I am not a ‘camera person’, nor do I pose as being a professional photographer. My experience with photography began four decades ago when I had an inexpensive Kodak ‘beginners’ camera. Like many people, I’m amazed at the changes photography has undergone since I first opened a shutter. And I never imagined I’d be taking good photos with a telephone.

I still have a ‘real’ camera, a Kodak EasyShare 1285, but for most of the pictures on A Taste For The Woods I use the camera in my Samsung Galaxy 3. I switched not just because of portability and ease of use, but because the Samsung takes darn good photos in the outdoors. While I concede a dedicated camera is overall a better photo taking machine, cell phone cameras get better and better. The website Ars Technica recently had a “shootout” between a DSLR and the camera in the IPhone 6, and the results were surprising.┬áThe IPhone held its own with outdoor photography. So now the everyday outdoorsperson can have a wonderful camera that fits in his pocket and doesn’t break his wallet.

That said, the camera doesn’t make the photographer. I’ve seen less than inspiring photos from people with good equipment, and despite having to work with glass plates Civil War photographer Matthew Brady is still an artist. The camera is just a tool, and like all tools success depends on the skill of the user.

In this post, the first of a series of three by different authors, we provide some basic advice for better photos for people using point and shoot or cell phone cameras. This won’t be tech or jargon heavy for the most part, although the other writers indulge in some. The most important lessons, however, are that you play:

1. Play. Digital means you have lots of chances to take photos. Use them. I’ve taken as many as 30 photos at a given spot, altering my position slightly or the focus to get a better image. I can always discard what doesn’t work.

2. Play with the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is a law of composition, and not just for photography. Wikipedia has a good explanation and history of the rule, and the gif below we ‘borrowed’ shows what it looks like. Too many people put the horizon flat in the middle of the photo in an attempt to make it look ‘even’ and wind up with a flat image. The eye is drawn to contrast and unequality, and judicious use of the Rule of Thirds will make your photos look more inviting.

Shameless pinched from Wikipedia.

2. Play with time of day. Late morning and midday is the most popular time for outdoor activities, but its not the best time for photography. Bright sunlight bleaches color and contrast from photos. Overcast conditions, or early morning or late afternoon, will give you better lighting. In the novel The Bridges of Madison County the protagonist, a photographer, uses the phrase “God light” to describe the warm glow light has an hour or two before sunset. The photo below was taken two hours before sunset. Note the time of day also added shadows, which adds contrast to the image. Note also the use of the Rule of Thirds.

Marilla, June 2014, Samsung Galaxy 3, taken two hours before sunset.

3. Play the angles. In the covered bridge photo above, I could have shot it from a flatter perspective. Instead the angled image draws your eye into the photo. While for some subjects its easier to do than others – ever try to photograph a mountain from an angle? – its worth playing with. And again, take lots of photos from different positions to find out what works for you.

4. Play with the subject. Freud is alleged to have said that sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what you are photographing isn’t what you went in to photograph. For example, my visit to the snow goose migration at Middle Creek in March. From my first minutes standing in the cold at Willow Point watching people draw out massive cameras and lenses I knew I’d not be able to get the sort of detailed photos they could. Even with a tripod I’d need to use the telephoto settings and would add a lot of fuzziness to the image. So on the fly, pun intended, I had to change my focus. So while others photographed the birds, I photographed the photographers photographing the birds. Instead of documenting the snow goose, I captured man’s interaction with the snow goose. I worked within the limits of my camera rather than making it do something it doesn’t do well.

Middle Creek, March 2014. Samsung Galaxy 3.

I hope this post, and the others in this series, encourages you to get outside and take exciting photos. The world is a wonderful place, and your point and shoot and cell phone cameras are capable of so much more than self-conscious selfies or stiff group shots in front of a landmark.