It should be of no surprise that one of the most popular types of photo taken with a smartphone is a portrait. Whether you’re snapping selfies, taking photos of your kids, or venturing out onto the streets to take portraits of perfect strangers, your phone can actually be a very powerful camera for capturing the character and emotion of others.
We continue our mobile photography series with a few pointers for expanding the capabilities of your phone such that you get better portraits than you’ve ever taken with your mobile device. With tips on composition, technical elements like exposure, and some fun ideas for getting inspired, this lesson will get you primed and ready to take stunning portraits with your phone. Let’s get started!
Never, Ever, Ever Use the Zoom
As far as smartphone cameras have come, their zoom feature is still the pits. Even if you zoom in just a little to frame a tighter shot or crop an unwanted feature out of the frame, you’ll lose tons of detail and the resulting image will be incredibly noisy. Instead, move yourself closer to the subject to frame a tighter shot. If that isn’t a possibility, crop the image in post-processing. Just don’t use that zoom!
Look for Light
Your mobile phone is far more limited in terms of the light it can produce than your DSLR, but that doesn’t mean that you still can’t take amazing portraits. The trick is to look for pleasing lighting.
When indoors, move your subject near a window to capitalize on natural light. Just like when you do so with a DSLR, you’ll probably need to diffuse the light with a sheet or a sheer curtain to give the shot a softer look without any harsh shadows. When outside, don’t discount the amount of light your phone can collect from streetlights or focused flood lights. Any of these options for indoor and outdoor shooting can get you much more dramatic portraits than if you shoot outdoors during the middle of the day.
Set the Exposure for the Face
This probably goes without saying, but when taking a portrait, you need to meter off the subject’s face. If you have a modern smartphone (or a third-party camera app) you will be able to set the exposure by tapping the screen where your subject’s face appears. Doing so will get you a well-exposed image more often than not, and even if it isn’t perfect, taking the exposure reading off the subject’s face will make things easier when you process the image. If you can’t get the right exposure, tend towards underexposing the image because it’s easier to recover skin tones from a photo that’s slightly too dark as opposed to one that’s slightly too bright.
Watch the Background
Typically, portraits benefit greatly from a simplified background, that way your subject stands out and becomes the center of focus. In traditional photography, this might be accomplished by opening up the aperture and getting great background bokeh or zooming in close to tightly frame your subject. Unfortunately, without aftermarket accessories, your phone can’t really do either of those things.
Instead, you will need to be especially mindful of the background when taking portraits with your mobile phone. Look for simplicity with subdued colors, no crazy shadows, and an otherwise general lack of interest. A wall painted a simple color, for instance, would make a perfect backdrop for your portrait.
Go With the Flow
Rigidly posed portraits aren’t as in vogue as they used to be. Today, people much prefer to gaze upon candid portraits. By candid, that doesn’t mean your subject has to be in the middle of a hearty belly laugh. Rather, try to capture authentic moments in which your subject is conveying true emotion, regardless of what that emotion might be.
This is one of the best assets of shooting with your mobile phone - the mobility it affords you means that you can move around with ease, taking portraits of people around you as they go about their business. The key here is to be ready to capture the spontaneity around you. If, for example, you’re at the park with your kids as they play, move around them, your phone raised and your fingers ready to set the exposure and press the shutter button. Just making those little preparations can mean the difference between capturing a wonderful moment or missing out on one.
Set Yourself Up For Success
As we discussed in the previous lesson on improving landscapes, you can use any number of apps and tools to improve the images you take with your mobile phone. Use a tripod to stabilize your phone and use the self-timer so you can take portraits of yourself or group photos with others. Utilize apps like VSCO Cam to add analog-looking filters to give your portraits a vintage feel or to turn them into black and white masterpieces. If you’re struggling with ideas for more unique portraits, consult the LightBox Photography Card Mobile Edition set for killer ideas like “photograph the fantastic” or “photograph the paranormal” to get your creative portrait juices really flowing. What’s more, you can check social media to see what others in the LightBox community have done lately and draw inspiration from their work as well.
For all their limitations compared to full-sized photography gear, there really are a lot of possibilities for taking stunningly good portraits with your mobile phone. It’s really just a matter of working within those limitations. Never use your phone’s zoom feature, and utilize natural light (or very bright artificial light) to expand your portraiture possibilities. Manipulate the exposure by metering off your subject’s face and look for simple backgrounds that will make your subject pop. And, of course, learn to be spontaneous as you shoot, looking for little vignettes that you can capture and turn into an amazing portrait. If you can do these things, you’ll be well on your way to taking some pretty amazing portraits with your phone!