How to take pro phone photos
Before we start, if you think that using your phone to take professional photos is not possible, or nor ideal, I just want to let you know that every photo in this website, including each individual item in the banner of this post, was taken by me with my iPhone and the equipment described further on.
Everyone knows that to sell your product or service, you have to have great graphics that attract your ideal clients. This is a foregone. Shitty images will do your business more harm than no images at all.
You also know that emotions sell. If you appeal to the right emotion of your audience, you can sell them almost anything. When building up a collection of stock images for your brand, make sure you are aware of the sort of emotion your clients will respond to and base your photo style and palette selection on that.
Categories of product photos.
There are 2 different categories of photos you need for your business:
- Product photos for your online shop, if you have a physical product. These are usually on a clean white background with no other distracting elements. And this is how Amazon will need them supplied (tried and tested) and how you should display them in your online shop even if you aren’t on Amazon. This article doesn’t cover how to take product photos. I’ll cover that in a future post.
- Creative photos to sell your product or service. These images are specifically created to communicate an emotive that will appeal to your clients, based on colour and style. This article will guide you through how to take creative pics with your phone.
But should you take your own photos?
There’s an ongoing debate as to whether you should invest in a professional photographer to take your product and creative photos, or whether you should wing-it and do it yourself.
There are pros and cons to both options. Which option you go with depends on you and your business. If you really don’t have the budget available to hire a photographer then you should definitely learn to take your own photos. It’s not as difficult as you may think.
Here are my basic tips for taking great creative images with your phone:
1. YOUR PHONE AND TOOLS
Firstly, make sure you have a decent phone to start with. The image output quality should be at least 8 million megapixels. The iPhone 5 and upwards complies with this. And also most other smart phones manufactured after 2016.
There are also some tools you might find handy to have for your photos. Here is the list of tools I use:
- A mini tripod.
- A remote clicker.
- A ‘shadow board’ ie. a piece of thick white card.
- A ‘reflector board’ ie. a piece of card covered in foil.
- A selection of surfaces relevant to my brand and image style.
- A designated area with maximum natural light.
You don’t need any other fancy equipment to take great pics with your phone.
2. YOUR PALETTE
Your brand should have a designated palette, chosen to appeal specifically to your clients and the emotive you want to communicate. Any images you use to promote or educate about your product or service, should adhere to your palette. This helps to keep your overall aesthetic consistent and it also helps people to remember your business and recognise your images and brand.
Below are some of the most common palette categories. Which one does your business fit into?
Neutral palettes are very trendy at the moment. If you want to stand out and be different steer away from this option. Neutrals encompass colours from monotone (black and white) to greys, browns, and desaturated shades.
Impression: natural, clean, transparent.
Difficulty: moderately easy.
Filters: play with black and white, reducing saturation, lightening images.
Going with brightly styled photos doesn’t mean you have to use all the colours of the rainbow. If your brand palette consists of 3 or 4 bright colours then you can stick to just those colours in your images.
Impression: vibrant, active, dynamic.
Difficulty: moderately easy.
Filters: play with brightening images, increasing saturation, increasing contrast.
Pastels are basically muted brights. Unless your brand palette is a pastel one, it’s not advisable to go with this option. Creating clean pastel photos can take quite a bit of work, especially if you don’t have a good collection of pastel props to use. Pastels in real life are not easy to find around and about. It also takes time to learn how to turn normal photos into pastel photos using a selection of filters.
Impression: feminine, uplifting, enchanting.
Difficulty: can be tricky.
Filters: play with brightening, desaturation and warmth settings.
If you want to specifically work with only your brand colours then you need to make sure that you have plenty of props to use in those colours. If you are a PhotoShop whiz then you will be able to change sections of an ordinary photo into your brand colours.
Impression: professional, brand-proud, intelligent.
Difficulty: can be tricky without enough props.
Filters: adjust hue filter, efficacy depends on your unique palette.
3. YOUR STYLE
Once you’ve defined your brand palette, think about the style you want to use in your photos. If you want people to recognise your photos as uniquely yours, then you need to stick to the same photo style. Don’t choose a style just because you like how it looks. Think carefully about your product/service and the message it communicates to your audience. Also think about the practicality of reproducing that style of photograph yourself. Some styles are easier to reproduce than others. Base your choice of photo style on these factors.
