With smartphone cameras improving rapidly and Instagram ever so addictive, most people indulge in mobile photography of some sorts. But actually being good at mobile photography isn’t as easy as it looks, and very few manage to create quality images. This strikes me as a terrible shame, considering how accessible the medium is, so I’ve recently started running mobile photography workshops in Hong Kong, my base city. If you think this is something you could be interested in, test your knowledge of the basics. Here are what I view as the seven most common mistakes in mobile phone photography.
1: No clear subject
A photograph needs a clear subject, whether it’s a person, a building or simply a sunset. If it’s not clear exactly what you’re taking a photo of, then why are you taking it in the first place? When you’re starting out in mobile photography, don’t just walk the streets aimlessly taking photos. Walk the streets with curiosity, looking all around, until you see something that you find interesting. Then set yourself up to take the photo!
An example of a photograph with no clear subject
Here, the subject is clear
2: Photo needs explaining
Along the same lines, if you have to explain what you were trying to do or express with your photo, it’s probably not a good image. A photo, by its very nature, shouldn't need any verbal or written explanation for the viewer to connect with your image. If you show a photo to a friend and they ask "So what is it?" or just a plain "hmmm..." then you can probably delete it.
A photo with some humor is always a good thing!
Try to use people to show scale
3: Fear of deleting
Much to every budding mobile photographer’s annoyance, phone memories are finite. When hosting my mobile photography workshops in Hong Kong, I fully encourage people to go out onto the streets and shoot anything and everything that catches their eye. Only a fraction of these shots should, however, end up as "keepers" and/or posted on social media. Revisiting your photos and deleting the duds after a day of shooting will free up space for the next day and make you a better mobile photographer overall. There’s nothing quite like self criticism!
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4: Bad lighting
The number-one factor in photography is lighting, and bad lighting makes for bad mobile photography. Every budding photographer should know about the “golden hours”, dawn and dusk when the light is most even and therefore best for taking photos, but that doesn’t mean you should keep your phone in your pocket the rest of the day. During daylight hours, make sure you have your back to the sun and your subject in front of it, unless you’re going for a silhouette shot, and look out for uneven light and shadows that could unbalance your image or make it interesting! Mobile phone cameras are still under-performing compared to DSLRs when it comes to low light situations, so I’d stick to attempting more moody/artsy shots if you’re shooting after hours.
An example of of being on the side of poor lighting
Golden hour in Bali, Indonesia
5: Over processing in apps
Many mobile photographers disregard the above rules about lighting as they think these matters can be corrected by fiddling around with filters and settings in apps such as Instagram, Snapseed or Photoshop. This is only true to a certain extent, however, as any professional photographer can instantly tell when a photo has been doctored within an inch of its life. Next time you’re scrolling through Instagram, look for photos that are over-exposed, over-textured or over-saturated. These are the culprits. If a photo was good in the first place, apps and editing software should just enhance them, not completely transform them. In other words, try to get the best photo you can in your camera when you're actually shooting it.
An example of an over-processed photo
No over-processing here!
6: Uninteresting angles
We’ve all been conditioned to think that the subject should be smack in the center of our photographs — that’s what we’ve seen for years in our school and family photos. This may work sometimes but if every single image you produce is this way, then it becomes uninteresting! One of the first things I teach at my mobile photography workshops is the “rule of thirds”. The idea behind this is to mentally split your scene into three horizontal and three vertical thirds. Having a subject placed along the lines connecting the central thirds to the outside thirds makes for a much more interesting photo. If you’re finding this hard to imagine, load a photo into Instagram and click the “adjust” function. The grid lines will appear for you, and you’ll soon get the hang of where they are. On top of this, get up high, go down low and experiment with angles in general when practicing mobile photography. If it doesn’t work, you can just delete it later.
Experiment with angles
Rule of thirds & interesting lighting
The zoom function on mobile phone cameras are just no good yet. Period. If your subject is too far away to get a good shot with a nice framing, physically move in closer if possible. This is part of what it means to be a mobile photographer after all, so be mobile! If that’s not an option, try to take the photo from a distance and crop it to size later. Never use the zoom on your phone — it will just leave you with a closer image of a fuzzy subject.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank all the amazing small business owners, amateur & social photographers who’ve attended my mobile phone photography workshops in Hong Kong or have sent in their comments and questions so far. It’s been a blast and I can’t wait to see more of your creations going forward.
If you’re interested in signing up for the next class, click here and get in touch. I’d love to have you!
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A big thanks to Phottix for the professional lighting equipment provided to Ali G Studios.
All photos are © Ali Ghorbani and Ali G Studios