I would like to preface this by saying, in big bold letters, I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER. Not by a long shot. I don’t even own a DSLR (maybe someday!) The most basic of photography jargon is usually way above my head and requires a lot of Googlin’. I respect the hell out of professional photographers and am not in any way suggesting that taking your own photos is superior to hiring a professional: but realistically, most of us can’t afford a professional photo shoot for every milestone/special event in our childrens’ (both furry and non furry) lives. What I hope this post will provide you with are some easy and basic tricks to take your Smartphone photos up a notch, and have them looking just a little more polished.
Most of what I’ve learned has been borne of necessity; as mentioned I do not have a DSLR camera and so I’ve had to really rely on a (very basic) understanding of photo shopping and the different tools needed to help elevate the quality of the photos I take. Kind of a smoke in mirrors situation, as it were. My go-to app for this is Snapseed. Download it right now because it is free, user friendly, and gets the job done. Let us begin.
Staging/Props: In my highly non-expert opinion, half the battle of getting a nice snapshot is staging. So go ahead and clear a spot (preferably with a lot of natural light — more on that below) and get everything out of the way. You don’t need professional equipment or studio space, but you do need to pay attention to detail. So get that pile of laundry and half dead plant the hell out of there. Remember, you don’t need a huge area (cropping is your friend) but you do want a clutter-free space to work within.
In terms of backdrops/props, I like to apply the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep it simple, Stupid. Remember, we are not professionals and the number one goal is to get a crisp, clean photo of your adorable kid. It might be tempting to try and recreate Santa’s workshop up in here, but for me, excessive props can be a distraction and take away from the star of the show (my baby, obviously!) For Billy’s Christmas pictures, I kept it pretty low key with a (fake) lighted tree and an all white backdrop/floor. Look how easy it is to accomplish this: I laid a white duvet on the floor (making sure to cover the baseboard) and boom! Done.
I also removed a hanging plant and photo I had up on the wall. To keep him occupied, I gave him a red ribbon with jingle bells on it: they served double duty as a small, non-distracting prop (that was still on theme with “Christmas”) and entertainment for him (bonus).
Lighting: Again, I repeat, I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER (and I am guessing if you’re reading this post you aren’t either) so using a flash properly is not in my/your wheelhouse. Turn the flash OFF people, and make sure you set up shop in a room that gets a ton of natural light, on a wall opposite the window. Either have the window light gently filtered by sheer curtains, or work on a bright but overcast day. You don’t want the sun shining directly in on your “set” casting manky-ass shadows and burning out the retinas of your kid/pet.
Timing: This has less to do with actual photography and more to do with common sense. You know your baby best, so keep that in mind when you are deciding when to take your photos. Aside from it being free, this is one of the best perks of taking your own photos rather than going to a professional. You can work around your baby’s schedule to ensure they are happy, well rested, and in the mood for pictures. Make sure you have your “set” prepared and ready to go beforehand so your baby is not waiting around/getting restless while you fuss around with it. I took Billy’s photos over a two day span: a couple of 15-20 minute sessions right after he got up from his morning nap because 1. I know he is always very happy during this time of day and 2. the lighting in his room is great at this time as well. I also didn’t push it: as soon as he started getting cranky and telling me he’d had enough we stopped.
Shooting: I cannot stress this enough: take a billion pictures. Of the two billion photos I took, I got about 15-20 that I really, really love, and the rest are trash. You want to make sure you have options, so snap away! Get different angles and positions; just go for it. I shot on my camera’s “auto” mode with the flash turned off. Because you aren’t using a flash, you will need a steady hand to keep the pictures from being blurry. If you are a jitterbug, consider buying a cheap Smartphone tripod from Amazon to help your shaky ass out.
[Note on positioning: If you have a large prop or piece of scenery (like the tree I used) as part of the backdrop and want to play with the depth of field (that cool, very professional effect where the subject is in sharp focus but the background is blurred), then try to position your baby a little bit in front of it, rather than directly beside it to make the effect more realistic when you edit later on.]
