Stylized Photography | Tips + Tricks

The second installment of this series is decidedly fundamental, with fewer confessions about my poor wardrobe choices in high school, and more about rudimentary tips and tricks for intentional, stylized cellphone photography. In the first section of this series, we discussed the key to composition and how to frame your subject. Below, I’m sharing a few elements to build the framework for the perfect shot.

LIGHTING: An essential rule of photography, especially with a cellphone, is proper lighting. In the photos below, I’m showing how natural light, artificial light, and a lack of lighting can affect the subject. For this particular photo series, I’m shooting leftovers from my husband’s 29th birthday party, where we snacked on Middle Eastern beets and yogurt toasts and sang “Happy Birthday” over a batch of chocolate and toffee semifreddo.

In the photo on the left, the overhead lights are off and all the curtains in the dining room are pulled back, allowing the sunlight to stream in through the windows. In the second photo, the curtains are closed and the overhead light is on. In the final photo on the right, the curtains are closed and the lights are off. The lighting dramatically influences the storytelling in this particular series; I would not want to eat the brown mush in the second photo.

BACKGROUNDS: If you’re using your Instagram account to build your portfolio or brand, stylized photos are a great way to showcase your product. Whether you’re featuring an experience or a tangible item, the background of your photo can help tell the story of your product. In the next post, the final installment of this series, I will go into depth about choosing a theme for your photos or your overall feed. I’ll include a few examples of must-follow Instagram feeds, too, to inspire your next stylized project.

In the first photo below, I was working on a project for Clary Sage College that I was incredibly excited about, but I was feeling under the weather. The bright pop of flowers against the dark wooden table helped convey my moody morning. In the second photo, summer was right around the corner and I was getting excited about the possibilities of our backyard vegetable garden. I could have easily taken this photo on the patio concrete, but the bright, bold yellow background screams summer and helped demonstrate an afternoon of planning our summer-centric garden. In the final photo, I was welcoming the new year with a goal to drink a smoothie each weekday morning in January. (Hooray for external accountability!) The clean, white (albeit wrinkled) linen, to me, helped communicate new beginnings.

The linen below is a dish towel. I’ve also used my couch, my nightstand, our hardwood floors, blankets, white poster board, and paper to create a distinctive background. There’s a myriad of backgrounds to choose from, so experiment!

Finally, always make sure the background of your photo is clean and free of clutter. Yup, there are definitely two dog hairs in this photo of my morning coffee and bagel.

EDITING: There’s no right or wrong way to edit your photo when it comes to the abundance of apps dedicated to doctoring a photo. While the iPhone is completely capable of capturing a quality photo, there are several photography apps that can enhance the final image. A favorite in the Instagram community is VSCO Cam. Currently, the only app I use to edit my photos is Instagram itself. I use the Brightness, Contrast, Highlights, and Shadows settings on my photos and rarely use any other settings or external apps. The Brightness and Highlights settings adjust the exposure of the original photo, creating a clean, crisp image. The Contrast and Shadows settings will sharpen your image and add drama to the final photo. On average, my settings look like this: Brightness (20-30), Contrast (5-8), Highlights (10-15), and Shadows (-4 to 4). There’s not one correct formula, though, and that’s the beauty of it; your photos are uniquely you.


CLEAN THE LENS: Your phone hangs out in your pocket, in your purse, and on the restaurant table. (How else are you going to snap a photo of your latte?) Before you snap a picture, wipe the lens with the corner of your t-shirt to get rid of smudges and ensure a clear picture.

SHOOT IN SQUARE: It’s hip to be square! (Or so sang Huey Lewis & The News.) Always take your stylized photos with the method that fits the platform where you’ll be publishing the photo. For Instagram, you’ll want to set your camera to Square. On your iPhone, click the camera icon and slide the camera mode from Photo to Square.

If you’re shooting a summer dinner party and want to capture the plated appetizers, the cocktails, the flowers, the candles – all the elements that make up the evening – switch your camera into Square so you can fit the whole story into the photo.  This setting automatically forces you to shoot in a concise, tight frame, saving you from having to crop out a gorgeous place setting or plate of pesto crostini.

TWO-HAND SNAP: With the shape and weight of the iPhone, it’s easy to hold with one hand – and tempting to take a photo with one hand, too. The smallest bump or shake can change the focus of your subject. To help maintain focus on a certain subject, tap your screen and hold it until the yellow box appears, and then let go to activate the AE/AF Lock. The AE/AF Lock will preserve the focus and exposure of your shot. When shooting a stylized scene, use two hands and activate the AE/AF Lock. A tip to try: Hold your phone with both hands, activate the AE/AF Lock, and take your photo by clicking the volume button on the left side of the phone. And remember, the photo isn’t captured until you take your finger off the shutter, so stay very still.

In the last installment of the series, I’ll be combining the composition and framing lessons in the first post and the lighting, editing, and background tips from this post to show you how to choose a theme and how to style and photograph a summer dinner party. The lessons and tricks in this series can be applied to any type of visual storytelling, from showcasing a sketch or blueprint you’re working on to helping a client envision your concept for their new kitchen design.

If you’re in the Interior Design program at Clary Sage College, now is a great time to begin taking photos of your projects and accomplishments for your portfolio. Your portfolio is the best visual tool to show potential employers and brand partners your education, skills, and ideas. Having purposeful, staged photos of your work will only enhance their experience of discovering your talents.