by Max Therry
You don’t need a state-of-the art DSLR camera to take good shots, and you don’t need the most modern and expensive device to take top-rate smartphone pictures, either. These tips are aimed at helping you to get the best out of your mobile phone photography, from setting up the shot to taking the photo through to editing it.
1. Download a Camera App For Your Phone
Your built-in smartphone camera is fine, and you don’t have to have the latest model, but the mobile phone’s built-in camera does have some limitations. If your phone will support it, think about downloading a dedicated mobile camera app. Adobe Lightroom mobile is a great choice, but there are others like the totally free Open Camera app, or Camera ZOOM FX Premium. Find one that suits you and your skill level.
These apps allow you much more control over how you shoot your photos. You can manually adjust shutter speed, ISO, white balance and other settings when you take photos using these apps.
2. Back up Your Images
To keep your memory free, get into the habit of downloading your photos to another device, to your cloud storage, or both. Backing up your precious images to at least two different storage formats means that if something happens to one lot, the other will still be safe.
3. Learn About Different Smartphone Camera Modes and What They Do
There are several dedicated modes for different types of photography available on smartphones, and these are the most common ones to familiarise yourself with:
- HDR Mode: This mode basically takes multiple images of the subject at different exposures in quick succession. It then merges them using the software, and will produce a final image that has detail in both shadow and highlight areas, as well as brighter color and contrast. This mode is great for shooting skies in daylight, landscapes, architecture, or in the case that there is minimal light in the subject’s foreground. For example, compare those two photos, and look closely at the sky to spot the difference:
- Panorama Mode:This mode allows you to capture much more in a single shot. To use it, you need to move the smartphone horizontally along a predefined line to take your shot. The camera takes multiple shots and stitches these images together to create one wide, panoramic image.
- Portrait Mode: This mode adds an artistic effect to your portraits by keeping your subject sharp, and blurring the background to add depth of field. This mode is great for shooting people from up close.
- Burst Mode: This mode takes a burst of shots in rapid succession, and it’s great for capturing action or sports scenes, as you won’t miss a thing! The only issue with this mode is that it will quickly fill up all your memory storage, so delete the images you don’t need soon after taking them.
4. Use a Tripod in Low Light
You can get specialized tripods for your phone to keep the camera steady while you shoot. If you’re shooting in low-light situations, hand-holding your phone will result in blurry photos, and you don’t want that unless that’s the effect you’re going for.
If you don’t want to use a tripod in low light, you’ll have to use the flash or go somewhere where light conditions are better. I personally don’t ever use the flash on my phone, as I have never seen a good shot taken with direct flash on either a phone or a DSLR camera. You end up with harsh, dark shadows around your subjects, and it makes their skin look washed out. That’s just my opinion, though – if you want to use flash, go for it!
5. Don’t Neglect Exposure and Lighting
Exposure is controlled by three things: ISO, shutter speed and aperture. On a smartphone, you have no control over the aperture, as the lens isn’t adjustable. You can adjust ISO, which relates to how sensitive your sensor is to the light coming in, and shutter speed, which relates to how long your camera shutter stays open.
Read related: Top 7 Tips For Taking Amazing Travel Photography
The longer your shutter stays open, the more light it lets in, and the higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to the available light. On a bright day, you may need the lowest ISO, and a high shutter speed to get good exposure, while in low light, you may need the ISO up high, and the shutter speed under 1/30th second to get correct exposure. For lower shutter speeds, you’ll need a tripod or you will get blurry images. Modern smartphones let you control the exposure by simply tapping on the screen. However, if you learn how to use the manual camera mode, you’ll have much more control over your images.
For example, trying to photograph sunrise in the desert, the camera focused on the wrong area, and the photo (especially the sky) came out too bright and over-exposed:
But tapping on the white part can help you correct the exposure, bring out more colors and produce an overall better photo:
As for lighting, natural light is better for smartphone photography, but not direct sunlight. If you can, take images in shaded areas, or while the sky is overcast. Another good time is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, while the sun is low in the sky, as it gives a beautiful, soft light. You don’t need to stay in the shade if you are shooting at these times.
6. Learn How to Focus
Different smartphone brands will offer different ways of fixing the focus, but often it’s just a case of tapping on the screen where you want the camera to focus. For instance, if you’re taking a portrait, tap the eyes on the screen, and the focus should be fixed there.
