Learning How to Take Fabulous Photos on Your Smartphone

Taking fabulous photos has always been a challenge for me. My husband, an architect by profession, seems to take that it shot time and time again with relative ease. Through the years I have asked him to enlighten me as to what his secret was. Patiently, he would explain light source and direction, composition elements, focal point importance, etc. Growing increasingly frustrated, I decided to take some substantive action to improve my skills by enrolling in a National Geographic weekend photography workshop and WOW was it worth it!

National Geographic Photography Workshop

A little bit about the specific workshop I attended and why I have become driven to take quality, meaningful photographs. In January of 2016, I launched this website. The tech firm, MESH built the website with the clean, elegant, and warm feel that I wanted. I knew that one of its focuses was to share beautiful, inspiring photos for the solo traveler to enjoy. At this juncture I knew I had to get serious about my photo taking skills, because I didn't want my poor quality photos to ruin the look and presentation of this website and the information I have to offer!

Throughout most of my 2016 travels, I used both a Nikon 5300 camera and my smartphone to snap my serendipitous and staged photos alike. What I experienced was I was taking better photos with my smartphone than my expensive camera. Likewise, I was getting more of those instantaneous, special shots with the smartphone because it was always hanging across my shoulder in my Bandolier case ready to "capture a visual moment." 

You know that philosophy, when you are seriously in need or searching for something, oddly, the answer materializes when you are ready for it? My answer to upping my photography skills was to take the Smartphone Photography workshop in New York City sponsored by National Geographic. I regularly receive all of Nat Geo's travel magazine, tours, expeditions and adventure brochures, as well as, their merchandizing catalogues. I have long been a committed follower of everything National Geographic does. Yes, I believe National Geographic is as "good as it gets." 

In one of the Nat Geo Expeditions catalogues, I noticed all kinds of photography trips and workshops being offered all over the world. A two-day smartphone photography course was being offered in both San Francisco and New York City for $995. The brochure stated that this course was suitable for all levels, so I decided to go for it! I chose the New York City course which was to be taught by the acclaimed photojournalist and filmmaker, Ed Kashi.

Did I bite off more than I can chew?

My entire life I have been known to be the type of person who has a lot of moxie. Rarely, am I intimidated by anything or anyone. But from time to time I get into situations where maybe I have bitten off a little more than I can comfortably chew. This is exactly how I felt while listening to Ed Kashi give his opening course intro and a little bit about his background, life and his amazing work.

Mr. Kashi explained the technical and subjective elements that create a quality photograph. What struck me the most about what he was saying was the emotional focus in photography. "You have to care about the subject matter and the people you are photographing," was something he emphasized over and over again throughout the two-day workshop.

A new perspective

We learned your photos should strive to tell a story and thus, have your viewers emotionally connect with the subject matter of your photos. Look to find something interesting or a new way of seeing an ordinary, everyday thing or situation. Basically, good photos pull the viewer in and have the ability to change peoples' perspective and ultimately, change the world. 

Technically, besides the basic elements of a good photography such as light, content, color and framing, the importance of gesture, the rule of thirds, the use of reflection and plenty of terrific tips on how to use photo editing apps were explained.

Out in the field

Mr. Kashi had three delightful, professional photographers, Liza Politi, Ari Maldonado Espay and Todd Voenkamp as workshop facilitators. They shared we would be going out into the field three times during the course, each time with new photographic assignment. The High Line, Times Square and the 911 Memorial area would be the locations of our photo shoots. After each outing we were required to select our five best photos for critique by our instructors. Of these five, one or two photos would be chosen for display and further critiquing by the class which ultimately, were made into a film as a class memento.

I was beginning to feel a little inadequate thinking about having my photos displayed on a big screen in front of the class for all to judge. Participants taking the workshop were from all over the United States and several were from foreign countries. A number of people in the class had taken photography courses with Nat Geo in the past and one classmate had already won a Nat Geo photo contest with the paid workshop fees as her prize. I ignored my angst and dove in.

After taking the subway to the High Line we were given an hour and a half to take photos of everyday life, unique people/things or snapshots of nature. While I didn't think this assignment would be too difficult, when I started to target my subjects the challenges and my inadequacies started to surface. It was difficult to zone in on a subject because there were so many people and objects of distraction around. I couldn't seem to find anything that would create a zinger photograph.

I shot children dressed in Halloween costumes, a budding street artist selling his smartphone-generated art, buildings and landscape shots along the former railroad track (now a pedestrian walkway), rear shots of walkers and unique faces all trying to come up with an impressive shot. Gesture, a magic moment and framing the scene kept running through my mind. At the end of the session I felt totally inadequate and dreaded the upcoming critique.

Here comes the critique

Back at the Poet's House, the trendy adult education center in Lower Manhattan along the Hudson River where the instruction phase of the workshop was located, we enjoyed a pickup lunch and started the photo editing and selection process. As my fellow classmates' impressive photos were flashed and critiqued across the big screen, I felt horrified that my photos would seem childish and quite poor in quality and message compared to others. Two of my photos were selected by the class, a scene of the distant Hudson River between two buildings and a child's face, painted for Halloween.


