Simple tips for taking better photos with your smartphone

Taking a photo with an iPhone

With its ease of accessibility, great quality, and incredible selection of photo apps, the iPhone has become the world’s most popular digital camera. However, even an excellent camera and world-class photo-editing tools can’t turn a bad photo into a good one, so the easiest way to improve the quality of your photos is to master composition.

Here are 11 simple and highly effective composition tips that will greatly enhance the photos that you take with your iPhone or any other camera.

1. Turn on the grid

iphone photo

One of the most crucial tools for improving composition is built right into your iPhone’s camera. Yes, I’m talking about grid lines, which are two horizontal and two vertical lines separating the image screen into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically. To turn on grid lines in iOS 7, go to Settings, scroll down to Photos & Camera, and then turn the Grid slider on. Grid lines are essential for following the rule of thirds (see the next tip) and for other applications, such as keeping the horizon straight. I recommend that you keep the grid lines on at all times until you automatically think about the scene in terms of composition.

2. Follow the rule of thirds


The primary application of grid lines is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a guideline suggesting that the most important part or parts of the image—the subject or subjects of the image—should lie at one of the four points where the grid lines intersect.

These four points are the most powerful areas of the image, and our eyes are naturally attracted to them first. So whatever you really want to emphasize in an image—such as the human silhouette in the photo opposite—should be placed at one of the four intersection points.

While it’s best to apply the rule of thirds when taking photos, you can also do it in cropping. The iPhone’s eight-megapixel sensor gives you plenty of room for improving your images through cropping, as I’m doing in the photo inset, using the Snapseed photo-editing app.

The rule of thirds also suggests that the most important lines in the photo—both horizontal and vertical—should be placed along the grid lines. In this example I have followed this guideline by placing the horizon along the top horizontal grid line.

Following the rule of thirds has allowed me to create a more harmonious composition while also emphasizing the bizarre we’re walking-on-the-water nature of the photo.

3. Don’t place your subject in the centre of your photo


A common mistake made by most novice photographers is to put the main subject of the photo—such as the lighthouse below—right in the centre of the image.

This, of course, contradicts the rule of thirds, which states that the main subject should be located at one of the four intersection points. Even if you don’t want to follow the rule of thirds religiously, it’s generally a good idea to not place your main subject
at the centre of the image.

Placing the main subject even slightly off the centre makes the composition much more harmonious while at the same time drawing our attention to the subject.

4. Balance the image diagonally


One of the most important compositional guidelines is the diagonal principle. In short, the diagonal principle states that the most important parts of the image (the main subjects) should be aligned diagonally from each other.

If all the crucial areas of the image are loca­ted either at the top or the bottom, or on the left or the right side, the image will be out
of balance. The solution is to place the main subjects of the photo along the diagonal, as seen in the example above.

In the photo above, the two most important subjects are the orange rock at the top right and the rock at the bottom left. By aligning the crucial parts of the composition diagonally, I was able to balance the image both horizontally and vertically.

5. Make use of leading lines


Leading lines are lines that quite literally lead your eyes in one particular direction. Ideally, these lines should not be perfectly horizontal or vertical, and they should lead your eyes towards the main subject. Roads and footpaths are commonly used as leading lines, though almost any distinct lines can be used for this purpose.

In the photograph at right, the wooden plank footbridge works well as a leading line as it draws our attention towards the waterfall in the background.
In the far right photo, the paths of dry sand that go through the scene diagonally from bottom left function as leading lines, drawing our eyes directly to the primary subject of the photo.

6. Leave space to follow the direction of movement


Even though photography is a stationary medium, photos often have an implicit direct­ion of movement. The human eye is very used to people, animals, bikes, and cars moving forward, and it naturally expects to see the same in a stationary scene. When­ever there’s any kind of movement, our eyes naturally tend to follow in that direction.

So, when you capture a scene that has an implicit movement—as in the bike moving to the right—be sure that you leave enough space inside the frame for the eye to follow that trajectory. If the bike were positioned towards the right side, your eyes would quickly go off the frame and the resulting composition wouldn’t be pleasing.

7. Focus on eyes in portraits

Young boy

In portrait photography, a person is always going to be the main subject of your photo. But how can we apply the rule of thirds if a person’s face takes up most of the frame?

When you look at a person—in real life or in a photo—the first thing you naturally look at is that person’s eyes. So in portraits, the most important part of the image is the eyes of your subject, followed by their face and, finally, their body.

To apply the rule of thirds to portraits, you should always place the eyes of the subject at one of the top intersections of the grid lines. Which one of the two? That’s what the next tip is for.

8. When taking portraits, follow the gaze of your subject
Remember the tip about the importance of following the direction of movement? The same also applies to portrait photography, as human eyes naturally want to follow the gaze of another person to see what they’re looking at. So in portraits you should always place your subject so that there’s enough space in the direction towards which the subject is looking.

9. Keep it simple

People on water
Steve Jobs used to say, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and he was clearly on to something. One of the easiest ways to create a well-composed photo is to keep the scene simple and clear of any distractions. Besides the silhouetted subjects, there is nothing that could distract the eye in this photo, which creates a clean and harmonious composition.

10. Make use of empty space
Another important compositional principle is the use of empty space in photography. In general, compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds work great for portrait or landscape photos, but not necessarily  for square compositions.

With Instagram being an exclusively square medium, a lot of people are struggling with square composition. One thing that works extremely well for square images (but not so much for other aspect ratios) is placing your subject at the very edge of the scene and leaving everything else unoccupied, as seen in the photo opposite.

11. Break all the rules


Don’t let any of these guidelines restrict your creativity. While these principles are certainly useful, there are no hard rules in composition. The photo at left breaks a number of compositional guidelines that were explained in this article, and yet I don’t want to change it in any way. Use the tips in this article as starting points and always keep experimenting!