How to Take Great Cell Phone Photos in Outdoor Lighting Conditions

Cell phone cameras are amazing. They have come a looooong way. We take them for granted, but this technology is sci fi come to life. In our lifetimes, our phones also functioning as cameras became a thing. Before that, it was something out of Star Trek. Don't forget that.

The ease with which we can now take images, without buying film and loading it, without even having to bring along a bulky camera body that does only that one function (gaw! It doesn't make phone calls?), has lead to an explosion in the quantity of images we possess. 

Yet, even with all the built in auto focus, color correcting, exposure, etc.etc. built into these amazing feats of technology, we can still end up with lousy shots. Tech cannot correct all our least not yet...

So, while we wait for that, here are a few tips for great images in a variety of outdoor lighting conditions.

Before you can make these small adjustments to vastly improve your images, you need to know the basics of assessing light quality. This might sound daunting, but it's not rocket science. Simply ask yourself:

Is the mid-day sun blazing down on me with nary a cloud in the sky? Okay, that's intense, full sun. Think: dark shadows, unflattering, contrasty.

Is it an overcast day with nary a sliver of sun shining though? That's diffuse light. Think: even light, flattering, not as much light, very few shadows.

Is there sun one moment and then overcast conditions the next? You've got mixed light, baby! This will keep you on your toes. But the same rules just have to adjust to which rules to use as the conditions change.

(Then there's night time, but that is a post for another day).

None of these types of light quality negate photography. Au contraire, if you know what light you are dealing with, you can adapt to it in order to get the best shot possible.

Full Sun:

This is the type of light professional photographers who like to use natural light, shy away from like vampires emerging from the crypt prematurely. Why? Because intense sun creates too much contrast. So much so that one end of the spectrum, either the light or the dark is not going to register in the image. It can also be very, very unflattering on a subjects face: dark shadows in bad locations, squinting subjects.

So, if professionals don't want to shoot in it, should you not take any shots then? Of course not, photographers have to take shots in full sun all the time at weddings and other engagements. They have some secrets that help them deal:

1. Find solid shade (not mottled as this will be far worse!) and take a picture there. Easy peasy. Just don't try to include a background that is in the full sun, like a mountain range, flower garden with open sky etc. All of the background that is in the sun lit area will be blown out beyond recognition. Frame in only what is in the shade.

2. If no shade can be found, place your subjects back to the sun and shoot towards the sun. Have your subject block the sun with their body, or use a tree to block the strongest rays. Turn on your flash mode to force a flash. You will need this to fill in the big shadow that is your subjects face. You want the person to be perfectly exposed for and let the background blow out. Expect to have some crazy flare and haze in your shot...but it can be really cool and desirable to have depending on where the flare is placed. Experiment with your shooting angle.

3. Use the environment to help reflect fill light back onto the subject. Think white, or light. Have the subject stand on a light walk-way with the sun behind them. The light ground will take some of that light and reflect it back onto the subject and fill in some of that shadow.

I want to show you how dang easy it is to improve a shot on a sunny day. Below,  yours truly, taking a rare selfie with her phone just to prove a point:

Direct, unfiltered sun.

Direct, unfiltered sun.

Here I am in the first shot. The sun is directly infront of me, it's about 2pm, I have to squint to see anything. The light has thrown dark shadows under my eyes, the shadow lengthening along my nose is unflattering, my eyes look dark, I even have a shiny spot on my forehead. Not a keeper.

Now, take a look at my second shot. I literally took two steps to change my location and vastly improve the results. What did I do? I stepped in the shade. Note how the light is now even on my face, there are no gnarly shadows where they shouldn't be. I look like I'm glowing in comparison to the background that is in shadow. You can even see the detail in my eyes which are now nicely lit up. I can also smile and look at the camera without squinting.

Fixed! I let the shade be my light modifier.

Fixed! I let the shade be my light modifier.

The location. One side is in full sun, the other in shade.

The location. One side is in full sun, the other in shade.

As you can see, I simply had to move from one corner of the building to the other. A few steps. This was at the Children's Museum in Santa Rosa. I took these two images on the way to the car with the girls. It took all of 30 seconds and most of that time was taken with unlocking and pulling up my camera on the screen. Simple fixes, folks.

Overcast Days: Diffuse Light

These are the best days for portraits/selfies. Overcast (even rainy) days are like stepping into the shade on a sunny day, only you don't have to find any shade because there isn't any (at least not much). The cloud cover provides a defused light, much like photographers achieve with light boxes in their studio.

The only caveat is that the filtered light provides less light, so be careful of blurry images because the sensor can't collect enough light quickly enough. Stick to subjects that are going to stay relatively still.

Some helpful pointers:

Tilt your subject's face slightly upward while you shoot downward...this allows more light to fill in under the eyes. Shooting upwards at a subject is inherently unflattering and in this type of light, you will not have enough available light to fill in the subjects face very well.

See here, another example. This one I shot quickly as we exited the house and the sky was completely overcast. When I shoot from below everything is a mess, namely I look like a gremlin that is all cheek and jowl, and nostrils! Don't forget the nostrils! The shadows overwhelm my face, there's just not enough ambient light to light my face properly. Then in the second I simply hold my camera at an angle slightly higher than I am and I tilt my face towards that beautiful light box in the sky and voila! Much better, don't you think?

Dull days can be...well...dull. So make sure that you use color to your advantage...pops of color in the background or better yet, on you, will make your image more interesting. During overcast conditions, colors are at their best, not blown out, not in shadow but lit just perfectly. So go find that patinaed barn door you love, that rock wall with glowing moss, your electric blue corvet, put a red rose in your hair and take some pics!

I hope you found this helpful. Please comment below, ad your tricks for improving photos, or ask any questions that have popped up for you.

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