Take Better Photos of Your Kids with your Smartphone
Phones are fantastic for pictures these days. As someone who is passionate about photography, I never thought a phone would be the only camera I’d carry. But I leave my SLR behind every day and rarely miss it. Here’s why.
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Why I love the camera on my smartphone
You can take it anywhere your adventurous life takes you, and you can get it out and have a photo taken in seconds. You don’t really need to edit the photos much if at all, the way they come out of the camera are great; but I’ll share some tips to give your photos a boost below.
(I do want to add I am not a great photo editor, and I’ve always thought of editing photos as a total drag. This is another reason I prefer doing it on my phone to using computer software, it is quick and I only have to change a setting or two. Much of the time I’m still unhappy with the white balance or something else, but not unhappy enough to put any more time into it. If you’re great at editing and enjoy doing it you can achieve really stunning images. But because perfection is not the goal, and I’d rather document one hundred beautiful moments well than one moment perfectly. And if you’re in the one perfect moment crowd, you’ll be using your SLR!)
Take Your Smartphone Camera Anywhere
You can take your phone anywhere. Phones (I use an iPhone, and also a GoPro) are easy to use while kayaking, and in the backcountry. They capture your active outdoor life easily, and you don’t have to worry about dropping them in the water (or at least worry less!) or adding weight to your backpacking trip.
There are lots of smartphone apps that will allow you more control, but I’m going to focus on editing with the in-camera software. I use an iPhone 12 Pro Max, so these are going to be iPhone setting screenshots, but there are similar settings and menus on all smartphones. These are the settings that will be discussed in greater detail later on in the post.
This particular model of iPhone is very expensive, but if you can budget for it there have been many camera additions that make it a worthwhile upgrade from older model iPhones. Older phones may not have portrait mode or night mode or a variety of the settings, but you can still change almost all the other settings to help make your photos better!
While you’re taking a photo in Portrait mode, here is your screen. The buttons at the top show my flash is set to off (it is always forced off as I don’t think the flash does me any favors), the exposure compensation being set to +1 (the slider is shown at the bottom under the picture preview), and over on the upper right my f-stop (aperture) is set to f/3.2. I’m also using the “studio light” Portrait lighting setting.
This is a fairly shallow depth of field. You may decide that you want more of her body in focus since there isn’t a ton of background to blur, and you can change that before taking the picture, or after.
To change it after, get into “edit” mode. Go into your pictures and on an click the “edit” in the upper right. For a shot in Portrait mode, that brings you to this screen:
Shown above in edit mode, my f-stop button is on the left, and when I click it I can slide the bar from f/3.2 that the picture was captured at, to something that brings her more into focus, like f/9.
Using this photo as an example I’ll show you some small changes that made the image better.
When you’re under the “cube” setting (only in Portrait mode), the upper left shows your f-stop number (4.5). You can set this before taking the picture or change it after. As discussed above, make the number smaller and you have more background blur, make the number larger and more of the background is in focus. I didn’t change it for this image.
I use Studio Light often, it casts a little more lightness on the subjects. You can use the slider bar to minimize it, as sometimes it looks very overdone (drag to the left to make the effect a bit less). This can also be set before or after taking the picture.
These are the settings I adjust the most: Brilliance, Shadows, Brightness, Saturation, Warmth. Use the slider bar to bump them up or down, and you can always tap on the image above to show the “original” so you can see whether you’re making the image look better! More about all these in a bit!
You also have “filters” (I don’t ever use these personally), and the “crop” menu. Crop lets you set a certain crop size in the upper right icon (looks like three boxes laid over each other. Use “original” rather than “freeform” if you want to keep the aspect ratio the same. You can also rotate or change the angle of the photo, if you have a crooked horizon it’s an easy fix!
Smartphone Camera Depth of Field
The introduction of a portrait mode made a huge leap towards bridging the SLR-phone gap. Shallow depth of field makes your subject pop out of the background, and often makes all the difference in photos of people in nature.
The way phones solved the problem of faking shallow depth of field by laying two images on top of each other, one in focus and one blurry, is nothing short of genius. Without portrait mode, I would still be carrying my SLR daily.
It actually functions the opposite of how it does in an SLR. In an SLR the shallower the depth of field (so the lower the f stop number) the quicker the shutter speed is, because the aperture is wide open and letting in more light. On a phone, you require more light, and more time because two images are being superimposed on top of each other.
So while on an SLR you’ll get great sharp lower light portraits with a thin depth of field (subject in focus and blurred background), on a phone you will run into issues with lack of light, and depending on your phone model portrait mode will stop functioning at a certain darkness.
Portrait mode also still has issues around hair (and fur hoods on snowsuits), and when there are small areas between arms or legs. And it’s often quite noticeable. It’s getting better every generation, but it’s bothersome.
Another problem with portrait mode is that you have to be a certain distance away to achieve the background blur. Sometimes I’m too far, especially when trying to fit three kids in the frame, and it will just take them in normal mode instead. With an SLR of course, distance from your subject doesn’t matter. This can be a frustrating limitation of my phone.
