No matter if you’re taking a selfie, snapping photos of your kids playing in the yard, taking photos of strangers on the street, or taking posed portraits of friends and family, your mobile phone is a very powerful tool for capturing the emotion and character of the people in your life. Sure, your phone’s camera isn’t the most powerful one available, but that doesn’t mean that high-quality portraits can’t be taken with your smartphone.
Improving the portraits you take with your phone is a simple matter of adhering to a few technical and compositional tips, as well as equipping yourself with add-on accessories, like a lens for your phone, that makes top-notch images a more likely result. Let’s review a few pointers that will help you get the best portraits you can with your phone.
It’s All About Lighting
One of the knocks against mobile phone cameras is that they just don’t have the same performance as a DSLR or mirrorless system when it comes to overcoming difficult lighting situations. For starters, the flash on a mobile phone is about as useless as the pop-up flash on a more traditional camera - the light is too direct, quite harsh, and often results in a dynamic range that is too wide, not to mention red eye.
Then there’s the low-light performance. Though smartphones and traditional cameras alike have better low-light capabilities than ever before, your phone will still struggle if you try to take a portrait with insufficient lighting. That means you have to work a little harder to get enough light on your subject.
If you’re taking indoor portraits with your phone, getting good lighting might be as simple as moving the subject near a window. Doing so allows you to use natural light, which is far more pleasing than what your phone’s flash can produce. If the sunlight coming through the window is especially intense, try diffusing it with drapes or curtains, or, if there are no window coverings, a plain, white sheet will diffuse the light nicely and eliminate harsh shadowing for a softer look.
When outdoors, there are plenty of options for getting better light for your portraits. Naturally, shooting in the daytime means your phone has plenty of light to work with. Just remember that during midday, the lighting is harsh, so you’ll need to seek shade to take your portrait such that the subject isn’t bathed in intense, harsh lighting. Also, don’t assume that your phone can’t collect enough light for nighttime portraits from things like street lamps, headlights, or focused floodlights. Note how the ambient light from streetlights in the image above gives the mobile phone camera plenty of light to generate a well-exposed image.
Setting the Exposure
Let’s state the obvious - the most important part of a portrait is the subject’s face. Given that this is the case, you need to meter off of the subject’s face when setting the exposure for your smartphone portraits. Modern smartphones allow you to set the exposure by tapping the screen where the subject’s face appears. If you have third-party apps, you might have even greater control, like being able to set the exposure in one spot while setting the focus point in another.
More often than not, when you meter off of your subject’s face, you will get a well-exposed image. Even if the exposure isn’t perfect, you’ll have a much easier time making fine adjustments when you process your mobile images, whether that’s using apps on your phone or if you import it to your computer for more thorough processing. If you find that you can’t quite get the exposure right for your subject’s face, err on the side of underexposing the image. If you do that, the skin tones in the image will be easier to recover during processing than if they are overexposed.
Don’t Forget About the Background
Though your subject is the star of the image, the background will determine, in part, how successful the overall image will be. For the most part, portraits are much more impactful if they have a simple background. Why? Because there isn’t anything too crazy to distract the viewer’s attention away from the subject. Put simply, no matter how strong your subject is, it will benefit from a simplified background that helps retain focus on the subject.
Simple backgrounds can take many forms. In traditional photography, using a large aperture to diminish the depth of field is a commonly used trick for creating a nice, bokeh-filled background. This is much more difficult to accomplish with a smartphone’s built-in lens because it doesn’t afford you the opportunity to change apertures.
What you can do, however, is purposefully place your portrait subject in front of a simple background. A wall with a single, muted paint color is a good option. Positioning the model in front of a drapery or other simple fabric would also work well. You can even “crop with your feet,” moving closer to the subject to take a close-up shot, thereby cropping out much of the background. You might try taking the portrait from an unexpected angle as well - from a sharply downward angle, as was done above, for example.
Get a Portrait Lens
A chief complaint of using a smartphone to take a portrait is that the wide-angle view that’s native to most smartphone cameras just isn’t conducive to creating pleasing portraits. Adding a portrait lens to your smartphone will help you overcome this and other limitations of the built-in lens.
A specialized portrait lens, like Sirui lens pictured above, provides you with a narrower viewing angle for portraiture. In fact, the Sirui portrait lens has a perspective that is equivalent to a 60mm lens on a full frame camera. What’s more, the lens has high-quality glass, including a SCHOTT spherical lens, that allows you to capture portraits that are high resolution, sharp, and optically true with no vignetting. The result is DSLR-like portraits with your smartphone!
Sometimes, a great opportunity for a portrait arises when you have nothing but your mobile phone to capture the moment. So long as you follow the tips outlined in this article, you’ll have a much better chance of creating portraits that are worthy of sharing and printing.
Keep an eye on the lighting to ensure you have enough to illuminate your subject, but that it’s also not so harsh as to cause strong shadowing. Meter off the subject’s face so that the image is ideally exposed for their skin tone as well. Watch the background too, ensuring that it doesn’t compete with your primary subject. And, of course, outfit yourself with the best portrait lens possible, like the Sirui portrait lens, which will help you capture sharp, clear portraits every time. These few simple steps can have a dramatic difference in the portraits you create with your smartphone!