Examples of the most common photo styles are:
Clean and minimalist with a lot of white
This style is quite airy and bright. This style can work with any colour palette, as long as there are a maximum of 3 objects per image, or objects are kept to 1/4 or 1/3 of the image with the rest being white space.
Impression: organised, neat, clean.
Filters: brightening, highlights, single-hued colour filters.
Vintage or retro styling works best for companies that want to communicate an olde-worlde feel in their brand. Vintage styling relies on using specific filters to give a vintage look and can be applied to any colour palette.
Impression: timeless, trust-worthy, homely.
Difficulty: moderately easy.
Filters: light leaks, vignette, desaturation.
Also known as ‘low light photos’, a moody photographic style can use any colour palette but relies on dark filters, reduced saturation or increased contrast, and vignettes to achieve this style.
Impression: mysterious, intriguing, deep.
Difficulty: moderately easy.
Filters: low light, vignette, shadows.
Busy photos have a lot going on, and many elements. they work best as flat lay images because it’s easy to see everything at a glance and, although the photos may have a lot going on in them, they aren’t chaotic. Any palette can work with this style of photo, but it’s best to stick to a consistent palette to avoid visual overwhelm in your marketing material and feed.
Impression: fascinating, productive, dynamic.
Difficulty: tricky if you don’t know about balance and composition.
Filters: depend on palette.
4. GET INSPIRATIONAL HELP
When you’ve decided on a palette and a style, go on a search for inspiring images that are similar to the look and feel you want to produce. Use Google, Pinterest and Instagram and screen-shot or save those images into one place so you can refer to them later on when you’re taking and editing your pics.
5. YOUR EDITING APPS
Your editing apps or desktop program is where the magic happens. When you are actually taking your photos, always try to take them in a way that will require minimum editing. For example, if you’re using a white background and there is a mark on it. Clean it off or cover it up during your shoot instead of editing it out.
Which apps to use?
There are so many editing apps available out there, but there are a few trusty ones that can be relied on to do the job properly. If you don’t already have a favourite photo editing app, then start with Snapseed. It’s available for iPhone and Android and is free. If you have small-scale products and need good quality close-up photos, then Camera + is a good iOS app to use (I think it costs R50). Or you could use both apps together.
Make friends with your apps
Spend some time getting to know your apps. Look for tutorials online and practice editing photos to get a good feel for them. Make notes when you find a tool/filter combination that works well for the style you’re wanting to produce because you can reuse the same combination. Snapseed is great because it has a feature that will save your last edit combo so you can use it again with your next pic.
If you’re using PhotoShop or another desktop program then make sure you have ample filters and tools at your disposal to create the look and feel you want.
6. YOUR PROPS
Creative photos for your brand will rely fairly heavily on props. If you have a physical product, make it the main subject of your photo and then use objects related to your product. e.g. if your product is soap, then set up a bathroom type ‘scene’ with towels, candles, sponges, etc, to create an atmosphere around your product, with the soap in the centre. You can use any props that work with your brand: stationery, make-up, devices, food, books, clothing, kitchen utensils, decor items, crockery, etc.
Where can you find props?
There are places that hire out props but I feel it’s better to build up a collection of your own props to use in your pics. You can start with items you have lying around the house. If your palette is a custom one then go on a scrounge for items in those colours, put them all into a box and add to them as you go. Or make a list of the sort of props that you would like to use in your photos and then collect them as you can get them. If you have props in the wrong colour and they aren’t sentimental or expensive items, there’s always spray paint.
What about backgrounds?
Also part of your props should be a selection of backgrounds. These can be things like a fluffy rug, a marble tile, a piece of whitewashed or dark wood, a piece of slate, a piece of astroturf, wallpaper, or even texture-printed banners that you can lay flat onto your display surface, or hang onto a wall and down onto your surface to create an infinity backdrop.
Make sure that your backgrounds align with your aesthetic: light and airy for light or pastel images, darker for moody images. After a bit of experimenting, you’ll work out which backgrounds are your favourite and work best, and they will become a permanent part of your recognisable brand aesthetic.
7. YOUR LIGHTING
Lighting is a big part of taking great photos. If you want your images to be light and airy, make sure you take them in front of a large window, with the light shining directly onto your photo area, and preferably in the morning before 11 am, or in the afternoon, after 2pm because the lighting will be more gentle and not so harsh.