Smartphone Camera Shutter Speed
The shutter speed of your camera or phone is how long it will take to finish capturing the picture. Point and shoot cameras and smartphones also have a short delay due to processing.
Kids move fast. This is both an advantage and disadvantage to iPhone photography, the advantage because you can get a shot quick, but the disadvantage as the quality may not be there. You cannot beat the ability of an SLR to freeze motion with a fast shutter speed, and if you’re being let down by your smartphone in this area there is not a solution.
SLRs give you a lot of control over how much is within the “sharp” part of the image because your depth of field can be fine-tuned.
Outside in bright daylight you can get some good freeze-motion of rain or puddles. The problem is you can’t get speed AND shallow depth of field, so you have to choose.
Portrait mode takes longer to complete taking the picture from when you press the button, and doesn’t handle motion very well. So you get sharp areas of background and often get weird artifacts on faces. You also can’t take burst shots, and it’s kind of a “you get what you get” type situation because the shutter takes a while and you just have to hope you’ve captured a splash.
While it’s still miles from the quality you’d get with an SLR, the gap is closing fast and I expect some of these problems will get better in the next few years.
But kids moving fast means that moments go fast also, and often by the time you get your settings set on your SLR they’re on to something else and you missed what you had wanted to capture.
Shutter Speed Indoors
Another place shutter speed on phones is a problem is indoors. Even when you feel like the room has plenty of light, you still get motion blur.
Sometimes motion blur can be fun, but most of the time it just ruins the shot when the subject is the only thing in the photo not in focus.
It’s helpful to adjust the exposure indoors to -1, or sometimes more, to try to minimize the blur.
The flash on iPhones in particular does not seem to have gotten any better over the last bunch of years. I don’t fully understand why, but it seems that often I get a flash AND blur, so I just don’t use the flash on my phone under almost any circumstances (if you love your iPhone flash and have tricks, drop me a comment!).
Point and Shoot
Use your Smartphone for outdoor documentary photography of your kids
My personal style is documentary photography of my kids. I take things like lighting and composition into play, but I focus on capturing a reaction, or an activity. About half the time I’m not looking at my phone when I’m taking a photo, I’m looking at the child and know the phone well enough that I can point and shoot.
Brightness, Shadows and Contrast
One of the biggest mistakes I think people make if they edit a photo or use standard camera settings, is high contrast. Our eyes are amazing at having a naturally great high dynamic range, but cameras need help in this area. When you have higher contrast, you lose lots of details in the shadows and highlights.
I’ve actually found iPhones to have fantastic HDR processing straight from the camera, requiring little to no editing, but if I make an edit to any pictures it’s generally to decrease the shadows.
The reason pulling back the shadows is preferred to just changing exposure or brightness, is illustrated below. Look at the clouds in the sky. They’re nearly unchanged, even after the foreground brightened considerably. You didn’t lose any highlights there.
Once shadows are decreased sometimes I want to bump saturation up a tad, as lightening shadows often lightens colors. Generally I bump saturation up just enough that the colors look the same as they did in the darkened image.
Phones handle exposure differently than cameras, and I think most of the time they under-expose most outdoor scenes. In winter you need to over-expose by about a full stop on my iPhone. At sunrise and sunset you’ll want to under-expose a bit.
You can change many of these settings afterwards but you’ll lose highlight and shadow detail so changing this each time you go on an outing will save you lots of time and make the quality of your images better. If you have your phone set to save your settings, and are taking some photos underexposed and forget to change your settings, you can save your images (especially if you’re shooting in RAW).
Pull back on the shadows, and increase the brightness. Add a little bit of saturation. The image shown above is still not ideal and the color balance isn’t quite right, but it was good enough for me since I really dislike editing. You could adjust color temperature and tone more to make it better, but I was happy to see some detail in her face and left it at that.
You should also play around with the sun. While you may have heard “never shoot into the sun”, I strongly disagree. Especially with wide angles (GoPro and the new wide angle available on iphones and other newer phones), adding the sun to your composition can really make a shot great.
Also try putting the sun directly behind your subjects.
Play around with different angles and viewpoints.
Having the sun behind you will make the subject better lighted, but the added interest in the background might make shooting into the sun worth it.
While SLRs still have the one-up on phones for quality night photography, I’m shocked by how amazing night mode is on the iPhone. The camera records a 3 second exposure, and allows you to get fairly sharp HAND HELD shots. The camera finds a center in the image and then adjusts automatically for hand shake.
I have excellent equipment for Northern Lights photography. And the last few times, I haven’t even gotten it out because this is just so easy, and I’ve been too busy being awed with the technology to care too much about getting better images.
I love not having to get a tripod out (though I’ll admit that I do love my tripod). Adding a tripod and a timer to your phone would help, but I like the freedom and the phone images aren’t going to withstand poster-sized scrutiny anyways.
The auto white balance on most phones is great for outdoor photography, in all seasons except winter. In winter you’re going to have much stronger blues, and it can be really hard to edit this out (especially if you don’t want to spend more than 10 seconds per image like I do). There are apps that you can use where you can set a custom white balance, and many phones have a mode for this as well. You basically need to tell your phone it’s warmer than it thinks by changing the color temperature.
