Pocket photographer Mike Kus shares easy tricks for taking your phone photography to the next level
“These days, you don’t need a full camera rig to get into photography,” says British photographer Mike Kus. “Anyone with an interest in photography can take beautiful photographs using a phone.”
As both a professional—collaborating with big names like Land Rover—and a hobbyist, Kus has been working in the world of phone photography for the past decade. He's built up a 750,000-plus following on Instagram and has just published his first book for anyone interested in photography: The Pocket Photographer: How to Take Beautiful Photos With Your Phone.
Here, Kus shares some tips for taking your photography to the next level, as well as how to overcome common challenges and how he feels technology has leveled the playing field.
Phone photography shatters the barrier to entry
A graphic designer by profession, Kus has always been interested in photography, playing around with cameras and developing film photos since he was a kid. But, as a hobbyist who “took pictures as and when the opportunity arose rather than go out on photo shoots,” he found lugging around heavy camera equipment a drawback. And, of course, buying camera equipment is expensive.
“Thanks to phones and apps—whatever phone you're using—the barrier to entry for photography is completely and utterly shattered. Anyone who’s interested has the opportunity to take photos, edit them, and share them," says Kus. "And most of what goes into taking the photograph, in my opinion, is the creative part—deciding where to take it from, what light to take it in, how to frame it, compose it, and all of that can be done by anyone without much technical photography knowledge.”
Further dropping that barrier to entry, The Pocket Photographer book is aimed at beginners interested in exploring the world of photography through their phones. In it, Kus shares what he calls his “list of ingredients” that he thinks of every time he takes a photo to quickly craft an incredible photograph.
For him, sharing this knowledge is a hugely important part of the creative process. “I don’t like that people are made to feel they can’t get into something; the idea that you have to know X before you do Y,” he explains. “I think sharing knowledge makes people feel empowered to do something. It makes people feel like they’ve got a chance to learn a new skill without investing years and loads of money—you can actually learn skills quite quickly.”
5 tips for taking better phone photographs
So, how do you create the perfect shot on a phone? “For me, it’s a combination of things,” explains Kus. “Basically, everything in the book is essentially a list of things I think about every time I take a picture which I see as a bunch of ingredients that go into making that picture… There's loads of them, and they're all overlapping. And it’s about using your surroundings to your advantage.” For example:
1. Think about the composition
Kus always thinks about what else he can bring into the frame to make the shot more interesting: “Is there something I can put into the foreground to give it depth? Or is there something I can put in the frame to create some perspective? Or can I look through a different frame, like a fence or bridge rail? I ask myself all those questions, looking at what’s around me to make the picture.”
2. Pick your vantage point
“After I’ve seen somewhere I think would be a great location for a photo, another thing I think about early on is vantage point: wherever I'm going to take that picture from. Rather than the usual head height, it could be down low to the ground or just above your head, it changes the view and makes it more interesting. For example, a lower vantage point really exaggerates the perspective and depth of the photograph.”
Changing your vantage point can also add different compositional elements. “Sometimes, I just stick my phone camera right down to the ground and you get all these autumn leaves in the foreground or dew on the grass.” If you’re in a city, Kus also adds that you can capture some really interesting shots just by looking up between the buildings or dipping low in the streets to capture buses passing by.
3. Getting the right light
“One of the first things I think about is lighting. For starters, it helps if you’re taking a photo at the right time of day; in the mornings and evenings when the sun is coming up or when the light’s low, it casts more shadows and might be a little bit hazy. In general, it's much nicer than midday light where it just shines straight down and floods everything and nothing looks that interesting.”
Kus does note there are exceptions to this rule, for example, if you’re in a city, “light pouring down between buildings in alleyways casts interesting shadows… But in general, the light during evenings and mornings is a game-changer.”
4. Take advantage of the changing of the seasons
“I’m always taking loads of pictures in the autumn, for example, because everything changes color creating opportunities for some beautiful shots.”
5. Play around with reflections
“Regardless of where you are, using reflections is a really easy way to get a really interesting photograph quickly, as the bottom half of your photograph is just the reflection of the top half,” says Kus. “This is a good thing for rainy places as well; you never think you can take good pictures in the rain, but take advantage of the puddles—even with small puddles, turn your phone upside down so the lens is close to the puddle and it looks like you’ve got a whole pool of water.”
And that's just the beginning, there are loads of quick things you can do to completely change the outcome of a photograph: “You layer these ingredients up, and by the time you've done three or four, the photograph you've composed is completely different—and way more interesting—to the one you would have got, just standing there," adds Kus. "This is what I talk about more in my book; it's all geared towards the creative side of taking photographs."
Overcoming challenges of phone photography
Although he loves being able to take photographs whenever the moment strikes without carrying around equipment, Kus recognizes there are extra technical challenges that come with phone photography. However, there are hacks to get around the limitations of a phone camera.
Creating different focus
“Using a phone isn't the same as having attached lenses… If you take a photograph anywhere with a phone, everything's pretty much in focus all the time—unless you use portrait mode to take a picture of a friend. But the standard physical limitations of what’s in a phone mean the lenses make everything in focus, which doesn’t make for an interesting photo all the time. So, for example, you can’t create a shallow depth of field easily,” he explains.
However, the focus of a phone camera does have limitations that enable you to get around this. “You can’t have a leaf five centimeters in front of the lens and have the background in focus, too. So what I often do, is if I'm taking a landscape, I'll bring something in front of the lens—to the bottom corner or something—and then it will be out of focus with the background in focus.
"Or, you can switch the focus around by tapping on the element in the foreground, lock on that, and then you’ll have the foreground element in focus, while the background will be out of focus. It gives you the opportunity to create a focal point in a picture whilst having something out of focus.”
Making use of editing apps
Whatever the camera, lots of photographers edit their photos—Kus sees it as a really fun and creative part of the photography process. “Often, when something strikes you as a great photo opportunity, you’re in a certain moment in time, in a beautiful place with people… It's a nice feeling and you try to capture it. But a lot of the time when you get the image back, it’s not quite as magical as you thought it was in the photo.”
For Kus, this is where editing comes in. “When I'm editing the color and the light, I try to recreate that feeling and convey it through the photograph.” Whether you’re softening the photo or adjusting contrast, the rise of third-party editing apps has made this process much more accessible.
What to look for in a phone camera
While all handsets have their pros and cons depending on what you’re looking for, Kus finds that these days most phones have good enough cameras to take some good photographs. As a general rule of thumb, though, he recommends comparing the technical specs for features like the lens, optical zoom, etc to make sure it’s got the capabilities you want.
For example, if you want to accurately capture objects that are further away, you might want a phone with a telephoto lens—alternatively, a camera with a higher optical zoom would do a similar job. Also, if you're going to be doing a lot of editing on your phone, having a larger-sized screen might be something you look into.
Whatever your aim with your photography, whether you're a hobbyist or interested to explore it as a profession, Kus hopes The Pocket Photographer will encourage people to give it go regardless of their background. "Even by doing little things, your skills can completely flourish with that extra bit of knowledge, and who knows where that will lead you. That's how powerful learning a new skill can be."