For example, focusing on the plane window:
And focusing on the wing:
For some phones, you can manually lock the focus by tapping on the screen and holding it down for a few seconds until the focusing square or circle changes color; this tells you that the focus is now locked. You can then re-compose your shot, and the focus will remain the same because you have locked it. Read your phone’s manual to find out if you can do this with your phone camera.
7. Try to Shoot in RAW Format
Many camera apps have the capability to shoot in Raw file format. Although this is the best format for photography in general, it does have one drawback on a phone camera.
Pro photographers shoot in Raw format because it is totally uncompressed, and contains all the information from a photo. JPEG format is compressed, and is called a ‘lossy’ format because the camera discards some of the image information to enable the compression. This is the reason why JPEG file sizes are much smaller than RAW files.
For example, increasing brightness on Jpeg (on the left) and Raw (on the right) photo
That brings me to the main drawback of shooting Raw files on a phone – memory, or lack thereof. Raw files take up a vast amount of your phone’s memory, so before you start shooting, make sure you have enough space. The same applies to shooting video on your phone, as that is another feature that eats massive amounts of memory.
If your phone doesn’t support Raw format or you don’t want to use up your memory, don’t despair. Go into the camera settings and select the highest resolution Jpeg settings it has. The larger the Jpeg, the higher the image quality.
If you do shoot in RAW, you’ll need a Raw file converter to work on the photos after you’ve taken them. Lightroom mobile will let you do that on your phone, but it’s often better to upload your Raw images to a computer.
You can get totally free Raw converters like GIMP, or you can install inexpensive editing software such as ON1 or Luminar. The latter allow you to work directly on your Raw files to make adjustments before saving your finalized image as a JPEG.
8. Choose Your Background
Before you start taking photos, look for objects behind your subject and in the frame of your phone camera. Is there a tree branch or lamppost directly behind your subject? Move them away, or it will look like they’re growing out of your subject’s head.
If you’re taking food photos, a plain background is best, as it lets the food be the star. Check that there are no dirty dishes or other unwanted objects in the background. Either remove them, move your food, or change the angle of your shot so that they are not in the photo.
9. Try Different Angles
Try to get creative with your shots. Most people will only take a photo from directly above or from straight ahead at eye level. When you get a different angle on your subjects, the image stands out from the norm. Why not try shooting from the sides, from up above, or getting down and shooting at ground level for a different perspective?
A related tip: Take lots of shots. If you have plenty of images, it makes it easier to find the really good ones when you come to edit them.
10. Check Your Composition
How your image looks has a lot to do with composition: It should be balanced, with all the elements in the shot working to create a harmonious photo.
Your phone camera probably has a ‘rule of thirds’ grid that you can overlay your shot with to help improve your composition.
A quick explanation of the rule of thirds grid in photography is this: The camera screen is split up into nine squares, with three lines running vertically, and three lines running horizontally. Where those lines intersect, along one of the lines or just above one of the horizontal lines, is where you want to place the items of interest in your photo for the most pleasing composition.
Look at your favorite photos for inspiration. What makes them good? Why is the composition visually appealing? Can you use some of these ideas in your own photos?
11. Don’t Zoom – Get Closer if You Can
If you use your phone’s zoom function to get in close and fill the frame, you’ll end up with very poor image quality when you look at it closely: It will look pixelated and strange, especially if you’re viewing it on a larger screen.
Try to get in closer to your subject if you can instead. You can crop unwanted objects out later in post-processing to keep your image quality and resolution high.
12. Learn Some Good Post-Processing Techniques
Your phone will probably have a built-in editing suite, or you can use an app to help crop and adjust a given pic. You may be wondering if editing your images is really necessary, but even the best shots will be enhanced by some careful adjustments for color, contrast, sharpness etc.
If you have the time and access to a computer with editing software, I’d suggest uploading your images to it and editing them on the larger screen. It makes a world of difference to be able to see the good and bad points of your image on a big screen.
The main rule of photo-editing? Don’t overdo. You want your photo to be bright and attractive, but still real (unless you want to achieve some artistic effect – in that case, don’t hesitate to express your creativity!)
These days, anyone with a phone camera is a photographer, and that’s no bad thing. There are so many smartphone pictures out there that just blend into the masses, or don’t reach their full potential, and that’s a shame. If you follow my tips above, you’ll be well on your way to creating images that stand out from the crowd– for all the right reasons!
About the Author
Max Therry is an architecture student who is fond of photography and wants to become a professional photographer. He is also working on his photography blog about photo editing, modern photo trends, and inspiration. Visit his website and feel free to reach him by email.