An Instagram Star’s Guide to Taking Better Smartphone Photos

Instagram star (906K followers and counting) and travel and still-life photographer Alice Gao offers pointers to ensure that when you shoot, you’ll score.

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Photo by Alice Gao (@alice_gao)

What’s a common mistake that people tend to make?

Hitting the shutter button before waiting for the camera to focus. Sometimes I see people one-hand a quick snap. That doesn’t usually lead to a sharp image. I try to hold the phone with two steady hands or one hand propped on a surface.

How do you achieve a sharp close-up?

Don’t use the zoom lens. When you can get as close as possible to the subject without the image distorting, take the photo. Then crop the picture afterward.

How do you feel about using the flash?

It’s a stylistic choice, but I think it washes people out and makes the photo feel flat. No highlights, no shadows—you lose the pretty things that make a soulful image.

How can you make a photo brighter?

With an iPhone, tap the screen on the lightest part of the scene before snapping. When the focus square pops up, adjust the exposure by sliding the sun icon up with a finger to let more light in. You can make this adjustment on some Android phones in the settings menu.

What about in a dark restaurant?

If it’s very dark, as you’re taking the photo, have a friend stand beside you holding her phone’s flashlight through a white napkin. This brightens the scene but diffuses harsh light. I also like the Cortex Camera app ($3, iTunes). It prevents grainy images in low-light situations.

What’s the secret to creating artful lighting?

Use one light source to make one dramatic shadow. With too many lights, you’ll get unflattering shadows coming from different directions.

What’s a good way to work with natural light?

For an amazing landscape photo, your best bet is the golden hour—the hour surrounding sunrise or sunset. The sun is low and has a warm tone that brings out details. To use the sun to your advantage any time of day, look for pockets of light—someone walking down a street in a slant of light makes a powerful image.

Any tips for taking better selfies?

Hold the phone high with your arm extended to prevent a double chin. On a sunny day, move into the shade. Sunlight can cause your face to get blown out or cast a harsh shadow and make you squint. The best way to take a full-body selfie is with the camera out of your hand—propped against books or something else to keep it upright—and using a timer. I suppose there’s a time and a place for a selfie stick, although I’m not entirely sure when.

What’s the trick to getting a great action photo?

Take shots in rapid succession. On an iPhone, just hold down the camera button. On an Android phone, use the "burst" function, or download the Burst Mode app (free, Google Play). Then pick your favorite shot.

Do you keep HDR on or off?

I’m not a fan of it in every situation. HDR (high dynamic range) can make a picture look unnatural. The function takes many exposures and puts them in one photo so you have tons of detail.

Everyone takes a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. How can you make yours stand out?

Get a more unique angle: low to the ground, off to the side, a close-up detail.

What else makes a compelling image?

Try the rule of thirds. Say you’re shooting a mountain range. Don’t place the ridge smack dab in the center; put it in the top third or bottom third of the frame for a more dynamic shot. I also love negative space. I’m cool with an image being 80 percent empty.

Thoughts on editing?

With so many options, it’s easy to end up with a photo that looks odd. Instead, adjust only three things: brightness, contrast, and white balance. Toggle between the edited version and the original to make sure you’re not overdoing it.

What about filters?

I don’t have a favorite, but I apply them subtly. On Instagram, I may use a filter at 10 or 15 percent to lighten the shadow or bring in a hint of blue.

Do you have any photography pet peeves?

I hate when limbs are cut off—it looks amateur. Be sure to include all feet and hands in the frame.