Learn 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!

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, Astrid Solo Travel Advisor. The tech firm, MESH, who created the site gave me the clean, elegant, warm feel I wanted the platform to exude with one of its focuses being sharing 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 the site and its interesting information.

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 a 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 publications, their travel magazine, their 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, many different types of photography trips and workshops were offered all over the world. San Francisco and New York City were the locations of the smartphone two day courses costing $995. The offering was advertised as being appropriate for the amateur photographer at all levels. I opted for the fall in New York City location taught by the acclaimed photojournalist and filmmaker, Ed Kashi.

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. Consequently, 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.

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, dividing the frame into three equal parts horizontally and vertically to effectively place the focal point, the line the eye is drawn to in a photo, the use of reflection and plenty of terrific tips on how to use photo editing apps were explained.

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, New York City, 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 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.

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 child's face painted up for Halloween.

After the two and a half hour critique session and an additional discussion on photography portraiture, plus the end of the day and night photography tips, 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, a juxtaposition of natural and artificial light, which was no small feat for me. Likewise, once the sun had set I captured a side shot of a security officer, a shot of the Google sign with moving Emojis and reflection, plus 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.

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 were caring about what we were doing and were caring for each other.

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 cared about the change 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 and unfortunately, the existence of several cranes, scaffolding for the new structures still under construction, plus all of the barricades, security structures and law enforcement officers in the area. 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.

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 entire evening, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Mr. Kashi. He is such a eloquent gentleman and gifted photographer that I found it a tad difficult to find the words to effectively converse with him. For people who know me, know "I love to talk" and they would find this quite odd but he is "the real thing" and when you are in the company of someone of this caliber it tends to uncover your insecurities which I find 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 and partaking in. 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!"

A final footnote, of 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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