These days anyone with a camera phone (so, everyone) fancies themselves a pro photographer; all it takes is the tap of an Instragram filter and you’re Richard freaking Avedon. But photography is a bit more nuanced that just upping the contrast and calling it a day, and unless you’re actually Richard Avedon (so, no one), there’s always room to improve.
A few months back I scored a trip to Cuba with Adobe, the pros who invented Photoshop and Lightroom, and a team of world-class photographers. With this colorful country as a canvas, they showed me some of the most common mistakes people make when they’re composing and editing photos. Generously, they also showed me how to make the same shots way better, so you can rake in the Instagram likes and produce some truly memorable images.
Tip 1: Err on the side of darker, underexposed shots
When light isn’t optimal, people have a tendency to brighten up the image by opening up the aperture or, on a phone, focusing in on the darker areas to get more light overall. But an overabundance of light actually gives the image less data to work from, which makes it much harder to edit a picture to perfection.
“If you shoot too brightly, you’ll never get the detail and color in those overexposed areas back,” says Renan Ozturk, a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, whose Meru film won an Audience Choice award at Sundance. “But if you shoot a little too dark, you can always bring back those dark areas. Even on a phone, you can bring detail back using editing tools.”
In the example here, shot an on iPhone during sunset over Havana Harbor, the first image is decent, but too washed out -- not even a professional editor can goose it to bring out detail. Now compare the underexposed version that allowed us to bring down the shadows, grade the sky, and bring out richer detail in the foreground.
Tip 2: Go easy on the effects and saturation, buddy
“Contrast is to the eye what salt is to the tongue,” says Josh Haftel, one of the developers of Adobe Lightroom. “We love how it makes everything stand out, but it’s easy to overdo it.”
The overuse of HDR -- or high dynamic range -- is one of the biggest culprits in screwing up fine photos. Some photographers have adopted a morass of editing tools for a distinct look, and that’s fine. But our experts advise against it.
“There’s a point at which it’s not a style thing,” says Chelsea Yamase, an Instagram adventure photographer whose pictures have gained her more than 400,000 followers. “People get really excited about adding more saturation and more contrast, but it can definitely be overdone.”
Take the photo above of a classic pink car in front of the Hotel Nacional. It has plenty of color, but has the sharpness and saturation cranked so high it comes out looking blown-out -- visually scorched, even. The second shot, taken from an underexposed iPhone picture, used Lightroom responsibly to create a colorful, but still natural-looking image.
Tip 3: People love people, so include people in the shot!
Famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams often debated his contemporary Brad Washburn about whether to include people in landscape photos. Adams never included people; Washburn liked using them for scale. Both approaches have their merits, but on Instagram, you’re likely to find that people respond much better to photos that include people. Call it a natural bias.
“The photos that seem to be the most successful have a strong, clear subject, clear environment, and a person interacting with that landscape,” says Ozturk. “A lot of those have a formula of golden hours, beautiful landscape, and a really clear separation of a figure in that landscape.”
Here we were shooting the sunrise over the El Morro lighthouse and got some pretty nice shots. But when a group of fishermen came by on their way home from the morning catch, the photos got significantly more interesting. The first shot is a few shapes and some light; the second, a moving story caught in an instant.
Tip 4: Use your feet, not your fingers, to zoom
The zoom feature on most smartphones isn’t a zoom in the traditional sense; it’s the software cropping the image to magnify the subject. “When you zoom with a phone,” Ozturk says, “you’re just making the image exponentially worse, until it’s pretty much just a pixelated blob of hamburger.”
Instinctively you already know to scoot closer to things you want close-up shots of. But it’s staggering how many people won’t take four or five steps to make their photos 500% better. You can, of course, invest in a zoom lens if you’re serious about taking better pictures. Here we shot images of a farmer on a tobacco plantation near Viñales. The first image, taken with a smartphone zoom, looks like a screenshot from a TV show. The latter, taken with a zoom lens, is much better.
In a color-and-character-rich place like Havana, you might be tempted to cram as much as possible into your photos, to convey a sense of the whirl of the surroundings. Resist that temptation. Instead, single out the most interesting elements and make them pop.
Compare the effect on what could be a totally disposable snapshot of a park. “For this scene here in Parque Central, it would be a mistake to try and shoot all the trees and bushes leading up to the fountain,” says Ozturk. “The better, cleaner shot, especially for Insta or social media would be a tighter shot on the fountain. Almost like you’re taking a portrait of it.”
Another tip: To avoid lens flare like you see in the upper righthand corner of the first image, you can use your hand to cast a shadow around the lens of your smartphone, blocking harsh light from the sun for more balanced contrast.
Tip 6: If it’s a silhouette you’re going for, make it pop with a clean background
This goes double for Instagram. “On social media you’re looking at things on a smaller screen, so you need to have a cleaner silhouette,” says Yamase. “That could mean framing them in water, or framing them in a mountain or anything that allows them to stand out clearly. Whatever your subject, giving that thing a clean background will allow it to stand out in a unique way.”
Here, Yamase’s co-photographer Kylor Melton posed for some pictures in front of the sunset to create some interesting shapes. Set against the trees and the wall on the roof at El Morro, he’s indistinct. But when Yamase climbed atop one of the 423-year-old castle’s guard towers, it created a much more striking image.
Tip 7: Stay out of harshly contrasting light
“You want the difference between dark and light to be as little as possible,” Yamase says. “You never want harsh light and dark shadows in the same picture.” Mid-day is a tough time to shoot, because a top-down sun creates just those contrasts. If you must shoot during this time, move fully into shade or into the light, especially for pictures of people.
The first shot here was taken from inside the farmer’s apartment in Vinales, looking out over the plantation. The difference between the intense summer sunshine and the shade made for a less-distinctive image than this one taken on the stairs below, in full light.
Tip 8: Try editing different elements of the photo separately
Instead of just slapping an Instagram filter onto a shot in its entirety, decide what element of the photo you want to make shine and take some time with it in an editing program like Lightroom. “Selective editing,” he says, “is the most important thing.”
For example, if you snap a sunset and want to bring up certain elements in the foreground without washing out the sky, you’ll have to edit selectively to avoid oversaturating the entire image. “Use gradients, smaller adjustments, or more specific changes to redesign a photo,” Yamase says. “Those are the fine tuning details that make your photo, in a technical sense, beautiful.”
Above, you see a photo from Taylor Rees, edited using color and brightness effects on the entire image. Its composition is so tight, you almost miss what the editing has done: wash all color and definition out of the sky and let the colors almost overwhelm the scene. For a second image, Rees used selective editing in Lightroom to not only bring out the color of the red dress, but also create a pretty incredible sunburst effect.
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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist and part-time guayabera model. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.