If you just shoot on auto with your phone, you can change the warmth by dialing it up after the shot. Sometimes you need to dial it up as far as it goes to get a shot that doesn’t look totally blue, especially if it’s dark too.
The warmth on this one was increased 100%. There are other ways to increase warmth but just using the Phone’s editing menu, that’s the furthest it would go.
This is another area where indoors is a problem. There usually isn’t enough light and white balance can be off quite a bit, usually in this case making it look much warmer than it is, so in this case you’ll want to dial down the warmth to cool the photo off.
Change your perspective to take better photos of your kids with your smartphone
When taking pictures of kids, don’t do it from a standing position. Nearly always you will get better results if you crouch down.
Take some shots from above, to get more of the ground into the shot. Works great when you have water or a reflection of someone.
Children think it’s silly when you gracefully fall over and point your camera up at them, and they’ll give you a giggle.
Advanced Shooting Options
Many phones now have the ability to shoot in RAW, which gives you more control over making changes in post-processing. Upside is the flexibility, downside is larger file size. If you’re the kind of person who will be taking a picture of the moon at night one night, and then take a bike ride with your kid and not notice for quite a while that your exposure is still set to -2 (real life example, shots were somewhat salvagable), RAW mode is for you.
There are lots of fun apps for phone photography. Photosynth makes a 3-D panorama and is just fun to use! Night Cap is a great app for playing around with astrophotography, and gives you a ton of control. Camera+ 2 also allows you to set a lot of manual modes and gives you control over your white balance.
Photoshop and Lightroom also make great apps that can do all your basic edits, and with a premium membership access great tools like healing brushes. I often wish I had a healing brush tool to remove something from a photo, and if I enjoyed editing more I’d spend more time in these apps because they can achieve great results they just take longer and require importing and exporting which I don’t have time for.
There are also a lot of selective color apps like DashOfColor, which can be fun to play around with. These can be helpful when you have a busy or distracting background you’d like to minimize, or just want to highlight one vibrant color or one person or the subjects in the foreground.
SLR vs Phones
Can a phone truly match the quality of an SLR picture (taken by someone who knows how to use their SLR)? No. And I can almost always spot an SLR photo versus a phone photo. But, it comes so close in most situations, and it allows you to get a type of shot that it’s harder to get with an SLR.
On an SLR camera you don’t have a delay, you press the shutter and then whatever the shutter speed is set to (3 seconds, or 1/200th of a second) is how long it will take to expose the photo. But you have an added delay with Portrait mode, because the phone is processing the image.
Entry-level SLRs like the Canon Rebel series actually likely perform better as a “point and shoot” than the cameras I’m used to using (a full frame Canon dSLR). My full frame camera is fantastic but it doesn’t detect faces, and it works best using a point focus mode that does not work for great casual shots of kids; you need to be looking through the camera composing your shot for best results.
But SLRs are heavier and bulkier and it’s harder to get certain angles with them. Not to mention that as a parent a lot of the time you just don’t want another thing to carry around, and my favorite SLR/lens combos are heavy.
If you’re using your SLR successfully and don’t mind carrying that around, you will get better quality images, and you’ll be able to make poster size prints without losing sharpness. But you’ll also be more noticeable to the kids and won’t be able to capture as many sneaky moments (the shutter click on an SLR that isn’t mirrorless is LOUD).
If you have been using a smartphone, and the issues I’ve described above are things that have been bothering you, try upgrading to an entry level SLR!
Photography of Children
My background is landscape and long exposure photography (i.e. I’m used to my subjects not moving), and my husband used to shoot sports. Kids are different even from sports photography, because they are a lot less predictable. And I often find myself getting more frustration than joy out of shooting with an SLR (carrying it around, it being obvious when I’m taking pictures, worrying about focus, having to download images).
Phones do not handle movement particularly well, but even though sometimes I feel like my children never stop moving, when I am photographing them I realize how many moments of stillness they really have. If you’re willing to forgive some of the flaws and artifacts, you can still capture lots of amazing moments.
There are still many things that bug me about photography with a phone (I use an iPhone). But the ease of use and quality, and lack of needing to carry (and care for) a separate system sell me on nearly exclusive phone photography.
You can get truly great photos of your kids by being with them and capturing the moment with any device. You don’t need to have the latest and greatest and most expensive smartphone to do that. But every year or two so many advancements are made with smartphone cameras that it is really helpful to upgrade if you’re able to do so.
But with ANY smartphone, or camera, these tips will help you get better images.
- Pay attention to exposure, many situations require overexposing, some require underexposing
- Don’t overdo contrast, and pull back the shadows
- Color temperature can be a quick fix, in the winter you usually need to warm up your photos
- Don’t photograph from a standing position. Get low, or get high. Play around with fun angles.
- The sun is your friend. Use it behind you, behind your subjects, or shoot right into it!
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Take Better Photos of Your Kids with your Smartphone
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