Learning to improve smartphone photography
Learning to improve smartphone photography

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Learning to improve smartphone photography

Words by Nathan Larkin, founder of Speak in Code

Photography by Nathan Larkin

Photography is not my major, let me just get that out there to start with. I can't claim to be a professional snapper of bars, drinks or food. I do however, possess a smartphone and I do also believe that we should be editing smartphone photographs where possible.

During lockdown I made it my goal to learn more about the little things that have a big impact on not only your images, but your social media presence in general.

I opened a bar, Speak In Code, in 2018 with a very small budget and not much purse to outsource to people who do this for a living. I'd had some experience in managing social media pages with my small consultancy business, Prince Bartending and taking some photos for bars I'd previously managed. Since putting images of food and drink online is an essential part of the growth of Speak in Code, I gave myself a live crash course in enhancing images for our social media pages. My primary focus was all on product shots; I wanted to make them look as tasty as they were. Most of the self-analysis and progression had come from feedback and engagement from visitors to the bar and that helped me understand little more about what kind of images bring engagement, and what to look for to improve the quality. I highly recommend using professionals for the important stuff but for the day to day cocktail or food shots, the below should advise on learning more about how to use your smartphone and a free editing app, and then how mastering these tools can build your social media presence to being somewhat credible by peers and guests alike

5 tips for smartphone photography, from a bartender

1. Composition
It's hard to state what the most important thing is here for better results but I will start with composition - arranging the subject and other elements to suit the goal. Make sure the grid view is turned on, allowing you to set the composition while maintaining focus on the subject. You can guide the horizon to be straight, or at an angle and place the subject into a frame, while using the corners to create other emphasis points. If you're using props it can be a great way to keep everything centred, by using the props as focus points in the corners of grid view. My recommendation for props however is, unless they're your bar tools, or natural environmental objects, is to use them in neutral spaces away from service areas like your work station. So if you wish to scatter coffee beans, to influence the viewers or enhance the mood surrounding coffee, an area that allows the focus to be on those two could best suit that. For detail, I'd recommend investing in a tripod. Great for setting your positioning so you can play with the other details like lighting and environment surrounding the subject.

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2. Lighting
Lighting is a key factor in creating a noteworthy image. Lighting determines both lightness and darkness. It can also determine tone, mood and atmosphere. Natural lighting is considered to be the best source as flash lighting from your device can generally be more harmful in dark spaces. It can give the subject harsh shadows, and over expose the pale-blues and whites in the image. Try to source natural light if you can, via table settings near to your window or door to capture the light rays. If you're in a basement bar, try to capture images before opening or after closing when the lights are on full, and play with the tones. During service, if you have time, put your drink or dish in a well-lit area, or underneath a table light and take advantage of the surrounding shadows by increasing focus towards the centre of the image. The time period shortly after sunrise, and just before sunset due to their natural warm lighting are great times to consider taking your product shots. One tip I learned from a pro was to take a big piece of card and cut a square out of the middle to create a frame and hold it towards your natural light source. This way you can manipulate the direction of the light to highlight the particulars of the subject, its surrounding areas, and make sure it's front lit rather than back lit.

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3. People
One thing's for certain – the more appealing your product looks, the more people it attracts. You should be including a human element with at least some of your posts, as it can make your product shots more relatable to your views and strengthen the brand identity. As John Wayte, UKBA for Monkey Shoulder says, "A drink on its own is just a drink – a drink in somebody's hand is somebody's drink". I couldn't agree more. The further I included people in photos the more engagement I was getting. Instead of laying the drink on a surface to capture, try holding it up to the same backdrop and include your hand holding it in the shot. At times I'd take sneak shots across the bar when all stools are full, and really catch people enjoying drinks, enjoying each other's company, or enjoying the chit chat with the bartender. This shows another human element to your product or brand, and makes the overall appeal accessible. Celebrating the people in your team through group or individual photographs builds emotional affection with your audience. The most engagement I've ever received in 10 years of bartending, and social media posting, was introducing a new team member via Instagram, who joined after moving to the UK on a temporary visa from New Zealand.

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4. Finding new spots
You can photograph almost anywhere. I recently photographed a cocktail underneath my couch that raises up enough for me to capture a short, stirred down cocktail with a few inches headspace. There was no other place in my apartment at the time where the sun's position and warming colours could produce the environment I needed to get the long shadows across the golden walnut coloured floorboards. Themes and consistency are important, however it can only take you so far if you stick to the same places you take photos. I photographed an entire cocktail menu in the same spot because I had figured all other places were inferior. However, with a little bit of fresh thinking you can utilise different assets and props for not only their positioning, but for their colour palette, base materials, and perspective giving abilities. This can allow you to take some of your product shots down more of a conceptual route. Remember that you can save themed shots for your overall page consistency and keep conceptual for social media stories. Or vice versa.

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5. Editing
As stated above, taking the extra step to edit smartphone photos can be an essential step. Good lighting, colours, shadows and overall clarity can be enough, but with an editing tool you have the ability to turn a good photo into an exceptional photo. One important thing to remember is real products sell, so don't overdo it. 35% of internet users are willing to share photos they browse on the web and I can only imagine the percentage of people who screenshot for later viewing and inspiration to be considerably higher. While the latter is a best guess, I'd love my food and drink images to be included and shared in the budding bartenders product developmental group chats. When I first took a bigger interest in creating better images, some of the pro terminologies were alien to me. With a little searching I realised there's a great deal of free apps out there for photo editing. For ease I use an editing app called Snapseed. After understanding all of the above, I began to learn more about structure, sharpening, shadows, lens blur, vignette, saturation, and much more. It's improved our photos tenfold and really allowed our social media pages to thrive.

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This really hits home when people come to visit your bar or restaurant and complement the images they see online, or they use online photos as their way of identifying which food or drink item they want from your menu. It could be the thing that takes you to the next round of a drink or food competition, or allows you to get a feature on someone else's page. It's a fulfilling skill to improve on and the rewards speak for themselves. Allow some time for trial and error, and to understand what each editing tool will achieve for you. If you have a business page, consistency is important. Maybe your bar is a speakeasy and you want to create mystique, so your focus is low-lit, dark colours enhanced by shadows and saturation but you introduce borders to narrow in on the images centre and create block themes through your Instagram page. Or if you have a page dedicated to feel good foods and you hone in on natural daylight, sharpening and warmth.

Social media is a tool to utilise to get people excited about your product. The further down the rabbit hole I go, the more I understand the platform we have for expression, storytelling and sharing your perspective with others, all the while strengthening peoples understanding of your branding. Nothing is perfect from the start so don't be afraid to take people on your journey of learning and showing continued progression with your photographs.

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