Next Stop: Times Square

After the two and a half hour critique session and an additional discussion on photography portraiture, we headed to Times Square for our next assignment. Here we were, once again, instructed to photograph distinctive people/things, ordinary people doing ordinary things that an audience could relate to, capture shots with reflections, high and low light plus a shot of sunset at Times Square.

For everyone who has been to or seen photos of Times Square at night, you know it is probably the brightest spot in the world; jammed packed with an ungodly amount of people and neon lights. It was dusk when we arrived, and I was able to capture what I considered an acceptable photo of the sunset and the bulidings saturated with bright lights. It was a juxtaposition of natural and artificial light, which was no small feat for me. Likewise, once the sun set, I captured a side shot of a security officer, a shot of the Google sign with moving Emojis and a scene of a young man eating a hot dog, all of which were better than the shots I had taken along the High Line.

Most Improved

We started our next day with more photo selections and critiques. I was correct. All of the instructors complemented me on my Times Square photos and said they could see MUCH improvement. I was feeling a little more empowered now. By this time, the class participants were really starting to bond together. We were all feeling accomplished and connected to each other by our mutual desire to be excellent photographers. Friendships were beginning to be solidified. We cared about what we were doing and cared for each other.

Our Last Assignment

Our last outing was to take place at the 911 Memorial and it's surroundings which was a diversion from the original itinerary's last shooting scheduled in Central Park. None of us minded the change in venue, because the 911 Memorial was within walking distance of the Poet's House. Our assignment for the last shoot was to photograph architecture, touching moments at the 911 Memorial and once again, ordinary people just doing their thing in a telling way.

The weather was beautiful that Sunday morning so the light was just right. Once again I started to shoot, shoot, shoot. One of the instructors key suggestions was to slow down, find a spot to frame shots, take a lot of photos and wait for the it shot to appear. While I don't feel I got a super photo of this profound setting, I do believe I captured some acceptable architectural shots which, when I got home, even impressed my architect husband!

Once again this setting proved to be extremely challenging to photograph, well, because of the many people swarming the area, as well as the many different, new architectural wonders. Unfortunately, the existence of several cranes, scaffolding for the new structures still under construction, barricades, security structures and law enforcement officers in the area made this assignment even more challenging. You never realize how difficult it is to capture a poignant photo until you try to accomplish this with so much physical distraction.

After lunch, we engaged in our last critique session. In addition, Mr. Kashi shared some good information on how to use social media to showcase your photos. Afterwards, we were treated to a film which was a compilation of all of the best photos taken by the class during our two days together. It was pure joy to see everyone's hard work displayed in this format. Everyone felt accomplished and grateful for the high level of instruction garnered from our stellar mentors.

The Farewell Dinner

Our last activity together was a farewell dinner at the popular NYC restaurant, Sarabeth's, in Lower Manhattan. I had always wanted to eat there and now I got my chance. During the evening, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Mr. Kashi. He is such an eloquent gentleman and gifted photographer, that I found it a tad difficult to find the words to speak with him. People who know me know that I love to talk and they would find this quite odd. But Mr. Kashi is the real thing, and when you are in the company of someone of this caliber it tends to uncover your insecurities. A fascinating reality, because it shows you that you still have a lot to learn, experience and accomplish.

With this comment, I will make my closing remarks. Learning is one of the keys to staying young and alive. Currently, in travel there is a big trend to "travel with a purpose.” Many travelers now are not content to just sightsee or lay on the beach their entire vacation. They want to combine their travels with some type of enrichment, activity or instruction. Cooking classes, painting workshops, writing seminars, equestrian camps and even dude ranch experiences are some of the popular activities that travelers are seeking. I kind of likened this trend as going to "adult camp!"

If photography is something in which you would like to improve your skills, don't settle for less than the best. Jump into the deep end and take one of the National Geographic Photography excursions or workshops. The instructors are of the highest caliber and even if you are a newcomer to photography like me, you will not be left behind or ignored. An added plus, is all of the interesting people you will meet when taking the course. "Birds of a Feather Flock Together!"

The Icing on The Cake

A final footnote, which I am extremely proud of, is when I was researching National Geographic's website to cross reference the information for this blog, I noticed a section that was part of the Smartphone Photography Workshop explanation section that showcased photos taken from some of the past participants. LOW AND BEHOLD!! There was one of MY PHOTOS featured in this section. I was in shock, but felt quite humbled and accomplished. Thank You, National Geographic for all that you do to help make the world a wonderful place in which to live through travel resources, cultural enrichment and photography.

Enjoy this short video by National Geographic about "What Makes a Great Picture? As always, I value the comments and questions from my readers. Let me know what solo travel topics you are interested in and I'll address them in a future blog post!


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Author: Astrid Clements

Astrid Solo Travel Advisor CEO and founder, Astrid, has spent over 40 years traveling around the world. She is passionate about embracing the world’s diverse cultures and sharing with others the global need and personal benefit of cultural literacy. Her focus is on affordable luxury travel that is both substantive and fun! To read more about her and each one of our Solo Travel Advisors, head over to the About page!