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7 Tips to Take Better Photos and Video on Your Smartphone

How to capture great-looking memories on a device that's always within reach

spinner image Manhattan Beach at sunrise
Right before sunrise in early December 2020 at Manhattan Beach Pier in Southern California.

The best camera, as they say, is the one you have with you.

And considering that as of last year 96 percent of Americans now own a mobile phone — from a simple flip phone to a minicomputer smartphone — you likely have a device in your pocket or purse to capture memories and share them with those who matter. You might be surprised at just how good phones are getting at taking photos and shooting video.

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This is especially true for the latest smartphones, which have greatly improved cameras compared with earlier models. But you can do a few things to truly get the most out of your images.

For some “phonography” tips and tricks, AARP caught up with Jefferson Graham, USA Today technology columnist as well as host and producer of an online travel photography show, Photowalks. Graham also is putting the finishing touches on a book, 52 Great Tips to Improve your iPhone Photos and Videos, to be published in February.

spinner image Evelyn Schmitt taking a posing with a digital camera
Stepping closer can give you details in a person’s face or even the background behind. Evelyn Schmitt of Manhattan Beach, California, is getting ready to take pictures of the Pacific at the Manhattan Beach Pier.

1. Get in close

"Even though the latest smartphones have better optical zoom to help you get closer to the subject, use your feet to get closer to the subject. It will be a much better-looking photo,” Graham says. “The only way to get up close and personal is to get up close and personal.”

So unless you want a lot of the background in your photo, fill the whole frame with your subjects. Using your camera's zoom to simulate getting closer to your subject can lower the resolution dramatically and won't look good if you decide to print the image larger later.

Moving closer also means you can capture more facial detail, such as freckling, a dimple or a stunning detail of someone's iris. But play around with how close is too close. That “macro” shot of, say, a flower, might look blurry when you look at it later on a computer screen or television.

2. Pay attention to lighting

Avoid using your phone's flash. The bright LED flash can result in overexposed images and washed-out colors. Instead, use whatever light is accessible to you, indoors and out, to capture the most flattering shots.

"If you're outside, shoot on cloudy days as they diffuse the sun or try to shoot in the shade,” Graham says. “If the sun is out, be sure your back is to the sun and not your subject's or else they'll look like a silhouette.” Similarly, if you're photographing someone indoors, avoid placing the person near a window.

3. Shoot sideways

While holding the phone vertically might feel more comfortable, grasp it horizontally, perhaps with two hands. The photos will look better when viewed on a computer or TV screen.

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"Not only will you lose about 40 percent of the image, but you also probably don't want those black bars on each side of a photo” if you view a vertical photo on a horizontal screen, Graham says. Horizontal orientation — you'll also hear it called landscape — also is better for group photos and nature shots to get more into the frame.

"Unless you're taking a picture of the Empire State Building or the odd portrait of someone, hold the phone sideways,” he says. Shooting vertical is also known as portrait mode.

spinner image Jinx cat laying down
Natural light and a little delay from the phone camera’s timer make details of every hair on Jinx’s body stand out.

4. Use this timer trick

If you're not trying to capture something that will move quickly, try a time delay.

"Your smartphone's timer can be your best friend,” Graham says. A 3- or 10-second countdown, which are the usual options, is ideal for a couple of reasons:

  • You get time to reposition everyone until the shot is perfect, such as trying to fit seven family members into a selfie.
  • And you don't need to have a finger free to tap the shutter button, which can shake the camera slightly, resulting in a blurry shot.

5. Stabilize your video

Graham's top tip for shooting video: Hold the camera as steady as possible. Many phones have optical image stabilization, which could help steady your shot. But you also can do your part to reduce the odds of a blur.

Put both hands on the phone or use your surroundings, for example, by carefully resting the phone on a railing outside or propping it against some books when conducting a video interview inside with a loved one.

"If you can, also pick up an inexpensive selfie stick or tripod,” he says. “It can be a great tool in your arsenal and go a long way to steadying your shots. As much as you try, it's difficult to stop your hands from shaking after a few seconds of holding the phone."

6. Position properly

Instead of placing your subjects in the center of the frame all the time, move them to the left or right to make your photos instantly more powerful. Better yet, go in at an angle to add some extra energy to the shot.

To get people to smile naturally, Graham suggests asking them to laugh out loud and do it with them.

"A natural smile will emerge,” he says. “And you'll have fun, too."

Don't always take photos of people posing for the camera. Their expressions can look forced and unnatural. Candid shots are great, but be sure to get your subject's permission before uploading the photo or video to social media.

7. Don't delete so fast

One last tip, an easy one: Take a ton of photos and videos — because you can.

Unlike film cameras and early digital cameras with limited memory cards, today's smartphones have a ton of storage. The more photos you take, the better chance you have of finding a winner. That's just in case you realize that someone is blinking or little Billy is giving his grandma rabbit ears.

Don't delete the duds immediately either. You might see that you've taken a great shot after all when you look at it on a larger screen. You'll waste your phone's precious battery power by deleting when the device is away from its charger. And you might miss an amazing moment while you have your head down.

You can delete later. Concentrate on taking great pictures now.

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