Total Cost: Free, or a few dollars with app purchases

Total Time: 5 hours

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I have photogrophia. I don’t think that’s an actual word, but I’ve had a fear of being in photographs since high school.  Social media was starting to take off right around the same time that smartphone companies started to compete over how many megapixels their cameras were. Pictures used to feel like more of a special event before everyone was walking around with a high definition camera in their pocket, but these days pausing for pictures is far from uncommon and it’s well past time I learned to be comfortable with them.

For years I’ve criticized shutterbugs for not “being in the moment” while condescendingly reminding that I was having a better time than them while simply enjoying the scenery. When people forced me to pose in pictures with them I liked to ruin the picture by making a face – the trick was to make a face just ugly enough that they wouldn’t want to put it up on social media but not so ugly that it was actually funny so they’d want to post it on social media.

I still believe that people who don’t concern themselves with social media at all are probably much happier than people who take pictures for Instagram every hour of the day, but its foolish to think that I can avoid being in or taking pictures for the rest of my life. This became especially true when I began dating my girlfriend. She loves to take selfies and wasn’t particularly happy that I enjoyed ruining her pictures with weird faces.

My goal this week was twofold – learn how to take a nice picture and how to not look terrible when posing for one. I went on a series of walks and short trips with my girlfriend to a couple of parks, the University of Washington campus, the Pacific Science Center, and Woodland Park Zoo to practice my skills.

Since I only had 50 dollars to work with I decided to focus on learning how to best use my phone camera. I found this nice article on the basics of phone photography and followed it as closely as I could, focusing only on the most basic elements of composing a nice picture.

If you’re interested in learning how to take better pictures with your camera here’s what I’d recommend.

Get a Nice Camera App


Your default camera application is likely not the best tool for taking advantage of your phone’s powerful camera. There are thousands of camera applications available on both the IOS and Android app stores each with their own pluses and minuses. Some of them focus on things like filters and auto-focus which are great for taking selfies, while others are designed to have your phone do its best impersonation of an expensive DSLR. I used one of each for this week’s challenge.

For selfies and pictures of people I used Bestie on a recommendation from my girlfriend, who currently has over a dozen camera apps on her phone and says this one is her favorite. For everything else I used Open Camera, which appealed to me because it was free, highly rated, and open source. Though I’m sure there are other apps out there which are just a good or better, these two apps got the job done for me and felt like much better tools for taking nice pictures than my Android’s default camera.

Framing is Everything


My first instinct when taking pictures was to put the thing I was taking a picture of right in the middle, but it turns out that these generally lead to worse pictures. Learning where to frame the subject of my photos (which took some practice) was the single biggest improvement I made to my photography skills this week. Let’s compare two photos.

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Two ducks, same distance, same lighting, but the first picture look much better than the second because of how the picture is framed. In general (though there are always exceptions) things look much better when aligned along a line drawn 1/3rd of the way from the edge of the shot. To help frame your shots I recommend turning on the “show gridlines” setting in your camera app and setting to thirds.

Following the gridlines takes a little practice but is ultimately very simple. All you need to do is line up the subject of your photo (such as the ducks in the above shot) to where two of your gridlines intersect and fire away. There should be four gridline intersections that avoid the center of the camera, the top-left, top-right, bottom-left, and bottom-right. Try shooting your subject in all four of these intersections and seeing which photo turns out best.

Play Around with Lighting


The great thing about lighting is that you don’t really need to understand how it works to take a pretty picture, you just need to be willing to fiddle around with a little. When taking pictures try adjusting your lighting settings to the extremes to see if you can get a cooler shot than whatever your phone camera’s auto-lighting feature comes up with. Let’s compare a couple shots of Albert the mountain goat at Woodland Park Zoo.

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Though far from professional the first picture of Albert looks much higher quality than second. It does a decent job of using negative space to draw your focus to Albert. The second picture uses normal lighting which exposes much more of the landscape that Albert is standing in which isn’t nearly as interesting.

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In this example we can see that brighter lighting leads to a better shot. Do I know why this tree looks better with bright lighting and Albert looked better in dark lighting? Not exactly. Did I end up with a better picture because I played around with my brightness settings a bit? Absolutely! All I did was adjust my brightness up and down and chose the better shot.

Its easy to improve the lighting in your pictures even if you have no idea what you’re doing (like me). Just turn off your camera’s auto-adjust feature for brightness and see what you can come up with you play around with brightness yourself.

Try New Angles


Try taking a picture of something that looks interesting from an angle that isn’t head on, such as directly above or below it. My personal favorite shot from this week’s challenge came from a weird angle I took of some pipes behind a building on the University of Washington campus.

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Don’t be afraid to crouch or lie down on the ground to get a good shot.

I have no idea what these pipes are for, but a head-on shot of these things looked terrible. This angle at least looks kind of artsy and would probably look even more interesting if I threw some filters on it.

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A shot of dorms from directly underneath.

This building was really geometrically interesting but I couldn’t seem to find a good angle to capture it at first. When I tried to capture it from a normal angle the pictures looked pretty pedestrian. By standing against the wall of the building and taking a photo while aiming straight up to the sky I was able to capture some of the building’s cool geometric features and contrast them with negative space.

Change your Focus


Just like your brightness setting, turn off that auto-focus feature on your camera so you can play around with it yourself. Most of the time focus is fairly intuitive, adjust your focus to the subject of your shot and fire away. However, sometimes the subject of your shot isn’t so obvious.

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Though it might seem that the obvious focus of a picture with a butterfly on some flowers would be the butterfly, my favorite shot of the bunch came when I focused on the flower in the foreground. By focusing on the flower I created more depth in the picture than when I focused on the butterfly. When I split the difference to see both of the flower and the butterfly clearly it turned out worse than focusing on just one or the other.

Again, the basic principles behind why one of these photos looks better than the others completely escape me. I’m sure I’d have to learn these principles if ever want to be a professional photographer, but for the time being I’m satisfied with simply being able to produce nicer shots as a result of basic experimentation.

Relax, Man


As much as I hate to admit it, walking around with the sole intention of taking pictures of stuff was actually kinda fun. The part of this challenge I was dreading was the part where I had pose for pictures.

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My natural instinct in front of a camera is to be unnatural. People always told me that I look better in person than I do in pictures and I believe this was the reason why. Though I understand its kind of a paradox to tell someone to act natural, the less I tried to look good in pictures the better I looked. Instead of thinking and acting like I was on camera I focused on something in my field of vision and tried my hardest to pretend the camera wasn’t there.

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Taken just a few days ago, these are without a doubt the two best photos of me taken in years. The only other photos which can compete with these are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed.

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The picture where I’m sticking my tongue out was taken about a month ago at a coffee shop in Korea. I didn’t want to be in the picture so I made a dumb face and end up looking silly. In the other picture, taken recently, I decided to ignore the fact that my girlfriend was holding up a camera and just enjoy the view from the ferry. Spot the difference?

Conclusion


Though I still have much to learn about photography I’m quite happy with the progress I made this week. All of the best photo’s I’ve ever taken were made this week, and I don’t feel nearly as scared to be in pictures as I used. It’ll take me a while to come around on the necessity of selfies, but at least for now I can comfortably pretend to not be in them and look better while doing it.

Good luck out there,

Aleco Pors