Taking pictures on your phone

Following our recent article with Eddie, Partnerships Coordinator about the importance of signing release forms – we spoke with photographer Sarah Walker about the best ways people can take photos from their smart phones.

You see, we receive hundreds of applications throughout the year for support from the Regional Arts Fund. They are incredible projects, and we want to publish the wonderful images you send us. So here are some tips and tricks to ensure you can capture the best bits of the action.

Photos aren’t usually something that people think of early in the process of developing a work – it doesn’t feel like a priority when you’re trying to make something big happen! But after the event, documentation is the only proof that your event/show/performance happened, and the quality of the photography hugely impacts how people who weren’t there receive a sense of the work. Bad photos make your work look bad. Great photos make people want to know more, and are essential for getting a continued life for your work, and for securing funding.

So, let’s consider two situations

  1. I’ve got a bit of cash! Hooray! Hire a professional! If your budget is a bit limited, tell them this in the brief. Let them know the date, the time, the location, a bit of information about what you’re putting together. Links to previous work can be handy so people can get a sense of it. Definitely tell them whether the work is indoors or outdoors, and whether there will be theatrical lighting or not. Tell them not to use a flash.
  2. I’m skint and we don’t have time to find a photographer! Now is the time to get out your phone. This is far from ideal, but let’s look at some ways to work with your phone to make sure your images are usable.

Handy hints for shooting an event with your phone

  1. Light. Light is the medium of photography, and your camera will handle lighting situations differently.
  • Outdoors during the day. Cool! Your phone should deal well with this – they work best with lots of light. Contrary to popular opinion, an overcast day doesn’t necessarily provide the best light (what you actually want is to be in the shade on a sunny day), but it’s doable.
  • Indoors in a hall or community space. Fluorescent lighting is surprisingly hard to work with. It doesn’t throw out a lot of light, and the flicker of the fluoros can be hard to work with. If you can open some doors and windows to let in natural light, great. If not, you’ll need a steady hand. Bring your elbows close in to your body. It can be helpful to hold your breath. This will stabilise the image and minimise blur. Use the feature on your camera where you tap on a face to alter the exposure to suit it.
  • Indoors with theatrical lighting. Great for cameras, less great for phones. As anyone who’s ever tried to take a photo at a gig has found, your camera can get a bit confused about stage lighting, resulting in horribly blown out, overexposed photos where you can’t distinguish faces at all. Again, use the tap-to-expose feature on your phone to try to get the lighting to a point where you can distinguish features. Don’t use flash! It’ll make everything look terrible.

Your phone will struggle a bit with side lighting or back lighting. Again, here is where it is good to use the exposure control on your phone so that the brightest part of the image is correctly exposed. If someone is side lit, this means that the part of their face looking forward will be a little darker, and the side with the light will be bright but not super overexposed. If you can, feel free to move people around so that they’re lit evenly and well. A bit of moving people around makes a big difference to your final shots.

2. Framing. Shoot in landscape (hold your phone horizontal). Instagram stories have conditioned us to shoot with our phone vertically, but these images aren’t as useful for promo and documentation purposes, and look less professional. Turn your phone sideways.

It’s good to think about event photography like you’re shooting a film. For each scenario, you’ll want:

  • Wide/establishing shots. The whole hall, or park, or stage of your event. Give the viewer a real sense of the whole of the space that you’re occupying.
  • Mid shots. A few people together, whether performers or audience members. Families, groups of friends, people watching a performer. Gives a sense of the scale of the event and the ways that people interact within it.
  • Close ups. Single faces, with a focus on expressions and engagement. If there are two people interacting, shoot one person over the other’s shoulder and then swap, to get a sense of the scene. One really good photo of someone laughing, listening or reacting is worth hundreds of blurry shots where someone is midway through talking or looking away from the camera. Media also prefer to see people’s faces in photos front on (rather than from the side or looking away). This doesn’t mean making eye contact with the camera, but if you can get eyes looking up and engaged, that’s great.

Generally, think about shooting an event like telling a story. What happens first? Do people get tickets, or wait together, or sit in an audience? What do they see? Where does their attention go? What are the most exciting parts?

Never use the zoom on your phone. Phones use what is called digital zoom (as opposed to optical zoom, which cameras with lenses have), which means that they just take the image and crop it to get the photo. These shots always look grainy and pixelated. Move yourself closer, don’t zoom in.

  1. Camera controls. Turn off Flash, HDR and Live Mode. Here is a good link about how to use the exposure compensation on iPhones.
  2. Editing. Generally, filters of the type that are available on Instagram and inbuilt into the camera, usually make your images look less professional, not more. If you must use them, try to just adjust small things like exposure and contrast, instead of filters that dramatically change colours.

This is a lot of information, but in short

  • Hire a photographer if possible.
  • Shoot landscape.
  • Adjust the exposure of photos to make them look excellent.
  • Take a moment to breathe before each photo, to check that your image looks great through your phone, rather than just taking hundreds of shots.
  • Ten beautiful images are much more valuable than a hundred average ones.

And remember, we want to publish the wonderful images you send us of your projects, so always ask that participants sign release forms.

Written by Sarah Walker.

Sarah Walker is a Melbourne-based photographer, writer and fine artist. She documents the Australian theatre industry for hundreds of clients and creatives, including Melbourne Festival, MTC, Malthouse, Chunky Move, Arts House and Next Wave. She was a finalist in the 2019 international MTV RE:DEFINE Award, the winner of the 2016 Best Portrait Prize at the CCP Salon, a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize, a two-time finalist in the Maggie Diaz Photography Prize for Women and a semi-finalist in the Moran Photographic Portrait Prize. She is also an award-winning theatre designer and director and co-host of podcast ‘Contact Mic.’

Speak with Sarah.

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