You may have noticed most of your favourite Instagram accounts for blogs and businesses seem to take some pretty stunning photography with their phones. Except, they aren’t taking photos with their phones—they’re taking photos with expensive DSLR cameras, editing them, then uploading them to Instagram.

Is that fair? Maybe not. But I heard all’s fair in love and war…and Instagram.

Lucy and I do a lot of photography, so it was natural for us to invest in DSLR cameras. On the other hand, Michelle has no need for a big, bulky, expensive camera. She just has her iPhone 5S. Does that mean we barred her from sharing behind-the-scenes goodies to Campfire’s social media? Absolutely not! But we did have to train her to get the best pictures possible.

And today, I want to share those tips with you.

Thou Shalt Not Zoom

Your phone’s camera zoom is garbage.

At first, zooming with your phone’s camera happens almost instinctively. You see something that you want to take a picture of, but can’t get close enough to properly frame it. You want to use the zoom, but heed this advice: don’t.

If you want to emulate a DSLR camera, you need your pictures to be crisp. Zooming in detracts from the quality of the photo by adding graininess or unwanted pixelation. If you can’t get the shot you want without zooming, move to get a closer look or just abandon the idea and seek inspiration elsewhere.

Pay Attention to Lighting

Proper lighting will go a long way. Whether you’re trying to replicate studio photography with a white background, or trying to catch a great landscape shot, it’s important to pay attention to where your light source is coming in, and adjust accordingly.

With “studio” photography (or, shall we say fauxtography?), a large sheet of white poster paper and good lighting will do the trick for small objects. Typically, you’ll want your light source to shine directly down, but that may cause unwanted glare. Alternatively, a light source from the side may cause shadows. It’s a dance with your light source and your point of view to get that perfect shot.

Things can get a little tricky outside. Unless you plan on waiting long hours, you unfortunately have no control over where the sun is in the sky. A good rule of thumb to follow is to take softer photos in the morning and evening, when the sun is lower on the horizon, and save bright photos for midday when it’s overhead.

In saying all of this, I’d like to add one more thing… avoid using the flash on your phone wherever possible. Flash typically leads to uneven colouring in the photo, glare, and overexposure toward the centre. Like your phone’s zoom, its flash is nothing to write home about.

Frame Your Shot

Ever wonder why there’s a 3×3 grid in the Instagram editor? One of the most basic rules of photography is the Rule of Thirds, which segments your photo into three columns and three rows to help the photographer (or editor) create a piece that is visually interesting. You can play around a fair bit with the rule of thirds to create an interesting arrangement.

Consider Movement

I’m not talking about movement in the literal sense—consider where you are leading your viewer’s eye. Is there a direction in the piece? Does it lead the eye from side to side or up and down? Is the subject coming into frame or moving out of frame? Is your subject centred, with all focus directing the eye to that subject? These can add to the visual interest of the piece if done thoughtfully and purposefully.


When you have a defined straight edge, whether it’s the horizon* or a straight edge of your subject (a book, a desk, etc.), make an effort to ensure it is level. Instagram makes this easy with the ability to rotate images. Once your lines are are level, consider adjusting them so they fall on one of the grid lines that support the Rule of Thirds.

*Confession time! Nothing drives me more insane than a slightly angled horizon line that is meant to be straight/flat. It’s such a minor fix in editing that can really make a picture feel balanced and beautiful.

Beware of Filters

Most professional accounts will use filters sparingly, and with good reason. When used properly, Instagram’s filters can add an extra level of interest. However, when misused or overused, they give the impression of covering up poor photography, or even detracting from the natural beauty of the piece. There’s a reason why the #nofilter tag is so popular. People want to appreciate good, natural photography.

In the end, you want to make sure your photos are crisp, well-lighted, and properly framed. Be creative with your framing and be mindful of the visual movement of the piece as you are editing. Once you know the rules, you can start experimenting more and more, and create interesting pieces to share with your followers.


This article was written on August 17th, 2015 for Campfire Collective.

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