Complete Guide: Taking Better Portraits On Your Phone

Seattle based photographer and designer Julia Manchik (@juliamanchik) takes us around the city giving us tips on shooting portraits on the new Pixel 2.

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We’ve all been there – that moment your friend says “hey, can you take my photo?” and immediately your stomach turns. After all what if they don’t like the photo?! Have no fear, these 5 simple tips will help get you on your way to snapping pro level portraits. 

We already know the Pixel 2 has a mind-blowing camera, and Seattle photographer, Julia Manchik, has decided that the Pixel 2 is the best device for taking portraits with your phone. The best part is that portrait mode works with our lenses, giving you even more control over what you can shoot. 

Video Guide

Tip 1: Consider Your Background

  • A minimal background puts all the focus on your subject, similar to using a photo backdrop in studio. To get this effect, try finding an empty side of a building, wall of greenery, or shoot into the sky.

  • Look for items in the background that can make your subject more of a focal point. You can do this by framing your subject (with foliage, in a doorway, or shooting through an object). Additionally, look for leading lines that point to your subject (in a hallway, underneath a bridge, or in an alleyway).

  • Be conscious of lines and objects that intersect behind your subject’s head and can create tension. Switching to portrait mode helps minimize distractions around your subject as well (I’ve heard people say that instagram made people better photographers because they had to learn to take photos without the background being blurred out, which wasn’t possible with a phone until now).

Tip1 Telelens A
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Tele Lens
Tip1 Nolens
Pixel 2 XL
Tip1 Telelens Portraitmode
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Tele Lens
Tip1 Telelens
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Tele Lens

Tip 2: Plan Your Lighting

  • Harsh overhead lighting (like that from mid-day sun) is not ideal for portraits because it creates unflattering shadows on the face, under the eyes and nose. Harsh light also brings out imperfections like pores and bumps on the face.

  • Soft natural light is best for portraits. You can find soft and even natural lighting on a cloudy day. If the sun is out, shoot closer to sunrise or sunset to get a soft glow behind your subject. Or, just look for shade!

  • When there is sunlight, you can use light and shadow as part of your composition or to add pattern and texture to your image. Look for slanted shadows from buildings, spotted light from a tree, or striped light coming through window blinds.

  • Even on a cloudy day, you can control the light a bit by changing the direction the light hits your subject if they stand next to something that blocks the light. Try placing your subject at the edge of a dark entry way or a dense wooded area. You’ll see how different the photo looks when light hits the face from the side or straight on.

Tip2 Nolens B
Pixel 2 XL
Tip2 Widelens Portraitmode
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode + Moment Wide Lens
Tip2 Widelens
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Wide Lens
Tip2 Nolens C
Pixel 2 XL

Tip 3: Change Your Position

  • You can change your position by squatting and shooting upward, or getting high and shooting down.

  • Changing your position can help crop out distractions if you're in a busy area, like cars and people at street level. You might be surprised at how the image changes when you shoot from a different level.

  • Try using a Wide Lens to lengthen your arm’s reach if you want to shoot from above but have nothing to help elevate you (like a chair or ladder).

  • For close-ups, shooting down instead of up is most flattering for a face.

Get low and shoot up.
Tip3 Getlow A
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Wide Lens — eye level
Tip3 Getlow B
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Wide Lens — squatting and shooting up
Get high and shoot down.
Tip3 Widelens
Pixel 2 + Moment Wide Lens
Tip3 Widelens Portraitmode
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode + Moment Wide Lens

Tip 4: Don’t Be Afraid Of Details & Cropping

  • Cropping your subject’s face makes for a captivating image and adds some mystery.

  • When cropping, you don’t have to worry about the background (though it’s even more important to nail the lighting).

  • Try using a Tele Lens to get a tight shot of the face without distortion.

  • To simplify the image even more, turn on Portrait Mode to blur the background.

Tip4 Telelens Portraitmode B
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode + Moment Tele Lens
Tip4 Telelens
Pixel 2 XL + Moment Tele Lens

Tip 5: Try A Wide Angle Lens

  • Traditionally, portraits are taken with a tight focal length (like an 85mm lens or a Moment Tele Lens). Challenge yourself by switching to a Wide Lens. Photojournalists and documentary photographers typically use a wide angle lens because you can fit more into one frame, which adds layers to an image.

  • A tight lens crops out most of the background, but a wide lens forces you to be conscious of the background and choose wisely where you place your subject. This can create a more interesting, complex composition.

  • Distortion around the edges of the frame can make the portrait more dramatic. Try using a Superfish Lens for an even more dramatic or playful effect.

Tip5 Widelens Portraitmode
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode + Moment Wide Lens
Tip5 Superfish Portraitmode
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode + Moment Superfish Lens

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