As a photographer, I’ve always had a little bit of a “thing” against DSLRs. Don’t get me wrong, I love mine. However, as someone who learned the art of photography on film, where the best zoom was using your feet, I’ve always loved figuring out how to make my pictures better without expensive equipment or editing tools. Thankfully, that made learning smartphone photography a breeze. With a little work, it’s super easy to figure out how to take better Instagram photos with your phone.
Whether you can’t afford a fancy new camera (or all of the gear that comes with it), or you’re just looking for a few tips to up your photography game, here are some of my favorite tips to take better photos instantly.
1. Use better lighting.
This is an over-used tip, I know, but bear with me. Most people *still* don’t know how to make lighting work for them in their Instagram photos. (Which is why people keep mentioning it in their tip lists.) Great lighting can transform a photo, making it the most powerful tool you have in your photography arsenal.
I try to shoot in natural light only. Unless you’re shooting with a great camera, lots of experience, or dig the flash vibe, low light photos are more likely to be blurry and grainy. (Aka, not as good.) I love slightly cloudy days to diffuse the light, but I also shoot in front of windows all the time.
Don’t have a good indoor lighting? My favorite hack is to slip my phone into a selfie stick (mine’s from Target, but you can use a cheap one from Amazon) into the blinds of a window. I tuck a sheer curtain behind to diffuse the light a little bit, and the result? A perfectly lit glow that’s perfect for taking self-portraits or recording YouTube videos. (Seriously, it’s what I use on all my YouTube videos.)
2. Tap and hold a spot on your camera app to lock focus.
If your photo is flickering between being too bright or too dark, try tapping on the spot you want to focus on and holding until “AE/AF Lock” appears. This will “lock” the focus and exposure of your photo even if you shift it a little.
Want to make it a little brighter or darker? Once it’s locked, you can swipe your finger up or down on the screen to adjust the exposure.
3. Change your perspective.
We often have the tendency to take our photos from the same place more often than not. (Aka, right in front of our faces.) If you want to improve your photography game, try switching angles by getting closer to the ground or higher up. Sometimes I like to lay on the ground to get unique photos, or I’ll get closer (or further away) to try something new.
Perspective matters when you’re taking selfies too. The closer our faces are to the camera, the more distorted they become. (Seriously, here’s proof.) Try moving the camera further away from your face to reduce distortion, and play around with your angles until you find what you like.
4. Don’t use the zoom on your phone.
Unless you have a newer phone that has optical zoom, chances are the zoom on your phone’s camera isn’t actually zoom. Instead, most smartphones use digital zoom — which simply zooms in and crops the photo internally. This is the same thing you’d do if you cropped the photo manually, which is why zoomed-in photos can turn pixelated.
Get up close and personal with your subject, and think outside the box with composition. The lines in your photo, the horizon, and more can all be used to enhance your photo. If you’re not sure where to begin with composition, this is a great article to get you started. I’m love using the “grid” lines on my iPhone camera so I can use the Rule of Thirds. (This can be accessed by going to Settings > Camera > Grid.)
5. Invest in some (cheap) tools to up your photography game.
When I’m taking a flatlay, I love using a simple background that makes my Instagram look more put together. Since I don’t have a nice surface in my house that’s close enough to natural light, I created my own backdrop by using two pieces of foam board from my local supermarket and a piece of marble-looking contact paper. (This is the one I have. It’s a sample size, but it works well and it’s cheaper than getting a whole roll.)
I stuck the piece of contact paper to the middle of one piece of white foam board, and I use it as a cute background for many of my flatlays. And the second piece of foam board? That works as a soft reflector to help “bounce” the light back into the subject of your photograph to brighten it up and reduce shadows. You can also use it in the background to create a simple backdrop.
6. Step up your self portrait game.
Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera (myself included), but I knew I wanted to take better photos of myself than the standard selfie. (Also, let’s be honest, it can be hard to find someone who can take good photos of you.) To do this, I invested $20 in this bendy tripod with a handy bluetooth remote trigger, and I love it. (Seriously, it changed my Instagram.)
