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Tips from the pros for taking great back-to-school photos with a smartphone

by Terri Peters / / Source: TODAY Contributor

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Kids around the country are still preparing for their return to the classroom, leaving moms and dads planning first-day traditions like adorable outfits and special photo shoots.

But, if you don't own an expensive camera, or just prefer the ease of using your smartphone for taking pics, can you still get amazing back-to-school shots of your kids? Experts say yes.

It turns out, professional photographers often turn to their smartphones, too, to capture back-to-school, Halloween or any memories. Here's how they do it.

Through leaving a blank wall in your photo, you can later fill in words or graphics with a photo editing app.
Through leaving a blank wall in your photo, you can later fill in words or graphics with a photo editing app.Anna Angenend Photography

1. Create a shot list

Rebecca Wyatt, a Maryland photographer, says it's important to take a moment before the big day to consider the types of photos you want to take.

"There are the obvious shots of the kids with their backpacks, or the kids getting on the bus, but think about what other things are memorable about this stage of your child's life," said Wyatt. "What changes each year? What stays the same? What tugs at your heart?"

Wyatt says shot lists should include both moments and details.

"For details, what's in their lunch? What does their hair look like?" said Wyatt. "Their brand-spanking-new sneakers, their big feet, the time on the alarm clock, the I.D. tag on their book bag...think about the things that you can track — these are your before shots, and the after shots will come at the end of the school year."

When it comes to capturing moments, Wyatt suggests shooting reunions with friends at the bus stop, waving goodbye from the school entrance, or a hug with dad.

2. Leave a blank space

One of the perks to taking photos with a smart phone is that later, you can add in text or graphics with a photo editing app, says Anna Angenend, a Texas photographer.

"Leave blank space in your photo for adding writing later," said Angenend. "And, if you want something a little better than a blank wall, pick up a lightweight chalkboard or particle board from your closest home-improvement store."

Angenend suggests buying a blank chalkboard or particle board at a home improvement store, then adding words to the photo with an app.
Angenend suggests buying a blank chalkboard or particle board at a home improvement store, then adding words to the photo with an app.Anna Angenend Photography

3.Get in the frame

Danielle Guenther, a New Jersey photographer, says it's important for parents to remember to get in the photo, too.

"Moms, I don't care how tired you look or how swollen those eyes are from crying," said Guenther. "Throw on some sunglasses and snap a selfie with your little one — you'll be happy you did."

"Moms are not in the photos nearly enough," Wyatt told TODAY Parents. "They should use this as an opportunity to get in the frame, too, by handing off their phone or using a timer to include themselves. Or, even better, once they've sent the kids off, they should take a selfie enjoying their quiet home — perhaps in a bubble bath or with a celebratory glass of Champagne."

4. Pay attention to lighting

"Have your child face a window for the best natural light," said Angenend. "Or, have them stand in a shaded area outside."

Angenend also suggests tapping on the child's face on your phone screen to adjust exposure properly, and to set your focus point.

For the best natural lighting, have your child face a window in your home.
For the best natural lighting, have your child face a window in your home.Anna Angenend Photography

5. Capture the action

"Don't be scared to make them run with their book bags, jump over a puddle, or race with their brother or sister," said Guenther. "You can go into 'burst mode' on your camera and catch some awesome action shots."

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'Burst mode' — or holding down the shutter button — is a great way to capture movement.

"This will capture a bunch of images, and you can go back and select the one that turns out," said Angenend.

Experts say, by using 'burst mode' on your camera, you can capture action moments and later choose the best shot.
Experts say, by using 'burst mode' on your camera, you can capture action moments and later choose the best shot.Anna Angenend Photography

6. Know your apps

Angenend suggests using apps like Instagram for filters and editing, Layout for creating collages, and WordSwag and Canva for adding fun or interesting fonts. Wyatt recommends Camera Awesome, a photo app that allows users to select their focus.

7. Consider a video

"Use your phone for a quick interview video," said Wyatt. "Make a list of 10 or so questions about your child — who their teacher is, who their friends are, what their likes and dislikes are — then find a clean backdrop and spend a couple of minutes recording them answering the questions."

"Keep your list of questions to ask again at the end of the year," Wyatt continued. "Or even at the beginning of next year. Capturing your child's voice can be just as valuable as their photograph."

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