Category Archives: Composition

Editing Cell Phone Images Using Snapseed (a free app)

This is the first, with more to follow, video tutorials on editing cell phone images using a free app called Snapseed.  I’ll post the link to the video below, but first…here’s a before shot that I took on my cell phone of my dog jumping in the ocean (after a floating bumper) near sunset (meaning low light).  The quality of the image is not what I would call perfect, because it’s of a fast moving subject shot under low lighting conditions, but it’s a great example of how you can take a sub par cell phone image and make it much better.

The before shot…


And the after shot…


Here’s the link for the “How-To” video:

I’ll add more tutorials later describing some of the other editing features.

Cell Phone Camera Tips

We’re going to get to a few life changing (no kidding) tips in a minute, but first, let’s talk about cell phone cameras in a general sense.  I did not coin this phrase, but it’s soooo true…”The best camera is the one you have with you.”  Cell phone cameras have come a long way in a pretty short time.  As of this writing, I would say that every currently manufactured smart phone out there (iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry) does somewhere between an adequate to great job at creating images.  In case you’re wondering, mine is an Android Nexus, but they are all very capable and continue to get better with every new device.  Having said that, cell phone cameras do have their limitations.

The main limitation is related to the image sensor.  It’s what gathers the light and records the information to create and save your photograph.  Here is a place where size really matters.  For comparative sake, a full frame digital SLR (for the most part, a digital camera you can change the lens on) has a sensor about the size of your thumb – from that last joint to the end (trying not to get too technical with all that millimeter talk).  Your typical point and shoot camera (can’t change the lens, but the lens can usually zoom out, and you can easily carry it in your purse or jacket pocket) has a sensor about the size of one of your fingernails (if it were cut short).  Most cell phone sensors are about the size of half your pinky fingernail (again, cut short).  We could get lost at this point in discussions about the number and size of the pixels on these sensors, but let’s just leave it at this…a tiny image sensor, means much less information can be recorded, which means a lower quality photo.  Don’t fall into a pit of depression.  It’s lower quality when compared to a $1,000 + camera that you need to hire someone to lug it and it’s associated lenses around.  You may not be able to print a crisp, clear 30×40 inch canvas from your cell phone shot (I’m actually working on this now), but you can print all the 4×6’s, 5×7’s, 8×10’s, and probably even 16×20’s, that you want.

Another limitation is the tiny lens that a cell phone has.  Rather than go into size comparisons as I did with the sensors, just look at it…it’s tiny!  That basically means that it can’t open and close in varying degrees (in the photo world we call this “aperture”), letting in (controlling) different amounts of light for different shooting situations.

These limitations (sensor and lens size) create 2 particular areas of difficulty for cell phone cameras…capturing images in low light and capturing images in fast action.  Understanding the problem is the first step to fixing it.  I promise to discuss how you can best deal with these issues later, and will even include sample images, to show you the “before and after” effects, but for now, let’s get on to some life changing tips.

I take a lot of cell phone pictures, and I also look at a lot of other people’s images.  One of the most common things I see that turns an otherwise great shot into an awful one, is lens glare.  The lens on your cell phone sits flush with the back of the device, providing it with no lens shading at all.  This means that unless your phone/camera is either in the shade (in other words, you are in the shade), or the sun is both low in the sky, and at your back, you are probably going to have some glare on your lens.  This can even occur when photographing inside, from overhead lights.   The light (indoor or outdoor), does not have to be shining directly into your camera to cause this.  It’s going to happen to a greater or lesser degree anytime the lens is not actually in the shade.  So, you might ask, “What will this evil lens glare do?”  It will kill you!  Ok, not really…but it will cause your pictures to have that flat, boring, washed out look.  It’s one of the main reasons we are so often disappointed in our cell phone cameras, and it’s pretty easy to fix.  Either shoot from a position that puts you/your camera in the shade/shadows, or carefully create that shade/shadow by cupping your free hand over the top of your phone/camera.  I say carefully because if you don’t pay close attention, you’ll have a finger or two show up at the top of your picture.  The difference in how rich and sharp and fully saturated with colors your images will be is amazing!

Here’s an example of a cell phone shot I took at about 3 PM (that’s a guess) on a fairly overcast day (kind a whitish looking sky), with my phone facing the in general direction of the sun (though it was mostly overhead):


See how flat, colorless and boring this is (though the dog is adorable!)?

Here’s the next shot, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but with my hand cupped over the top of my phone:

WOW!  That looks so much better!  There’s more contrast in the image, as well as more color, and greater sharpness/detail.  You could easily argue that one was from a bad cell phone camera and the other was from a great cell phone camera.  Don’t discount the value of this little trick!  Remember, either shoot from a position that puts you in the shade, or create your own shade using your hand or something like a hat.

