“The best camera is the one that you have with you.” - Chase Jarvis
When it comes right down to it, marketing is about selling something to someone. One of the best ways to sell someone on an idea, service, or product is to stimulate their retinas with some great visual imagery. Ever buy something from a catalog that didn’t feature product photography? Maybe you did if it was the Sears catalog and you lived in 1896.
But it’s 2015 and photos are everywhere. One reason? We all have a pretty good camera in our pockets. When we aren't using them to play Words with Friends or Angry Bird, we are using them to snap photos and record video. And then we share all these images using this great tool called the internet that makes billions of images available to us 24/7. I have a Facebook friend that had an omelet for breakfast this morning and last night had fish tacos with a side of rice. Why do I know that? Because he posts photos of his food. All the time. Every day. I didn’t say sharing photos was always a good idea. In 2014 it was estimated that over 880 billion images were uploaded to the internet. 760 billion of those were selfies taken into bathroom mirrors. Okay, I made that last part up. It only seems that way.
Each year, more and more images are captured with smartphones. Is that bad? Not at all. The optics and camera sensors in smartphones continue to get better every year, leading to higher quality photos. But don’t get me wrong: There is still no replacement for a great DSLR with a nice chunk of glass (that would be a lens) in front of it and a talented photographer behind it. I take a lot of photos at basketball games indoors with my big Canon DSLR and 70-200 2.8 lens. Anyone can point out the differences between my images and images taken at the same game with a smartphone. It’s not even close. But much like the quote at the top of this article, the best camera is the one that you have with you.
So how can you get the best out of that little pocket camera you have with you all the time? Here are a few tips in no particular order that will help you capture better still images and video on your smartcamera. I mean smartphone…
1. Let There be Light (but not from the flash)!
Photography is about capturing light. Literally and technically. It is wavelengths of light entering the lens and painting the sensor that the camera ultimately interprets as an image. Well, actually your brain interprets the image, but that’s a different article for a different day. Unless you are going for an artistic, moody, or dark shot, you need light. And lots of it. So whether you are taking a picture of your CEO or recording a video of your cleaning crew, move the subject closer to a light source. Preferably so they are facing it (with the light behind the camera), or it is illuminating the side of them. Have them turn toward the light.
Whatever you do, avoid using the flash. There is a time and a place for flash. But avoid it whenever you can. The reason is simple… Washed out faces with glowing red zombie eyes don’t sell anything except bad photography. The flash on a typical smartphone is less of a true camera flash and more of an LED flashlight. They are helpful when you are trying to find your keys in the darkened corner of the Target parking lot, but less helpful when trying to illuminate a scene to record. It’s not flattering light for faces, products, or rooms. Use natural light from a window whenever possible. I found myself at a party recently and wanted to take some photos with my iPhone in the kitchen (where everyone always gathers at parties), but it was night time and the light level was pretty low. So rather than use my flash or turn on a bunch of overhead lights (it was a Halloween party and I couldn’t kill the mood), I opened the refrigerator door. The upside was that the light from the fridge illuminated the subjects nicely. The downside was that the eggs briefly got a little warm. It was a simple trade-off.
No, Kara is not a zombie. Those piercing red eyes she is sporting in the left image is a result of light entering her pupils and bouncing off the blood vessels in the back of her eye thanks to that ugly flash on the back of the smartphone. The flash creates that cosmic red eye look and washed-out unnatural looking flesh tones. It can also make skin look too shiny and contrasty. The fix? We moved to the other side of the wall where there were large windows with lots of great natural light streaming in. I positioned Kara with the light to her left and a large white wall to her right (bounce light!). I then had her turn into the light so it illuminated her face and gave us some great catchlights in her eyes. The results are a very nice, natural-looking photo of the beautiful Kara.
2. Keep Backgrounds Simple
Keeping backgrounds simple allows the eye to focus on the subject instead of a bright, cluttered or distracting, mess behind the subject. Backgrounds that are subdued, softer, and more neutral make for better images. This holds true for video and stills.
Simply moving Steve from a cluttered area to an area with a smooth neutral background makes him really stand out. It also helps that we moved him away from the overhead fluorescent lights, which are not very flattering for portraits, to an area where the lighting was more even. When photographing people, the subject is always the most important element, but don’t forget about the background - It should not be too bright, textured, or cluttered. Try to find a muted, contrasting color from what they are wearing, or better yet, a nice neutral background. You always want the focus of your photo to be on the subject.
