Capturing Moments with Your Mobile

5 Tips for Elevating Your Smartphone Photography

Northern Arizona University
9 min readJul 11, 2023

By: Scott Barker, NAU Social Media | Digital Communications Coordinator

Minimize errors and hone in on the craft — fast-track your photography skills by learning from my missteps.

1. Understand Lighting

Natural light is a photographer’s best friend.

But it’s not just about the amount of light you have; it’s also about the quality of golden hours for softer shadows and warmer tones.

Photos By: Josh Thomson

This can be right after sunrise and before sunset. But golden hour isn’t the only reasonable time.

Blue hour, just before dawn or after sunset, can also provide dramatic lighting for your photographs. The indirect sunlight creates a cool blue hue, ideal for cityscapes or landscapes. Remember that overcast days can also offer great diffused light, suitable for portraits.

Capturing a photo during the midday sun can take much work, resulting in harsh shadows and overexposed highlights. Don’t be discouraged if the photograph may only appear “well” after an editing session in a photo application such as Lightroom.

The direction of light is also crucial.

  • Front lighting illuminates your subject evenly but can make your images look flat.
  • Side lighting, as the name suggests, lights the subject from the side, creating shadows and highlights that add depth and dimension.
  • Backlighting, when used correctly, can produce dramatic effects and silhouettes.

The lesson? Timing and light quality can make or break your photographs.

Photography, at its core, is about capturing light. Using and manipulating light can significantly affect your photographs’ mood, depth, texture, and overall appeal.

2. Consider the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds encourages us to avoid the natural tendency to place our subject right in the center of the frame, which often results in a static and less engaging composition.

By splitting the image into nine equal parts with two horizontal and two vertical lines, we create four points of interest where these lines intersect and four lines along which the viewers’ eyes naturally move.

According to studies on visual perception, people’s eyes naturally go to one of the intersection points rather than the dead center.

By placing your subject, whether a person, an architectural feature, or a horizon line, at or near these intersection points — you can create a more balanced composition that draws the viewer’s eye naturally through the image.

Photos by Josh Thomson

These four lines position your image’s elements of interest or movement. For instance, the horizon line in a landscape photograph doesn’t always have to bisect the picture. It can align along the upper or lower horizontal line for a more dynamic and exciting composition.

It’s important to note that the Rule of Thirds is only sometimes necessary. A centered composition might be needed — especially for symmetrical scenes, or to create a sense of directness or confrontation.

Consider the Rule of Thirds as a helpful guide rather than an absolute mandate. In the end, most compositions are those that effectively communicate the vision of the photographer.

Tip: Add the grid by going into your camera settings.

3. Use Manual Mode

While iPhones offer incredible photography capabilities, there are built-in limitations. Give yourself a leg up by changing the default settings to give yourself more flexibility post shoot.

In the iPhone’s default camera settings aperture and focal length are fixed — leaving shutter speed, ISO, and exposure compensation as the primary variables you can adjust for exposure.

Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that lets light into the camera sensor. The wide-angle lens on an iPhone has a fixed aperture of f/1.8 and a full-frame equivalent focal length of 26mm. The telephoto lens also has a fixed aperture, typically around f/2.0, and a full-frame equal focal length of 51mm.

In traditional DSLR cameras, the aperture is adjustable to control the depth of field (DOF). DOF is the range of the photo that appears sharp.

A smaller aperture number means a larger opening, more light entering, and a shallower depth of field — perfect for portraits where you want a blurred background.

Conversely, a larger aperture number means a smaller opening, less light, and a greater depth of field, often used for landscape shots where you want everything in focus.

The fixed apertures in iPhone lenses mean that the depth of field is set through software processing rather than physical lens adjustments.

However, if you use the Manual setting, you’ll have more control over these settings.

Another consideration is ISO — ISO determines the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light.

A lower ISO number (e.g., 100) means less sensitivity and is ideal for brightly lit conditions. Conversely, a higher ISO number (e.g., 800 or above) means more sensitivity and is more suitable for darker needs. However, a high ISO can introduce more noise or grain into your photo, potentially reducing the image quality.

In other words, the brighter you want your photo to be in a low light situation, the higher you will set your ISO, but the trade-off will be an increase in the graininess or noise in the image.

Hence, you’ll want to find the balance between a well-exposed photo and one that maintains as much image quality as possible.

Consider shooting RAW photos.

Most smartphones process and compress photos into JPEG format automatically. While JPEGs are smaller and ready to share, this compression can lose detail and limit how much you can adjust the image in post-production.

