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Anyone can take a mobile photo of you. That doesn’t mean everyone should.

Every week on social streams I see awful photos of good people. I don’t know why they were taken, let alone shared. Usually they’re tucked in the middle of a thoughtless gallery. Sometimes they’re right in everyone’s face. A lack of likes or comments validates what I already know: these photos are not fit to be seen. Worse, they’re missed opportunities. Most of them would have been fine if the photographers had thought to avoid a few too common mistakes.

Just in time for your end of summer trip pics, and with help from the fine folks who pitched in on Facebook and Twitter, here are 10 ways to spoil good mobile pics of other people (and how to avoid them).

1. Use the flash. If I see that light go off, it’s all over. In the split second before the photographer has her shot, I already wish it didn’t exist. Most mobile flash just sucks. What horrors will I see when the Facebook tag comes in? Red eye? Green skin? Some garish reflection from that glass behind us? Here’s a tip: Hate the flash. If you’re in low light, hold the phone steady and see what you get. If you’re in darkness, don’t take pictures.

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2. Take only one pic. Phones have nothing but space. Take several shots of whatever moment you want to capture — particularly group shots — and you up the chance that one will show everyone in their best light. It only takes a second and you don’t need to count to three: I get some of my best shots when friends joke and smile their way into or out of a supposed pose. Spontaneous moments, the best, almost always take a few shots to look back and get right.

3. Underedit. The days of accepting whatever image your device first gives you are over. Photo editing apps are everywhere, and all you ever really need is crop. Cut out distracting elements. Tighten things up. If you get into it, take a minute to learn the rule of thirds (a minute is all you need). Cropping photos can fix a lot of the mistakes on this list. Few other things can.

4. Overedit. Filters can make good photos look great, but they can’t make bad photos look good. My friend Steve Roth calls this mistake “Using the Instagram ‘make shitty’ filter.” If your lighting, contrast and color edits aren’t adding an interesting or artsy edge to your pic, they’re probably making it worse. I’ve spent many minutes trying to resuscitate a photo that was backlit, or low-lit, or grainy. About a third make it out. The rest were dead on arrival.

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5. Move the phone. If you’re holding your keys, your purse and your phone — in the same hand — there’s a good chance whatever photo you’re taking is going to be blurry, which is the worst. Phones are made to be held with one hand, but photographer Josh Trujillo is right when he tells people to hold them with both — and watch for that stray finger covering the lens.

6. Ignore the background. It doesn’t matter how great the people in your pic look. If there’s a sign growing out of one of their heads, or you caught someone in an ugly half expression in the background, it’s not a good photo. “Nothing worse than looking at the photo later and finding a pole shooting out of someones head,” wrote Nikki Verbek. “Or a dog doing his business in the background.”

7. Take the pic from far away. I don’t know what compels people to take ten steps back before they take a shot. You know you’re in one of these when you can’t find enough free pixels to tag yourself — if that little speck with the hair and the shirt is, in fact, you. Here’s another one: concert photos, otherwise known as red bursts on a black background. “I can just repost that same photo every concert,” joked Brian Westbrook. “You’ll NEVER know.”

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8. Ignore the focus. Part of what makes mobile photo errors feel so avoidable is that you can see the picture you’re about to take right there on your screen. Phones’ autofocus is pretty good, most of the time, but it’s worth checking when you’re shooting objects at a couple different depths. Tap the screen to make sure it’s where you want it to be, or it’s back to the old blur.

9. Be too polite. It’s one thing if you don’t tell me I have something in my teeth. If you don’t tell me and you take a picture of me? That’s a problem. People want to look good in pictures. They won’t complain if you help.

10. Share everything. Taking bad pictures of people isn’t a sin. Sharing them is. Digital life has made us all into content creators, but also, necessarily, editors. If that doesn’t feel natural, remember: The photos you share socially are not just for your albums, but for the albums of the people in them. If your subjects don’t look good, neither do you. So choose wisely.

There’s a simple theme here. All you really have to do to avoid taking bad pictures of people is care. Do you?

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  • Orin O’Neill

    I take a lot of pix at events, and the same rule applies to them as it does to being in the infantry — shoot in the general direction of anything that moves. I’ve gotten lots of great shots that way.

    HOWEVER, you don’t need to post ALL of them! Pick the best one (or two, if warranted), and SHARE THAT ONE. Professional photographers will tell you the same thing I will — I shoot a ton of pix and throw 99% of them away. In the age of digital photography, easy and FREE…

    • Monica Guzman

      Definitely. I really, REALLY don’t understand the instinct some seem to have to throw everything up on Facebook, even when the batch includes three or four photos that are almost exactly the same. Honestly, you can’t be much of a content creator if you are not also a discerning editor.

      • Valentina Vitols

        This applies also to compulsive posting on Instagram. I’ve unfollowed people I actually like due to their inability to edit to one or two shots of the same subject, object or situation. Great advice in your article, thanks for sharing!

        • Monica Guzman

          Means a lot that you found it useful :)

  • FrankCatalano

    Let me add one more way to take a crappy photo with your phone: Overuse your zoom. With almost no exception, smartphone cameras use digital, not optical, zoom, so the resulting photo will be lower quality than without zoom. Better solution? Frame the photo properly, focus, take it WITHOUT zoom, and use cropping to zoom in. Better resolution almost guaranteed.

    I also recommend avoiding the “up the nose” shot; that is, taking a picture while looking directly up to the face of a subject. Cute for animals. Not so much humans.

    • Monica Guzman

      Yes – zoom with your feet! – another tip I hear a lot from Josh Trujillo. The chin shot is almost always a bad call.

      • Roy Leban

        When I take portraits, I usually tell people to turn their head so they are looking at a point just below and to one side of the camera and then, without moving their head, move their eyes to look right at the lens. Adjust as necessary depending on your focal length and how far away you are from the subject (you don’t want them facing too far away from the lens). This is the opposite of the chin shot and results in a much better portrait.

        Another tip: Use a camera, not a phone. You don’t make phone calls on your camera do you? (Seriously, smartphones are great for quick snaps, but they are inherently limited.)

        • Monica Guzman

          Nothing beats a DSLR lens for a great portrait. But like Chase Jarvis famously said, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”

          • Roy Leban

            Oh, I totally agree with that. Some of my best photos were taken with a point and shoot because it was the camera I had with me. I take photos with my phone on far more occasions, but I wouldn’t place any of those photos in a “top photos list” (maybe someday). When I do use my real camera (a D300) I usually take 100 or more pictures, so, net, I take far more photos with it than my phone.

  • oneumbrlla

    Check out the beginner book Learning to See Creatively that I received from @alt0163. Rule of thirds and others!

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