From my experience when it comes to professional photographers, the last thing they’d be doing is teaching you how to take better photos or videos using your smartphone but here I was sitting in the lounge area at Thanda Safari waiting for renowned wildlife photographer Christian Sperka to do just that.

Sperka left the IT world to pursue photography and is also a snake handler. He has been at Thanda Safari for six and a half years and during that time has taught over 1300 people. He is an iOS fan, but as an Android user, I can say that the principals are the same. Sperka pulls up a chair and starts to teach us the basics of using a smartphone camera.

1.Start with a clean lens

Usually, the answer to “Why are your photos so much clearer?” is a dirty lens. Always clean the lens before starting, a quick clean using part of whatever you’re wearing is perfect. Newer smartphone models have two or more back camera lenses, while older models have only one.

2.Don’t “zoom”. Get as close as possible to your subject

Smartphones are great at taking wide-angle shots but are terrible at close-ups. We’ve all tried to zoom in in order to get a better picture but end up with a blurry mess. “There is no zoom function on a smartphone, what you are actually doing is pinching. When you “zoom”, the quality of the image gets worse because you are only cropping your picture.”

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  • Try to get as close as possible to your subject
  • Take a picture without “zooming” in and crop it later, because the result will be the same

3.Turn off the flash

Don’t set your flash to auto because it will probably go off at the wrong time. “A small flash directly into the person’s face does not improve the way they look”. Rather turn it off and only switch it on when you make a conscious decision to use the flash.

If it is dark, use the flashlight on someone else’s phone and hold it at a 40-60 degree angle. If you look at the example below you can see which picture was taken before I learned this trick.

Before: flash on After: using the torch from another cellphone

And remember that the sun should always be behind you. Sperka recommends the Sun Seeker an app that tells you where the sun is going to be at a certain time which is perfect for overcast days or if you’re planning to take the perfect profile pic. On an overcast day, avoid water and clouds in your pictures.

4.Lighting & focus matter

Focus and lighting are extremely important. To set focus, hold down the circle on your subject. Then once it is set, move the light source around to brighten or darken your photo. You can also adjust the light intensity. This is particularly useful for dark and bright areas.

what not to do smartphone photography tips
This is what NOT to do


smartphone photography tips
Using the tips to catch an African sunset while on a game drive


Other useful smartphone photography tips include:

Timer: set a timer for group selfies or use it if you need the camera to be stable. Place it on a flat surface, check that it is framed correctly and set the timer.

Filters: never use filters while shooting. Only apply filters afterwards.

Portrait mode: this is where you focus on the subject and the background gets blurry.

Panorama mode: this can be used for more than landscapes. Try taking a picture of a room using this feature. And you can also change it to portrait mode, which would be perfect for taking pictures of a giraffe.

5.Video tips

Pinching is perfectly fine when you take a video. For a video, you want to get the right layout as changing it post process is very difficult. When you film something, start filming 5 seconds earlier and only stop recording 10 seconds after. This way the video will never cut off in a strange place and you have room to edit.

How to catch the perfect sunset or sunrise: place your camera on a steady surface, use the slowmo or time-lapse function and hit record. Enjoy the sunset and once done you will have a sunset video.

6. Equipment to take your photos to the next level

When Sperka pulls out a selfie stick and actually recommends using one, I laugh. But it’s not for taking selfies, it’s actually perfect for taking close-ups or taking pictures in hard to reach places.

A mic that plugs into your cellphone so that you can record with good sound quality. They are compact and priced from about R1000. Just make sure you buy one that is compatible with your phone (iPhone vs Android).

7. Remember

  • You must be ready to shoot and your camera must be ready at any given time. The animals are not going to wait, if you start when the animal is in front of you, it is too late.
  • Take lots of photos, not just one. Photographers take 100s of photos to get the perfect one.
  • Always edit, a photo isn’t done until it is edited.e

I work in digital and had never actually taken the time to check out the different camera functions on my phone. As Sperka explained, I really wished I had known all these things that morning. On our morning game drive, we came across a roaring lion.

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Important: book your photography session when you book your trip as these spots fill up quickly. Guest staying for two or more nights are offered a complimentary session. There are other photography sessions available, which you can find here, and one even includes the use of the Green Mamba, a game vehicle with a built-in bar and espresso machine.

Disclaimer: All4Women was invited on a press trip to stay at Thanda Safari in the tented camp for three nights. 

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