Mark Hirsch, author of “That Tree: An iPhone Photo Journal Documenting a Year in the Life of a Lonely Bur Oak." Photo courtesy of Mark Hirsh.
Category: Features

Smartphone users take millions of photographs each day as they chronicle their daily lives. Images of pets, kids, food and vacations fill the hard drives of iPhones, Galaxies and other popular smartphones. Although, the cameras of smartphones are still not the equal technically of Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless cameras, they are convenient. And, as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you.

To get the most out of your smartphone camera, Mark Hirsch, author of “That Tree: An iPhone Photo Journal Documenting a Year in the Life of a Lonely Bur Oak,” shares some tips for better smartphone photos.

Get close to the subject when using your smartphone. Photo by Bigstock.

1. Get close to the subject

Far too often, people take photos too far away from the subject, Hirsch says. “Most people stand at the back of the room, and their subject matter is a little tiny thing (on the screen),” he says. “By the time they crop it, you are counting pixels, and it is terrible, even though the current smartphones are pretty high resolution.” Using the phone’s telephoto lens to zoom in on subjects is an option, Hirsch says, but the resolution will not be as sharp. “Always get closer to your subject matter,” Hirsch says.

2. Turn off the flash

Hirsch recommends turning off the flash on your smartphone camera. “If your flash was activated, it impacts the way the camera determines exposure and, unless you are really close, unless you’re shooting somebody that is within two or three feet of you, the flash is worthless anyway.”

3. Shoot in RAW or HEIF

If your smartphone allows you to shoot in RAW or High Efficiency Image File Format (HEIF) mode, Hirsch recommends doing so, especially if you want to print the photos later. RAW and HEIF files are digital image files that are less compressed than other files, such as JPEGs. “If you have that option, always shoot in RAW because it gives you much more information — it’ll give you the best file available,” Hirsch says, adding that you should never edit the original photo. Instead save a copy of it and do any editing on that file. For even better editing results, Hirsch recommends transferring your smartphone photos to a laptop and using editing software such as Canva or Photoshop. For quick editing on the phone, Hirsch likes the Snapseed app. Keep in mind that shooting in RAW will take up much more memory on your phone, so perhaps use it only for photos you want to edit extensively.

4. Finding focus

You don’t have to depend entirely on the automatic features of your smartphone camera. For example, on iPhones, Hirsch notes that you can simply touch the screen to pinpoint your subject matter, which will be the main area of focus, and will be highlighted within a rectangle. Next to rectangle is an icon for a slider. “So, touch your screen and you can slide the slider up for a brighter shot, or slide the slider down to darken your scene,” Hirsch says.

5. Keep it steady

As with traditional cameras, keeping your smartphone steady while taking pictures is key, especially in low light. “People don’t hold their cameras very steady and then they wonder why their picture is soft,” Hirsch says. “And it has nothing to do with focus; it has to do with the fact that they moved when they were shooting in low light.” To help keep your camera steady, use a tripod with a smartphone holder, Hirsch says, or a gimbel, such as the DJI Osmo, which is traditionally known for videography use, but is also great for still photos.

Try taking smartphone photos horizontally for better photo composition. Photo by Bigstock.

6. Shoot horizontally

Far too many photos and video are shot from vertical angles because that is how we typically hold our phones. Hirsch says to flip the phone in your hand and take the photo horizontally for better photo composition. “There’s all kinds of pretty much dead space that has no value” in vertical compositions, he says.

7. Quick access

Check your smartphone for instructions on how to quickly access your camera. On an iPhone 14 and 15, for example, from locked screen, you can simply swipe from right to left to quickly open your camera. “People see something happening in front of them and they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want a picture of that,’” Hirsch says. But, if they are fumbling around trying to find the camera app on the screen, they often miss the shot, he adds.

8. Change your view

Make the effort to change the way you take photos, Hirsch says, by changing your shooting position. “Don’t’ shoot everything from eye level,” Hirsch says. Instead, try standing above the subject (on a chair, a different level of a building or on a stairway) or go low, even perhaps as low as what Hirsch calls the “mouse view,” where you lay on your stomach to take the photo.

Hirsch’s book “That Tree: An iPhone Photo Journal Documenting a Year in the Life of a Lonely Bur Oak” is available for purchase on Amazon. Hirsch, a Dubuque, Iowa-based magazine publisher and photographer, spent a year photographing the tree, located in southwestern Wisconsin, using only an iPhone after injuries he sustained in an automobile accident left him unable to work fulltime and to carry his heavy photo equipment. He offers workshops on photography, including smartphones.