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by Michael VanDerAa

I want a new camera. What should I buy?

I’m asked that question a lot from both parents and students — all wanting my advice.

My reply? Get the latest and greatest smartphone. And you can make calls and text from your camera as well.

The running joke with my students is that the easiest way to ruin an image is to pick up a professional DSLR. Smartphone cameras are good — really good. And the same rules that make great images with a DSLR apply to phones as well. Here are some simple tips to up your smartphone photo game this Christmas.

Get Closer

If you don’t like your images, get closer and chances are they’ll be better. We’re afraid to get too close and get into people’s space. Even with our own kids we fail to get close enough. This holiday season make a New Year’s resolution to get closer.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the first rule of composition every student learns, and it just doesn’t apply to photography. Graphic designers, cinematographers, and painters use this simple but effective technique. Instead of placing your subject in the middle of the frame, move them off center to a third of the frame.


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Edit The Image

I discourage the use of filters. This is a worn-out fad. Remember all of the heavy filters applied to Instagram images when Instagram was new? Instead, adjust the exposure and contrast with your phone’s native editing tools. If converting to black-and-white, pump up the contrast a bit. Black-and-white images can usually benefit from more contrast.


Find the Light

Lighting is always a challenge indoors, and phones have limited capability for controlling and manipulating flash. If it’s daytime and you’re indoors, find a window. Window light is great light. There are many professional photographers that photograph portraits exclusively with window light. However, don’t shoot into the window! Let the light strike your subject from the side and you’ll have beautiful light.


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Don’t Be Afraid to Crop Heads

Let the top of your subject’s head leave the image frame from time to time. It’s ok. Is it really necessary to have your subject’s entire head visible to tell the story? Sometimes yes, but not always. Also don’t be afraid to use other people as compositional elements at the frame’s edge. People challenge me on this a lot. They wonder if it looks goofy. We’re so accustomed to seeing photos where people aren’t close enough and everything is in frame. Here’s an image with three people, but the image is really only about one person. The other two at the frame’s edge add visual interest.


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Many of you are already practicing some or all of these tips. For those of you who aren’t (and you know who you are) give it a try. It may feel awkward at first, but it will not take long before you put them into practice without thinking.

Have a photography question? I’m always eager to help. Email me at vanderaa@timothychristian.com and ask me anything!

Merry Christmas!

Michael VanDerAa is listed as one of the top 100 senior portrait photographers in the United States by Senior Style Guide. When he isn’t teaching photography at Timothy Christian High School, you can find him in his studio shooting everything from senior portraits to sports portraits.


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