How To Capture Million-Dollar Photos With Your Phone: Tips and Tricks

A motorcycle rider, who is also a farmer, zips through a dirt track with his modified moped during a harvest festival in Arau, Perlis. Capturing action shots require high shutter speed so the photos will look sharp. Image: Naqiuddin

*Photographs captured using a smartphone

The best camera is the one you have with you

Unless you’re a professional photographer on assignment, best bet is all of your holiday or travel photos are shot using a smartphone, and that’s not a bad thing.

Phone companies have been pouring in millions, if not billions, into developing the best camera features on their devices. Versatile operating systems such as Android or third-party camera apps for Apple even allow users to use manual settings on the camera, just like the pros.

Lush greeneries at Damai Beach Resort in Kuching, Sarawak. Phones today are more than capable to take beautiful shots such as this. Image: Naqiuddin

But the whole idea about taking photos using a phone is because it’s easy to carry around and simple to use that a two-year-old can snap an entire family holiday pix.

Now, how about we level up your smartphone photography skills so your images look like they belong on magazines and newspapers.

1. Learn About Camera Features on Your Phone

Capturing a shot of the entrance to the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. There are plenty of tutorial videos on the Internet about camera features for all smartphones available on the market. It takes less than 20 minutes to learn the most of what your phone can offer. Image: Naqiuddin

All cameras including phones have a ‘brain’ called image processors. Bigger processors can take bigger images so you can crop photos and maintain sharpness (photos won’t look pixelated, or as the pros call it – noise). Although phones carry a smaller processor, they can still perform a decent job especially because you’re not printing a billboard out of your phone camera.

A man rows his canoe on Song Hoai river in Hoi An, Vietnam. Although phones carry a smaller image processor compared to other cameras, they can still perform a decent job considering users are not printing a billboard. Image: Naqiuddin

There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube that highlight features specific to your phones. Third-party apps like Camera FV-5 Lite for Android or Halide Camera for iPhone allow you to have full manual control including ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

Here’s a simple breakdown as to how a camera’s manual controls work:

  • Shutter speed – Controlling this will get you sharp action photos, but the higher the shutter, the darker the image.
  • Aperture – You can counter dark photos when using high shutter speed or dark surroundings by using either higher ISO and/or large aperture (the lower the number, the larger the aperture). Large aperture like f1.8 allows more light in and creates background blur for portrait shots. If you still want to see a bit of background, you can adjust your aperture between f4 and f6, and if you want to see the whole subject and background, just go over f7.
View of paddy fields during the writer’s train ride from Kuala Lumpur to Perlis. For landscape photos, where you want to capture all the details in a frame, use a small aperture over f7. But if going technical takes too much time, stick to auto mode. Image: Naqiuddin
A motorcycle rider, who is also a farmer, zips through a dirt track with his modified moped during a harvest festival in Arau, Perlis. Capturing action shots require high shutter speed so the photos will look sharp. Image: Naqiuddin
A female chieftain from the Kenyah community in Sarawak, Lucia Paya Langkau, in traditional attire as her team Warisan Sape Telang Usan showcases the community’s musical culture and dance to develop young talents. Image: Naqiuddin

But if going technical takes too much time, stick to auto mode.

When it comes to playing with lights, people say you should just stick to the golden hours – sunrise and sunset – and avoid midday harsh lights. Scrap that! You can take photos any time of day and in any condition. Storm chasers in the US hardly have any great lighting to work with, yet they still deliver great stories. An example closer to home, imagine taking a photo of a farmer working under the hot sun at midday, the ‘harsh lights’ shows the reality of the scene.

Farmer Zaili Ahmad, 50, burning his paddy field in Sungai Bakung, Kangar, Perlis to make way for the next planting cycle. While the ‘golden hours’ provide beautiful lighting, that doesn’t mean you can’t take photos at other times. This shot taken during midday, for example, shows the conditions farmers go through to make a living. Image: Naqiuddin

2. Tap to Focus

A workshop highlighting the traditional lute of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu communities called ‘sape’ during Rainforest World Music Festival last July. Focusing lets you see sharper details of any subject. Image: Naqiuddin
Participants of a coastal clean-up programme heading to surrounding islands in Tioman, Pahang. With just a simple tap, phones will not only focus on your subject, but also adjust brightness, shutter speed, all the technical stuff. Just tap to focus! Image: Naqiuddin

Focus can enhance a subject by making it stand out from its surroundings. All phones are equipped with auto-focus, and you can tap anywhere on the screen to choose the subject you want to focus on. Ever wonder how people create that background blur when they hold a street food amid a colourful and buzzing market? Simply tap to focus on the ice cream!

