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Smart Living | 23 Jan 2020

How to take better smartphone photos: Part 2

Composition, not supposition, is key to taking better quality photos on your smartphone.

In Part 1 of our beginner’s guide to smartphone photography, we covered lighting, exposure and focus. In Part 2 we look at the basics of framing and composition – simple tips that can help transform your photos.

Composition: the basics

Think about what to include and exclude in your shot, especially if you’re photographing something large and complex such as a building, landmark or monument. London’s Paddington Station, for example, is full of potentially snapworthy moments and scenes. This photo of one of the station’s smaller platforms follows a few basic rules of composition.

The image, bisected by a large metal strut in the middle, is broadly symmetrical – the two halves of the image largely mirror each other in size and general content. There are ‘leading lines’ – the swooping curved lines of the platforms and awnings grab your attention, drawing your eye off into the horizon towards the departing passengers and the trains. And, despite its apparent complexity, the subject matter is simple – a set of arriving and departing trains.

a shot of train platforms at Paddington station
Applying a few simple rules of composition to your photography can lead to subtle yet nonetheless noticeable improvements.

Composition: point of view

This may seem obvious, but changing how you hold your phone while taking photos – depending on the subject – can markedly improve your shots. For example, shooting this Christmas tree horizontally seems only natural as it’s part of a landscape. But the finer details of the tree are muddled and lost in favour of a landscape that frankly isn’t that interesting. The tree is the subject of this photo and, as it’s vertically oriented, it therefore makes sense to shoot it while holding your phone in portrait orientation. The result is a far simpler and more pleasing photo with details that are far easier to pick out, from the large baubles and rings to the individual lights.

horizontal shot of a Christmas tree
It may sound silly, but switching the shooting orientation of this Christmas tree from landscape…
vertical shot of a Christmas tree
…to portrait results in immediate improvements.

Conversely, in other situations, it’ll make more sense to shoot horizontally rather than vertically. Take your cue from your subject – its shape and size will guide you to whichever orientation will show it off to the greatest possible effect. If in doubt, shoot it both ways and learn from experience.

Composition: you’ve been framed

Where you place your phone while shooting and how you frame your photos, or where the subject in your shot is in relation to other elements, can make a world of difference.

A good example is when photographing pets and children. As they’re often physically smaller than you are, it’s natural to shoot them while standing above them. While the resulting shot emphasises how small they are in relation to you, it makes for a largely uninteresting and lifeless photo.

It’s far better, subject permitting, to crouch down to their eye level and let their expressive faces fill as much of the shot as possible. The results can be far more emotive and therefore engaging.

shot of a cat from above
Changing the angle and composition of your shot…
photo of a cat at eye-level
…can lead to a far more engaging photo.

An inventive and experimental approach to framing can jazz up otherwise ordinary shots. For example, this autumnal garden scene looks exceedingly mundane at first glance. But by nestling the phone in a bush and using its branches to frame the shot, the resulting photo looks far more eye-catching with a touch of mystery to it.

a short of autumnal leaves
This everyday autumnal scene looks uninteresting and unremarkable…
more inventively framed shot of autumnal leaves
…but is transformed into a far more intriguing shot after experimenting with how it’s framed.

Inventive framing can transform all sorts of everyday scenes, such as a seemingly dreary rain-soaked London street. By concentrating on the reflection of neon signage in a puddle, the intriguing results not only grabs the eye but is also suitably evocative of urban life.

Inventive framing can make otherwise mundane scenes look far more intriguing, such as this shot of a rain-soaked London street.

As you can see, experimenting with composition can dramatically improve your photos. In Part 3 we will look at how to deal with a bugbear that has plagued almost every smartphone photographer – blurry low-light photos.