8 TIPS FOR TAKING BETTER PHOTOS WITH YOUR PHONE

8 Tips for Taking Better Photos on Your Phone. Don Urban Photography.

They say the best camera is the one you have on you. Most people have a phone on them, and therefore a great camera. ( I have a friend who has a flip-phone, but that’s another story!) As photographers, we are so lucky to be able to have these powerful cameras that just slip into our pockets or bags. It’s a modern miracle!

Phone cameras are great, but you have to treat them like a camera, not a phone, to get the best out of them.

Redfern Sydney 2013. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7
Redfern Sydney 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7

use the front camera

Your front camera is going to be way better than your back camera. For example, here are the tech details on my Samsung Galaxy S7:

Rear: Dual Pixel 12MP
Front: 5MP

More than double the megapixels. It is going to produce sharper and better images. Unless it is selfie-time, use your main camera to capture as much detail as possible.

Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.
Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.

CLEAN THE LENS

Sound basic right? Fingerprints easily get on the lens, just by holding your phone. A quick wipe will guarantee you are not getting that David Hamilton look. I use and recommend a t-shirt. Haha.

Flowers in vase. 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7
Flowers in vase. 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7

FIND THE GOOD LIGHT

Shooting in shadows or in full bright sunlight are going to do nothing for your images-especially if you are photographing yourself or others. Look for light shade, indoors with some soft light coming through curtains.

Harsh shadows, unless you are going for a high-contrast image, are not going to look great when shooting people or flowers for example.

Avoid using the flash. Generally the flash is just going to ‘blow-out’ your image and it will look terrible.

Shooting at sunset or sunrise is always going to produce better images too.

Newtown, Sydney 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.
Newtown, Sydney 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.

reduce saturation PLEASE!

Nine time out of ten, you are going to want to reduce the saturation of your images slightly. Nothing screams inexperienced like oversaturated images. Hit that slider and calm the image down a little. You will always have a better looking shot by reducing saturation. Please. Nobody likes having their retinas burnt out by oversaturated images.

Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.
Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.

KEEP YOUR PHONE ROCK STEADY

Nobody likes unintentionally blurred images. If you are going for a longer exposures, use a mini tripod or rest your phone on a park bench, post or against a tree. I love my mini tripod- it just goes in my pocket.

Australian Technology Park. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7
Australian Technology Park. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7

don’t zoom

You will destroy your image quality. Simple as that. Zoom with your feet. That said, zooming a tiny amount will reduce distortion, I have found, when shooting portraits.

Newtown, Sydney 2013. Shot on iPhone 5.
Newtown, Sydney 2013. Shot on iPhone 5.

USE AN APP OR PRO MODE

Unless your phone has ‘PRO’ mode, (or even if it does) The Adobe Lightroom Photo Editor is amazing for shooting with complete control over shooting and for editing. It is available free for Android and IOS.

If your camera has a “PRO’ mode, use it to really take control of your photos. A whole world opens up to new possibilities when you don’t rely on Auto.

Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.
Greendale, Sydney 2019. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7.

think like a pro

By this I mean, look for different angles, (high, low) shoot through other objects like door frames (frames within frames), leading lines (like a garden path, or a row of trees). Use dynamic angles (tilt your phone). Get creative.

Flowers in vase. 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7
Flowers in vase. 2018. Shot on Samsung Galaxy S7

CONCLUSION

If you think like you are using a ‘real’ camera, you will get more from your photos. If you have the attitude: ‘this is just a photo on my phone’ then that is all you will achieve. Clean your ‘camera’, get creative, play with apps and editing, keep your camera steady and watch those saturation levels.

Best wishes until next time,

Don

8 Tips for Taking Better Photos on Your Phone. Don Urban Photography.

Portrait Photography Techniques

The Challenge of an uncomfortable portrait sitter

Last week, as a bit of a challenge from a friend, I photographed a self-confessed hater of sitting for portraits, my ex-girlfriend Sharyn. Although she is very striking, she is not that comfortable in front of the camera. So, challenge accepted, she came over to have her portrait taken.

We parted ways over 30 years ago, but have been friends since reconnecting around 10 years ago. I wanted her to look stunning. I wanted her to want to hang one of these images in her family home. To post them on social media. To be really happy with them.

