Better Mobile Photography 03 [216]

Part three of five

Welcome to part three of this five part mini series. Should you need to catch up, part one is here and part two is here.

The series focuses on taking better photos. Particularly with your mobile device. This issue hopes to help you click with the subject before you ‘click’ with the camera. It might also inspire you to take different and interesting types of portrait.

So grab yourself a drink and lets get stuck in…

Relax your subject

Most of the time I’ve captured people in a news or documentary scenarios. This might mean that I am waiting around a lot. then capturing the shots candidly and with little or no communication. This suits me fine and I prefer to work this way. But often when hired to take portraits you need to direct. In this instance you’ll find it much easier to get an interesting shot when the subject is at ease. Using a phone is already less threatening than a bulky SLR. But there are a few other things that will help.


In a pre-arranged situation or booking, try to get to know your subject before the session. This might be during a phone call where you ask them to prepare some music for the shoot. Or on location, familiar surroundings will also help the subject relax.

If I’m on assignment grabbing multimedia I might leave the photos till last. This way we’ve had time to have a laugh and the subject feels like they’ve got the tough stuff out of the way.

The key thing is to stay positive. Confident clear direction amidst the casual chit chat goes a long way to creating a comfortable atmosphere. As does respecting the subjects personal space. Always ask permission if you need to get close or handle the subject to reposition them.

Find rapport. Chat and instruct the sitter throughout the shoot. If you feel you have a decent shot, show them. Hopefully even a nervous subject will then begin to have fun. The engaged compassionate photographer gets more from their subject and scene.

Isolate the subject from the background

Separating your subject from their environment can be done in many ways.

You can blur the background, or select a long focal length and/or wide aperture.

Although you can change the focal length on later phones, it’s hard to actually change the aperture. Portrait mode on an iPhone does use an f-number type adjustment to fake the depth of field. It does this by recognising the subject and their outline, then artificially blurring everything else. It can have mixed results (see below) but to set the aperture, enter Portrait mode, tap the ‘f’ on the top right of the screen and you will see the depth control now appear next to the shutter button.

The wider the aperture, the shorter the depth of field and the more blurry your background will be. You can adjust this before you take a shot in the Portrait setting but also after the shot. There are other apps like Focus that will give you even more options. But it’ll cost ya.

Another way of isolating the subject from the background is to place them against something plain and simple to create contrast.

Or by lighting the subject and leaving the background in shadow.

Or you can frame the person in their environment, leading the eyes into the shot.

If the subject is to be the main focal point of your image these are a few options to isolate them. You can also use colour. Have a play with using a selection of these methods in your next portrait shoot.

Include the background

An environmental portrait tells you even more about the subject. Providing they are in a relevant environment. Too cluttered though and the eye may wander. Lost in the image as it attempts to make sense of it.

Try to feature the context and the subject in the composition.

Have a go at shooting from above, below or through

We normally engage with people at eye level. By shifting the angle and shooting from a different perspective you can not only add interest to the image, but it might also be more flattering. As a rule, images taken from slightly above eye level tend to flatter the subject more.

You can also try shooting through something. A wire fence, a hole, or a window can also add interest as the viewer makes sense of the the scene in which the subject is framed.

Find the light

Take whatever light you can get, when you can get it.

If you don’t have a variety of focal lengths or apertures to play with, composition and learning how to see and use light will give your images some creative elbow room.

The flash on mobile devices tend to be very close to the lens. But they are getting better. I used to say they should only be used when no other light is available. Or if you are in very bright sunlight and need to ‘fill-in’ shadowy features. But the computational photography going on in the phone has improved. Harsh direct flash can flatten the image but this is almost a thing of the past. As is redeye, when the light reflects off the back of the eye causing red pupils.

In general, I still like to use natural light to get natural looking images and soft defused light when artificial lighting is needed.

But don’t let that stop you breaking the rules, shooting into the light and experimenting to get the look you are after.

I prefer side lighting and avoid lighting from overhead unless the subject is looking up. Professional portrait photographers might use off camera flash. This is possible with a phone but I tend to use any light source I can find. Look for a bright window, a lit wall, something reflective, or the light from a spare phone or small LED light panel like this.

Silhouettes and reflections

Most of the time you will want to have the light behind you, lighting up what’s in front of you. Experimenting with silhouettes gives you the chance to flip this around and place your subject up against a bright light. This may be the sky, a low sun, or something as simple as a lit window.

Reflections can be found in the strangest places and playing with them can produce fascinating results. As well as an artistic selfie.


Objects in shots can provide a focus or point of interest in the portrait. I’m not saying you should cart around a case full of hats and comedy glasses, but there have been a few times when I’ve asked a nervous subject to shift their glasses on their nose. Or explain an object in their place of work, or take drink. Holding a familiar item can make people feel more comfortable. What seems like a pleasant distraction in reality is a way of bringing out natural mannerisms.

Another tip if you find yourself photographing pets or children… A squeaky toy works to get the attention of both.

Get serious

If your subject is smiling into the lens, your portrait may resemble a family snapshot. Fine it that’s what you are after. But it’s a force of habit for many when faced with a camera. Sometimes you might want to capture the person behind the smile. Natural spontaneous smiles and laughter make a great capture, but after the subject has smiled for the camera, try also to capture the moments in between. 

“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” ~ Paul Caponigro

As I said in the last issue and will probably say in the next one… These rules are here to be broken. Take lots of images and let your style evolve. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s not like you are burning up a load of film. Have fun.

There are some amazing photographers who read my emails. Please feel free to drop your tips or app recommendations in the comments below.

In the next issue we’ll look at landscapes, city scenes and general views. As this is not one of my strengths there may be lots of text and not many images. We shall see.

In the meantime if you find any of this useful please tell others. Or even better become a supporter by hitting the red button below.

It’s like thanking me with one beer a month.

And I thank you for reading.

Now go take lots of photos.


“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”

Jim Richardson