Our Top Smartphone Photos of 2016 The secret to capturing stunning shots is right in your pocket

Gone are the days when you needed fancy and expensive camera gear to turn out some amazing nature photos. While that still may be the case to capture certain shots, such as ones at a distance, amateur photographers have a lot of power right in the palm of their hand thanks to their smartphones.

Even with all the tools of the trade these days, there's no replacement for a set of eyes that can see the beauty in nature and know how to frame it.

That's definitely the case for our staff members, which are out and about in the preserves on a daily basis and throughout the year. We've been fortunate to be able to document some of the more amazing natural wonders that can be seen on the trails.

From left: Indian pipe at Hickory Creek, a marbled orb weaver at Hickory Creek, some turkey tail fungus at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve and a dragonfly at Plum Creek Nature Center. (Photos by Suzy Lyttle)

Interpretive naturalist Suzy Lyttle, who leads a number of the District's photography programs and has some great examples on her Instagram feed, even prefers to go the phone route.

"I am a firm believer you can take fantastic photos using a phone," she said. "It's more convenient to carry the iPhone versus my backpack with all my camera gear. Of course, there are some limitations.

"I won't be able to get that far away bird, but I think it makes me pay attention to the closer details of the forest."

For certain, whenever nature photography is involved, there's also some luck involved. You have to be in the right place at the right time.

Here are our highlights from 2016:

Wauponsee Glacial Trail Bridge in Custer Park (Photo by Cindy Cain)
Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars at Monee Reservoir (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)
Keepataw Preserve (Photo by Chad Merda)
Praying Mantis at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)
Raindrops at Sugar Creek Preserve (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)
Robin fledgling at Hickory Creek Preserve (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)
Hickory Creek Preserve (Photo by Kelli Parke)
Turk Cap Lilly at Sand Ridge Savannah Nature Preserve (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)
Mushroom at Hickory Creek Preserve (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)
Indian Pipe (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)
Spotted salamander at Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)
Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Now that we've shown off our work, hopefully you're feeling inspired.

With that in mind, how can you get the most out of your smartphone camera?

Follow these tips and odds are, you'll be pleasantly surprised:

1. Focus, Focus, Focus

Nothing will ruin a seemingly picture-perfect moment than a shot that's soft and fuzzy. Tapping on the autofocus box on your smartphone may not do the trick, especially if there is a lot going on in the background. This can cause the focus to jump to a different part of the shot. It's best to lock it down and stay in the same field of focus until you get the perfect shot.

2. Don't Limit Yourself

The beauty of digital photos is that it's easier to take a seemingly endless number of shots until you capture the perfect one. That is, unless you phone's capacity is eternally filled up. Try taking the same photo as a vertical, horizontal or even at an angle. Always be sure to take multiple photos because sometimes it's hard to tell out in the field if your execution was spot-on.

3. Play with the Exposure

Every photo is different based on the lighting, but lowering the exposure on brighter days will yield richer colors. It's also possible to get some eye-catching visual effects by tackling long exposure photography.

4. Use the Grid Feature

This is helpful when following the "rule of thirds" guideline.

5. Apps

Now that you have the photo, what do you do next? Explore photo editing apps that will help push the image to the next level. One popular free app, Snapseed, is available both for Apple and Android devices. Not only does it allow for edits such as cropping, sharpening and adjusting the brightness, saturation and contrast, but also has the ability to do more robust photo edits.

VSCO is another free option for both Apple and Android devices if Instagram's basic edit functions aren't enough.

Keep those tips in mind, but be sure to follow perhaps the most important one of all.

"The best way to find these epic moments is to get outside as often as possible," Lyttle said.

(Lead image: Prairie smoke at Sugar Creek Preserve by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)

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Created By
Chad Merda
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