Generally speaking, people want to look good in their portrait. Not many people want to be portrayed in a bad light, or for the image to be unflattering. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but for the life of me I can’t recall any reason why.

She HATES having her photo taken. Her son, Jude, graces my front page. He loves having his photo taken. So when she joked about me photographing her, I said I would make her look great, and more importantly, feel comfortable doing so.

I started off using a flash with a softbox, in a Beauty Portrait style setup- with flash above and directly in front of the sitter, with a reflector under their chin to fill the shadows. But I was not getting what I wanted so I switched to 100% natural light.

Luckily I am blessed with gorgeous light in most of my house. All these images were taken in different rooms of my house and studio. Work with what you have got. Look for where the light is good in your home.

MAking Someone feel good in front of the camera

So, here are some thing I learnt about shooting someone who hates the camera:

  1. Drink champagne. (Okay, this was her trick!) I am not endorsing the consumption of alcohol, but a little drink while chatting beforehand and half way through the shoot can work wonders for a nervous sitter. If you know them, okay. I would never suggest this with someone I don’t know. (A little bit creepy)
  2. Talk to them through the whole process. I show my sitters how I want them to stand, or what to do with their hand. “Sit with your legs up like this, and your hand resting here.” Explain the lighting, the poses, how you want them to sit, what to think about. Yes, how to think. “Think about being confident, brave.”
  3. Give constant feedback. “You are looking great.” “You look gorgeous.” “These photos are going to look so nice.” You have to mean it, otherwise you are lying. “I like that pose, yes, that looks great.” They can’t see what you are seeing, so you have to tell them.
  4. Show them. Pause every now and then and show them the preview screen. I generally shoot hand-held, so it’s easy to show them how they are looking. Pick the good one to show them…not the one where you caught them off guard and they are pulling a face. They will generally (and hopefully) say “Wow, that looks good!” Which is the signal to keep going.
  5. Ask them. Ask how they are doing, are they okay. “You are looking more comfortable now, are you feeling it?
  6. Laugh. I always try and keep every shoot light and fun. In between these photos were were laughing and joking around. (There were some of those too, I just didn’t include them here)
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/60 sec @ f/4 ISO 320 Natural light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/60 sec @ f/4 ISO 320 Natural light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural light, reflector under chin.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural light, reflector under chin.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural window light.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural window light.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/125 sec @ f/4 ISO 500 Natural window light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/125 sec @ f/4 ISO 500 Natural window light, no reflector.

I hope that has been useful in shooting portraits where the sitter isn’t so comfortable in front of the camera.

Until next time, best wishes,

Don

The Worst Photography Tips Ever- Part 1

FIll the frame

Cram all your information into the frame. Don’t leave ‘breathing room’. Negative space is so negative, man. Grrrrr. This one gets on my nerve. Fill the frame? Er, no. Woops, looks like nobody told (master) Fan Ho to fill the frame. Negative space is king.

Fan Ho. Hong Kong Memoirs.

follow the rules

Rule of thirds? Check! Centre your subject? Check! Golden Ratio Spiral? Check! Ahhhh! Half of those Golden Spiral images you see are just a spiral placed over an image. You can make the spiral fit most images. I say, don’t follow rules. I say do what you feel. Rule of thirds seem to make very ‘appealing’ and ordinary images. Our brains have seen it so many times we are immune to harmonious. Following rules does not lead to innovation.

Someone trying to tell me that this Ansel Adams images conforms to a Golden Ratio. That mountain on the right ain’t the focal point. (the clouds are)

Buy gear!B

Saw an article saying you should buy more equipment if you wanna shoot like a pro. Links to affiliate Amazon links follow. Buy equipment you need. Buy something that will help you take photos. Want to do long exposure? Okay, you may need a tripod if you have been struggling for weeks with putting your camera on a rolled up jumper. (Ask me how I know?!)

Megapixels are everything!

Megapixels are the most important thing when buying a new camera. Everything. Less than 24 megapixels? Haha. Out of the game buddy. Haha! If only it were that simple. Many factors go into what makes a great camera. What made me buy mine? Holding it in my hands. It just felt ‘right’. If your camera doesn’t feel nice to hold, well, you won’t hold it so much.

Instagram is super important

No. No. And no. Shoot for yourself, not a square.

More here

Best wishes until next time,

Don

What the hell is lifestyle photography?

