Phone Photography – improve your Instagram pics with designer know-how

February 09, 2021

Photography has become such an important part of our lives and, given our phone camera is literally ready at our fingertips 24/7, it has also never been this easy to capture awesome photos. The pics in our phones are more than mere moments frozen in time. They are our stories. It is our stories that evoke our emotions and celebrate our loved ones and our experiences in this crazy journey we call life. And it’s our stories that inspire us to enjoy life, to travel and to express ourselves and our passions through our camera lenses. So, if you would like to improve the composition of your pics and create more impact for your stories (that oomph power we all crave!), then we have some great phone photography tips for you! 

Composition can be considered the holy grail of design and it’s a perfect place to start our series on Design Principles. Why? Because composition brings together every Principle we’ll discuss (and those Elements discussed in our previous series). It refers to the overall arrangement of the components such as scale, contrast and pattern etc. in your design (or photo) to create strong, attractive and interesting pics.  By using different combinations of these “rules” of design, you can create more effective and unique compositions in your pics.

So, what are these rules of design? Professional designers discuss the importance of the basic building blocks, or Elements of design (these are Line, Texture, Shape, Type, Form, Tone, Point and Color) but there are also the Principles of design. These are the rules that designers follow to create cohesive and attractive designs. Designing is not all about creativity! Functionality of design is visually more important to create a cohesive and appealing center of focus and to draw the eye into and around the design. This makes it all the more pleasing to the viewer. You can think of the Elements of design as the basic parts that define the visual (or the tools and components that a designer uses) to create a composition. The Principles of design, on the other hand, are all about how to use the Elements to convey your message. These same elements and principles apply to photography and will help make your photos stand out! Studying and learning how designers use these principles together with the elements of design, is a great tool for training your photographer's eye to see more interesting compositions and improve the power of your visual storytelling. To improve your phone photography skills, here are the design tips and tricks you need to know and practice to achieve those amazing Instagram photos!


The principles of Yin and Yang represent that all-important view of balance in life. Balance is also important in your photos. All elements within a composition lend a “weight” to the design, from text to images, patterns, shapes and blocks of color. The stronger the element (like size of text or brighter colors), the more weight it has within the composition to draw the eye. Photographers and designers talk about symmetrical balance where elements are mirrored over a central line and are similar in size and weight from top to bottom or left to right (think of the Yin and Yang symbol!). Central lines can be those you see in the shape of buildings or bridges, the line of a pier or the meandering of a body of water. But the distribution of elements can also use asymmetrical balance, where the weights of the objects within the composition are distributed differently (so not exactly mirrored with each other) but still appear balanced due to their use of contrast. For example, a small red geometric object can appear balanced to our eye in a composition if it is opposite a large organic shape that has a paler appearance. In photography, think of natural landscapes or the roofline of the Sydney Opera House! Even reflections can create amazing examples of balance. Remember, symmetrical compositions create stability and can be very pleasing to the eye. Asymmetrical ones can be visually vibrant and create dynamic movement through the image. Play around with different types of balance in your pics!


Contrast can be more than just black and white! When you think of contrast, think of light vs dark, thick vs thin, or even large vs small. Contrast helps create emphasis by making designs “pop” with space and difference between the elements in your photo. Muted softer backgrounds or dark, black backgrounds can make vivid colors in the foreground a focal point. A brightly lit building photographed against a night sky will really stand out! Your background needs to be significantly different from the color of the elements within, so they work harmoniously together and are visible. Such as a brilliant red fire hydrant against a muted brown brick wall or fluffly white snow catching some rays on a sandy beach (now that’s a contrast for the mind too – how cool!!). Contrast can be particularly relevant for pics with type (black type on a white background is much more legible than grey type on a white background). Contrast is used to create emphasis, focal points, visual tension, separate parts, or create interest. It also assists with building hierarchy. Check out our examples and see where your camera can capture contrast in your world!


Raise your hand if you have never used cropping as a picture tool? Of course, you have! Cropping is one of the easiest of the Principles to manage but can and should be used carefully. Cropping and discarding the unnecessary parts of an image can be used to emphasise one particular aspect and make it more visually dominating. We just love the close up of the leather petal design found in a Marriott Hotel elevator in Yantai, China. You just never know where great inspiration can find you! (Thankfully, the phone camera is so accessible!). Cropping a pic can easily be done after you’ve taken your photo and can help focus and resolve background issues (like a stray person or unsightly street pole or trash can) or can assist in placing the figure on the ground more effectively (such as our close up of that gorgeously adorned white horse). Cropping can give your pic a more dynamic feel by only framing the information you want to include. Cropping photos can also be a powerful tool in helping to abstract them and create ambiguity and interest! (Hint: while you are training your cropping eye, it is worth including more of the pic in your shot because you can easily crop or manipulate in post-production, but you cannot easily add to an existing scene!). Make use of cropping to create an open composition or create drama and effect (a lonely train station platform viewed from the window of a speeding train for example!). For some great advice on how to crop your photos correctly, check out these 15 easy tips!

