Picture This!

Photojournalism professor Tom Burton shares tips and tricks on using your phone to capture those picture-perfect moments.

    By Lydia Hill ’21
  • Photography by Tom Burton
  • Oct. 11, 2023
    4 min read

Meeting Reveille when you’re visiting campus for game day. Grandma laughing with the grandkids at the family reunion. Literally anything your dog or baby does. These are all memories you want to cherish forever. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to take quality photos with your smartphone, but it’s also easy to clutter your camera roll with dozens of images of the same thing as you try to get the perfect Instagram or print-worthy shot.

Texas A&M University professor Tom Burton is here to help. In his more than 30 years as a photojournalist, he’s developed a keen eye for photos and mastered all the tricks of the trade. “In the end, it’s not the camera that makes the photograph,” he said. “It’s the person.” We sat down with this experienced professional to get his top tips on capturing the moments worth remembering.

Close in.

“If there’s one thing you can do to improve your pictures, it’s getting closer. If the person or animal in your picture only occupies 5% of the space, they’re not the focus. The best way to fix this is to use what we call the ‘foot zoom’: walk closer!”

Let there be light.

“Usually, the most common problem is that the photo’s too dark. Pay attention to where the light is coming from. If you have a bright light source in the background, your phone will adjust the exposure to the light and make your main subject too dark. The old-school method is to have the light behind the photographer. For outdoor photos, the hour after sunrise and before sunset gives you more dramatic light. Or, in this photo, waiting until after sunset gave the right balance between fire and sky.”

Have a moment.

“Photojournalists emphasize the moment and tell a story with each picture. For instance, this photo tells a story of studying and enjoying perfect weather. Focus on what you’re trying to say with the photo. Why are you noticing this thing, and what can you do to emphasize what you noticed? Anticipate where you need to be to get the shot when something happens. When your kid is about to open the big Christmas present, are you in the right position?”

Watch that background.

“As the photographer, you’re responsible for everything in the frame, especially the background. It should contribute to the story you’re trying to tell. In this photo, the people in the foreground connect to the state fair rides in the background. Remember that you can shoot and move, so when you look through the frame, move until the composition feels right and the background doesn’t distract, then push the button.”

Go low.

“More than one angle always helps, and getting low is an easy, reliable method. A friend of mine says a good photographer always has the knees of their pants worn out. Sitting, bending over or even taking the camera all the way to the ground gives a different viewpoint. Look for a perspective that helps people feel what it’s like to be there.”

Put your phone down.

“Taking pictures shouldn’t take you out of your environment. Remember that you’re in the moment, too, especially if you’re trying to capture a moment with your kids. When my daughter took ballet, I took a formal portrait but didn’t try to take pictures at the recitals. I just wanted to sit there and watch my kid. Your role is with the people you care about, and if you’re in the moment, do you have to have a picture? The answer is different for different people, but it’s an important question to ask.” 

Support Aggie Journalists: Texas A&M is reinstating its journalism program to prepare the next generation of reporters to tell stories in their communities through words and images. Interested in being part of this expansion? Contact Debbie Hesse ’85 to learn more.

About Tom Burton

Tom Burton is an assistant professor of practice in Texas A&M’s Department of Communication & Journalism, where he teaches courses on mass media and mobile journalism. A former editor of the National Press Photographers Association, he worked for more than 30 years as a photojournalist and photo editor for the Orlando Sentinel, where he photographed everything from Super Bowls and space shuttle launches to riots and presidential visits.