Photography 101

Using only your mobile phone’s native camera app, you can improve the way you make pictures, creating memories that will last a lifetime.

by Spencer Wynn | photography by Spencer Wynn

Imagine what life would be like without the comfort of our mobile phones. Sure, some people take a hiatus from technology and savour the quiet of unplugging, but, even if they are not connected, they are still making pictures with their mobile device.

Taking photos is so common that, Keypoint Intelligence, a global imaging consulting and resource group, estimates that humanity will take more than 1.44 trillion mobile phone images in 2021. A staggering number, but not so when you consider how many billions of people are snapping away on the planet every day.

With so many images blurring by on social media, it seems everyone is now a photographer. This, too, is a scary thought since there are a lot of really bad pictures being made with little care in how they appear.

Now, this is where you come in.

If you are someone who cares about quality images and image content, I can help! As a photographer and teacher, I care about images and the stories they can tell, influence and inspire.

Assuming all of us have a mobile phone that is reasonably current, we have a brilliant camera often less than an arm’s length away. Regardless of whether your flavour is iPhone or Android, you can start making better images right now and create more meaningful compositions. And, once a picture is made, you have the means to enhance the image and turn it from a good photo into a piece of art.

All the pictures used in this story were captured with my smart phone camera.

The exposure, as read by the phone, is seen on the left, but the image is too bright and lacks contrast and depth. The same image on the right, however, features lowered exposure to provide depth, saturation and mood.


Controlling exposure is the most important thing we can do to achieve the result we imagine when we look at a scene. Rather than letting the camera decide on the exposure, which is an average exposure of the scene, you can control the exposure to bring mood and richness.

On an iPhone, place and hold your finger on the screen to set the focus and exposure. If you wish to make the scene brighter or darker, simply slide your finger up or down beside the focus/exposure box. Now you are in control and can begin to make creative decisions on how the exposure should look. A camera is designed to give an average exposure, but this is often not what you want, so get creative. I typically underexpose just a bit as this gives me more punch and saturation.

With most Android devices, simply tap the screen to focus on your subject then use the sliders to adjust for exposure to achieve the look you want.

You can use the portrait mode to create a shallow depth of field, throwing the background out of focus naturally.

Depth of field

Cutline: You can use the portrait mode to create a shallow depth of field, throwing the background out of focus naturally.

By default, our phone lenses make images with a deep depth of field. This means that pretty much everything is in focus from foreground to background and this is fine for landscapes or other broad scenes. But what if you want to get close to your subject and have it nice and sharp while throwing the background out of focus? This separates your subject from the background, giving you a shallow depth of field.

The ability to have a shallow depth of field is hard to engineer in a mobile camera as we cannot adjust an aperture, so it is done through software. Phone manufacturers know this is a very popular feature so they have built in a “portrait mode.” Basically, the camera identifies a face or other dominant subject close to the lens, keeping it sharp while blurring the background. Sometimes it works well, other times not so much.

If you want a more natural blur in the background, get in close to your subject. If you think you are close, get even closer! A good composition rule is to fill the frame with your subject. If it is a beautiful flower, get in close, tap on the flower to focus and the background will naturally be somewhat blurry.

All too often we see the world from the level of people’s eyes. To give a unique point of view and experience with our images, try making photos from different levels.

Change the perspective

While you are down on your knees taking that photo of a flower, try angling your camera up to give a unique point of view. So often, people will hold their camera at about a 5-foot level since that is how we view the world. Try shooting up to create a refreshing and unexpected view. Or, conversely, get up on a picnic table or other higher vantage point and shoot down to mix up perspectives. This will add interest and variety to your images.

Look for things in your environment that may be used as framing devices, like these bridge columns can be used to frame the scene behind them, left. The cyclists add interest and a human element to the framed composition.


Leading lines help the viewers eyes travel through an image. In this case the leading lines lead you to the city in the background.

