14 tips to help you take better family photos with your smartphone

This is the first of three posts that will help you produce amazing family photos with your smartphone. This week I'll give lots of tips on how to take better photos. Next time, I'll cover the basics of editing your photos in your phone. And after that I'll be sharing with you some of the apps I use for mobile photography.

The best camera is the one you have with you. And the one you have with you right now is probably your smartphone. Yes, point-and-shoot and SLR cameras take higher quality photos - but who carries a proper camera with them, anymore? I certainly don't. Sure, my SLR camera takes amazing photos, but it's bulky, heavy and precious. So, unless I've brought it along to shoot something special, it sits at home in a dark cupboard. My phone, however, is ALWAYS with me.

Luckily for us, smartphone camera technology has come a long way over the past few years. So, while your phone won't take photos that you can print to poster size, it can take beautifully sharp images that are large enough to view and share on a computer or print out for your family album.

Read on to learn about the basics of light, composition, using your camera app and the limitations of your smartphone camera (along with examples that I've taken of my own children), and you'll be on the way to taking better family photos.

1. Use the available light

Smartphone cameras don't perform well in low light. So make use of any available light (natural is best, but artificial light can work, too) by turning your kids around so the light is shining on them, or by moving them to a brighter area. This will keep your photos as noise-free as possible and help you avoid having to use your flash (see next tip for more on this).

The type of light you're photographing in will also have a huge effect on your end image. Overcast days might feel gloomy, but the cloud and fog disperse the sunlight, creating soft light that makes for beautiful photos. The light coming through a sheer curtain, or the light in open shade can also have a similar effect. The time shortly after sunrise, and shortly before sunset (called the golden hour) is another perfect time to take beautiful, warm images with a three-dimensional feel.

Making use of the narrow beam of light coming in the window created an interesting photo with a dark background.

Making use of the narrow beam of light coming in the window created an interesting photo with a dark background.

Photos taken at sunset have a lovely golden glow and vivid colours.

Photos taken at sunset have a lovely golden glow and vivid colours.

2. Your flash sucks

Flash is not your friend! The LED flash on your smartphone creates harsh and unflattering light that will flatten your image. So, wherever possible, make use of any available light by moving your subject or turning them towards the light.

If you absolutely have to use your flash, you can soften the light by holding a piece of paper (or a napkin) over the flash. It might sound silly, but it really works.

The direct flash used in this photo creates a harsh, flat and unflattering photo.

The direct flash used in this photo creates a harsh, flat and unflattering photo.

Moving my daughter back into the patch of natural light creates a much more flattering and three-dimensional portrait.

Moving my daughter back into the patch of natural light creates a much more flattering and three-dimensional portrait.

3. Keep it simple

It's easy to just pick up your smartphone and take a photo of your children. But an otherwise good photo can be ruined by cluttered background or an unfortunately placed tree erupting from a head. Keep photos clean and simple by either photographing your children against a simple backdrop or - if you can't move your them - move around the scene until you find an angle that gives you a less cluttered photo.

The simple background in this photo ensures that my little girl remains the focus of the image.

The simple background in this photo ensures that my little girl remains the focus of the image.

Here's my daughter playing with a hose on a hot, summer's day. Including the rest of the backyard in the photo would have been distracting - so I shot from above to keep the photo as simple as possible..

Here's my daughter playing with a hose on a hot, summer's day. Including the rest of the backyard in the photo would have been distracting - so I shot from above to keep the photo as simple as possible..

4. Get down low (or up high)

Do you simply lift your phone up at about eye height, point it towards your subject and snap? Most people do. The photos you get using this method will match what your eyes see, but what we see everyday can be a little boring. It's easy to create more exciting and dynamic photos of your kids by choosing other vantage points to shoot from.

The most flattering position to take photos of your kids is at their height or lower. So crouch, kneel, or even lie down. Get to their level and see the world from their point of view. You'll get much nicer and more visually interesting shots.

Alternatively, get up high. Stand above your child and get them to look up at you. Or climb on a chair, bench or table and get a birds-eye view of whatever they're doing. It's a little more effort, but well worth it.

To take this photo I lay down on the floor and angled my phone camera up.

To take this photo I lay down on the floor and angled my phone camera up.

Shooting this photo of my daughter taking a bath in the sink from above created a more interesting photo, and allowed me to avoid including the clutter on the windowsill. 

Shooting this photo of my daughter taking a bath in the sink from above created a more interesting photo, and allowed me to avoid including the clutter on the windowsill. 

5. Shoot in landscape

Your phone can take both portrait (taller) or landscape (wider) photos. Most people tend to default to portrait mode when photographing with their phones (as this is the way we naturally hold them). While portrait photos can be great, try forcing yourself to shoot in landscape orientation to see whether you like the effect.

Shooting in landscape allows you to capture more background, gives you the opportunity to include more white space (I love white space) and look better when viewed on a computer. Personally, I'm a sucker for landscape photos (I'd say that over 80% of mine are landscape).

One photo taken in portrait orientation.

One photo taken in portrait orientation.

The other taken in landscape orientation. Which do you prefer?

The other taken in landscape orientation. Which do you prefer?

6. Capture the details

When photographing your children, you don't always have to stand back and capture every object in the room at once. Let your photos tell a story by taking a mix of pictures of the whole scene (to give your photos a point of reference) as well as close ups of the lovely details (like chubby fingers, new shoes or looks of concentration). 

Exploring the world, one wet widow at a time!

Exploring the world, one wet widow at a time!

Detail of a walk with the girls on a summer evening.

Detail of a walk with the girls on a summer evening.

7. Use the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the best known photographic principles and if you follow it your photos will be more balanced and visually pleasing. I promise!