It works for both my iPhone 6S Plus and DSLR, and the bendy legs means it’s crazy convenient. (And works *way* better than a selfie stick poked through some blinds.) Plus, it comes with a bluetooth remote trigger that is amazing for taking self portraits. (PS. If you have an Apple watch, it has an iPhone remote shutter in it too. It even lets you preview the photo on your watch before you snap it.)
I set my camera up wherever I want to take the photo, then I move into position and take a bunch of photos. It’s a lot of walking back and forth at first to make sure you’re in the right spot. However, it gets easier with practice. If you aren’t worried about getting a ton of great shots right away, start by taking a video and holding each pose for 3-5 seconds in front of the camera. You can screenshot one you like, or you can try to recreate it.
I took this photo with my DSLR, but I used my bendy tripod and remote trigger to capture it myself. (The remote is hidden in my right hand.)
7. Give yourself a break.
If you’re stressing about how you look in photos, it might be because you aren’t *used* to seeing yourself like that. We mostly see ourselves in the mirror, which means the reflection we’re seeing every day is actually flipped. Other people aren’t seeing that same reflection, and that’s why — when we see photos of ourselves — we often have a negative reaction. It’s not that the photo is necessarily bad, but that the non-flipped version of our face simply isn’t what we’re used to seeing.
Don’t worry if you aren’t walking away with tons of amazing photos after each session.
Even as a semi-trained photographer using a great lens and a high-quality camera, I’m still taking hundreds of photos every session and walking away with around 20 or 30 that I love. And that’s a *great* day. On an average day like the one above? I got 2 photos that I liked(ish), and that’s okay! The more you practice, the easier it will become.
Remember: all you need is one good photo!
7. Use different editing tools.
Instead of using Instagram’s built-in tools, I love using Lightroom’s mobile app. There are a ton of amazing presets you can use to edit your photos, but their editing tools are also phenomenal. If you like a specific photographer’s style, many of them sell preset “packs” that you can use to get a similar vibe. Me? I tend to use free presets that I customize to fit my own personal style.
When I’m taking smartphone photos, one of my favorite apps to use is FaceTune 2 (and no, I don’t alter my body or my skin in any way.) The free features are a great way to improve iPhone photos if your camera isn’t all that great — like mine — and I’m a big fan of using the “blur” feature to give me that smooth bokeh effect on iPhone portraits since my phone lacks portrait mode.
I also use Facetune to “sharpen” any parts of the photo that I want to pop (or if the eyes are slightly out of focus) before switching over to Snapseed to do further edits. Once I’m done there, sometimes I’ll hop over to VSCO to add a subtle filter to give my photos a somewhat cohesive look.
8. Plan your feed in advance.
This isn’t much of a photography tip, but it is one of my favorite Instagram tips to share with people since it makes the biggest impact. Instead of posting photos as soon as you take them (which, okay, obviously you can still do that), I like to “batch” photos when I’m feeling creative. That way, I can take 5-10 photos at once and use my Instagram planner to organize my feed so it looks the way I want it.
I use Preview, but there are plenty of amazing apps that let you rearrange your photos before you post them. I love that Preview also offers hashtag planning tips, and it helps you schedule your posts by sending you a reminder when it’s time to upload your next photo. If you write your caption in Preview as well, all you have to do is click “post” and it copies your caption for you *and* opens the photo in Instagram. A few taps later, and you’re already done.
Since I’m a writer, I don’t get to leave my house every single day, and trying to take a new Instagram photo on a whim is *exhausting*. By planning out my feed, I know that I always have extra content planned for the days (or weeks) when I’m too busy — or too lazy — to take more photos.
As with many things in life, we often learn best by doing it.
If you want to learn how to take better Instagram photos with your phone, grab a friend and invite them to go on a photo adventure with you! Or do what I do and hang out in front of your window for a little practice by yourself. If you use any of these tips, be sure to tag me in your photos (@jandralee) so I can see them!
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