Since I mentioned rules, there is one composition rule that everyone should be aware of: the rule of thirds. This is represented on our mobile phone screens by two vertical and horizonal guidelines that divide the scene into thirds. The guidelines are there to help you place important elements of a scene along them. Reserve the intersecting vertical and horizontal guidelines for the most important parts of a scene like someone’s face or a tree in a wide scene.

If you are photographing a lake, try to align the horizon with the upper or lower horizontal guideline. This will place more emphases on the sky or the water. If the horizon is centered, the scene will still look fine, but is more static and lacks a bit of interest.

This also goes for vertical subjects like a person. If you are photographing a person, try placing them off-centre. This too will make your image look more interesting. Try then to place them on the left or right guideline and have more negative space on the side they are looking at so the viewer “sees” in the direction in which the subject is looking.

If focus and exposure are your meal, then the secret sauce is composition!

Leading lines help the viewers eyes travel through an image. In this case the leading lines lead you to the city in the background.

Other composition rules you should know are:

• Fill the frame with your subject, which eliminates a lot of distraction in the background.

• Be sure you don’t cut off people’s limbs if you are photographing a full body. Exceptions would be if you are coming in for a nice portrait.

• Find things to use as framing devices such as windows or a space between two trees or arches on a bridge. Framing your scene creates depth and focuses the eye on your subject.

• Use leading lines to guide the eye to your subject. A row of fence posts or trees in a field will lead the viewer’s eye deeper into the image to the subject of the photo.

• Keep your scene simple and uncluttered. Moving in closer will do this, as will using a shallow depth of field.

• Speaking of background: Watch out for elements that are distracting. Nobody looks good with a telephone pole growing out of their head. If there are distracting elements, just move until you find a cleaner background behind your subject.

• Create a sense of depth by having a foreground object in your scene such as leaves on a tree with a garden or dock in the distance.

An interesting bridge, left, but it is not a very interesting composition. By zooming in – or walking closer – we fill the frame with the bridge, bringing us closer to the story.

By keeping these compositional rules in mind, you will instantly start making images that are more balanced and much more creative. Together with control over your exposure and an awareness of composition, you will really elevate your photography.

Making a photo is different than taking a photo. Making a photo means that you recognize in a scene the potential for a compelling image with various storytelling elements, interesting light and an image that is made with purpose.

Pre-visualizing a photo means you are bringing your skills of exposure, focus and composition into play. Before you click the shutter button, make sure you clean the lens of your camera for more clarity. Like any camera, a clean lens will make a better image. We handle our phones so much, it is easy to have the oil from our hands, or lint from pockets on the lens.


Okay, now that you are inspired, go out there and start making beautiful images! But, one more thing; as good as mobile phone images look on the screen, sometimes they need a bit of enhancing to make them look even better when we put them online.

While you are out making pictures or just taking a walk, be aware of scenes that might look great at night. I do a lot of night shooting as is one of the times I like the most for photography. During the day, a scene may be unremarkable, but at night it is transformed.

Before you set your camera to night mode, or long exposure mode, activate the self-timer before clicking the shutter button. The self-timer is useful for more than selfies – it can be used to trigger a shot, allowing you to click the button and not worry about moving the camera when the picture is made.

To make long exposure images, you will need a camera mount and tripod or an integrated mobile phone tripod. Many of these are very small and affordable and can expand to grip most camera sizes.

I use Adobe Photoshop in my daily workflow when I am producing my images, but when I use my mobile phone and am not at a computer, I will always, always enhance my mobile images using the free app, Snapseed. This app, available for both iPhone and Android, is a powerful enhancing tool. If you are proud of your images, then show them a little love and give them a quick enhance before introducing them to the world.

With Google’s Snapseed, you can control all attributes of an image such as brightness, contrast, saturation, opening up the blacks and dimming highlights. You can also sharpen local areas, add vignettes, apply creative filters and much more. With Snapseed you will take your great image and make it a masterpiece! Really!

Spencer Wynn is a former visual journalist at the Toronto Star, and now a photographer and college educator teaching photography. He is passionate about images and the stories they can tell, influence and inspire.