Shooting Portraits in Harsh lighting

One of the things we have an abundance of in Malta is bright bright sunlight. This post unfortunately does not apply to our harsh sun when it’s at it’s peak. This is because the overhead positioning and bright light will result in a white studio background with the added haze that will lose a lot of fine detail.

In these conditions, moving to the shade will produce much better results. However! if you are in harsh sunlight in the morning or afternoon hours before golden hour. Simply place the subject with their back to the sun and use them to shield your camera from the glare. This will produce a lovely blown out background and a golden halo for your subject. To achieve this make sure you expose for our subject’s face, otherwise the camera will try and average out the light in the scene and leave you with a dull background and dark underexposed face

This will not work well for all subjects but for kids, and young beautiful people this fits quite nicely.

Here are some example of this technique show during Milan Fashion Week

In this photo of Birgit Kos, a bit of toning was applied to the highlights

In this photo of Birgit Kos, a bit of toning was applied to the highlights

Editing Mobile Phone photos

Even though i am a professional photographer, there are times where i don't have (or don't want to have) my camera with me - both when i'm in Malta and abroad. Like anyone else who has made their merry way into the 21st century, i do however have a mobile phone pretty much always in my pocket.

One of the main benefits a professional camera brings to a photoshoot, is the ability to work fast and in difficult conditions without losing quality. However, if you're prepared to sacrifice image quality a little bit, pushing your photos during editing will make a big difference in the impact.

This article is based on the Snapseed mobile application. This was built on an excellent software suite by a company called Nik (which was then taken over by Google). I use the android version which you can download here and there is also a version for iPhone here

Disclaimer: Is editing going to make my Oneplus 5 images look like they were taken with my Canon 5D mk4? No way! but it will add perceived detail and impact

Basic Corrections

The first step in our editing is to correct any mistakes that the camera may have made. Remember that the amount of light the phone captures and the colour which it sets to be "white" are guesses and it can get these wrong. (For example you might take a picture of a white plate in a room lit up in warm white light and get a yellow colour cast.)

1. White Balance (ie - is everything yellow-ish?) - The White balance tool has a selection tool that allows you to click on a spot on the photo and set it as white. If you're shooting food, this could be the table cloth or plate. Neutral greys work just as well (or better) than white too. Once you fix this you will see new colours appear in the photo

2. Exposure (ie is the photo too dark or too white?) - For these two questions we'll be using two different tools. Unfortunately, if the photo is too white, it is much harder to fix since the detail is lost and the colours may have become skewed. Your best bet is to use the Tune Image tool and reduce the brightness and highlights settings. Be careful because whites might become greys which are possibly uglier than the white you are trying to fix.

To add light we can either use the Tune Image tool and add brightness but i find that using the Curves tool and selecting "Brighten" from the palette produces a more pleasing effect. You can then adjust the curve to increase/decrease this - or you can just run the Curves tool multiple times (i find this produces the most natural result)

At this point out photo is well exposed and is showing the correct colours. Since these are things mobile phones often make mistakes in, we've already improved the image substantially

Case Study: Dinner

Food in particular needs correct colours and good lighting, additional detail and contrast are an added bonus (if you like that effect)

Food in particular needs correct colours and good lighting, additional detail and contrast are an added bonus (if you like that effect)


Adding Detail

1. The aptly named Details tool is an easy way to bring out the structure in the image. I personally like adding a lot of this since it adds sharpness and contrast across the board. You can then go into the layer mask (View Edits -> select the layer -> select the brush) and then brush away the areas where it might have added too much structure

2. Focus on your subject. This is much harder to do with a phone than with a professional slr since depth of field (blur/bokeh) is linked to the size of the camera sensor (which is tiny on a phone) so we can turn to software to help us out. Disclaimer: This can look fake if misused. This effect is very obvious and i tend to reduce the amount of blur that is set by default. I also adjust the shape of the circle to go around the object i want to keep in focus.

3. HDR. Yes, HDR Scape is a great editing tool for mobile phones - especially since the dynamic range of the sensor is much smaller than you get in a good camera. Disclaimer: This can look fake if misused. I use HDR typically for food shots and landscapes. Like lens blur i reduce the amount of filter strength that is set by default (be particularly careful for whites becoming "dusty" and reds becoming highlighted and over bright). From the palette i typically select the "Nature" or "People" setting

4. Tone the image. The Vintage tool is a great way to tone the colours in your image - again this is an effect that should be used sparingly and with caution. I tend to reduce/almost remove the default vignette setting and i reduce the overall effect by at least 50% - otherwise it will just take over all the colours of your photo. Remember that you want to add some spice, not overwhelm it

Case Study 3: Architecture in Valletta


5. Selective editing using the healing tool can help fix mistakes or dirt in the photo. Click on the affected areas will draw information for the surroundings to remove the offending debris. It's also very good when someone attacks the food before the photo was taken! :) In the next case study i had wanted a photo of the dish but absent-mindedly broke it with my fork. 



