3 tips for photographing the best images

If you caught my last post on sourcing inexpensive stock photo imagery, you may have been surprised or baffled at the last recommendation to take and use your own images. I say baffled because even as I was brainstorming the first draft of the post, I thought, “but my photos aren’t good enough. Using images from my phone will look tacky. I’m not a professional. ” Which naturally lead to the question, should I recommend something that I wouldn’t personally do? It’s a bit like telling someone to go skydiving while you watch from the ground.

The recommendation initially came from Ann Handley’s fantastic book Everybody Writes. And if Ann Handley says it, it’s worth exploring.

And I’m glad I explored! Because once I got over the “I’m-not-a-professional-photographer” mindset, I realized that I could capture high-quality photos with no copyright restrictions that conformed exactly to my brand/intent. And better yet, I could do it all from my smartphone! Making it easy and convenient.

Whether you’re using a phone (like me) or a camera, here are some helpful tips for getting the best image possible.


One time before yoga class, my instructor was taking a photo for her yogi Instagram and went about rearranging the studio and bending herself in all kinds of awkward positions to get the perfect pic. I commented afterwards that I had no idea how much effort her photos took–they always seemed so serene and natural. And she let me in on the great secret of yoga Instagram photos–they’re all staged.

I’m not trying to throw Instagram yogis under any metaphorical buses, simply pointing out that any picture worthwhile takes time, practice, and staging. So before you go snapping 85 candids of your coffee mug and deciding 84 of them are unusable, try setting the scene.

Take advantage of things like:

Using the complementary colors orange/blue helps create a visually dynamic photo.
Using the complementary colors orange/blue helps create a visually dynamic photo.
  • Symmetry which is naturally appealing to the human eye
  • Patterns and repetition (also appealing to humans)
  • Negative space which is photographer-speak for the areas around and between focal points in an image. Think of it as the white space of photography.
  • Color. Try pairing contrasting colors or make the most of a neutral background by putting a bright object in the forefront.

So try that coffee shot once more–clear out any distracting non-essential items, place the cup against a neutral background, pair with other coffee cups, or turn everything black and white except for the cup.

Rule of Thirds

Notice nothing in this photo is dead center. Creating some visual interest.

If you’re like me, you probably saw this and went “hmm that sounds familiar.” That’s because it’s one of the beginning photography rules that tends to get passed around. The idea is that if you draw a 3×3 grid on an image, points of interest (e.g., the coffee cup) should be along the lines or intersections of the grid instead of in the middle of the squares. This helps create balance and interest. Additionally, the eye is naturally drawn to these areas so you’re going to capture attention naturally instead of forcing it.

To make things even easier, you can superimpose the 3×3 grid lines on your phone camera so you can set up the perfect shot along the grid lines. Below are instructions for setting it up on common phones, though you can also Google “camera grid [insert phone name]” and find instructions easily.

  • iPhones
    • Settings > Camera > Grid
  • Samsung Galaxy
    • Camera app > Settings > grid lines > on
  • Google Pixel
    • Camera app > Menu > Settings > Grid Type > 3×3


This may seem counterintuitive, but the flash setting is nobody’s friend. It washes out your daytime photos and makes your nighttime photos look like hellscapes.

When possible, use natural lighting to get the best possible shot. Or if you’re taking an image at night, use what light is available to create an interesting shot. Out on the town? Use that street lamp or car headlights. At home? Use the refrigerator or TV light.

You can also change the lighting on a photo by editing it directly in your camera app or by using a variety of phone apps. Depending on your particular camera app, you can also play around with increasing or decreasing the exposure levels (aka, the amount of light). You can also download photo apps such as Snapseed that allow you to manipulate the photo settings outside of your camera app.

And you thought this would be another coffee picture…it’s my beautiful coffee-colored Yorkie on portrait mode!

One final pro tip–use that portrait mode. Your phone may already have it as part of the camera features or you can create the same effect with any number of apps. This is my personal favorite and I have yet to take a shot that I didn’t like. Heck, it’s what I took my headshot with on the About page!

Final moral of the story–you can photograph worthy imagery for your writing and content needs. With some deliberate staging, adherence to basic photography principles, creative lighting, and help from your phone you can create your own stock photo library. Full of personality, taste, and no copyright restrictions.

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