“The best camera is the one you have with you” is a saying that’s been around as long as there have been cameras. These days that usually means using your phone for smartphone photography, but can it really replace an expensive DSLR?
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get fantastic, professional-looking photos out of it under many conditions. In fact, with the ever-increasing quality of mobile phone sensors, the world of smartphone photography has really taken off.
Just take a look at some of the Instagram cell phone photography feeds—many are simply stunning.
Can you do this too? Absolutely. How? By really getting to know your camera, and as in all photography, learning the basics of what makes a good photo, well, good.
Much of this lies in the standard rules of composition and exposure, but there are a few things you should know that are unique to smartphones.
What You Need to Get Started
Chances are, if you have a smartphone you probably have all you need to follow this tutorial. Of course, in some cases it matters what type of phone you have. In general, however, these photography tips are universal across all mobile phones.
Still, if you’re really wanting to dive deep into the world of mobile photography, there are a few other items you might want to consider (and which will be covered later in this article).
- A smartphone stabilizer of some type (tripod, gorilla pod, or other similar device).
- A micro-SD card
- A microfiber cloth
- A wired headset with a physical volume button (if your phone has a jack).
Smartphone Photography Basics: The Camera
Getting to know your camera is key to getting the most out of it, and smartphones are no exception. You’re probably quite familiar with the auto mode—you might have even noticed that it doesn’t always get the job done.
That’s where learning how to customise your settings comes in.
Learn the Modes
Every smartphone camera comes with at least a couple of different shooting modes.
Depending on the phone, these can range from the fairly automated modes of portrait, landscape, Sport Shot, sequence/burst mode, HDR, and panorama, to the more advanced manual or “pro” mode.
The more you experiment with the different modes, the easier it will be to know when to use one over the other.
Pro Tip #1: The pro mode on phones like the Galaxy Note 8 will allow you to change one or more settings while keeping the rest automated. That makes it much easier than working in full manual mode on a DSLR, where you’re responsible for every single setting if you switch over.
Pro Tip #2: If your camera doesn’t offer a manual mode, you can always use an app like Manual to take full control of all your exposure settings.
Here are a couple of settings that will make a huge difference in the outcome of your photos.
Use High Resolution
In general, the higher your image’s resolution, the higher the quality of the image. Some phones come with the resolution set pretty low—mostly to help with the digital zooming.
As there are a number of reasons not to use your digital zoom (I’ll get to those later), the only real reason to keep your resolution on the lower end is memory space. Otherwise, set it high. And get yourself a micro-SD card!
Switching over to Raw
Speaking of high resolution, if you’re truly serious about your smartphone photography, shooting in Raw is where it’s at. The standard Jpeg file format most phones offer is far too compressed to offer much leeway in post-processing.
Raw files, on the other hand, are uncompressed and capture much more of the information inherent in your image. That means that you can truly bring out your image’s beauty and make numerous adjustments without degrading its quality.
What you’ll need though, is a camera that supports the Raw file format and a micro-SD card. Raw file formats are much larger than Jpegs. You’ll also need an app or editing program that can read Raw files.
But never fear, there are many of these, both free and premium.
To get the maximum amount of data into your image, you’ll also need to figure out which aspect ratio works best on your phone. For some, the 4:3 ratio works best. For others, it will be the 16:9.
Either way, choose the one that doesn’t cut off any part of the photo.
Quick Photography Tips
Basic actions you can take to make your photos look that much better.
Clean Your Lens
If you’re like most people, your smartphone probably spends much of its time in your pocket or purse with the lens unprotected. This means that your lens is likely to have dust or dirt on it.
While you can take off any unsightly specks in post-processing, the easiest thing to do is to start with a clean lens.
Just be sure to use something made especially for optics—either a microfiber cloth or tissues made for cleaning lenses. Using your clothes or an ordinary cloth can scratch the lens.
Set the Focus Manually
Sure, your auto-focus often works well, but there will be plenty of times where your smartphone’s camera will try to focus somewhere other than where you want it to).
Switching the focus to where you want it is pretty simple if your phone has touch focus. Simply tap the screen over your intended focus area.
If the focus doesn’t come out quite where you want it to be or you want to further blur the background, you can always use apps like AfterFocus or Big Lens.
Pro Tip #3: In Pro (manual) mode you can control all aspects of focus.
Ditch the Digital Zoom
Believe it or not, digital zoom isn’t all it’s cracked to be. Unlike an optical zoom, which actually moves the camera lens, all the digital zoom does is enlarge what’s already in the frame.
Essentially, it’s a cropping device that crops off the outside of the photo to make the “zoomed in” area seem bigger. The end result? Loss of pixels, which in turn translates to loss of image quality.
The solution? Zoom in with your feet (i.e. move closer to your subject). And as for cropping, wait until after you’ve taken the photo. That will ensure you have the highest image resolution in the frame.
Avoid the Flash
The flash on your phone’s camera rarely yields good results. Neither the hard, overly-pronounced shadows, nor the brackish light on the subject are often flattering.
If you’re needing more light on your subject, try increasing the exposure instead. Or, if you have a mix of strong shadows and highlights in your frame, try shooting in HDR mode.
This will cause your camera to take multiple exposures and then blend them together so that you get both the dark and the light properly exposed.
Pro Tip #4: Always make sure your camera is stabilized when using long exposure or HDR. (See the next tip.)
Keep Your Camera Steady
Nothing’s worse than thinking you’ve landed the perfect shot and then finding that it came out blurry due to camera shake.
And while image stabilization has come a long way, it can’t make up for all camera shake, especially when shooting long exposures (like HDR, low light-level, or nighttime photography).
For simple snaps and/or fairly quick photos, holding it with both hands or simply leaning against a solid surface will usually do the trick. For longer exposures, however, it’s best to use a tripod or other smartphone stabiliser.
My favourite one is the GorillaPod, as it’s small, easy to use, and you can mould the legs to fit to point your phone in any direction.
Pro Tip #5: To avoid camera shake further, you can use the volume control on your headset to release the shutter.
Just make sure that your headset is physically connected and that it has a physical button for volume control (not a slider).
Tapping the screen will definitely add camera shake into your image (unless you’re using an app with a timer), so if you have the headset, it’s well worth switching over.
Post-Processing: Taking Your Smartphone Photography to the Next Level
The difference between a good photo and an exceptional one often lies in what you do after you take the photo. This is especially true if you’re shooting in Raw.
You might have composed your shot perfectly and captured the perfect lighting, but the final touch of awesomeness is going to come from post-processing.
This can either be as involved as putting the photo through editors such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Luminar, or as simple as using one of the many third party apps available just for this purpose. For example, Snapseed or Afterlight.
Every day you’re walking around with a super powerful digital camera in your pocket. That means the opportunity to take amazing photographs is always at your fingertips.
Whether you’re using your phone for landscapes, street photography, portrait photography, or just to document your everyday life, using these tips and learning the ins and outs of how your phone’s camera works will help take your mobile photography to the next level.
There’s always more to learn, so get out there, take lots of photos, and don’t forget to have fun!