How to Take Professional Photos with Just a Smartphone

In a recent Facebook live broadcast, we asked Nathan William Lundquist, Emmy and Dove Award-winning filmmaker and the founder of Legacy Photo School, why photography is important to him. Nathan explained that photography is important because it’s all about remembering.

“Today we remember things primarily through images,” Nathan shared. “When you take an artistic approach to those images then you’re able to really capture the emotion that you experienced in that moment.”

It sounds daunting, but Nathan assured viewers that great photography is not about fancy high-tech gadgets but rather education. These are Nathan’s basic tricks that you can use to elevate your photography. Stop merely documenting information and start capturing memories that live and breathe with emotion.

1. Purpose determines distance.
Nathan’s first tip is about how far you are from your subject. Distance from the subject determines the focus of a photo.

“A close-up photo is about WHO someone is,” Nathan explained. If you are taking a photo to show the personality or quirky style of your child, get close.

Back up a little to capture WHAT someone is doing. Siblings playing together or a little one caught in mischief are perfect examples of when the action is the focus. Zoom out from the close-up to capture the “what.”

Finally, if the shot is all about location, get really wide to capture the WHERE.

2. Focus
When taking a photo on a smartphone, you want to make sure your subject is in focus. If you press and hold the spot where your subject is, an “auto-focus lock” comes on. Once that lock is set, your phone camera knows what to make the main focus, even if things move in the background.

3. Exposure
To determine the exposure of your photo, take a look at how bright the brightest parts of the photo are. If they are “washed out” or so bright you can’t see any details, then your photo is overexposed. This, Nathan explained, is the telltale sign of an amateur photographer.

So how do you fix it? If you’re photo is overexposed, start by doing the click-and-hold technique above. Depending on your phone, exposure can be changed by dragging your finger up or down or side to side. You want to bring down the brightness until the overly bright spots are no longer pure white. Even if the dark parts seem too dark, Nathan says this can always be fixed during quick edits. There is no fix, however, for an overexposed photo.

4. Editing
Editing is all about bringing the emotion in your photos. You can edit in most photo apps that come with a smartphone (especially on an iPhone) or you can download an app like Lightroom or VSCO. Editing, Nathan demonstrated, is a trial and error process. Slide the bars for various elements until you feel what you felt in the moment. Nathan demonstrated several changes you can make to photos, but he said these are the four most important edits:

Exposure/Brightness. Depending on the photo editing app you’re using, you can play with the exposure or brightness to affect how much light is in the image. Too much exposure and your image will have a harsh glow. Too much brightness and your photo will be whited out. Increase or decrease the light in your image to match the feeling of the moment. If you took a photo in a dark, cozy room, you can bring down the exposure to recreate that feeling. If the shot is too dark, increase the brightness or exposure.

Contrast. Contrast is the difference between the brightest and the darkest parts. Lower contrast makes the dark parts brighter, allowing you to see more details in the darker areas, but it also makes your bright spots duller. Play with the slider until you feel something.

Shadows. Changing shadows brightens or darkens the darkest parts of the photo. This is a great fix for a photo where you did the press-and-hold technique and then pulled down the exposure before capturing. You can brighten up dark subject images without overexposing the bright background.

Highlights. Changing highlights brightens or darkens the brightest parts of the photo. However, don’t depend on this edit to reduce overexposure. Even if you bring down the brightness of the overexposed parts, you can never get back their detail after the photo is snapped.

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