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How to take better photos on your smartphone

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Smartphone photography

There’s an old saying in photography: the best camera is the one that you have with you. Most of the time, that’s your smartphone.

Think about it. When you’re out and about and need to capture a moment, the cameraphone that’s always in your pocket or handbag primed for quick use is much handier than a £2,000 professional DSLR that’s sitting in a cupboard at home.

There are limits to these tiny cameras’ capabilities, of course.

But if you know what these are and how to work with them, there’s no reason you can’t take fantastic, striking images on a phone. Particularly if it’s one you’ve purchased in the past couple of years.

Here are some tips to help you perfect your smartphone photography.

Let there be light

Smartphone photo in sunlight

Lighting is arguably the most important thing to consider in all types of photography.

Photos taken in good light (i.e. outside on a sunny day) tend to look sharper and more detailed because the camera's shutter can close quickly, having captured enough light for a well lit image.

Conversely, it's much harder to get good results in gloomier conditions because the shutter needs to be open longer and thus any movement of the subject or the camera itself will result in blurriness.

Digital cameras, including smartphone cameras, try to counteract this motion blur by increasing their light sensitivity in dark conditions, but that leads to its own problems.

Bon Jovi in poor lighting conditions but still looking awesome

As you can tell from this photo I took at a recent Bon Jovi concert using my Samsung Galaxy S7, poor lighting can make it near-impossible to get a decent shot.

The main issue here is what's known as 'noise'. This is a grainy speckle which obscures essential detail, such as Jon Bon Jovi's beautiful face. It also flattens 'contrast' (this is the distinction between black and white parts of an image) and generally leaves photos looking lacklustre.

So once again, it pays to try and take most of your photos in good lighting wherever possible.

Decent exposure

Android smartphone camera exposure

Back in the old days, photographers had to set exposure manually by tweaking shutter speed and the size of the aperture to ensure the right amount of light entered the camera and photos came out neither too dark nor too bright.

Thankfully smartphone cameras now do that automatically, and can analyse the available light and set these values without any input from the photographer.

Your cameraphone's app screen will also let you preview how the shot will turn out too, so you shouldn’t have any nasty surprises when you actually tap that shutter button.

However, at times you may want the picture to look darker or brighter overall than the preview is showing.

To do this you'll need to override the automatic exposure settings. Below we outline two simple ways to do it.

1) If your phone’s camera has an “EV” setting, you can manually reduce or increase the value by tapping the plus or minus control (the effects of doing so will, again, be previewed on your phone screen).

2) Alternatively, when photographing a tricky-to-expose scene with both very bright and very dark sections, tap the part of the preview on your screen that you want to expose correctly.

Your camera will set the values to do just that, rather than for the overall scene.

Compose yourself

Android smartphone camera gridlines

Often, what makes a great photo isn’t the sharpness or detail but the composition.

That means you need to consider the entire frame and where your subject(s) and objects in the background fit into it.

The “rule of thirds” is a good one to get started with: imagine the frame is divided into nine equal parts, with two equally-spaced lines running horizontally and two vertically (many phone apps allow you to turn on a grid that actually places these lines on the preview screen).

Now try to align objects, people, the horizon or whatever you’re shooting along these lines or, even better, at the intersection of two of them.

If you manage to do that you’ll find that your photos become magically more pleasing to the eye.

Use the flash sparingly

Taking a photo outside at night lighting

Sometimes there’s just not enough light from the sun or 'ambient sources' (such as lamps) to take a usable photo. At those times you need to use your flash.

But beware. Phone flashes are relatively weak, and can only provide enough illumination for objects fairly close to you.

It’s pointless using your flash to photograph performers at a concert, for example.

And because flashes emit light directly forward, they often render the subject(s) flat-looking and uninteresting, and in all but a few cases will make skin tones look unnatural.

It’s far better to find an alternative light source: a streetlamp, a log fire, car headlights.

Be creative with lighting and you’ll find the results are far more striking.

Clean your lens

Clean smartphone camera lens

Most cameras have lens caps or covers to keep their lenses free from dust and smears when not in use.

Not so phone cameras. And the result is that they’re frequently dirty.

That can lead to issues with photos, particularly streaks when there’s a strong light source in frame.

Give your lens a quick wipe with a lint-free cloth before taking a shot. Even a t-shirt will do at a pinch.

Don’t use digital zoom

Samsung Galaxy S8 sample photo poor zoom

As a rule, smartphone cameras don’t have real zoom lenses.

You might have a zoom function on yours (often activated by moving two fingers in a reverse-pinching motion on the screen). but all that’s doing is taking a section of the image and upscaling it digitally, which results in degraded quality.

This is called “digital zoom”, and it’s almost always a bad idea. If you want your subject to fill more of the frame, there are better ways.

First, you can crop after you’ve taken the shot.

Most smartphones’ default photography apps offer a handful of editing tools, a crop tool being one of them.

This lets you choose which section of the image you want to keep and snip away everything else.

The resulting pic will be smaller in resolution terms than a digitally zoomed photo, but will almost certainly look cleaner and sharper.

The second option? Try to get closer to whatever you're photographing.

App’s the way to do it


Once you’re comfortable with the basics above, you might want to try third-party camera apps on your phone (i.e. ones other than the default camera app).

Open up your phone’s app store (the Apple App Store for iPhones, Google Play Store for Android phones or Microsoft Store for Windows Phones) and browse the camera apps.

Some of our favourites are Instagram (a decent camera app tied to a popular social network), Snapseed (a set of superb editing tools for modifying photos you’ve already taken) and VSCO (which has lots of filters for creating impactful, artsy images).

Category: Guides
Tagged: smartphones
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