3. Get Close to Your Subject
“If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” - Robert Capa
This is true if you are shooting product photography or a portrait. Getting closer focuses the eye on the subject of the photo, and eliminates the need to digitally zoom on a subject. Digitally zooming adds pixels (known as interpolation) and creates softer images. It is better to go in tight and crop within the camera at the point of capture.
Here is Steve away from that cluttered background again. But this time we moved in close and captured him from the shoulders up. Now we can see more detail, and the photo tells a different story. However, we now don’t know if he likes the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
4. Tap That Screen
Many people forget this rather important step in video as well as still photography. Whatever you see on your screen that you want to be sharp, bright, and balanced you need to touch it. This will meter and focus your camera on that portion of the image.
5. Get a Better Camera App
There are a number of great camera apps out there that allow the user to have more control over things like exposure compensation, white point, shutter speed, ISO, etc. Camera+ is a popular app that I use at times when I want more control over what I am shooting.
Camera+ is an app that allows the user to control the settings on your smartphone camera much more than the built-in camera app does. In addition to better capture functions, the app also includes The Lab where you can perform many different types of edits, and apply different filters.
6. Clean Your Lens
You may not see it by looking at it, but all that lint, dust (and those fingerprints!) on the lens make the captured images look soft, washed out, dirty or fuzzy. Wipe them 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. One tell-tale sign you may have a dirty lens is the presence of soft, foggy streaks emitting from overhead lights in the photo.
7. Follow the Rule of Thirds
There are many rules in photography and videography. Some of these rules are meant to be broken from time to time. But one rule that is good to follow (in most cases) is the rule of thirds. This says that you essentially never place the subject in the center of your frame. Divide your frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally and place key elements on these lines. Many camera apps will allow you to place a grid on the screen to help you compose your shot.
Be sure to keep the grid displayed on your camera screen. Then when capturing subjects like the honorable Mayor McCheese here, be sure they line up with the grid. This makes for a much more pleasing composition.
8. Get Down (and get back up again)!
Are you shooting video or stills of carpet dwellers like kids or pets in your marketing efforts? Get down! I’m not talking like getting down like they did on Soul Train in 1979. I’m talking about sitting down or laying flat on your stomach while shooting. This will make small subjects look like giants, and make for much more interesting visuals. Are you taking a photo of all your shareholders or department managers? Get up! Get a ladder or get on a staircase and elevate your image. A portrait is always a bit more flattering looking slightly downward on the subject rather than looking up at them. The angle you capture your photo or video will make a big difference in the final result.
Our little Lego gangster looks very imposing when we position the smartphone very low. Also, note how I used the rule of thirds when I composed the shot and I told him to turn toward the light. It’s a trifecta of terrific tips!
9. Selfies Anyone?
Do you find yourself doing selfie photos or videos? Free up your hand and put that smartphone on a little tripod (like a GorillaPod) or at least prop it up against something. Then if you are taking still images, use the self-timer function in the camera app to take a much better selfie where both of your beautiful arms are in the frame for the whole world to see. And please don't be one of those people that carry around a selfie stick. That's just wrong.
Small tripods, like the very flexible GorillaPod shown here, allow you to place your smartphone in almost any position or secure it around almost any object. Using this device along with the self-timer function on your smartphone make a much better solution for capturing a selfie. This also makes it easier to use the better camera on the back of the smartphone (see #10).
10. Use the Camera on the Back
Whenever possible use the camera on the back of the phone. This may sound obvious to you, but the camera in the front of the phone that you use to take selfies with is usually not nearly as good as the camera on the backside. The iPhone 5s and 6, for example, has an 8-megapixel camera on the back of the camera, while the camera on the front is only a 1.2-megapixel camera.
11. Time Goes By So Quickly These Days
Want to show all the activity that happens in your warehouse or production floor during the day? Or how many times your co-workers empty the coffee pot during the day? Many smartphone camera apps now have a time-lapse function built-in. Time-lapse videos make for fun little videos to use in your marketing efforts.