The best part is that the rule is super easy to master. Basically, you divide your image into thirds (vertically and horizontally) and place your subject or subjects at one of the four points where these lines intersect. Your camera app probably has a rule of thirds overlay function. If you're not already using it, switch it on and use it to compose your photo when photographing your children (or a landscape, or a building or that delicious meal you've just ordered). You'll be amazed at how much better your photos will look.

But don't stress too much about always following this rule. Kids don't stay still for long. It's more important to capture a beautiful moment than it is to have a perfectly composed photo (which you can crop to fit the rule later, anyway). And remember, rules are meant to be broken! Once you've mastered the rule of thirds, try some different compositions (like putting your child right in the middle of the frame) to see what effects it has.

TIP: Go through some of your old photos and crop them to fit the rule and see what impact this has. If you like the results, do send them to me, I'd love to see some of your before and after photos.

An overlay showing how I used the rule of thirds to compose this image.

An overlay showing how I used the rule of thirds to compose this image.

girl-walking-in-park.jpg

8. Remember to focus

Out-of-focus images suck. Most of the time, your camera app will probably do a fairly good job of choosing what part of your photo should be in focus, but it won't get it right all the time. Say goodbye to fuzzy pictures by manually selecting your focal point. In most camera apps, this is as simple as tapping the part of the image you want in focus.

If you're taking a close-up portrait of your child, focusing on their eyes is always a safe choice. If you're taking a photo from further away, lock focus on their faces. If the main subject of the photo is something your child is holding, eating or playing with, focus on this.

In this photo, I choose to focus on the cup in my daughter's hands, rather than her hat.

In this photo, I choose to focus on the cup in my daughter's hands, rather than her hat.

I was careful to focus on the bunch of flowers as the photo would have been ruined if the camera had focused on the red shoe.

I was careful to focus on the bunch of flowers as the photo would have been ruined if the camera had focused on the red shoe.

9. Adjust your exposure

Once you've set your focal point, your camera app will probably automatically set the exposure of your photo. Most of the time, it will expose correctly, but if your subject is framed against a very dark or very light background (such as your child standing against a window) it may over or underexpose your subject.

Most camera apps allow you to compensate for this by adjusting the brightness of your image after focusing. On the native iPhone camera app, simply set the focus then adjust your exposure by sliding the sun icon up or down with your finger to darken or brighten your photo. More advanced apps will allow you to set the focus and exposure points independently ('ll be reviewing some of these in the next few weeks).

When taking this photo of my daughter, the white background made my smartphone camera want to underexpose this image, so I had to increase the exposure after focusing.

When taking this photo of my daughter, the white background made my smartphone camera want to underexpose this image, so I had to increase the exposure after focusing.

I love this backlit photo of my friend and my youngest daughter, but the strong background light meant that I had to increase the exposure after focusing.

I love this backlit photo of my friend and my youngest daughter, but the strong background light meant that I had to increase the exposure after focusing.

10. Digital zoom is rubbish

Point and shoot cameras use optical zoom. This is where the lens actually adjusts to capture a smaller part of a scene and the image quality is unaffected. Smartphones, on the other hand, use digital zoom. Digital zoom is basically just your camera enlarging the middle of your photo and cropping the edges. This means that your photo will be low resolution, pixelated and generally of poor quality (see the below image for proof). So don't use digital zoom. Use your legs and get closer to your subject. 

I used the digital zoom on my smartphone camera to zoom into my daughter, who was standing about 20 meters away from me. As you can see, the photo is awful!

I used the digital zoom on my smartphone camera to zoom into my daughter, who was standing about 20 meters away from me. As you can see, the photo is awful!

11. Candid photos rock

I take a lot of posed portraits of my kids, but some of my favourite photos are the ones where they don't realise they're being photographed. Kids start posing for cameras at a ridiculously young age (my eldest developed her camera smile before she was three); so wait until they're absorbed in something they love doing before you take photos of them. This will give you the best chance of capturing who they really are. 

This day, my daughter did not want me to photograph her. I had to wait until she was fully occupied by her sandwich to get a candid snap.

This day, my daughter did not want me to photograph her. I had to wait until she was fully occupied by her sandwich to get a candid snap.

Who doesn't like following lines! I love this photo of my daughter just being a child.

Who doesn't like following lines! I love this photo of my daughter just being a child.

12. Take lots of photos

Back in the days of film cameras, each photo had to be developed and paid for, so people were much more selective about the photos they took. But digital photos are completely free. So don't take one, take twenty. This increases the odds of you capturing just the right expression, pose or moment. And you can always delete the duds afterwards.

13. Delete the duds

This brings me on to what I think is one of the best tips I can give you. And that's to delete, delete, delete.

You don't need 20 almost identical photos of your child doing that very cute thing. Really you don't! By all means, take dozens of photos of them; but when you're done, look carefully at the photos you've just taken, choose a couple of the best ones and DELETE THE REST! As soon as you can. 

It might not come naturally at first, and you will probably feel like you're erasing precious moments from history. But I promise you, your photo gallery will be much better and more interesting as a result. And by going through the culling process, you will quickly learn to identify what makes a good photo - which will help you learn how to take better photos.

14. Keep your lens clean

No matter how great your composition or subject are, if the lens on your camera is covered in grubby fingerprints, squashed banana or snot, your photos will be rubbish. Remember to clean your camera lens with a soft cloth regularly.

So that's it. I hope that these tips will help you take better photos of your children and family. So get practicing! Feel free to send me some of your snaps (I'd love to see them) and remember to check my blog again next week to learn how to edit your already hugely improved family photos to make them even more amazing.