Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Everyone makes mistakes. Even those who are taking photographs for years make mistakes occasionally, but to my mind there are a few mistakes that are so basic that I know I shouldn’t be making them. If you are serious about phone photography these are mistakes you won’t want to make either. I hope that writing them out will help me to be more aware of these common errors and that reading about them will help you if you are making the same mistakes.
I love to have my phone for those unexpected photo opportunities but I need to be serious about phone photography just as with camera photography, and avoid making common mistakes
1. Not checking the horizon
This mistake is so basic that I can't allow myself any excuses for continuing to make it. Unfortunately though, sometimes if I rush the shot, or if I am concentrating on some other part of the image, I totally fail to notice that my horizon is slanted. The best solution is obviously to take more care and make it a priority to check that my horizon is straight before I take the shot. To help with this I can turn on the grid in camera settings. Luckily, if I don’t manage to get it right in-camera, it is easy to straighten a horizon with any editing tool, and I need to remember to do this before I share my image.
The other issue with capturing images that include a horizon is that there is general agreement among photographers that the best placing of the horizon is on one of the horizontal lines either a third of the way up from the bottom of the frame or a third of the way down from the top. This gives a more pleasing image than placing the horizon in the centre of the frame. It is an easy technique to get right, and having the grid overlay will help here also, but you need to look carefully at your landscape images and take your time to compose properly in order to ensure you get this basic principle correct.
In the first image the horizon is slanted
In this image the horizon looks better, though it is still too central in the frame
By cropping slightly I have placed the horizon closer to the top of the image, which is more appealing to the eye
In this image I placed the horizon closer to the bottom of the frame. There is a lot of negative space in the sky but I like the graduation in colour as the pink sunset creeps up into the blue sky, so for me it works
2. Not having a clearly defined subject
I have been guilty of arriving at a location, seeing a beautiful scene in front of me, and just taking a picture. Rarely does this succeed. It might make for a good snapshot that will be admired by friends, but it will not make a good image in photography terms. In an image like this there will be nothing to draw the viewer’s eye, no subject to pull the viewer into the frame. Having learned this lesson from so many failures, now when I get to a location I scout around for a suitable subject on which to focus. This could be something in the foreground of my frame, something in the centre or something in the background, but if I know what my subject is, I will then begin to assess the supporting elements. Generally it is good to have one main subject with other elements in the scene supporting that subject, or, if you wish, you can concentrate on having just the subject in the frame and using either negative space or blurring the background (possible on some phones) to avoid unnecessary distractions. All these techniques will produce a better image than a photograph where all the elements are given equal weight, and nothing stands out as the main subject.
The highest mountain was my subject here but I waited until the cloud tipped off the peak before I took the image. I think the viewer's eye is drawn to the mountain peak
In these images I made the plant in the foreground my subject but it is only of interest placed alongside the supporting elements
I made the hanging branches in the foreground of the image the subject here, although I used it to also draw attention to the beautiful winding river
The flowers in the foreground were my subject here while the distant mountain, the clouds and the rocks in the sea are supporting elements
In this image the person walking serves as the subject while the beach and clouds also provide interesting elements. The image may have looked empty without a specific subject
The stone is my subject in this image, supported by the foam of the incoming waves
3. Not setting focus
While we may have a subject in mind, it is also important to place the focus on that subject so that it becomes the most prominent element in the frame. On the smartphone camera we do this by pressing on the screen where we want the focus of our image to be. In the two examples below, I placed focus on the flower in the foreground in the first image, while in the second image I placed the focus on the background so that the background became sharp rather than the flower in the foreground. By getting used to setting focus like this we can ensure that our chosen subject is the sharpest part of our image.
For purposes of demonstration I took these two images. It is easy to see how setting focus makes a difference. In the first image I set focus on the flower, while in the second image the background is in focus while the flower is not. By the simple act of pressing on the screen we can ensure that the part of the image which we want to have in focus will be in focus. A simple but effective technique
4. Using digital zoom
This mistake was the easiest for me to remedy. I made this mistake all the time before I started to study photography. When I wanted to capture something in the distance I pinched the screen to zoom in on the subject, not realising that I was losing quality in the image by doing this. Now I just don’t zoom and if I want to capture something far away I either try to get closer or accept the limitations of the mobile camera and crop afterwards to bring my subject closer. With my two most recent cameras I did have optical zoom (2x) which allows me to get somewhat closer to my subject without any loss of quality. The latest Samsung Galaxy offers 3x, so optical zoom is improving all the time on mobile phone cameras.
The telephoto (2x) lens does allow us to get a closer image, with greater detail. It is even possible to see some detail on the cliff in the background
This is the same image taken with the wide angle and telephoto lenses. The telephoto lens is a real alternative to digital zoom without loss of image quality
5. Blurred images
Blurred images are often a result of taking a shot too quickly or not holding the camera steady. Many people hold the phone by the corners and extend their arms when taking a photo. From this position you often have to hold the phone with one hand while pressing the shutter button with the other, so the potential to take blurry images is high. Using a tripod is one solution to this but for most people carrying a tripod is not a realistic option so you can compromise by holding the phone so that it is gripped tightly, by keeping your elbows held close to your side when taking the shot, or by leaning against something such as a wall to steady yourself. Sometimes I place the phone on a solid surface to help avoid unintentional movement. After ruining a few shots, I began to take this mistake seriously so now I seldom have blurred images.
One option for holding the phone is to turn it so that the left hand (if you are right-handed) holds the phone tightly on the opposite side to the lens. The right hand can then be used to press the shutter. Alternatively, you can use the volume up or down buttons to take the picture, which gives a real camera feel, although you need to take care not to cover the lens. On my Samsung Galaxy S9+ there is also an option to have a floating shutter button on the screen, which can be moved and placed in the most convenient location. This is accessed in the camera settings.
This shot shows one option for holding the phone so you can avoid blurred images. For those who are right-handed, hold the phone in your left hand with two middle fingers firmly on the back of the phone while fore finger and thumb support from top of the phone. The little finger supports the bottom of the phone. The right hand is placed under the left and the thumb used to press the shutter. Alternatively,as mentioned above, the volume button can also be used from this position as a shutter button. This does not appear to be an intuitive way to hold the phone but when you use it for a while it gets easier to remember and it does improve the steadiness of the phone camera.
6. Taking the photo from the point of view of a standing adult
This is probably not so much a mistake as a personal preference, although I have read so much about shooting from different viewpoints that I almost feel that it is a mistake to just stand and shoot. Regardless of how we view this issue, there is no doubt that to vary our viewpoint and position is a good composition guideline in any type of photography. So I am going to count it among the mistakes I might make and try to vary my shooting position as much as possible.
Capturing a shot of this wildlife garden from a low angle gives a different feeling than taking the shot from a standing position
I hope these tips will help you avoid some of the most common smartphone camera mistakes and improve your mobile photography. If you would like to take your phone photography further you might be interested in some resources which I have found useful: