Varsha is a research enthusiast and a tech geek. She loves to photograph people and places.
Our mobile devices give us the power to capture memories and share them instantly, dramatically changing the way we express ourselves. And manufacturers are catering to the growing need for better cameras right in our pockets, with more and more smartphones packing small and compact lenses alongside powerful processors to capture sharper, crisper images, giving traditional compacts a run for their money. In fact, gone are the days when you needed to carry a separate shooter on your travels. If you’re armed with your smartphone, you’re all set.
With smartphone photography, you don’t have to worry so much about equipment — lenses, filters, tripods and so on — and you can actually concentrate on composition to produce works of art. The image quality may not match that of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but the results are often great. However, that’s not to say there isn’t a world of accessories out there, as you’ll see.
If you own a smartphone that was made in the last couple of years, chances are it has a damn good camera in it. And if you’re reading this article, perhaps you’re curious about taking better pictures with that smartphone. Before we dive in, however, know this — learning and knowing how to do it is the easy part. The hard part is creating something magical with that knowledge. With the help of this guide and experimenting yourself, your chances of making exceptional pictures will improve. It’s worth keeping in mind that most of these tips will also see you become a better photographer when using any other camera as well.
Understand Your Smartphone's Camera
All smartphone cameras have a lens to see the world, a sensor that converts images seen through the lens into digital data and they all have software that turn the data into an image file. They’re not as powerful as most other cameras available today — only because the sensors and apertures are smaller, but over the last few years, resolution (megapixels), aperture sizes and sensors have improved.
Aperture size — expressed in f-stops — in smartphone cameras is fixed. Along with the shutter speed that’s set automatically by the camera, it controls how much light hits the sensor. The lower the f-stop, the wider the aperture. And the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field (or blurrier the background), which makes a huge difference to your images when shooting close-ups or macros. In fact, it will make your images pop even when you've not zoomed in by focusing on a particular subject set in a wider frame.
Understanding sensors and resolution is harder. Most people think that the higher the pixel count, the better the camera. Although that’s technically true, it limits the space for a sensor — higher pixel counts require larger chips (although manufacturers are trying to produce small chips with smaller pixels to increase the resolution) — which in turn affects image quality.
Because of that, Apple and Google have settled for 12MP sensors on their handsets which is sufficient for most photo sizes and yet low-res enough to overcome the shortcomings of a small sensor. The vast majority of Android handsets pack sensors larger than 12MP.
Learn Compositional Basics
Nail the important first steps and you’ll be building on firm foundations. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you with this, but I’ll touch upon the basics, beginning with the rule of thirds. If you’re just starting out, think of this as a hard rule before you start breaking it. The rule of thirds employs a grid of lines dividing the smartphone’s display into thirds both horizontally and vertically. These lines aren’t available by default, but the option to display them is available. If you don’t want those lines visible, you can easily imagine them. Try placing your subjects along those lines on the grid, or at points where the lines intersect.
This makes the photos more interesting than having your subjects immediately in the middle of the frame. It’s a good idea to do this with horizon lines as well, so that the horizon never cuts through the centre of your frame. Following the rule of thirds will give you a better sense of a photo’s balance.
You’ll also need to keep in mind that your smartphone’s camera will quite often focus on the wrong thing or get confused by a light or dark background. So keep an eye on the image while composing it and tap on the spot you want the camera to focus on.
Photography apps seem to make any old photo look nice, and are littered across iTunes and Google Play. At best, however, apps make bland photos looks a touch more interesting. That’s not what you want — you want control over how your images look, and that’s what apps should help you do. You’ll need an app that helps you control the focus and exposure of your camera.
Most recent smartphones do this by default, like the iPhone 6 and above, or any smartphone with a manual or pro mode will.
In case your handset doesn’t, there are plenty of apps that give you control over both, like Open Camera or HD Camera Ultra for Android and Camera+ for iOS. The next set of apps you’ll need are the ones that will allow you to control things like contrast, white balance, colour saturation and brightness. Most of the latest default camera apps come with these controls, but apps like Snapseed or Photoshop Express can help fine tune your images.
Use Your Camera Software
This might seem like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at just what your smartphone camera can do. Perhaps you’re familiar with some of the basic operations, like switching between camera and video modes, or turning the flash on and off. But did you know that your handset’s camera has scene modes that can capture not just panoramas, but HDR (High Dynamic Range — capturing vivid colours and better details) images and bokeh effects?
Don’t be afraid to tinker with your camera app. Any smartphone with 32GB of memory has plenty of space for photos, so you can take lots of pics and play with the features, effects and settings. And if you have one of the recent flagship handsets, like the iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 or Samsung Galaxy S8, then there’s every chance it’s jam packed full of features for you to discover.
Knowing your way around the camera software should become second nature — you don’t want to miss out on moments because of struggling with your camera’s settings.
If you’re going to take impressive pictures, you’ll need good light. But how do you know what that is? Good light is the kind that gives a scene shape, depth and makes things look interesting. Generally, shooting indoors with artificial light or outdoors midday or with overcast skies is bad, flat and boring light.
You’ll know it when you see it — there are few shadows, if any, and everything looks evenly lit. Look for light with some kind of direction and colour. This happens naturally at just before sunrise and at sunset, what photographers call ‘the golden hour’.
Alternatively, window light is great because it has direction and is often soft and diffused, not harsh on the subject you’re shooting. When shooting indoors, especially, remember that using the handset’s flash can make the light harsh and spoil the ‘mood’ of the image. So you might want to keep it off.
