly and affordably.
And because smartphones are always with us, they are also fueling user-generated content — which marketers use to support their content marketing strategies. Afterall, consumers are more likely to take recommendations from friends and family members than brands when making buying decisions. And further, we enjoy sharing photos with each other, as evidenced by 50+ billion photos uploaded to Instagram to date!
But using a smartphone to take outstanding shots entails more than just aiming and tapping. Here are some simple tips and tricks that can help even amateur photographers take pictures that measure up to marketing standards.
1. Let there be light (but not from the flash)!
Photography is about capturing light, literally and technically. Wavelengths of light enter the lens and paint the sensor that the camera ultimately interprets as an image. So beautiful photos require light — and lots of it. But because the flash of light from a smartphone is often harsh and unflattering, it’s wise to avoid using it whenever possible. Natural light is always best, but you can also use other indoor lights, candles, even a smartphone flashlight. But don’t shoot directly into a bright light source...the key is to have multiple, consistent sources of light to help your subject look realistic. The photos below illustrate the difference between using a flash (on the left) versus natural light from a window (on the right).
2. Clean your lens
It may seem obvious, but all that lint, dust, and fingerprints on the lens make the captured images look soft, washed out, or fuzzy. Dirt also causes soft, foggy streaks around overhead lights in a photo. So be sure to wipe your lens down with a soft cloth on a regular basis (or your shirt in a pinch), and every once in a while use a good screen/lens cleaner. You may be surprised how much brighter and sharper your photos will look with a clean lens.
3. Shoot with grids
Turning on the grid feature on your smartphone can guide the composition of your shot. These lines help ensure the image is straight and appropriately positioned. The rule of thirds says that you should never place the subject in the center of your frame. Instead, use the grid lines to divide your frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally, and place key elements on these lines — like in our image of the sunflower, below.
4. Keep backgrounds simple
You want your subject to be the focus of your photo, right? Then keep the background simple. A bright, cluttered mess is distracting. Backgrounds that are subdued, soft, and more neutral make for better images. In the photo below, what you see is the boat, sky, and water even though there were actually hundreds of other boats around. With the correct vantage point and positioning, you can clean up the background of your shot even when you can’t physically move things out of the way.
5. Change your angle
Although it might feel natural to pull the camera up to your face and shoot, you can really change the style of your photos by adjusting your angle. So instead of shooting at eye level, try bending down to shoot up — or getting above your subject to shoot down. In the image below, the camera is angled down to capture the fire and tell the full story in one shot. (Portrait mode was also used to accomplish a shallow depth of field!)
6. Stabilize your camera
If you’re taking a shot that needs a steady hand, consider using some sort of tripod. Some smartphone tripods are highly-portable, like the Manono tripod and selfie stick pictured below. There are also smartphone cases with threads to mount onto large tripods. And if you’re in a pinch, just leaning your phone up against a coffee cup or water bottle will probably do the trick. Using one of these options with the self-timer function will help you capture the perfect landscape, sunset, or selfie!
7. Take multiple shots
If you’re shooting a fast-moving subject, consider using the burst mode to get a clean, clear shot. Just hold the shutter button to capture a dozen or more shots in a row, and chances are that one of them will be sharper or better positioned than the others. In the example below, it was difficult to predict the movement of the sparkler. The photographer captured 14 shots to get this one!
8. Know when to use portrait mode
The wide-angle lens on most smartphone cameras has a long depth of field, which takes pictures that are sharp and clear from foreground to background. However, if you’d like to really focus just on the subject in the foreground, consider shooting in portrait mode. This feature will create a shallow depth of field that focuses on what’s in font, and slightly blurs what’s in back. You can see this effect in the image on the right below, which was shot in portrait mode (the image on the left was not).
9. Shoot in RAW mode
If you want to maximize the image quality and editing controls that are possible with a smartphone camera, consider shooting in raw mode. Raw files are unaltered and contain much more data than a compressed JPEG. More data means enhanced quality and editing options — like when adjusting colors and exposure levels. Just know that because raw files are large they require ample storage space, and you may need to purchase a third party app to allow your phone to shoot in raw mode.
10. Don’t use the zoom
Using the zoom feature on your smartphone camera will reduce the overall resolution of your image, which will result in grainy photos and reduce your editing options. So if you want a close-up shot of that cute puppy on the other side of the dog park, you’re better off moving closer to it (if you can).
11. Adjust the exposure
Smartphone cameras have auto exposure, which evaluates the scene and selects the exposure it thinks is best. Although it usually does a pretty good job, it can get confused when there are both dimly-lit and brightly-lit areas (like a person in front of a bright background). Fortunately, it’s easy to override the auto-exposure setting on most smartphones. Simply tap the screen on the area you want to be sharp — like the flower in our shot below — and it will automatically reset the focus so your photo is clear and balanced.
12. Leverage editing tools
To really increase the wow-factor of your smartphone photos, consider using editing tools. With software like Adobe Lightroom or Snapseed (iOS or Android) you can enhance or adjust the brightness, contrast, ambient light, hue, saturation, detail, sharpness, and structure of an image. There are lots of arty features too — like filters and textured layers — if you want to transform your images into other-worldly creations. A Color Story was used to edit this palm tree photo.
13. Use the back of the camera
Simply put, the camera on the back of your smartphone is better. While the exact quality of the camera ranges from phone to phone, the back camera generally has a higher megapixel count — which is important for cropping, editing, and printing — as well as a better quality lens, which determines how sharp and detailed the image is. Typically, the front camera is used for selfies so this might not come up as often for marketing photos, but it’s always good to bear in mind.
14. Take a panoramic shot of wide images
Smartphone cameras have a relatively small frame, which can make it difficult to take pictures of wide images. Shooting in pano mode can help you show a more complete view of a rather large scene, like a skyline or sunset. In the pano shot below we were able to capture the entire rainbow. Panoramic images can also create a dramatic, sweeping effect when you want to convey a sense of scale.
Store and organize your digital content
Compelling photography can make connections that leave a lasting impression with your audiences — and give you a competitive advantage. Because smartphone cameras are easy to use and always with us, they are becoming a valuable way to generate effective marketing content.
But managing this ever-increasing volume of digital imagery can be challenging. That’s why many marketing teams rely on digital asset management (DAM) platforms to organize, share, and distribute their content. And through integrations with other marketing technology (martech) solutions, DAM systems can even capture user-generated content through hashtags in your social channels.
Photos and tips provided by former Widen team member Julia Edbrooke and her pup, Basil.
Note: This article was originally published in March 2015 and has been refreshed to include new tips and updated technology.