It’s all about the light. Or Lack of it.

Photographing inside schools is often challenging. Photographically speaking, its dark. It’s crowded. And, to make matters worse, the actors are often unpredictable and prone to moving the instant you reach for the shutter button.

Here are a few quick tips for getting better educational photos, mainly directed at cellphones, but most are applicable to cameras too:

1. Hold the phone (or camera) steady.

Do whatever you can to avoid camera movement. Hold the camera steady, rest it on a solid object, control your breathing, press the shutter gently. (In the photo above, the camera was resting on a wooden box.)

2. Clean the phone’s lens. (or camera’s)

Use an eyeglasses cloth to remove the dust and fingerprints from the lens.

3. Watch the light.

Avoid the dark corners of classroom. Move near a window on an overcast day (for lovely soft light). But don’t shoot into the light; it’s rarely a good idea to shoot into the light. For example, don’t try to photograph people standing in front of a widow. Moving so the window light is coming from the side can help create beautiful images.

Abandoned for the summer  (John Cameron)
Window light & tripod (It’s easy to get everything in focus with a phone.)

4. Check the image and reshoot when needed.

Digital is a great learning tool; you instantly see what needs to be changed. Below, it took several attempts to get the image straight. This phone image uses only about half the photo taken, yet works well even on high resolution ‘retina’ screens which require four times as many pixels. (The phone was attached to the device at the bottom of this page, and was taken with the help of an app called ‘manual’; see #5 below)

Photo of Mask (phone)
Sidelight from a window, phone 20cm from mask.
(phones can create detailed close-ups of student work)

5. Up your game.

You can get better images—especially with a phone—when you identify a problem—then work to solve it. You’re a lifelong learner, right? For example, your indoor photos are blurry. Sometimes it’s just too dark to properly capture an indoor scene. And let’s face it, we’re the problem; let’s eliminate the human factor. Let a device hold the phone for you. At the bottom of the page is one example of a self-standing phone holder which also works on a tripod if you have one (recommended).

Then when you are ready to press the shutter, don’t! Connect something like the iPhone earbud, open the Camera app and press on “volume up” button from your earbud to remotely click the camera’s shutter. That way you eliminate any vibration.

Or take it up another notch with a camera app (like ‘Manual – Custom exposure camera’) which allows you full camera control. In combination—eliminating camera blur by supporting the camera and use the delayed shutter feature—you can get photos like those in the ads. Seriously.

6. One more thing, Take it Outside.

Phones and most dedicated cameras do much better outside than in. So shoot outside when you can. But once again, watch the light. High noon on a bright sunny day is not the best time to photograph people—it’s the worst time (if you want to see faces). Much better is a consistent, overcast day with no shadows. Or in the shade with a darker background (like trees; not the sky) behind.

—John Cameron