Editing: Listen, I love playing with filters and cool effects as much as the next guy, but the goal for these photos is for them to look as natural and professional as possible. Therefore, we are going to use a few very basic, very simple tools in the Snapseed app to bring out the best in your pics. Once you have chosen your favorites (try to choose crisp, in-focus shots) you are ready to start the fun process of editing! Along with a little effort in your staging, tasteful editing is what will really bring your Smartphone pictures up a level.
To get started, open up the Snapseed app on your phone and choose the photo you want to edit from your gallery/camera roll. Under the photo you will see “Styles”, “Tools”, and “Export”. For our purposes, we will be working exclusively from the tools menu. All of the edits I reference below will be found under this menu. To save any changes after performing an edit, you will select the check mark icon. If you’re unhappy with a change you’ve made, simply hit ‘x’ and it will revert back to the last saved version so you can try again.
Cropping: As I mentioned previously, cropping is your friend. In fact, a few of the pictures I had originally written off as garbage actually became my favorites due to some simple cropping!
The way Billy’s legs were positioned in the above photo was a bit distracting, not to mention how dark the bottom half of the photo is. So I used the app to crop the photo and bring the focus to his (beautiful) face, and it is (in my humble opinion) a completely different photo already. When you select “tools”, you will be given a ton of edit options to choose from.
Play around with the cropping until you have something you like, keeping in mind that you want your subject to be the main focal point. You can crop to get rid of anything you didn’t mean to have in the photo that might be on the outskirts, or to center the photo in a more pleasing-to-the-eye way (technical term). There is something called “the rule of threes” that professional photographers use, but I honestly am too lazy to learn exactly what it means so just do your best.
Exposure: you’re gonna wanna go ahead and brighten that photo. To do this I use the ‘curves’ feature to adjust the exposure. Put your finger on the blue dot and slowly pull it towards the left to brighten the photo. Don’t go too nuts, you don’t want to blow out the image!
This is an important step: what a big difference in the photo already!
Selective: Depending on how exposed the photo already is, I will sometimes use the “selective” tool to just slightly brighten up his little face. A very light touch here is all that is needed. After you have chosen “selective” from the tools options, touch the middle of the subject’s face and adjust the brightness by scrolling to the right on the “brightness” bar on the top of the photo.
A circle with a blue dot over the middle will appear over your subject. You can make the circle bigger or smaller depending on your preference; I usually don’t want any of the subject to be blurry.
You can move the entire circle by placing your fingertip on the blue dot and moving it around; Everything outside the circles will be blurry. Once you have your preferred area blurred, you can adjust how strong the blur is by scrolling to the right or left on the top on the “blur strength” bar. I usually have a +16 strength, for reference. One thing to note, lens blur also automatically adds a vignette effect (lightly darkens the corners of the photo) which I personally am not a huge fan of. To remove the vignette, touch anywhere inside the first circle (not on the blue dot) and move your finger upward.
A box will appear: keep dragging your finger upward until “vignette” is highlighted and release. You can then scroll all the way to the left at the top on the “vignette strength” box to remove it completely. Again, this is personal preference, you might like the vignette!
Now look at the difference between these two photos with just 5 or 6 minutes of editing.
Pretty great, right? If you want to go a step further, I find using the portrait feature under the “styles” menu can really finish off a photo nicely, but other times it reads a bit cheesy-Sears-portrait-studio to me, so use your judgement!
When you’re ready to save the photo, hit “export” and then “save” and your phone should create an album of “Snapseed” photos under your existing photo gallery. It really doesn’t get any simpler.
I really hope this little guide to Smartphone holiday photos is helpful to at least a few of you! We all want beautiful photos of our kids and pets but it is sometimes hard (especially around the holidays) to scrape up the cash for professional photography. Taking your own special occasion photos every now and again is a good compromise and can help you save up for that professional photo shoot splurge for the really big ones (first birthday, anyone?) Would love to see if any of you attempt your own mini-holiday shoot at home! Any questions, hit me up in the comments!
Merry Christmas everyone!