Finally, here’s an image, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but I edited this one, on my phone, in about 5 minutes, using some free phone software called Snapseed.  It’s available for both Android and iPhone:


WOW, WOW, WOW!  This looks like it was shot with an expensive digital SLR camera, but I only used my phone.  Don’t forget to notice that I’ve used the rule of thirds in composing these images (discussed here in the blog).  It’s no longer a picture – we’ve made a piece of art, and you can too!  I’ll talk about making quick but significant editing changes to your cell phone images later, and even more in my book, but for now, I’ve gotta go.


The World English Dictionary defines composition as:
the harmonious arrangement of the parts of a work of art in relation to each other and to the whole

Basically, it’s about the way your subjects are positioned within your image.  There is nothing wrong with having your subject in the center of the picture, but placing them in different areas of the image can lead to more interesting compositions that result in you enjoying them more.  Composition comes down to thinking about more than just your subject.  Although there are many great and lengthy writings on this subject, here are two simple rules to keep in mind when getting ready to snap a shot:

1.  The Rule of Thirds
2.  Triangles

The Rule of Thirds:
This is a HUGE one in the world of art.  In the rule of thirds, a piece of art (that means your picture) is divided into thirds with two imaginary lines vertically, and two lines horizontally making three columns, three rows, and nine sections in the image.  I know…technical mumbo jumbo.  Here’s an example of what it looks like:
See, I had you nervous with that description, but it’s actually quite simple!  A picture really is worth a 1000 words…or at least a bunch of them.  Actually, for some cameras, they even make viewfinders that you can snap on to the eyepiece so that when you look through it, you see the grid imposed over what you’re viewing.  For the greatest visual interest (to take the best picture), your subject, or at least the main focal point of your subject, should fall somewhere that your vertical and horizontal lines intersect.  For a ¾ to full body shot (whether sitting or standing), the main focal point would typically be the face.  For a close up (like head and shoulders), it would be one or both eyes.  For a scenic shot, it might be a mountain peak, a big tree, or a boat.  These points where the lines intersect are places that our brains find most visually interesting.  Since I’m not writing a psychological blog, you’ll have to trust me…plus there’s a couple thousand years of art you can look through that backs this up. Here’s an example of two sisters by a river:
Now overlay your grid:

You can see that one of the intersections of the grid falls right between the sister’s faces.  Also notice the “negative space.”  This is all the area in the image that is NOT your subject (the positive space).  Having some (negative space) creates additional visual appeal.  It leads us to the sisters and creates room/space, so that we’re more comfortable looking longer at the girls.  In the same way you get uncomfortable being in a crowded space, you also get uncomfortable looking at a crowded space.  In it’s most basic sense, this Rule of Thirds is saying, “Get out of the center of my picture! Do something different.”

Here’s another example, but with a closeup:

I know, it’s a studio shot that I took, and you don’t have a studio, but you get the idea…think about the intersecting lines and get out of the center of my camera.  And before you say, “Yeah, yeah…anyone can take a great picture of a beautiful girl.  My kids never look like that.”  The truth is, this girl is horribly ugly, but because I used the Rule of Thirds, she took a stunning picture, and so can you!  Of course, I’m kidding.  That girl is so beautiful, a five year old with a spy pen camera would have done a great job.  But the truth is, in the right light, the right positioning and the right composition, anyone can take a beautiful photograph, and I’m going to show you how to do all three of those, and more.

Don’t believe me?  Check this out (before):
…and after:
Same person, different composition…unbelievable!

From an art perspective, our brains prefer to see an odd number of things more than an even number.  This means that if you currently have two children, for the sake of creating better photographs, you should either get started on making a third child, or at the very least, get a dog and train it to sit and stay so you can include it all your photos.  Outside of those two options, composition, along with having an additional item of visual interest in your picture, can provide the odd number you’re looking for.  In the case of the two girls above, the extra item of interest would be the river.  Triangles (or in their inverted form, Pyramids), are a great way to compose/position your subjects (especially when you have three of them) to make your image most pleasing to the eye.  They can be used in many ways for arranging your subjects, the other things that are included in your photo (around your subject/subjects), and you can even create compositions that include multiple triangles within an image, such as for larger groups of people.

Here are our two sisters again, this time with their super model Mom (you guessed it…she’s also hideous, but the triangular composition made her look beautiful):

And now you can see the triangle in action:

There are also compositional rules that cover things such as Diagonal Lines, Leading Lines, Diamonds (not the kind you wear) and more, but I’ve got to save some information for my book.

Now that we’ve covered some of the “rules,” do be afraid to break them.  They are guidelines that will help improve the shots you take, but they should not limit you trying other things.  Sometimes, filling your frame with an adorable face, smack dab in the center of the shot, can be powerful.  But if this is what you always do, change it up.  Your imagination and creativity are the most fun parts of photography!