Which lighting is best?
The best lighting is outside on an overcast day because there are no contrasting shadows to interfere with the elements of your photo. For moody images you can either take your photos away from a direct source of light, or on the floor in front of your window, instead of up on a surface, as long as your phone camera doesn’t cause your images to be grainy in low-light settings. I find it better to use standard window lighting and edit the images darker afterwards for best quality.
To flash or not to flash?
Never use the flash on your phone. It will create ugly high-contrast images and blow out lighter areas so they are overexposed. Rather use better lighting and edit your images brighter than take them with a flash.
Using a shadow board and/or reflector board
If you’re battling with shadows on one side of your photo and you want to go for even lighting on both sides of your image, then use what I call a ‘shadow board’. It’s a piece of cardboard – about A4 size (or bigger if necessary), that you hold up to block out the light on the side of the image that is too bright. Alternatively, if one side of your image is too dark and you want it to be lighter, use the reflector board on the dark side to reflect the light from the other side of your image onto the foil. It works very well and saves a lot of fiddly editing.
8. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Once you have done all of the above: finalised the emotive you want to communicate, settled on a palette and style, have your apps ready and a good idea of how they work, have a good collection of props and backgrounds to play with, a well-lit area to take your photos, and any other tools you may need, then set aside a photo ‘play day’. Make sure your phone is fully charged and there is enough room on it to take a good set of images. Then get stuck in.
What do your images need to do?
Before you take any photos, be clear on what you are going to do with those photos. If you need them to use in a banner or a Facebook post then make sure you take them horizontally. For Instagram, square images are best, or you could crop your horizontal images and use them on your website, Facebook and Insta. For ebooks, posters, flyers or Pinterest, vertical photos are best. It’s a good idea to take a selection of angles of each of your photos: top view, horizontal, vertical, front on, side, and low-angle.
How to get started
Start with one product at a time, make it the centre point of your photo, arrange your props around it. Take some pics. Move the props around. Take some more pics. Change the background. Shoot again. Change the props, and then move onto the next product and repeat the process.
What about balance?
Try to keep your photos well-balanced with a focal point and other items arranged in a way that moves the eye gently around the image. If you use a larger prop at the top left, try and balance it out with another larger one at the bottom right. Use the photos you collected for inspiration as a reference point to help you get layout ideas for your own pics.
Flag your favourites
Once you’re happy that you’ve taken a good bunch of photos, grab a cup of coffee then sit down and go through all of them, flagging the ones that catch your eye first. If you are able to create folders on your phone then save all your favourites into a folder. Have a bit of a break and then continue with editing your photos.
9. TIPS ON EDITING
When it comes to editing your photos using an app, less is always more.
Start with less
Start with one effect and one filter. e.g. lighten the photo and find an appropriate filter. If the image needs more editing like hue adjustment or saturation, then add those next. Try and apply the same edits to all of your photos – keep notes to help you remember.
Always use the same editing app/s because different apps may have the same filters but the output of those filters will vary from one app to the next.
Use the internet
Do an online search for tutorials on the type of photo you want to reproduce, e.g. ‘how to take great low light photos with my phone’.
Keep your pics safe
This might seem obvious but I’m often shocked at how infrequently my clients back up their important documents. Save your edited photos as new images and keep the originals in case you need to re-edit them later. Snapseed gives you the option to do this and will usually save photos you’ve edited in a separate folder. Resave all your final edited images on your desktop computer and/or in the cloud (e.g. iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive).
What if you don’t have a product?
So, what if your business is a service-based one like mine? How can you take creative images relevant to what you do? That’s easy. Collect props relevant to the tools of your trade. If you’re an accountant, collect props like calculators, pens, your keyboard, an abacus, notepads with numbers written on them, shop receipts, etc. What if you’re a virtual assistant? The same will apply, depending on the scope of your services. Collect productive-inspiring props like a nice watch, a clock, a cell phone, diary, stationery, coffee and snacks, files, anything you can weave your service story around.
I hope this article has given you a lot of help and encouragement on taking your own stock photos. If you really battle but still want to learn, I do offer one-on-one training to help you get your head around the process in a way that is easy to implement. Just drop me an email to email@example.com and tell me what you’re struggling with.
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