Four Ways to Improve Your Cell Phone Family Photography


As a family photographer, I scroll through my social media feeds with an attentive eye. While I’ll always prefer my DSLR for portraits and candids, the convenience of the cell phone camera just can’t be beat for everyday photos that we all want to share with our friends and family. Of course, I don’t expect to see professional photos of families going out for ice cream or at the finish line of the Mommy & Me One-Miler. But there are four easy ways to improve your everyday snapshots.

1. Lower Your Camera

When I’m out and about and see other parents (friends and family included!) taking photos of their kids, I see the same mistake over and over again.  Just about everyone takes photos of their kids from an adult’s perspective.

You’ve done it, too. You’re at Saturday morning soccer, you want to take a quick photo, and you snap the shot from above your kid. You’re standing up, you hold your phone comfortably, and you take the shot.

Your photos will be better when you take the photo from your kid’s perspective. That means you need to crouch down and take the shot. Now your photo will show the world from their perspective. You’ll give your kids a sense of stature and importance. Your kids will seem less innocent and more alive in their world. Your composition will also include the horizon, which means you’ll see more of the scene.

What’s the downside to lowering your camera to their perspective? Your knees will probably hurt a little. That’s it.

Compare the photos below. They’re both cute. But I’ll almost always favor Image 2 over Image 1 for several reasons. I can see more of my daughter in Image 2. I also see more of her surroundings. In Image 1, she’s surrounded by an expanse of green grass and nothing else. There’s no sense of scale or location. In Image 2, there’s a horizon line as well as scenery. Plus, her body isn’t as distorted in Image 2 as it is in Image 1. It’s still distorted, but I’ll cover that in Tip #3.

Your first tip to remember: lower your camera.


2. Make Faces Bright

Tip #2 is all about light. If you want to take better photos, you need to pay attention to light. The easiest way to make photos of people better is to make their faces brighter than the background. Watch out for bright windows, sidewalks, and skies. If those things are your background, then your camera has to do some major adjustments to make faces appear. Your photo will suffer as a result.

One common mistake is to have your family face the sun. Don’t do that! Everyone will be squinting. Photos of people are always about the eyes–it’s what we look at first and linger on longer. If they’re squinting into the sun, then we can’t see their eyes.

Put their backs to the sun (Image #1 above), or at least turn them 90-degrees from the sun (Image #2 above).  In an open field, like the one in Images 1 and 2, this technique won’t give you perfect light. But your photo will be better. Follow this link to learn more about taking photos in the sun.

I recognize that you won’t always be outside taking photos of your family. Playdates, library visits, family gatherings, many of these events will be indoors. You’re in luck: window light is amazing. Well, it can be if you know how to use it. This again comes back to making faces bright.

Take a look at Images 3 and 4. Image 4 is a better exposure than Image 3 because of where I stood and where my daughter was sitting. In Image 3, I’m on her shadow side, which means the camera needs to work harder to make the image brighter. As a result, colors are muted and her face is relatively dark. On the other hand, Image 4 uses the soft, even light from our huge windows to give me a colorful, bright photo.

The key to the quality of light is her distance from the window. My daughter is about six feet from the window. The light has diffused enough so that she’s not squinting and so that there are no harsh highlights. Your family’s distance from the window is important. Too close, and the light can still be harsh. Too far, and there’s not enough light. Window light is like Goldilocks–there’s a spot that’s just right. Rest assured, though, that when you find the right distance, there won’t be any bears chasing you away.

3. Lens Distortion

Tip #3 is really just about understanding the physical properties of your camera. The lens on a cell phone camera usually equates to a focal length between 30mm-35mm. That means it’s kind of a wide angle lens. 35mm is usually thought of as a journalist’s lens. The perspective allows you to include much of the scene, which is perfect for documenting life as you see it. But with that perspective, you need some distance from your subject to prevent distorted faces, bodies, and everything else.

We all tend to take cell phone photos really close to our families, especially with kids. Look again at Image 2. I took that photo standing really close to my daughter. As a result, her body is distorted. Her head is proportionally bigger than the rest of her body as it trails away to her feet. You can see this effect in Image 4, too. Our TV stand doesn’t have supports that get wider from bottom to top. That’s just the lens distorting the otherwise parallel supports and shelves.

Why do you need to care about this? If you’re taking a photo of more than one person, then the people near edges will distort. They’ll bubble out a bit.  (It’s also why people take so many versions of selfies. When you’re that close to the camera, things just aren’t that flattering.)

The other thing to think about is what’s closest to the camera is always biggest. That’s why my daughter looks distorted in Image 4. Even though I got lower than usual, her head was still closer to the camera than her feet. Thus, the bigger head and smaller legs and feet.

Be aware of the edges of your photo and of what’s closest to the camera. Distorted features can bubble up if you’re not paying attention. Fix this by standing a little farther away, by putting people in the center of the frame (not the edges), and by keeping your camera perpendicular to the ground.

4. Snapseed

Tip #4 is about adding polish to your photos. The native editing app that comes with your camera isn’t as good as some of the others out there in your app store. My advice is to download Snapseed and begin experimenting.

The easiest way to add polish and pop to your photos is to adjust the Exposure so that faces are bright and to add Contrast, which makes dark tones darker and light tones lighter. You can also improve an image using the Healing tool to get rid of distracting elements like random people in the background, branches sticking out of heads, and blemishes. Snapseed is a powerful editing app, and it’s user-friendly. Add some polish to your photos; start editing them.

I have a little more advice here on my website. And if you’re really into improving your photography, I also have a big education section.

Lastly, I’ll say this. I’m always going to prefer my DSLR. The flexibility and control I can get with a DSLR can’t be matched by my phone. But I don’t always have my DSLR with me. In fact, I leave it at home a lot so I’m not “that parent.” I still want my photos to be good, so I follow the tips in this article each time I’m documenting a little slice of our lives.