RAW files, on the other hand, capture all the data from the camera’s sensor without any processing or compression. While RAW files are larger, their capability gives you more control in editing — from adjusting exposure and white balance to recovering details in shadows and highlights.

Overall, while iPhone photography settings have some limitations, there’s still a lot of room to experiment and create stunning images.

The key is to understand and work within these limitations, use the tools at your disposal, and continue to develop your eye for composition.

4. Focus on the Details

Add depth, intrigue, and a fresh image perspective.

We often default to capturing the obvious such as landscapes, full-frame portraits, and landmark buildings. However, the world is full of hidden beauty and fascinating details.

Concentrating on these minor aspects can reveal patterns, textures, and colors that might otherwise be overlooked in a broader view.

Focusing on details also allows you to tell more compelling stories. For example, a close-up of a student’s hands typing on a laptop or turning a book’s pages can capture the essence of academic life more powerfully than a standard library shot.

Challenge yourself to see beyond the next time you’re out. Look for the small details, the hidden patterns, the unnoticed elements.

Use your camera to bring these details to life and share them with the world. You’ll enhance your photography skills and deepen your appreciation for the world around you.

5. Enhance Your Image in Post-Processing

Post-processing is where you’ll fine-tune your images, correct for exposure or color balance, enhance details, or create a particular mood or style.

However, as with many things, moderation is key.

Post-processing can be both an art and a science. On one hand, it involves technical adjustments like correcting exposure, adjusting white balance, or reducing noise.

On the other hand, it also involves artistic choices like applying filters, changing colors, or vignetting. Both aspects require a good understanding of your tools, whether using a mobile app like Snapseed, VSCO, or Lightroom Mobile or desktop software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

When it comes to editing — the goal should be to enhance the natural beauty of your image, not overshadow it with heavy-handed edits.

Subtlety is key.

  • Too much saturation can make your colors look unnatural.
  • Too much sharpening can introduce noise or halos.
  • Overuse of filters can make your image look contrived or dated.

A mistake I used to make would be having my images overexposed with harsh shadows due to shooting in direct sunlight in the middle of the day.

I’ve learned to use natural shade by looking for areas, such as under trees or buildings, to shoot in. This can help you avoid direct sunlight and produce more even lighting conditions. However, be cautious of dappled light that can create uneven patches of light and shadow.

If you still encounter challenges with harsh lighting, you can adjust during the editing process. Software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop allows you to fine-tune exposure, highlights, shadows, and other parameters to improve the overall look of your images or footage.


After applying touchups in lighting such as exposure/contrast/brightness

After applying color correction, color filters, and masking

Before — RAW photo with no edits

I embarked on a senior photo shoot with a client in my early days as a photographer. Unfortunately, I positioned my subject directly facing the harsh sunlight without considering the need for a diffuser to soften the light.

This oversight resulted in overexposure and unflattering shadows — making the image fall short of my desired outcome. Furthermore, I neglected to apply any post-processing edits, which could have potentially salvaged the photo.

Before & After

However, determined to improve my craft, I embraced each opportunity as a chance to learn and grow. Fast forward to my most recent senior photo shoot, and the transformation is evident. Armed with newfound knowledge and experience, I approached the session with a clear vision of how I wanted my subject to position herself within the available lighting.

Understanding the challenges posed by shooting in direct sunlight, I took the initiative to utilize a diffuser to soften the light falling on my subject. Doing so effectively minimized the harsh shadows and overexposure, ensuring a more pleasing and balanced aesthetic.

Recognizing the importance of post-processing, I integrated this step into my workflow. I cleaned up the image with meticulous attention to detail, removing distractions and refining the overall composition. Employing my growing expertise in editing techniques, I made necessary adjustments to enhance the lighting and bring out the best in the subject.

The result was a senior photo showcasing the subject’s unique personality and radiating a sense of professionalism. The image appeared clean, polished, and aesthetically pleasing, capturing the essence of the significant milestone.

Practice makes perfect: Remember, post-processing is a learning process — it’s ok to make mistakes

  • Approach your editing with care and intent.
  • Make your edits enhance the story you’re telling, not distract from it.
  • Above all, enjoy bringing out the best in your photos.

My final words of advice

Experiment with different tools and techniques, get feedback from others, and continually refine your editing style.

With practice, you’ll develop a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t, and your editing skills will become a powerful tool in your photography toolkit.



Northern Arizona University

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