No fancy camera? No budget to hire a photographer? Here’s how to make the best of it with just your smartphone and simple editing tools.
Every startup seeks to build a community of fans around its brands. This might be the company brand or perhaps one or more of the products or services it offers. While doing this, it can be helpful to share pictures of your team members so that your audience can feel more of a connection with the people behind the scenes. However, people generally don’t like to feel like they are being marketed to, so we need to come up with content worthy of attention.
One way to do this is to take the team on an excursion to an interesting location and do a photo shoot. It can help if there is a story behind both why you’re doing this and the actual place itself. Not only will you get nice photos of your team members, but also general photos that you can share via your blog, social media, and free stock sites to attract top-of-funnel attention.
However, perhaps none of your team members have a fancy camera or are Photoshop gurus. In that case, you can still get decent photos by using what you have and perhaps trying a few easy to use tools. It’s not about trying to outdo National Geographic, but more about doing the best with the resources available.
Below is the story of the location we chose, why we went there, and what we learned from the shoot, post-production, and sharing the photos.
The Location and Why We Chose It
Xtra, Inc. was formed as the result of a merger earlier this year. It is the Japanese custom to visit a local Shinto shrine to celebrate new beginnings and set positive intentions for the future. In our case, we wish to bring value to the clients and freelancers who use our online services. Our office happens to be nearby the Kanda Shrine, one of Japan’s most prominent and so we set up a date for the team to go there together.
First, I'll let you review the photos and then share our notes on the shoot and post-production. I've roughly ordered them as you would encounter each section of the shrine going on a walking tour. You’ll see two sets of photos: the location itself, and then our team.
Several of our team members are sensitive about their privacy, so after editing the photos to bring out their best, we obscured their identity using an art effect filter. I even use it on photos where people had their backs to me because sometimes people can be sensitive about that.
We kept the photo versions just for internal sharing, but use the filtered ones for sharing publicly. More on the process follows the pictures.
Photos of the Location
Visiting the shrine allowed us to take many more photos. Since no identifiable people were in them, we didn’t need to use the artistic effect filter. More on the process follows the pictures.
Apologies in advance if you are not a user of Apple products and software made for them, but that’s all we were using. Hopefully, the overall process will still give you some hints even if you use devices and apps by other makers. It’s not our intention to persuade you to use any particular device or software. For all the items mentioned, you should be able to find alternatives via sites such as AlternativeTo.net.
Lessons Learned from the Shoot
Phones: Our shoot was a team effort, and we all had recent model iPhones. While they are inferior to DSLRs, they are still quite capable of excellent photos in the right conditions.
App: We all used the standard iPhone camera app, which uses various computational tricks to enhance the photos on the fly. An alternative would have been to use an app which allows more manual control such as Halide.
Lens: One of our team members used a clip-on lens, which seemed to enhance the feeling of depth in his photos.
There are many selfie sticks and tripods available. As a minimalist, I avoid these, but they can definitely enable shots that you couldn't do otherwise. If you want to shoot video, a gimbal will help a lot. However, smartphones are getting better at compensating for shaky hands. There are also apps that can help stabilize shaky video to a degree.
Smartphone cameras have no physical zoom capability, and so their “zoom” works by digitally enlarging the picture. We can expect this capability to improve in the coming years, thanks to AI, but for now, it’s best to avoid it due to the reduced image quality. It’s better to move in closer by foot where possible. If getting closer isn’t possible, then you’ll need to do your best in the post-production phase to compensate.
If time allows, experiment with different approaches to composition. At times, the Rule of Thirds will give the best results. Some shots will look better if centered. Try to go for alignment with the horizon that feels natural, but you can always correct it later during the editing process.
Include complementary details, like trees and clouds, for landscape images. Incorporate secondary elements to indicate size comparison and add a sense of scale to the photo. Include people in the shot if it adds value and makes it interesting, but respect people’s privacy and do your best to avoid shots that clearly show people’s faces.
Smartphones don’t come with lens hoods, so it’s easy for your image to suffer from the flares of bright light sources. Advanced users might try shooting in HDR or manual mode, so the camera doesn’t automatically compensate. Another technique is to use a hand to shield the lens from bright peripheral light.
After getting all team members to share the photos they took, I imported them into Photos for macOS and added them to an album. This allowed me to group similar photos and remove redundant ones. I also used the following apps within Photos for a smoother workflow and retaining the ability to compare the results to the original photo. This gave the option of returning to the original if I lost my way (which I did once or twice).
Although it was a bright sunny day, the darker parts and shadows ended up with substantial noise. I used Topaz Labs' DeNoise AI on most of the photos. My 2016 MacBook Pro can handle the rendering without crashing, but since it's so slow, it's not easy to experiment with the settings. If I turned the denoising or sharpening up too far, things looked unnatural. And, the setting for adding detail just seemed to add noise. That said, this tool did improve the photos noticeably. We can expect it will be much better on a faster machine and its algorithm will continue to improve.
On most of the images, I ran Photolemur to bring out the color and lighten up the darker parts. This software works best on ultra-high-resolution landscape shots that are too dark. However, for these kinds of photos, I found it would over-do the sky blue, the shrine's red paint, and the green of the plants. Often, I'd let it run at full blast but then come back to turn down the contrast, one color at a time, using Photos for macOS.
I used the macOS version of TouchRetouch to remove clutter and other items for an overall cleaner look. Each individual touchup doesn’t make a difference, but their combined effect is quite noticeable.
I used to go for the brightest and sharpest look that could still pass for natural. However, thanks to the influence of master photographers who share their work on sites such as Unsplash using the latest styles, I've come to appreciate the atmosphere that can be created by allowing for darker tones. I didn’t go too far, though, because the photos are for a mainstream audience, so shouldn’t look overly dramatic.
Sometimes the built-in filters of Photos for macOS hit the spot. However, their intensity can't be adjusted. So, I used the filters in Polarr's macOS app. The filter selection process is quite tedious, but I’ve become faster at it. It's interesting to note that several apps are now appearing that will recommend filters based on your photo. However, I haven't had much luck with such apps to date, and I guess there's no accounting for individual taste.
I shared the photos on Xtra’s various social media profiles (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and their Unsplash account. The latter will likely reject a few, allow most to be kept on the profile, and hopefully add a few to their search indexing. We'll see.
We also took a few group photos. The lighting, focus, resolution, and noise factors weren't good. I struggled to make significant improvements, so I hired a Photoshop guru to do it for me. His edits were better than what I could do, but I still played around with the above mentioned tools to see if any further improvements could be made. I wasn’t able to make much of a difference, which means he did a great job. You can find photoshop gurus on sites like Conyac.
We kept the finals for internal sharing via Slack. As for sharing photos of staff publicly, we find that there's usually one or more who don't want their face to be shown. The best solution I’ve used so far is to use BeFunky's Oil Painting DLX filter to obscure their features. I even use it on photos where people had their backs to me because sometimes people can be sensitive about that. In any case, I think they turned out quite well.
If you’re going to shoot your startup’s team, I advise you not to overthink the process. Just go ahead and do your best. If you are sincerely keen to improve, you will refine your techniques and skills over time with practice.
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Written by DLKR