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Take aim… shoot!

Siân Tyrrell focuses her lens on the tiny details of everyday life, and the results are stunning. Here she shares her secrets.

Surrey photographer Siân Tyrrell focuses her lens on the tiny details of everyday life, and the results are stunning. So when I got the chance to bombard her with some questions on picture-taking recently, I asked her to share some top tips to elevate me from random family snapper to smartphone goddess.

Could this actually be the time I get some good shots, rather than hacking people’s heads off? Smartphones at the ready, take aim… SHOOT!

Over to you Siân…

The best camera is the one you have with you, and for most of us that means our smart phone. It’s always with us, ready to leap into action to capture that perfect photo moment.  The tech in our smartphones today makes it easier than ever to get a great image of your kids at the beach, on a dog walk or just playing in the garden.

However, I often hear from parents that the images they make with their smartphones are a disappointment – just not quite what they envisioned when they hit the button.  So I wanted to share some of my top tips for better smartphone shots this spring.


1) Be ready!

Most camera phones take a few seconds to unlock, launch the camera app, focus and take the picture. Often this means that fleeting moments are long gone by the time we take the picture, or that in our haste to catch it, the focus is off.  You can maximise your chances here by making sure that the camera app is easily available from your phone’s home screen (I have mine right in the centre of the screen). Some phones will also allow you to set your camera app so that it can be launched direct from your lock screen without logging in with your PIN, fingerprint or password – which will save you a few vital seconds.

With accessibility of your app sorted, the next thing is to be sure you can focus and take the picture quickly. Spend a few minutes getting to know how your focus works. It’s usually a tap to the area of the screen where you want the focus to be and you’re done.  Check your camera app settings too and enable ‘focus tracking’ if it’s an option.  This ensures that once you tap on your little one’s face on the screen, the camera will keep focusing on him or her even if they move, saving you a lot of time refocusing as they go whizzing about.

2) Check the background!

As a photographer I spend an inordinate amount of time looking, not at the person I’m taking the picture of, but at what’s behind them.  One of the reasons smartphone shots often aren’t quite as wonderful as we thought they would be is because of the background.  Naturally we’re focused on the kids, the dog or whoever else we’re trying to photograph, so we miss things like ugly fences, litter, random passers-by and pylons that look like they’re growing out of someone’s head.  A good background will help make sure that the thing you want people to look at in the picture (your kids or dog for example) is definitely the thing that draws the viewer’s eye.

If you’re heading out with the family on a nice day and you think you might like to take some pictures, keep your eyes peeled for opportunities where the background is good.  Perhaps there’s a clear line of sight down to the sea, or the horizon is clear of distracting cars or simply the woodland is thick and provides a beautiful backdrop.  If there’s something distracting in the shot try changing your position so you can’t see it.  Moving left or right, or taking the picture from a lower or higher angle by crouching or standing on a bench will often help.


3) Try something candid!

Some kids are great at posing for the camera, but often, especially with very young kids, the phrase “smile!” results in a rather odd, fixed expression that’s really not at all like the natural smile we see when they are happily playing or laughing at something funny.

I like to get around this by taking pictures when the child is absorbed in something else, when they’ve forgotten that I’m there and aren’t looking for, or at, the camera.  Smart phones are particularly good for this as we have them out a lot of the time anyway and they are a lot less intrusive than a big camera.

For good candid shots, step back a little and watch the child just enjoying what they’re doing.  Subtly move yourself into a positon with a good view of their face and quickly take the picture without saying a word.  You can get a huge variety of expressions this way, serious concentrating faces with the tongue poking out, and content, far away smiles – beautiful, honest pictures that you will treasure.


4) Step back!

The great thing about little kids is that they are little!  The temptation is to always fill the whole picture with the person, but doing that means that you don’t get a sense of scale.  If your little one is running on the beach, or in a forest or through a park, try taking a shot where they are small in the picture and the landscape around them is big.  It can be tricky to get the focus right as the camera may want to focus on things around them, but with a bit of practice you can make great shots this way.

I particularly like pictures where the child is far ahead of me and they are walking away into a vast scene. I always try and get some shots like this when we are on holiday and especially if I want to remember the place as well.  It’s also a good technique for older kids and teens who might object to standing still and smiling for a picture. You can still get a great sense of their shape and personality through the body language that a shot like this can capture.


5) Get a great editing app!

One of the reason most people’s phone snaps don’t match up to the pictures they see on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest is because those images have undergone an editing process that affects the colours,  the sharpness and at the most basic level the shape of the image itself.

Filters are in common use among professional and amateur photographers alike, helping them to create the look and feel they want for their photos.  Filters are available in Instagram itself so you could start there. However, for more control and more creative options you might like to try apps such as Snapseed or Hipstamatic.  It takes a little bit of practice to get used to how the different effect options affect your picture, but you’ll soon find some effects that you like the look of and that give your image a style that you like.  Play around with different image shapes too, square and panoramic (long and thin) are good options and can make your image look less like every other phone shot.


6. Just one final thing…

If you try these tips you should see a big improvement in the quality of the pictures you take with your phone. However, that means nothing if you then leave them languishing on your phone!  Share them with your friends and family and consider getting them printed so you can put them on the fridge or even on the wall or in an album.  We don’t print our pictures very much anymore and I think that’s a shame.  It’s a very different feeling flicking through a physical family album compared to browsing them on the phone or tablet. There are plenty of services out there that will print images directly from your phone and send them in the post.  You could even send then directly to friends and family as a wonderful surprise!

Siân Tyrrell is a family and portrait photographer based in Cranleigh, Surrey. All image are copyright of Siân Tyrrell/ Siân T. Photography and taken on her smartphone.


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