11 Tips for Taking Great Photos With Your Smartphone Camera

National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward, who focuses on his native Florida, shares tips on using your smartphone camera.

Photo By: Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

Photo By: Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

Photo By: Lee County VCB/Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

Photo By: Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Photo By: Lynn Coulter

1: Adjust Your Exposure

To get great images, says National Geographic and conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr., you need the right exposure. Too much light makes your image feel "blown out," or overexposed, and you won't be able to see details. (That happens easily in sunny Florida, where Ward makes his home.) Instead of using your camera phone's automatic setting, adjust the exposure as needed. On an iPhone X, tap the screen and hold and drag your finger to lighten or darken the scene. Shown here: the mangroves at J.N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

2: Add Layers and Dimension

The beaches of southwest Florida are especially stunning at sunrise and sunset, but landscapes sometimes feel flat. "Photography is about putting a three-dimensional world into two dimensions," says Ward, who travels around the world for his work. "A silhouette at sunset can make a nice image" and creates layers and dimension. Putting a person, lighthouse or palm tree in the foreground or background also adds perspective.

3: Frame Your Shot

Another tip for shooting a landscape: Find a frame for your image, like these shrubby branches in beautiful Cayo Costa State Park. But if the light's bad, Ward says, the light's bad. Move on and come back another time. He suggests going out when the sunset turns the sand orange, or when the beaches are bathed in the pink, misty light of early mornings. "Midday light is a challenge, but in the late afternoon, there's a confluence of light, currents and weather that creates amazing scenes and energy."

4: Make Lots of Images

"Pressing the button instantly cures your 'photo itch,'" Ward says, but that doesn't mean you should stop taking pictures. "Think about what caught your eye and shoot from other angles. Try different things. Take a mix of horizontals and verticals and make sure the light works. If it's worth stopping for, it's worth stopping for an extra five minutes to make sure you really got what you want to show." Pictured here: the shadows on a beach at South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island, Florida.

5: Look for Echoes and Reflections

Look for echoes of color when you're shooting, Ward suggests. In this image, taken on a Captiva Cruises boat tour, a visitor with a red jacket tied around her waist echoes a red fishing house in the distance. Red will pop in your images, especially when you’re shooting against the greens and blues in nature. Reflections of your subject also make great shots. Look for them in puddles and mirrors for pictures that are unexpected and fun.

6: Watch for Clouds and Edges

"In Florida," Ward says, "clouds are like mountains. It's hard to have a great composition in a bluebird sky without clouds. Clouds add drama, and they'll give you a different picture every couple of minutes."

Watch the edges of your image, too. "Run your eye around the frame," Ward adds. "If you see somebody’s foot or elbow sticking into your shot, move." You don’t want something random and unintended to detract from your subject.

7: Tell a Story

You'd have to be airborne to make this shot. But you can take a boat to see these old fish houses in Pine Island Sound, near Sanibel and Captiva. Shoot close-ups of the weathered wood and barnacles, Ward says, to capture their character, or photograph them in a cluster to tell the bigger story: They were once part of a thriving fishing industry. Today, the abandoned shacks are on the National Register of Historic Places. National Geographic aims to tell stories through images, Ward says.

8: You Don't Always Need a Telephoto Lens

Camera phones are great for portraiture and landscapes, Ward says, but unless you’re really close, you need a DSLR with a telephoto lens for great wildlife shots. Another option: an olloclip telephoto 2X lens, made for iPhones 7/7 Plus, 8/8 Plus and X. (Olloclip offers other lenses, including a macro for close-ups of bugs and other small subjects.)

This opossum, Bashful, is posing with Education and Development Coordinator Rachel Rainbolt at CROW, Sanibel's Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife. You won't need a telephoto to photograph Bashful and other Animal Ambassadors that appear in visitor presentations.

9: Sometimes You Do Need a Telephoto Lens

As a conservation photographer, Ward doesn't want to disturb wildlife when he's working. If you're focusing on a bird or animal, "Move in the direction it's moving," he suggests, so the creature doesn't move right out of your frame, and use a telephoto so you can keep your distance. "Or go to a pier or dock or another place where birds and animals are used to people. If you stalk something, you can scare it or even push it off its nest."

10: Use Ambient Light for Indoor Shots

"Ambient light, light coming from windows or canned lights, or even light coming from a bulb in an old horse barn" can be great for indoor shots, Ward says. In this image, a server at the Bubble Room on Captiva Island ("where it's always Christmas") carries a tray of the restaurant's cakes. Don't miss the famous Orange Crunch Cake while you're there.

11: Shoot Foods in Natural Light

Food photos like this grouper salad at The Pointe look more natural when they're taken outdoors or in the light coming from a window. But if the light is too dim, ask someone to stand up, turn on a smartphone flashlight, and hold it directly over your dish while you take the shot. You may want to style the dish to make it look more appealing and clear the table a bit to avoid the clutter of utensils, plates and glasses.

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