Simply tap to focus so you can get that background blur effect. Image: Basil

3. Tell a Story

No matter where you are, amazing ‘moments’ are waiting to be captured. Bajau people onboard a worn-out boat that ferries them to surrounding islands in Semporna, Sabah for a fee between RM2 and RM4. The Bajau community, also known as sea nomads, live on water. They are able to free dive underwater for as long as 13 minutes at depths of about 200 feet to hunt for fish. Image: Naqiuddin

Once you’ve covered the selfies and wefies, keep an eye out on your surroundings. There are plenty of amazing moments waiting to be captured: A Penang street food vendor tossing koay teow in the air with a blaze from under the wok, neighbourhood kids jumping into the water from a dock of a floating market, anything!

Instead of zooming in, get close to your subject. Sani tribesmen playing their traditional instruments in Nuohei Village, Kunming, China. Image: Naqiuddin
Be patient and keep your camera ready at all times in case you come across cool scenes like this. A drummer puts his feet on the percussion as he leads Malaysia’s largest lion dance performance at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur last year. Image: Naqiuddin

Since zooming in from your phones can cause the photos to be blurry, get closer to your subject. Even paparazzi with fancy camera gear still get up close to a celebrity for a shot.

Usually, people wouldn’t even realise you’re taking their photos in the first three seconds so you can capture their real feelings or actions. Keep smiling if the subject makes eye contact with you, and if you’re scared, just pretend like you’re taking a video. However, if the subject approaches you, saying he doesn’t want his photo taken, respect his privacy and just delete the photo.

A man takes a break at Confucian Temple in Guandu Ancient Town, Kunming, China. If you’re scared to talk to your subject, just pretend like you’re taking a video. Image: Naqiuddin
A man pushes his bicycle out of an old house at Hoi An Ancient Town in Vietnam. While exploring, always keep an eye out for unique shots. Image: Naqiuddin

While exploring, you are bound to come across cool moments or people. It’s up to you to capture them in a frame.

4. Editing Still King

A man on an escalator at a pedestrian bridge in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. There is nothing wrong in using filters to enhance your photo. Even award-winning photographers and filmmakers use them. Image: Naqiuddin
A squirrel strikes a pose on a coconut tree in Kuantan, Pahang. There are plenty of editing apps that features simple interface so you won’t spend hours editing a single photo. Image: Naqiuddin

It’s nonsense to take pride in posting #nofilter photos and shaming others who use presets. Even professionals edit their photos.

Award-winning photographers, Hollywood films, nature documentaries and even iconic car shows like Top Gear and The Grand Tour utilise filters on their content.

Editing simply helps to add more drama or enhance the shot. However, resist the urge to tweak too much when editing your photos. A couple of apps to consider, available on Google Play and App Store, are Adobe Lightroom and VSCO.

5. Find Photo Reference in Advance

A simple search on Instagram will give you an idea of where to go for cool pictures and angles to work with.

You can get an idea of how you can capture a photo about the destination you’re visiting. Simply search the name of the place on Google or Instagram to learn about interesting landmarks, culture or even hidden gems that could become great subjects for your album.

Always straighten the horizon by using the grid function. Instead of shooting everything from eye level, try shooting with the camera pointing up or down. Crouch below the subject, hold the camera above your head, climb stairs or use a tall tripod or ladder. Different positions can help boost your story. Passers-by can say what they like but it’s your photo!

Image: Naqiuddin
A street food vendor selling smoked eggs in the cool, misty weather near Jiaozi Snow Mountain in Kunming, China. There’s no right or wrong in photography. Unless taking photos pays your bills, you should just enjoy taking every shot instead of pressuring yourself to get that award-winning photo. Image: Naqiuddin

There’s No Right or Wrong in Photography

All you have to do is keep practising. Have your camera ready at all times, capturing images beyond selfies. Just take as many photos of a single scene as you like and simply pick the one that stands out and delete the rest. Why? Because you simply can’t turn back time once that perfect moment’s gone.

What do you think?

Written by Asyraf Naqiuddin

Asyraf believes there’s a story anywhere you turn that could inspire readers around the world. With a penchant for high-powered motorcycles, he hopes to one day get back in the saddle and cover the globe on two wheels.

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