Photography for Beginners - Phone Photography

Photography for Beginners Series – Phone Photography

On a once in a lifetime trip, taking photos is a necessity. How else will you show your family that orang-utan, or that elephant, or your amazing hike through the jungle, or that time you saw that incredible view from the top of the mountain? Whether you’ve got a smartphone or a fancy DSLR, I’ve got you covered. In this handy article I’ll take you from a happy snapper to an expert in no time. I should preface this by saying that there may be some terminology which sounds complicated but I’ll include notes at the end for some more detailed explanations.

Phone Photography

Phone photography is by far the most common type of photography. As technology advances, we have the most advanced and intelligent cameras right at our fingertips. The bonus of a phone camera is of course, that it’s in your pocket! Rarely do we leave our homes without it and it takes no time at all to navigate and operate the camera. I regularly turn to my phone camera rather than my DSLR because it’s convenient and fast!

I regularly turn to my phone camera rather than my DSLR because it’s convenient and fast!

Will Hall

What you’ll need

This is pretty simple… you just need a phone. Even the most basic models nowadays come with a camera and there are some techniques which can make lower quality cameras produce high quality images. A phone camera is essentially made up of a simple lens and a sensor. The zoom on the camera is digital which means there’s no moving parts to allow dirt or dust to get into the body – which is ideal for outdoorsy people! If your phone has a camera with multiple lenses then lucky you – you have even more versatility with your phone photography!

There are a couple of tiny extra accessories which might be worth investing in before a trip away though which could really enhance your photographic ability. The first is a tripod; you can pick these up for next to nothing and they tend to clamp around the body of the phone. A tripod helps for long exposure images of the night sky and for those group selfies. The second bit of kit is a set of “lens clips”. These are a novelty but incredibly useful and can make even the most basic of phone cameras capable of tabling phenomenal macro or telephoto images. The kit is usually comprised of a clip which goes around the phone with various lens attachments which turn your phone into a mini DSLR. Finally, a selfie stick. They get a bad rep but they do allow you to get more into your shot. That means more people and more drama! These cost peanuts and can really help you get that perfect shot.

As a little bonus bit of kit, I would thoroughly recommend you get a decent case – ideally waterproof. Any adventure you go on will be hard on your tech and so if you want to be able to keep those images, you need to protect it. Look for cases with anti-dust covers for ports and good drop protection. Don’t forget a screen protector!

Easy phone settings

Grid Lines on phone photography

Grid Lines

Almost every phone has an option for enabling grid lines. There may even be different options for different types of grid lines. The most common one however is the Rule of Thirds or just Thirds. This helps you position your subject into the best place to create a visually pleasing image. To use grid lines effectively, try to place your subject on the intersection point of any of the lines. You’ll notice that that means that your subject will rarely be in the centre of the image. This is because, innately, the human brain doesn’t like central subjects; preferring off centre subjects giving context to an image.

In this shot you can see how I used gridlines to compose the image by placing the eye over an intersection.


HDR or “high dynamic range” is a setting which is widely available in most modern phone cameras. What this does is take three images at different exposures. One will be underexposed, one in the middle and the third will over expose. The phone will then blend the three shots to give you a perfectly exposed image. This setting is ideal for landscapes where there is a lot of contrast; this way you don’t loose any detail in the shadows or over expose any highlights. The downside of this setting is that the file sizes are a bit bigger, so be careful you don’t fill up your phone’s memory!

Long Exposure

Long Exposure - Phone Photography - Will HallSometimes you might be in a dark environment and you don’t want to use the flash to get your image. Long exposure can help if the environment is still. Essentially it will allow the sensor to absorb light for longer. In this way, the image is brighter. Be aware though that this might make things blurry if they’re moving around. Long exposure is ideal for a night time photo. If you’re travelling somewhere where the night sky is impressive then it’s a great ideal to check if your phone has this setting and familiarise yourself with how to use it. Try long exposure with a tripod combination for the perfect shot.

This is a good example of where there is a lot of contrast and having HDR allows me to keep all the detail throughout the image.

Portrait Mode

Most phones have a portrait mode and it’s no secret that they’re great for taking photos of people. This is because the camera selects the subject and blurs the background. But did you know that you can usually adjust the amount of blur by tapping on the F-number at the top of the screen? Play around with the f-number to include more or less detail in the background. This can be great for telling more of a story in your images; similarly, it can help remove unwanted distractions from that perfect selfie.

Wildlife Flash Photography - Will Hall
Flash Modes

If your phone has a camera, it will probably come with a flash too. Flashes are not only really useful for checking to see if a snake has curled up in your boots overnight, but also because they mean you can photograph a fast subject by “freezing’ it in the flash. Although the flash is probably known about already, I’ve included it in this list because sometimes phone users forget that their phone is not always right. If you leave your phone in “auto” flash, the camera might not use the flash in  the right setting, or, even worse, it might enable it in the wrong setting and scare away whichever critter you might be trying to photograph in the dark. Personally, I could manually enable and disable the flash, so plan ahead!

It’s also worth noting that flash can cause funny things to happy to the subject’s eyes if you’re not careful. Infamous “red eye” can ruin a good image.

This badger was photographed using flash but required a lot of patience and careful set up!
In Conclusion

Modern phones come with some of the most sophisticated and advanced cameras available and for a fraction of the price. With some basic changes to your camera settings you can get some truly remarkable and unique shots. Be sure to check your own make and model to see if there are any settings hidden away. As always, the best way to improve is through practice so before you leave for your Camps International trip, get out there and have a go!

Definitions and Meanings

  1. DSLR – digital single-lens reflex camera – synonymous with most modern digital cameras.
  2. Digital – digital zooms use the internal computer to calculate the zoom. As a result the image quality generally gets lower as you zoom in because you’re effectively “cropping” the image.
  3. F-Stop – the F-number or F-stop is a number which relates to the aperture. This is more relevant in DSLRs but phone cameras use this technology too, just a more simplified version.
  4. Red eye – red eye is where light bounces off the back of the retina causing a demonic red dot to appear in the eye. Easy to remove with a bit of editing though.

About Will Hall

Will Hall – Wildlife Presenter and Photographer. Will is an animal biologist from Hampshire, UK. He has a passion for bushcraft, wildlife and tracking which has lead him to pursue a career in outdoor education and adventure. His videography work has been seen on BBC and ITV while his photography has been featured in the Times, Telegraph and Mail. Will is currently living in Scotland where he works as a bushcraft instructor and wildlife guide in the highlands; teaching young people about nature, conservation and bushcraft – often through the medium of photography.

Why not visit Will’s Instagram for more inspiration.

More Articles in the “Photography for Beginners Series” by Will Hall

  • DSLR Photography – Coming Soon
  • Easy Photography Techniques – Coming Soon
  • Editing – Coming Soon

Practised and mastered your phone photography techniques?  We can’t wait to see your new skills captured on expedition.

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