Not portrait, not journalistic, not commercial. OR NOT.

Somewhere between portrait and documentary photography is a style called Lifestyle Photography. Telling a story in a creative, fly on the wall manner that may or may not be staged. Sometimes a little suggestion from the photographer and sometimes not. Not posed, but perhaps a little. A little structure, but not too much. Clear enough? Hahaha.

The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.  #portraitphotography #lifestylephotography
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.

Luckily I have been called into action a few times over the past couple of years to shoot this style for my partner. The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield. She likes to keep her website and marketing photos fresh and up-to-date. She loves having dozens of images to choose from too. Luckily she has a boyfriend who is a photographer! Luckily, I am always looking for people to sit for me!

For the past few years I have been her personal photographer, so it’s been interesting to see the development of my own skills and our partnership connection when shooting. Denise is very specific about way she wants in terms of exposure, lighting, brand colours and the overall feel and look of the photos. That takes a lot of pressure of me! She also requires large negative spaces to put texts and call-to-action links in. Very specific.

All this can really help you as a photographer because once those constraints are in place, you can be free to explore and play.

The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield. #portraitphotography #lifestylephotography
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield. #portraitphotography #lifestylephotography
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.

Luckily my partner is super-relaxed in front of the camera, and I give her no direction at all. She is playful and fun and I think her personality really comes across in these shots.

The key to great lifestyle shots is relaxing. Shooting loosely, with little direction, I think they are the cornerstones of this style of photography. Fun, playful and telling a story is what you want to achieve. I think one of the keys is to embrace the imperfect shots- sometimes you don’t ‘nail’ the focus or whatever, they can still be great shots too.

The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.  #portraitphotography #lifestylephotography
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield. #portraitphotography #lifestylephotography
The cake eating, no BS Clairvoyant Denise Litchfield.

Hope you have enjoyed a look at how I shoot lifestyle photography. The great thing is everyone will have a slightly different approach, and thank goodness for that!

Best wishes until next time,

Don

self portrait: the reality of photographing a photographer

Oh boy! Self portrait time. I really needed to update my about page with a better portrait. The last one was a year old and really wasn’t that good. For a photographer, I take the worst selfies and even worse studio portraits. Maybe they are okay, but I always look so serious because I am concentrating to hard. So I asked my girlfriend to take some.

I still consider them self-portraits as I set the camera up, did the lighting, hair and styling and was clear about what I wanted. All she had to do was press the button. The button! The one on the top of the camera. No, the other one on top of the camera!

We finally succeeded in getting some good shots and having a laugh (after the shot, after buying her lunch, while having a drink, an hour later, after I praised her patience and told her I loved her photos).

Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“The button! The shutter button!”
Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“It’s called auto-focus!”
Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“Don’t tell me to smile.”
Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“Should have done it myself.”
Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“I can fix it in Photoshop, honest.”
Self portrait time. Don Urban Photography portrait session. Inner West, Sydney
“Last shot before I start crying.” (This was really the last shot of the session and my favourite)

Best wishes until next time,

Don

Night Photography Tips and Settings

Creating night photography

The most incredible thing happens when the sun goes down: Those subjects that were ‘nice’ or okay during the day, are transformed into something magical at night. There is no denying photos taken at night have a certain element of excitement. Why? Because they take a little more work to pull off.

There is something about shooting at night that moves your images beyond ordinary into something altogether amazing.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200

Cameras and equipment for night photography

All DSLR, Compact System Cameras and many point and shoot are going to have settings for longer exposures. But sometimes that is not going to be enough. Pushing your camera to the limit is what is going to set them apart from ones made to handle more challenging conditions. The challenge of long exposures or extreme ISO settings are going to test what your camera is capable of capturing.

What, however, is going to set them apart is a large dynamic range, high ISO range and a large sensor. I shoot with a Nikon D750 which ticks all those boxes. My small Nikon Coolpix 7000 may be great for during the day, but at night, with ISO over 1000, things are starting to look very ugly and noisy.

A wider dynamic range is going to allow you to draw more information from those shadows. Otherwise it is just going to be sensor noise. And there is nothing worse than noise. It is certainly not as romantic as film grain.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 1000
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 1000
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 8000

Camera settings for night photography

There are two approaches I take. One is to shoot on a tripod and aim for long exposure images. The other is to shoot at extreme ISO settings and shoot handheld. Both are interesting in their effect and feeling.