Questions? Anything Not Clear?

Just leave a comment below and i'll do my best to reach out and help you out or edit the article and explain better :)

Taking a good photo with any camera

One of the big changes we've seen in the last few years is that at any given time, most people will have a camera on them. This may be 'just' a mobile phone but we are at a stage where mobiles have become good enough in many situations to create a photo that you can even print and enlarge. Another exciting advancement this month was the release of the Huawei P20 Pro that has a triple camera, 40 megapixel camera (more info on the Huawei P20 here) 

Valletta, Shot on a OnePlus 5

Valletta, Shot on a OnePlus 5

Previous Articles

On this blog i have already talked about some simple tricks in the following articles: 

but lets focus on the device we all have with us everyday: Our phone.


Mobile Photography Workflow

Mobile phones like the OnePlus 5, The Samsung S8/S9 have great cameras that are able to capture great images in many conditions. As we try to take pictures in more challenging scenarios then things can get ugly. If we understand the limitations we have and work our way around them then we can help our phone's camera produce better results.

1. Buy the right phone

In the words of 'The sound of music' - "Let's start from the very beginning, a very good place to start". When you are making the choice on which mobile phone to buy, steer clear of the many marketing gimmicks manufacturers will use to tempt you. The laws of physics apply to any camera - bigger sensors (all other things being equal) will produce better photos. They will allow in more light, which leads to better colours, less noise at night and happiness. A lot of happiness. This is something you can easily check since most review sites list the sensor size of the phone's cameras. The Google Pixel, the Samsung Galaxy S9 or upcoming Huawei P20 have a larger physical sensor and this can be seen directly affecting the good scores they receive on DXO Mark (Check out DXOMark mobile for camera reviews)

For landscape lovers: optical image stabilisation, Samsung's new variable aperture system provides high detail in good light

For people & low light Look out for bigger sensors, lenses that will let in lots of light (the smaller the 'f' number, the more light you get), Phase detection autofocus. Dual camera setups with a zoom lens and good bokeh simulation can work nicely here

For everything: Look out for bigger sensors, good scores on review sites like dxomark. Watch out for dual-camera setups - some may bring advantages but more cameras is not always better

2. Shoot first, ask questions later

One of the biggest arguments among photographers, especially ones who have come from the days of film is the "spray & pray" attitude that digital allows. Whilst it is very important to think about what you are shooting and to time the shot correctly... taking multiple shots will increase your chances of getting the perfect one. In mobiles this is particularly effective since the device is more fiddly than an SLR and also has more lag between pressing the shutter button and the shot being taken. This can cause the photo to be blurred due to camera shake, or a subject having his/her eyes closed.

3. Look around you first

Are you shooting in the sun? Is there something really bright/reflective behind you? Are you on something moving? Are you in a very dark area? If you've answered yes to any of those questions then you're putting your phone's camera in a hard place. Look around you - if you are in the sun try and find a spot of shade. The main source of light should ideally be behind you (this will provide the best lighting for your subject). If you are in the dark, is there a bright shop window nearby? or can you turn on some more lighting? These will help the camera choose a setting which will result in better image quality.

4. Know your lens

The main camera on most phones is a 24mm-27mm (ie wide angle) lens. This means that it is quite susceptible to the way you position it towards your subject. For example if you are taking a photo of a person (full body outfit shot for example) - if the camera is held at head height, then this is going to cause the person to look shorter than they are. Moving the camera down to chest or waist height will make them look taller. Taking the photo from near the ground will make them look much taller and also provides an interesting perspective - perfect for showing off those new Gucci Loafers

5. Editing is part of the workflow

Snapseed or VSCO are simple tools that can be used to greatly enhance photos taken by phones. One of the main areas of weakness for mobile phone cameras in my opinion are - White Balance and Noise. Snapseed has a colour picker tool that allows you to click on an area of the image that is neutral (white/gray) and this will automatically adjust the colours of the image accordingly. This will really improve the way the image looks since some lighting systems (like tungsten) can give a yellow/orange colour cast to everything in the photo. 

Noise can be tackled by using contrast and darkening the darker areas of the photo, combined with noise reduction filters. If an image is particularly noisy, converting it to Black and White can help.