Lumos Studio

South Carolina Wedding Photography Blog

How to Take Better Pictures With Your Camera Phone: Get Close

When, as a kid, I wanted to learn about photography, I’d go to the library. (For my younger readers, that’s a big building which, at one time, had books in it rather than dozens of people sitting at computers updating their Facebook statuses.) At that time, photography books fit pretty well into two categories:

  1. Books with beautiful photos and no information at all about how to take them
  2. Books filled with pages upon pages of information on developing your prints and using equipment that I wouldn’t get my hands on for another 15 years.

There wasn’t much in the way of instruction about how to take a consumer-level camera and just take better pictures. That’s why, when I found it, the work of Nick Kelsh was such a revelation. In his book How to Photograph Your Family, he broke photography down into three simple rules:

  1. Get close
  2. Take more photos
  3. Turn off your flash

This was instruction I could work with. Later on I’ll look at points two and three, but in this post I’d like to explore the effect that getting close will have on your photos.

How getting close improves your photography

I have to start by saying that any “rule” of photography has probably been broken at least a thousand times to amazing effect, so when I make a photographic suggestion, just translate that as, “This will probably work well a good bit of the time, except when it doesn’t.”

Getting close allows your viewer to focus on your subject and eliminates distracting elements from your photo. Here’s a picture I took of my Mom’s (mean) cat, Kitty:

Kitty was sitting on a couch with a print pattern and a blanket thrown over its back, next to a floor lamp. While I was grateful for the light the lamp provided, neither it, nor the couch, nor the blanket, added anything to the image I wanted to capture. As such, I got (dangerously) close to Kitty and took this shot. The distracting elements are (almost) gone. (I still kind of hate that the lamp’s stand is in the background.) The focus is on the cat, where I wanted it.

If you’re taking a photo of your children, what is important to you? Is it the place they’re sitting, the pants they’re wearing, or is it their faces? Some of the most beautiful children’s portraits I’ve ever seen were of nothing but the child’s eyes.

This isn’t just true for portraits, though. By making your subject the star of your photo you help direct your viewer’s attention to what you want them to see.

This pocket watch was a wedding gift from my friend Rob. I filled my frame with the watch because, well, the table it was sitting on was pretty boring. Also, I was tempted to include more of the chain, but realized it would have been at the expense of the watch’s face, which was my main subject. It wasn’t worth it–the chain had to go.

Be careful!

When Nick Kelsh told his reader to “get close”, he explained that he didn’t actually mean to stand physically close to your subject, but rather to zoom your lens in as tight as you can and fill the frame with your subject. The reason for this is that when you get very close to a subject, it tends to distort it. Try taking a photo of yourself with your camera close enough to your face to fill the frame from edge to edge. Yeah, not exactly flattering, is it?

[I was going to put a photo here of myself that I had taken from about 8 inches away but was afraid I’d scare young children.]

You can get around that problem by zooming in, but unfortunately, there aren’t many camera phones with optical zoom and digital zoom is not something you want to use. As a result, when photographing people with a camera phone, you have to find a balance where you maintain intimacy and keep your subject the dominant element in the photo but also avoid unflattering distortion. This photo of my father-in-law is one of my favorites that I’ve taken of him and, like the other pictures on this page, was taken with my iPhone.

You might notice that Sid’s hands look a little big. That’s because they’re the closest thing to the lens, and things that are close to the lens will be magnified. Since a person’s nose is generally the foremost thing on their face, getting too close can result in some most unfortunate distortion. Don’t do that to your friends.

The next time you get your camera phone out to snap a picture, stop to think about what is important in the photo and, if you can, make that the only thing in the photo. Just don’t get too close to a mean cat.

If you enjoyed this, you can read more of my musings on mobile photography here.

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