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Wanna own instagram? Here’s how to cheat


Photographer Mary Smith is a fan of natural light and natural shots, and her photos are stunning. So when Sarah over at Muddy Stilettos Berkshire got the chance to grab a coffee with her recently, she nabbed some top tips to elevate us mortals from random snapper to Insta-Goddess. Could this actually be the summer I get some good shots, rather than hacking people’s heads off? Smartphones at the ready, take aim… SHOOT!

1. Let there be light!


I can’t emphasise enough how important this is for your photography and once you understand light your photos will improve dramatically. How often have you placed your family in front of a gorgeous sunset only to be disappointed that they’re completely in shadow? [Uh, like, all the time, on every holiday, ever! – Sarah].

Light can be divided into hard light and soft light. Hard light creates hard shadows and is caused by direct bright light such as the sun. Soft light comes from a filtered light source such as cloud or by placing our subject in the shade. You want to be looking for soft light as much as possible.


Here is the pull back shot for the actual shot taken above.


I have included the pull back shot (above) to show you the light better. The sun was coming from the top right of the image. I could see that the light in the archway was perfect open shade and would make a great place for a portrait. If the garden is in full sun, look for a shaded area or pull open your patio doors and take the photo just inside the window or door in the shade. Better still, wait until the sun is lower in the sky for beautiful light. Early evening gives your images a golden glow, like the shot above with the family running though the field.

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The shot above was taken with window light, in the shaded part of the living room with the sun at 45 degrees to the right. Don’t place your subject with their back to the window if you can avoid it, take the shot with your back to the window with natural light coming from behind you onto your subject.

With sunset shots the camera gets too confused by the contrast in lighting between dark lovely sunset and the person’s face. The camera will adjust the light and expose for the beautiful sunset unless we tell it otherwise. You have two options: One is to use flash to fill in the light, but to be honest, the flash on our phones is usually too harsh so it’s better to avoid that if possible. Two is to press the focus and exposure square on your screen onto the face of the subject. On many phones you’ll then have the option to slide the exposure to brighten or darken your subject. Voila!

2. Compose yourself

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It’s all about composition and putting the shot together. There are a few simple guidelines that will help to compose better photographs. The rule of thirds is a term you’ve probably heard bandied about. Imagine dividing an image into 9 equal part by 2 vertical and 2 horizonal lines.

Place your image at the intersection points of the lines. This will add balance and interest to your photos by placing your subject off centre in the image. Smartphones have the option of turning on the grid to help you place the subject. In the shot above, by placing the girl in the top left of the frame, our eye is immediately drawn to her.

The image of the mosque was taken in Cairo and I have also used light here to draw attention to the minaret. I waited until the sun was setting and went just behind the minaret to take the picture.


3. Think before you click

Is the subject of your picture obvious? You want your subject to stand out and not be cluttered by messy background and confusion on where you want the eye to be drawn towards. Before you click think: Is there a tree coming out of my daughter’s head? Are there people in the background of my picture? Is it immediately obvious what my subject is?

Try moving the subject to a less crowded background, or move yourself to take the picture from a better angle. Zoom in and get close to your subject to avoid any unnecessary distractions.

4. Lead me on

This is a simple rule, but very effective – try using lead in lines to focus attention on the subject. See how your eye is drawn to the woman and child below…



5. You’ve been framed


Framing is one of my favourite things to do and I am always on the look out for opportunities to draw the viewer to my subject. The image of the little boy with the letter ‘O’ is very effective as there is nothing cluttering the background and our eye is immediately drawn to his face.


The street scene with the boy looking through the window was taken on a recent holiday in Vietnam. I was immediately drawn to the blue window and the cat and rubbish bag and dirty wall tells a story.

I love street photography, but dont just point your camera into someone’s face and click away without asking permission. If they refuse, I just move on and I never pay money to take their photo. I much prefer to go off the beaten track and will show them the photos in the back of my camera which they love or if they are selling something in a market I’ll make a small purchase as a thank you.

6. Gain some perspective


Try looking for a different perspective to the norm. When taking photos of children or animals, get down low to take the picture. This picture of our dog Monty was taken in our garden with me lying on the ground.

7. Colour me happy


Be on the lookout for coloured or textured backgrounds which will give your images some punch. I particularly like old doors with paint flaking off!


8. Pick a pattern


camel shadow curves


We can make simple and dramatic pictures by use of pattern, reflection and shapes in our photographs.

9. Capture emotion

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As a professional photographer and a mum, I want my photographs to tell a story and to capture the personality of the people I’m photographing. This isn’t always easy when we try to take pictures of our own children – especially when they adopt the ‘cheesy grin’ that seems to start around 4 years old whenever a camera is pointed at them (or a teenage sulk in later years!). By capturing candid moments we can create natural photographs and avoid the dreaded ‘cheese’.

One way to encourage natural smiles is to have the children play a game, or ask someone to stand behind the camera and just be silly. Children love to play with mum or dad, so for younger children encourage dad to throw them in the air or for them to run and give mum a kiss. The little boy above was waiting for his mum to throw the ball. The images above all capture emotion, and involve the children, allowing me to capture natural smiles.

10. Use third party apps

Don’t be afraid to experiment with third party apps – they can add more punch to your pics. There are lots on the market, my favourites are Instagram, VSCO, Darkroom and Snapseed.

And finally… ignore everything I’ve said and break all the rules!


For me, the wonderful part of photography is you can break the rules and just be creative. Isn’t that right Monty?!

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