Figure Ground

The term Figure Ground refers to the main elements or subject matter of your design or photo. ‘Figure’ being the more visually dominant subject matter, the one that immediately draws your eye. That’s why Figure can also be known as the ‘positive space’ or ‘form’ (such as in our previous discussion on Design Elements) in your pic. ‘Ground’ is known as the ‘negative space’ and refers to the secondary element (or background) that the Figure is placed on. The relationship between positive and negative space (the subject matter and the background), serves many important purposes in design, primarily to create hierarchy and organization. For example, text is more legible when upper and lowercase letters are used since negative space is more varied around lowercase letters, which allows people to interpret them more quickly. It can also be used to create secondary images that may not be immediately apparent to the viewer (you know, those “what do you see first?” type pics). In photos, a play on space can also help highlight specific content or specific parts of a composition. A bird perched high above a cityscape, the gorgeous painted face of a Geisha or a lone yacht sailing out to sea. Using “portrait” mode on your phone camera is a great way to focus in on the details of your pic and create that space with your background. Try it out!


Following on from Figure Ground is Hierarchy. What is the most essential piece of information you would like to capture in your pic? What would you like to highlight most? Where would you like to capture the viewer’s attention? Perhaps it’s the pop of colored clothing against the shadowy line of branches of a tree, or that “kiss me, I’m Irish” in a sea of greenery? Think of hierarchy as the reading order of the subject matter in your pic! It creates impact but can also be used to reduce less important information. The most important elements or subject matter should visually appear to be the most important. When you think of the design of a poster or invitation, the scale of type is used to determine the reading order. The title or main heading is the most important and is often largest in scale. This is followed by subheadings such as dates and times and lastly by additional information such as body copy or links. With images, the use of color theory can be important where the more colourful elements become central. A brightly clad couple in red standing by the green-tinged waterway, or a row of vibrantly colored bins within an ethereal snowy vista. It’s the different size elements, textures and shapes that creates interest! Subtlety or big and bold can also be used to create eye catching and noticeable elements. Whether it’s a giant blue rooster against a subtle sky or a bright red circular stool seat against a mesmerising geometric tile floor…. experiment with hierarchy for exciting effects!



We all know what a pattern is right? And how to create them – it’s repetition or alternation of one or more components to create a visually pleasing result. Any visual element can be used to create a pattern. Patterns can be very powerful in creating a sense of order in a composition when it is repeated uniformly (like rows and rows of Buddhas!). Alternation (like in the beautiful pattern of that incredible door!) can create more complex patterns than those created by repetition alone. Patterns don’t have to be dull and tedious; Mother Nature abounds with magnificent patterns! When used correctly, patterns can be highly flexible, visually effective and in some cases, very functional. You can use them to bring vibrancy and life to your photos (such as the twinkling lights of a Ferris Wheel at twilight) or a softer elegance and style to them (like a rock pool of water or autumn leaves in a puddle). Patterns needs to be balanced and complement other elements (like color) but you can pair strong patterns with vibrant colors or look for monochromatic patterns for a more striking look. Play with scale such as with large blocks of color and distinct shapes for a bold look or scale it down to create more of a textured, detailed look. Architecture also features amazing patterns…. look for them in reflections and shadows or even in your local shopping mall!


When we talk about ‘proportion’ in photos, we’re talking about the feeling of unity which is created when all the components relate well with each other. Proportion can make elements seems realistic or align with real life. Think of proportion in relation to the human figure; when the size of the head is compared to the rest of the body, it makes perfect sense. For inanimate objects, think of proportion such as the relation of wheels to the frame of a bicycle, or the windows or landscape in relation to a building (even abstract windows in relation to funky shaped buildings work!!). Proportion can also be used to signal what is important in a photo and what isn’t. Larger elements are more important, smaller elements less (such as our close-up of the stunning Bean sculpture against its Chicago city back drop!). Proportion is used in photography to give the illusion that something is different in size, but still makes the photo fit together. Show proportion in your photos by placing bigger objects in the background and smaller objects in the foreground. Or change proportion by altering your camera angle (such as a close-up!), by shooting from an unexpected position (like low to the ground), or by raising or tilting the horizon. Play around with proportion in your photos!


One of the best ways to get a visually bold image is by using scale! So what’s the difference between Proportion and Scale, you might ask? Good question! The easiest way to think about it is this…. Proportion relates to the one single object where elements within that one object are either in or out of proportion to each other. Scale, on the other hand, compares (and contrasts) two or more objects with each other. Scale can be based on the realistic sizing of elements so that an image “makes sense” and conveys structure (such as a person standing next to a tall tree, a cable car rising against a majestic mountain back drop or a car driving the city streets). Or scale can be used playfully to create drama and effect (a tiny bug crawling across the ground or a crazy giant tap sculpture you stumble across when walking). Or you could try focusing close up on a small element in the foreground so that it looks large and the elements in background look small! Play with scale for amazing effects! Scale is most often used to indicate hierarchy and create depth and draw attention to the most important elements of the design or image. For some wonderfully creative ways to utilise scale and create interesting images, check out Canva’s blog.
How can you find interesting ways to use scale and tell a story in your photos?


By studying these 8 design principles, you too can train your eye to see the world as creatively as designers do! And, for the beginners among us, keep these Principles (and 8 Elements) in mind when you have your camera phone handy. Whenever you’re out in the world, take note of things around you – like the advertising you see, details in any particular scene, people interacting, landscapes, and your environment, and try to identify which principles/elements can be used within a photo of them. In this way, you will develop a ‘designer’s eye’ by practicing interesting ways to use these techniques in your everyday life. Overall, play experiment, and have fun with your photos! You can always delete the ones you don’t like. And remember, they will tell your stories of a life well lived. Good luck! (And don't forget to tell your stories by sharing those amazing photos in custom designed photobooks and wall art designed exclusively for your memories with VMWK!)


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