How to Take Awesome Lifestyle Photos With Your Phone

It’s easy to think that in order to take amazing lifestyle photos, you need 1: an incredible location and 2: a top-of-the-line, thousand dollar lens. But in reality? You can take incredible photos using just your phone! Chicago photographer, aspiring developer, Creative Pro at Apple, and all-around creative Ozzy Cardenas put it best: “I don’t think photography is about the camera, I think it’s about your perspective.” Ozzy takes amazing photos and, much of the time, uses just his phone to do it (an iPhone, in his case). We talked to Ozzy all about how to shift your perspective & see the photo potential in the world around you, about how to take photos with your phone to snap the best pic possible, and about his Apps of choice for photo editing.

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First things first, tell us a little bit about yourself!

Welp, hi! My name is Ozzy and I’m a photographer, aspiring developer, creative wannabe at heart, and I’m a sneakerhead! I’m always terrible at introductions, so here is a list of fun facts about me:

  • I’m the first American-born in my entire family.
  • My weapon of choice is a 5D Mark ii with a 50mm 1.8f.
  • I have 18 small tattoos; looking to turn them into a sleeve over the next 40 years.
  • I mostly wear black until they invent a color that’s darker than black.
  • I’m currently a Northwestern Student learning to code.
  • I’ve watched every episode of The Office at least 7 times.
Photo shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

How did you first get into photography?

I remember being really young and using disposable cameras to take pictures outside while my dad worked on his garden or for family visits, vacations, etc. And my mom was obsessed with capturing every waking moment and creating photo albums. Looking back at these memories always tugs the heartstrings and made me realize that I want to do the same thing. Taking photographs is the perfect way to freeze time. A photo might mean nothing to you the day you take it, but look back at it in twenty years and you might feel everything you felt when taking that photo. You might relive your memories with family or friends, or it could remind you of the happiest or saddest moments in your life. It might be the way to share your perspective on life with someone else. It is what you make it.

Shot on an iPhone in the mountains in Colorado (via Instagram).

What’s your process as far as scouting the perfect location for a photo when you want the subject to stand out?

I tend to use locations I’ve been before for most of my shoots. So naturally, I go exploring on my own or with a friend for locations, and I LOVE heights. It was a trend for a while, but I used to sneak into buildings and look for ways onto the roof or to get a great vantage point of some building that looked interesting. I also love finding symmetry in everyday things, like standing underneath train tracks to create an endless background. Whenever I’m looking for a background for an image, I want to find something that will force my viewers to ask the question, “Where is that!?” or “How did he get there?”.

Shot under the train tracks in Chicago (via Instagram).

“If you take the time to find good light, an interesting subject, and an interesting perspective you can use any camera. I don’t think photography is about the camera, I think it’s about your story and perspective.”

You take a lot of your photos with an iPhone (and I actually met you at the Apple store!) – can phones, in your experience, take solid photos when it comes to creating, say, marketing photos?

Absolutely! Camera technology is getting so good that most high-end phones on the market can fool some people. If you take the time to find good light, an interesting subject, and an interesting perspective you can use any camera. I don’t think photography is about the camera, I think it’s about your story and perspective.

Portrait shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

What are a few ways someone can make their portraits or model photos a little more engaging rather than just straight-on shots?

I often tell people to explore different angles; take photographs of the person from different distances and heights. It takes some trial and error to find something you like, but the point is to try something new. I love the perspective from above a person. It challenges you to find an angle that shows off your subjects and offers a different look than your typical straight-on shot.

I also like to just talk and get to know whoever I’m shooting; what’s their story, what makes them unique in their life. While we are talking, I’m often looking for facial expressions or body posture that will help communicate through a photograph. Look for the subtle little movements that tell their story. Like the way someone folds their arms or flips their hair or the confidence in their eyes. Your job is to find it and bring it out.

Coffee shop photo shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

How do you plan a photo shoot? Do you scout locations first or just see what you and your subjects find?

