Simple tricks for taking better outdoor portrait photos with your phone

Taking mobile portrait outside of a person holding two ice cream cones.

Don't be afraid to use portrait mode. Deposit Photos

This article was originally featured on Popular Photography.

With proms, college graduations, and even just plain old family barbecues coming up over the next few months, we thought we’d put together some of the best ways to improve the outdoor portraits you shoot with your smartphone. With bright midday sunlight, bustling crowds, and many other challenges, these can be tricky shots to get right. Here are some ways to nail the shot. 

Clean your lens

Your smartphone lives in your pocket and gets handled dozens of times per day so, let’s be honest, the lens probably has a smudge or two on it. Not only can these make your photos blurry, but if there are bright lights around they can increase the lens flare and glare you see in the final image. Before taking an important portrait, take two seconds to clean your smartphone camera with a lens or glasses cloth and, if you have it, a bit of glasses cleaning spray. 

Get closer

If you want a lovely portrait, don’t stand back. Get close and try for a headshot or half-length portrait. Sure, snap a few photos showing off your subject’s full outfit if you like, but for a wall-worthy portrait, it’s better to be closer. 

Shoot in the shade

The worst place to shoot portraits is outside on a bright sunny day. The overhead sun casts harsh shadows across people’s faces that tend not to look great. The good news is there’s a simple fix: shoot in the shade. 

My favorite place to capture outdoor portraits is under a tree or archway, but any kind of shade will do. Find a nice laneway, alley, or just a brick wall that will block out the sun’s hard rays. 

Take multiple shots

The secret to getting one great photo is to shoot 50 bad ones—and this applies in almost all situations. If you’re taking a photo of someone, snap 10 or 15 photos in quick succession. In some of them, they’ll blink, grimace, or look away. But in one or two they’ll be posing perfectly. 

Don’t be afraid to edit

Your smartphone does a pretty good job of making photos look okay, but if you want a really great portrait, open it in Lightroom, VSCO, or Snapseed and adjust things until they’re perfect. We’d suggest tweaking the exposure, bumping the contrast and saturation, and even adding a vignette or some color toning. If all that sounds like too much, even just cropping it so your subject dominates the frame can turn an okay portrait into a profile pic. 

Use the telephoto lens

If your smartphone has a telephoto lens, use it. The wide-angle camera is great for getting lots into a photo, but a telephoto is better for portraits since it will normally have a field-of-view that more closely matches how we all see the world. 

With that said, if your camera doesn’t have a telephoto don’t stress it. You can get great portraits with any lens. Just whatever you do, don’t use digital zoom. 

Try it without Portrait Mode

Most modern smartphones have a “Portrait Mode” that will try and blur the background in your photos. These can work great and it’s worth taking a few photos using it, but you should also snap a few photos without Portrait Mode on just to cover all your bases. You don’t want the only photo from an important event to have some weird blur around the edges of your subject because your smartphone mistook their mortar board for the backdrop. 

Find a nice background

Portraits have two things: a subject and a background. Most of the time we photographers focus on the subject (pun intended) but for truly great portraits, it’s worth taking some time to find a nice background too. An old wall, a field of flowers, even just the body of a tree are all much better than a busy crowd.

Check your photos

While we often discourage photographers from “chimping” or constantly checking the photos they shoot on the back of their digital camera, if you’re trying to capture a special moment or event, then that is a rule you should break. Once you’ve shot a few pictures have a quick look and make sure everything is looking right. If it is, great. If not, you’ve got a chance to fix things on location!

Share your photos

If you take a nice photo of someone, share it with them. Too many gorgeous portraits gather digital dust on peoples’ smartphones. Once you’re home from an event and you’ve edited the portraits, pop them in a shared Google Drive or iCloud Album