Most of the images here are shot at 8,000 ISO. Pretty extreme. I never thought I would need that high an ISO, but then, I had never shot hand-held at night either! Start with 800 ISO if it is twilight and move your ISO up from there as you go. A dark laneway at night is going to need 3200-8,000. Crazy numbers!

Something changes as you push your camera to the limit, and it is something I love- this incredible softness. The images become almost painterly.

The other approach is to set up your camera on a tripod and shoot long exposures. Most good cameras can meter to 30 seconds. Beyond that, you will have to use the ‘bulb’ settings and hold the shutter open as long as you want or need to.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 10,000 (!)
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 10,000 (!)
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 8000

Night photography tips

  • Use a tripod. Or not. Two approaches. Personally, I like moving around at night. Tripods are essential with long exposures. Spend as much as you can on a tripod. A good one is worth its weight in gold. Light, stability and compactness are the key features to look out for.
  • Shoot in Manual or Aperture-Priority. Gain more control of your camera. Auto modes just won’t work because your camera won’t know what you are trying to do. You do.
  • Shoot wide open. Get that light in there so shoot way open. An aperture of f/1.8- f/ 2.8 is what you should be aiming for. That big zoom you love so much, may not cut it at night. A nifty fifty (50mm) will do the trick perfectly. I use my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 or my Tamron macro 90mm f/2.8 all the time.
  • Be patient. Shooting at night is tricky. Take your time and experiment with camera settings.
  • If you use a tripod, then grab a shutter release cable or use the timer on your camera. (One less piece of kit to carry!) There is nothing worse than an unintentional camera movement. With long exposures, you don’t want any movement- and that includes touching the camera.
  • Shoot in RAW format. I know, everyone tells you to shoot RAW, but this is one time when it is really important. Digital noise can be greatly reduced in RAW software.
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200

I hope that has been helpful!

Best wishes until next time.

Don

Quick Seascape Photography Tips

I love the ocean. Growing up and living by the sea, I have great respect for the ocean- it can be incredibly dangerous and sometimes, surprisingly, safer than being on land. 

When I was young, I lived in Bronte Beach, Sydney and again lived there in my 20’s. It is one of my favourite beach in the world. It is also my closest beach to where I live now- a 15 minute drive on a quiet morning.

Bronte is a couple of beaches down from the more (in)famous, Bondi Beach. It is a more beautiful, family-oriented beach with big sandstone cliff faces, a rock pool and a concrete swimming pool. The surf is always way better than it’s famous neighbour.

This is where I bodysurf through the warmer months, and the surf can be incredible. I have had so many amazing days swimming here, so recently I turned my camera towards it.

These were taken just as the sun faded, and as families started packing up and heading home. Surfers started coming in and the beach grew quiet. I noticed, and you can see in one of the photos, another photographer enjoying the late afternoon light too. 

I was shooting with my Nikon D750, swapping between my wider 28mm lens and the narrower 90mm Tamron lens

Of course, a sturdy tripod is essential. I use a Vanguard Abeo 243AB. They are very durable and well priced for what you get. I also use a shutter release cable. Not a branded Nikon one, just a budget one- it does the same job without costing a fortune.


These are the main ingredients for successful long-exposure seascape photography:

  1. Camera. Any camera where you can take long-exposure photos will be suitable. Most modern cameras will allow you to do this.
  2. Tripod. I would go without many other pieces of equipment rather than skimp on a tripod. I have used junky cheap ones when I was younger and wondered why I was always disappointed with them. Heavy, flimsy, or badly-engineered tripods will just frustrate you. Spending a little more will give you years of enjoyment. A good tripod should be light but not weak, sturdy without being heavy, adjustable without having to curse at it.
  3. Shutter release cable. Don’t ruin your long exposure with movement from touching the camera. Cheap, non battery-operated cabled shutter release ones can be found everywhere. There are cool ones available where you can set timers, or set it to fire your shutter at intervals. These are both so cheap. I have one of each. In a pinch, just set your cameras inbuilt timer.
  4. Shoot at dawn or dusk. You will be rewarded with beautiful light.
Bronte seascape

Although this is a brief introduction, I will be exploring seascape photography more in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

Best wishes until next time,

Don