Good light is especially important in mobile photography because you can’t create much more interest with different focal lengths and varying depth of field like you can with a DSLR or compact camera. You’re stuck with one focal length and one aperture setting. It’s a very good exercise in finding a good composition.
Find an Interesting Moment
If the location is gorgeous and the lighting is ripe for a great photo but nothing is happening, snapping a shot can make for a boring image — only so many sunset photos in your Facebook or Instagram feed will keep people’s attention. Instead, find something to complement the scene if you can. Maybe it’s just someone walking by. Wait until the shape of the walking person balances the photo and is at peak action, then snap away.
Sometimes, there are no moments. Nothing is happening. There’s no one around, and it’s just a pretty scene. It won’t hurt to take the photo. Do that and keep it for yourself or share it with close people and tell a story along with it. But if you really want to get the good stuff, find a good moment. Maybe it’s people peacefully relaxing in the park — sleeping, eating, chatting, reading. Or maybe it’s a flock of birds disturbed by a passer-by.
Keep your eyes open for movement and always try to find some way to balance and compose the photo. Without moments, you’re probably just shooting still life most of the time. It’s too easy, and we can all agree that there are more than enough food photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Work the Scene
Working the scene is all about not standing in one place, composing and snapping one single photo, then moving on. Maybe a better shot will come along in a minute, or in five. Or perhaps you’d get a better photo of your subject by standing closer, or further away. Maybe the photo would look better from a lower angle, or a higher one. Or you can compose the same scene in a different way or three different ways.
Getting down to eye level when snapping people will massively improve your photos. Taking a good photo requires some thought. Otherwise, you’re just taking snapshots, and unless you get really lucky, your chances of getting a good photo that way are slim.
Don’t be afraid to take multiple photos, as you can always delete them later. When you see something that really catches your eye, work that scene. And if there is a moment about to happen, shoot through it. That means keep shooting photos until the moment is over, then pick the best one. Most modern smartphones have excellent burst modes that can capture dozens of photos in a matter of seconds. Use it!
Saving Your Photos Off Your Phone
When it comes to smartphone storage, photos seem to take the vast percentage of space. And although you can always transfer them to your computer, or save them onto an external hard drive, other backup options are available.
If you aren’t too keen on using up your computer’s hard drive, both Apple and Google have cloud storage available. iCloud allows 5GB of free storage to iPhone users, but once that’s done, it will cost you $1.49 per month for 50GB of cloud storage.
Google+ has an ‘auto backup’ feature for Android users, which can be automated by toggling the switch on in the phone’s settings. Alternative cloud storage options like Dropbox and Google Drive are also available. Apps for Dropbox are available for all platforms and comes with 2GB of free storage. Upgrading would mean choosing the lone 1TB option, which costs $13.99 per month or $139 annually.
If you’d rather the privacy and security advantages of managing your own smartphone photo backups, NAS box makers like Western Digital and Seagate offer dedicated photo-backup features in their iOS and Android apps. Like their cloud-storage counterparts, these will back up your photos by transmitting them across the web, but the difference is that they’ll be saved on your own NAS box, rather than on a third-party cloud server.
Taking Images of Night Sky
Smartphone astrophotography is not going to match those images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or from a DSLR camera attached to a telescope on an equatorial mount, which follows stars as they appear to move.
However, what you can capture with your phone — from close-ups of planets and the craters and mountain range of the Moon to time-lapses and star-trails — will astound you. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Get out of the city: Ambient light will affect what you can see in the night sky. So head into the bush and you’ll likely see more stars, meteors and a brighter Moon.
Use a tripod: This is an essential element in low-light photography. Given you will need higher shutter speeds, a tripod will reduce camera shake and eliminate blurry images.
Find the best app: Shutter speed isn’t something you can control on a camera phone, so you’ll need to get a third-party app to simulate the effect. There are many options for both iOS and Android, like NightCap Camera for the former and Camera FV-5 for Android.
Steer clear of flash: You don’t need to use the flash just because it’s dark. The lower shutter speed will allow enough light to enter the lens so you get stark silhouettes against any natural lighting in the sky, or allow city lighting to shine through well against twilight. In fact, a flash will just drown out the scene and you’ll end up with no discernible subjects in your photo.
Avoid using digital zoom: Trying to zoom into a subject at night will seem fine on the screen of your phone, but the resulting image will end up looking extremely noisy and grainy.
Using Camera Accessories
Smartphone cameras have been surpassing themselves, but to stand out in the sea of images on services like Instagram, you’ll be well served by reinforcements from third-party accessories. They come in all shapes and sizes, and budgets, but sometimes all you might need is a simple selfie stick (which can cost as little as $5) to help you get the right angle for the perfect shot.
You can get a tripod for your phone, and a simple one costs less than $50. For the perfect picture, consider a lens kit. These are available from different third-party manufacturers, but some of the best are from Olloclip, specifically manufactured for the iPhone. However, universal lens kits are also available, like the Apexel 5-in- 1 clip-on lens kit that retails for about $30.
Remarkably, you can even take your smartphone on a snorkeling adventure by popping it into an underwater case like the Watershot Pro, available for Samsung and Apple handsets, provided you’ve got a couple hundred bucks to spare and the time to import one from the US. If you’re going to take lots of photos, consider a backup power pack so you don’t have to worry about your phone running out of juice. Grab one with that has at least 3200mAh battery.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.