12. Hold the Camera Horizontal Not Vertical for Video
Although you may hold your smartphone vertically when scrolling through a website or Facebook, video is typically made to be played in landscape mode to fit the proportion of computer screens, TVs, tablets, and smartphones (when held in landscape mode). It is much more difficult to use video if shot vertically. The editor will have to put it in a mask or crop the video and lose a lot of resolution.
While it seems more natural to shoot video using the camera in a vertical (portrait) orientation, don’t do it. Instead, rotate your smartphone 90 degrees and record your video horizontally (landscape). Yeah, I know this takes two hands, but it makes for a much more pleasing video to watch.
13. Shoot Panoramic, But Not Too Panoramic
When you want to capture a super-wide image of the new addition your company just constructed, or what the red shirts that your company produces look like when worn by 80,000 fans at the stadium, shoot a panoramic. Or just say “pano” if you don’t have time to say the whole word and want to sound cool when you speak. Panos are cool images when used in the right amount. Like many people, I love bacon. But too much of a good thing is not a good thing. The same can be said of panoramas. If you take your smartphone and spin around in 360 degrees to capture everything surrounding you, you will end up with a very long image that just looks weird. Keep it under 180 degrees - what you might see when you look from left to right.
Panoramas always make for a dramatic, sweeping effect when you want to convey a sense of scale or show a more complete view of a rather large scene. But don’t make it too wide, or you very well may unleash a virus of vertigo on the viewers of your image.
14. Shoot in Burst Mode
Are you photographing a fast-moving subject? Hold the shutter button down to shoot in burst mode. Chances are one of the dozen or more shots you just took will be sharper than another one with the subject positioned just a little better. Don’t forget to trash the other shots you don’t want to keep.
15. Think of the Audio When Recording Video
If you want to use your smartphone to interview the guy at your company that just developed a new dresser drawer that automatically organizes your socks while you sleep, get a second smartphone to record the audio from directly in front of the interview subject as he speaks. Your audio will be much clearer with less ambient noise. You can sync up the audio with the video in an editing application.
16. Edit = Good. Filter = Bad
Put down that filter and step away from Instagram slowly… There are probably more image editing apps for smartphones than there are smartphones on the planet. Okay, that may be a stretch, but there are a lot of them. Most of them aren’t very good. Many of them are just a bunch of funky, overused filters found in a poorly designed app. The world does not need to see any more square photos with washed out, heavily vignetted filters applied. Yawn (sorry Instagram users). Your customers don’t need to see these either. Instead of applying some special effects filter that makes it look like you simply applied some filter for no reason at all, learn how to edit a photo like a pro (well, on a phone anyway) with a good image editing app. The one I always turn to is Snapseed from Google.
The editing tools included with the camera app on your phone are okay. But Snapseed allows me to globally or locally adjust brightness, contrast, ambient light, hue, saturation, detail, sharpness, and structure. If the mood strikes me and I want to apply a filter, make a black and white, crop, straighten, create a frame, add a subtle vignette, or cool HDR effect, I can do that as well. One word on vignettes (those light or dark areas on the edge of an image)... In my opinion, vignettes should be (barely) seen and not heard. Less is more here.
Overall the Snapseed application is very simple, intuitive, and fast. Download this app and learn how to use it. You will thank me for this advice later. This app used to cost a few dollars but now is free, so what do you have to lose? Call me a photo geek (I am), but I do not post any images to Facebook or Twitter until it has gone through a couple of image enhancement steps in Snapseed.
Another editing app worth noting is called Aviary, from Adobe. It integrates with the Creative Cloud and in addition to a wealth of standard editing functions like the ability to adjust color, sharpness, selective focus, lighting, cropping, etc., it also features the ability to remove blemishes, whiten teeth, remove red-eye, selective color (just say no!), and add stickers. And it features something so important in social media these days: The ability to create memes!
Snapseed offers many different tools to quickly color correct and enhance any image captured with your smartphone. There is no better app (that I have found) to quickly improve lighting and bring out detail, texture and structure in an image.
So there you have it. Follow these sixteen steps and you are well on your way to more amazing visual marketing materials. I could come up with sixteen more, but you would probably lose interest in this article and go to Facebook so you can see photos of what the guy you had in your high school biology class had for dinner last night (it was a pasta dish with garlic bread. I checked already).
I will leave you with one last quote from a guy named Jim Richardson: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”