Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the compact camera market crash, photo sharing explode and smartphones evolve into the most important cameras around. At the same time, camera performance has evolved into the most important aspect of those phones. It’s not about call clarity, it’s about photo quality.
We’re not saying there’s no space for real cameras any more – far from it – but for the everyday user, the smartphone has become the go-to camera. Whether you have the most expensive flagship iPhone or the cheapest entry-level Android, we’ve rounded up some top tips to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your phone’s camera.
1. Clean the lens
Photos looking a little milky? This is the biggest problem we see on smartphone cameras. Because the lens is so small, it’s very easy for it to get dirty while you’re using your phone for other things. You spend the whole day groping your phone, so make sure you wipe away those smeary marks before you start snapping.
This is especially problematic when the suncream comes out – wipe it away and you’ll get better pictures. This is really important on the front camera too. You want those selfies to be stellar, so take time to wipe the sweat, grease, or makeup off the lens so you look pin sharp.
Focus makes a photo. Cameras have become a lot better at focusing on the subject in the past few years, but don’t just point and press the button. Take time to make sure that what you want to take a picture of is in focus.
Many smartphones offer touch focusing. Just touch what you want in focus on the display and often that will just click into place. If it won’t focus, you might be too close, especially if it’s something small. Try moving back a bit.
More recently, the advent of “bokeh” or portrait modes on cameras means it’s easy to create a depth of field effect. While that might remove distracting detail from the background and help the subject pop, it can also make photos look a little artificial. Many phones let you vary the strength of this effect and often turning it down a little will create a better overall result. But it’s worth taking to time to judge whether a photo looks better with that effect or not – if the background blurring is too harsh, the photo won’t look good.
Think about what you’re looking at and what your picture is trying to show. You can very easily change the shape of your photo afterwards, but if it’s full of distracting background elements or it’s not clear what you’re taking a photo of then it’s never going to look great. Stop and think about the photo you actually want to show people and what you want them to feel when they look at it.
Photographers often use the rule of thirds to get the subject into an ideal position. Imagine the scene with a tic-tac-toe grid over the top. The important things should be aligned along those lines, or at the intersection of those lines, for the greatest impact. It’s simple and it works.
There are other easy tricks, like using edges like fences or paths to draw the viewer into the image and give a greater sense of depth and scale – and pay attention to the horizon – is your photo level?
4. Watch the sun
Sunny conditions are great for taking beautiful pictures with rich blue skies and luscious greens, but think about where the sun is when you pull out your phone. Shoot too close to the sun – i.e. pointing towards it – and you might find that a giant lens flare dominates the scene or that subjects are massacred by blown highlights with no detail in those areas.
If that’s happening, try using your hand to shade the lens, making sure it’s not in shot, and you can get a great result. When photographing people, watch where those shadows fall and think about the best side from which to take a shot – you don’t want a silhouette in front of a beautiful background because you didn’t consider that the sun was behind them, for example – but staring into the sun for a portrait is dazzling for the subject too.
But the sun can also present a lot of opportunities and using a low sun to create silhouettes and long shadows is a great way to get something slightly different. In the image above, it’s not only shooting into the sun, but it’s also using portrait mode to create some unusual results.
5. Consider the flash
The flash on your phone isn’t great and, in many cases, you’ll get much better results without using the flash on the back. With increasing performance in low light conditions, turning off the flash can be the best thing you do. Shooting at a concert in dark conditions? The flash isn’t going to reach the stage anyway, so turn it off. At a zoo shooting through glass? You’re not only taking a bad photo, but you’re scaring the animals. Don’t scare the animals.
But flashes can be useful. The rear flash can be most effective when you’re shooting in daylight and the subject is in shadow – it can give some great portrait results. The front flash can often help you get a selfie in dark conditions where you’d otherwise get nothing at all. So while we’d say that 90 per cent of the time you’re better off without it – remember it’s still there.
6. Keep it steady
This is as true to smartphones as it is to any camera. Keeping it steady will give you much better photos. Don’t snatch at the button, hold things steady and take your time. While many phones now offer optical image stabilisation and AI correction for hand-shake, being stable is often the best thing you can do.
That might just be from supporting the phone better – using two hands rather than one – it might be that you need to slow down rather than rush that photo or it might be that you need to support your phone on something solid, like a table or wall.
While it’s a bit of an imposition to carry a tripod, with phones getting smarter, having a flexible tripod and a smartphone mount opens up a world of possibilities – impossible selfies, moon shots, night photos to die for – or longer exposures that turn water into smoke.
7. Use night mode
Night mode is the biggest shift in smartphone photography to have arrived in the past 5 years. The latest Google phones, iPhones, Huawei, Samsung and others all have some sort of night option. If it’s night, use it.
Night mode importantly gives the phone an idea of what result you’re actually looking for and deploys a lot of technology to clean up, correct, and come up with a photo that’s worth sharing and cherishing. Most night modes will let you shoot scenes handheld that were impossible on a smartphone just a few years ago – while some will, with more support, give you longer exposures for even better results.
It doesn’t have to be super arty either – it could just be friends on a night out.
8. Use your phone’s camera hardware
This one is a bit of a no brainer, but smartphones have started adding more lenses meaning more opportunities. They can now take better zoom photos, but many now offer wide-angle too. That means you can get a lot more in your photo and create new compositions. Some phones offer a second camera for “data”, but don’t fall for that – we’d rather have a wide-angle lens to take great photos instead.
So take some time to learn what your phone can actually do and then go out and do it. Of course, the biggest thing with any camera is to take more photos, even if it means deleting a lot of them. The best results from your phone will come with knowing what results you’re going to get from it when using the cameras it offers – and having something to photograph, of course.
9. Software to the rescue
All the photos above are straight out of the phone with no editing at all. But all smartphones are using a lot of software or artificial intelligence to clean up images and give you more pleasing results. The likes of Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Google will all boost your images for you. Google, perhaps, takes things a little further, with Google Photos able to produce some even more dramatic results in the background.
But there’s a whole range of apps that will let you edit, from stock apps like Google Photos or Apple Photos, it’s easy to quickly make a few changes to a photo for more drama. That might be adding contrast, pulling down highlights or boosting the saturation for more punch. Apps like Snapseed or Photoshop Express can do wonderful things on your phone with just a few taps. You can find more great apps for iPhone here or for Android here.
10. Don’t use in-app cameras
In most cases, we say don’t use the Instagram camera. If you want to take a great photo and share it with your followers, use your regular phone camera to take the photo, then add it to Instagram or whatever platform you’re sending it to. Why? Because those apps don’t use all the skills that your phone offers. Going through the in-app camera will often give you the worst picture your phone can take, missing out on things like AI, choice of lenses and night mode.
To take photos like a pro, you need to take that photo with the regular camera, make any edits, and then share it via your platform of choice.
11. Vertical videos
Ok, so it’s not a photo – but it is a hot potato. Vertical photos work – even the grand masters painted portraits in, um, portrait – but we need to talk about video. Vertical video only works if the person viewing that video is viewing on a phone, like in Instagram Stories. It doesn’t work on TV, given the obvious issue that your TV itself is not vertical, it’s horizontal.
So, while you’re considering all the great ways to make photos better, spare a thought for video too. If you’re shooting video of something amazing happening that you might want to share on the big screen one day, please, please, please, rotate your phone to horizontal so we don’t have to look at the blurred edges.
Or, consider framing your video so it works in both vertical, horizontal and square formats so you have the greatest options in the future.