Having a smartphone in your pocket has really changed the game for artists! You no longer need to carry a big DSLR around your neck and read a thousand-page manual on how to operate it properly before you can take reference photos.

Now you can just take your iPhone out of your pocket, swipe to the left and start clicking away.

So… Everyone has access to a high-quality camera that is easy to carry around. But, you still need to know how to get the most out of it. I’m not talking about spending the next 6 months learning every tiny detail about how to become a professional-level photographer. I’m talking about some quick wins. Some simple changes, some easy improvements and a few nuggets of knowledge to add to your repertoire.

Here’s our crash course on taking better smartphone photos. We focus on iPhones, as they are the most popular. That being said, 90% of this post still applies to you if you don’t have an iPhone. We’ve broken it down into sections to turn it into manageable chunks… You might want to try out each nugget of information as you’re reading this post.

Fortunately, you’re almost certainly familiar with a lot of this theory, but it’s still good to skim over it and make sure you’re 100% familiar.


I’m sure that you already know about the rule of thirds… You can apply it in the same way you apply it to your reference photos. In fact, if you can apply the rule of thirds properly when taking a photo, it’s going to make your painting much easier!

Another thing to take into consideration is straight lines on buildings. Make sure that if you’ve got the edge of the building in your photo, it’s in a straight line (see the image below).

Take your foreground and background into consideration. Of course, some people like to use their artistic license to add or remove things from their reference photo, but if you want to paint from something more realistic, then take your foreground and background into consideration. 

For example, think about changing the angle you take the photo from in order to include some flowers in the foreground. Also, you could consider moving to another angle to get some of the sunset in the background of your photo or to include more or less of the building behind. 

Adding a grid

Using a grid on your screen whilst taking photos is great because it allows you to get great composition without having to crop your photos after. You can make sure that your subject is where the gridlines intersect or at least along the grid lines.

To get the grid on your screen, go to Settings > Camera. On the next screen, make sure that the settings are the same as the ones circled in the image below.

Make sure you keep your High Dynamic Range (HDR) on too, more about that later.

Adjusting and/or locking exposure

Whenever you take a photo, you want to keep as many details as possible to give you the most flexibility in case you decide that you want to edit your photos before painting from them (more on that later). 

This means that you do not want to overexposure your photo and blow out all of the highlights so that they just look plain white with no details. 

You also don’t want to underexposure your photos so that you can’t see any details in the shadows. Sometimes, that’s easy enough… Especially on overcast days. But, when you’re trying to take photos in the middle of a summer’s afternoon, the strong sunlight causes bright highlights and the walls of narrow streets can cause some pretty dark shadows. This is why you need to know how to correctly expose your photos. 

So… To adjust your exposure, you just need to open your camera app, tap on the screen and then drag your finger up to increase the exposure or down to decrease the exposure. Take your phone out now and test it… It’s super simple to get the hang of it. 

Once you’ve found the correct exposure, you can ‘tap and hold’ to ‘lock’ this exposure so that your phone doesn’t automatically try and adjust. See the image below.

What’s more, if you followed our advice about adding a grid, you’ll also have your High Dynamic Range (HDR) switched on. 

So, if you take multiple photos of the same thing, your phone will automatically find the best highlights and the best shadows and combine them into the same photo, giving you much more detail!

This is really going to take your reference photos to the next level and give you so many opportunities to paint back in our studio or even when you’re at home. 

Using the timer

You probably won’t use this feature much when you’re taking reference photos to paint from later, but sometimes it’s good to be able to take a photo of yourself without needing to ask a stranger to hold your phone and take the photo for you. 

Open your camera app, click on the timer button (the second from the right at the top of your screen) and then choose if you want the timer to be off, 3, 10 second delay. Then, just click the button to take a photo and the countdown will start!

Portrait mode

This is a really cool feature to use if you want to take a photo of something like a pot of flowers or another similar subject that you want to make stand out from the rest of the image. 

Using portrait mode is also simple. Open your camera app and click on ‘portrait’ at the bottom of the screen. Then just take a photo as you normally would.

The images below show the same photo taken in normal mode and portrait mode. You can see that the photo on the right (portrait mode) has more background blur… This effect is even more pronounced when the background is further away. Give it a try. 

Editing photos

Some of you will want to be able to make a few adjustments to your photo once you’ve taken it… Perhaps you need to straighten it up a little bit or you want to lose a bit of the detail in the image by adding a little filter makes your image much easier to work from if you have an impressionistic painting style.  

I would strongly recommend the app called ‘Snapseed’. It’s really easy to use and it’s free. You can download it here. 

Just download the app, click on ‘open’ and then select your photo. The adjustments are all pretty simple to make, but that’s another blog post for another time!

For the time being, I recently took a few reference photos from the region… If you want to start painting some, you can download them here.