Early on, I used to scout for locations all around the city to find that perfect backdrop or the perfect lighting. Lately, I’ve just been going with the flow of where we meet. It’s much more satisfying to explore together and find something you both like or experiment with something you both didn’t like and see if you can change your mind.

What go-to tips do you have for someone who wants to photograph a model wearing one of their products?

For me, getting to know the person is more important than actually taking the photo. I’ll take staged photos as a way to set my lighting and such, but then I begin to just talk and get to know my subject. I strive to capture the moments between completely staged photos and completely vulnerability.

Photo shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

I think a lot of people think they need a really awesome environment or really solid camera to take amazing lifestyle shots. What are some tips and tricks you have for taking great phone photos (specifically iPhone, in your case)?

What’s funny about this is that I used to practice taking pictures in the moment without a camera. I used to challenge myself to look for a photograph wherever I was, and I would make a square box with my fingers, frame my photo, and then mentally snap the picture. I did this so often that it became second nature to find a solid background or that perfect moment of someone. Once I started to look at the world this way, it didn’t matter if it was my iPhone or my DSLR in my hand. Try it; I promise you’ll look at the world differently.

Portrait shot on an iPhone 7 (via Instagram).

What are your tools (and Apps) of the photography trade?

My primary tool right now is simply my iPhone X. Portrait mode on this thing is unreal and the colors it can get are my favorite at the moment. When I want to carry something better or am shooting something for a client, I’ll use my 5D Mark ii. I LOVE wide angels even for portraits, so I use a 16-35mm lens often. I make most of my edits in Lightroom because it has every tool I need for editing my pictures. On my phone, I use VSCO, which has been my favorite for years. Most of the filters I customize are from there and I like to clean up my photos using Snapseed.

Shot in the Garden of the Gods National Landmark on an iPhone (via Instagram).

I’ve noticed that a lot of your photo series have similar filters or tones. Do you have any tips or tricks when it comes to using filters and photo editing to create a consistent look?

I tend to shoot in series and I edit in the same way. My filters and tones often are a representation of the time of year or mood I was in when I took the photo. For example, in the summer I tend to use warmer tones with slightly oversaturated colors. In the winter I love shooting in cooler tones and focus on a color. I naturally gravitate towards underexposed photos with moody tones. You’ll see that a lot on my feed.

Lighting is a huge part of awesome photos, and your photos have amazing lighting! What are some of your lighting tips for taking great photos sans lighting equipment?

I am always looking for good lighting in everyday life. I love using light to cast shadows on a subject, or finding something to bounce light back into my subjects, like white walls and such. Often times, I’m always asking to shoot right before sunset because that’s my favorite kind of light. It’s golden and warm and easy to work with.

Portrait shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

What’s your philosophy on art and creativity?

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention”- James Thurber.

This quote is from a short story written by Jame Thurber, and then Ben Stiller’s version came out as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This quote has been rattling in my mind for years now that truly beautiful things won’t ask for attention; they simply are. I want to live every day trying to recognize the natural, beautiful way the world works and let my art be driven by that inspiration. I even took a cue from Ben Stiller’s movie when it comes to finding that beautiful moment when you’re photographing, which is when you’ve finally found that beautiful moment, when you’re right where you want to be, rather than capturing the picture just sit in that moment. Appreciate it for what it is. Take that moment in. After years of not capturing that moment, I’ve found myself able to find beauty in almost anything. It makes your capture way sweeter and more satisfying.

Portrait shot on an iPhone (via Instagram).

Anything else you’d like to share?

I think you guys have heard enough of my sappy perspective on photography! If I could talk to myself when I started photographing, I would say to not take myself so seriously. I look back at my old photography and chuckle at times where I was just taking photographs for the heck of my Instagram. Now I actually enjoy posting and sharing about myself and what’s going on. I walk away from photo shoots with more friends than when I started. That’s all! Thank you, guys!

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Inspired? Try out taking your own lifestyle photos and featuring them on your homepage collection!

Special thanks to Ozzy for his tips. Featured illustration & infographic made by Katie Lukes.

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