10 Tips for Better Smartphone Photography

10 Tips for Better Smartphone Photography

They say the best camera you have is the one that's always with you. Almost all of us carry our smartphones everywhere in our pockets, so it's probably a good idea to learn how to make better images with them. Learn from these 10 tips for better smartphone photography.

Unlike a DSLR or mirrorless camera, there's nothing particularly complicated about taking photos with a smartphone. In a way, they're sort of like compact or point-and-shoot cameras, with good automatic modes that provide clear, sharp pictures in a wide variety of circumstances. But using a little technical know-how can vastly improve the images you make, so why not take heed at the following tips and tricks that you can use while out and about?

1. Check Focus and Exposure

Exposure and focus control example
In order to record the detail in the shadows of the trees, I tapped on the trees to get focus and increase the exposure; otherwise, the bright sky would make the entire image too dark. This automatically meters the scene based on the location of the tap.

Almost every smartphone camera app will allow the user to choose a focus and exposure point, and this is key to taking better photos in a wide range of circumstances. Let's say you're taking a photo of a gorgeous slab of black cake on a bright white plate indoors with overhead lighting. You might find the phone exposes for the white plate and thus throws the darker cake into shadow. Therefore, it's important to tap on the screen, over the cake, to tell the phone to meter the shot based on the dark cake.

2. Rule of Thirds

Composition rule of thirds example
Use the rule of thirds to visually split up scenes and help provide structure to your composition; this technique is helpful if you're not sure how to compose the shot in the first place.

Using compositional techniques can help wrangle a wonky scene into a more structured one. The rule of thirds is such a compositional tool that splits the view into three vertical and three horizontal parts. Place subjects anywhere along these lines or at the intersecting points for a stronger composition.

3. Frame Within a Frame

Frame within a frame example on smartphone
Trees line the edges of this scene to frame the distant motorcyclist on the misty road ahead; an alternative way to use this technique is to photograph a scene through a window but also include the window frame in the photo.

The frame of the shot is everything that's visible in the rectangle or square that you're shooting with. However, you might find a good setting that is framed by another subject in the scene. Use this frame within the frame to break up the visual outline and make shots more interesting.

4. Utilize HDR Mode

HDR mode smartphone example
High-contrast images like this one look better with HDR mode turned on to capture detail in the shadows and highlights simultaneously. Here, HDR retains leaf detail in the highlights and still allows a good view of the darker underside of the bluebell flowers.

Dynamic range is the difference between the brightest and darkest portion of a scene. This range is widest when shooting outside during the day under clear skies. The sun casts bright highlights, which also create harsh, sharp shadows that are comparatively very dark. Image sensors, like the one in your smartphone, struggle to capture this wide spectrum of detail, but you can use High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode to capture both the bright highlights and dark shadows in one image. The phone will typically take a series of images in one go and blend them together for natural-looking tones and a high dynamic range.

5. Go Manual

Manual mode smartphone example

Third-party apps and some in-camera apps give users the ability to choose manual settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This is great for those that want to take their photography skills to the next level and have a little more control over the picture-taking process.

6. Look for the Light

Overcast example image
If you don't have gorgeous window light available, look for overcast conditions, which help to diffuse light into soft shadows.

Light is arguably the most important part of taking any photograph. It's easiest to use natural light to take good photos of either food, portraits, or pets. Windows, especially those that are north-facing, are brilliant to use, because they provide soft, diffused light that flatters any subject.

7. Stabilize the Camera (at Night)

Night shooting and astrophotography are difficult with smartphones, but increasingly so they're becoming more capable of capturing star-filled images. But you have to make sure that the phone sits still during the exposure, because the length of the shutter speed is much longer than it would be during the day. A tripod, a wall, or any other stable surface can help to keep things sharp.

8. Use Portrait Mode

Portrait mode use changes depending on the smartphone you use, but usually, it uses intelligent selective masks to blur the background and keep the subject sharp. This emulates a shallow depth of field more commonly associated with prime lenses that have a fixed focal length and wide aperture — something that most smartphone camera lenses struggle to reproduce because they're generally wide angle.

9. Shoot Action With a Burst

Action shot smartphone example
Leaps and jumps are better photographed in burst mode with the best shot chosen afterwards.

Cars, speeding bikes, runners, or anything that's fast-paced is difficult to capture in just one shot. That's why you should hold down the shutter button on your smartphone to automatically take a series of images in burst mode. Then, you can choose your favorite later on when flicking through them in the gallery.

10. Experiment With Lenses

Avoda smartphone lenses 10-in-1
Extra lenses for smartphones, such as these by Avoda, come in handy when trying to take specialist photos or give images extra flair. Some come with a clip or snap-on mounts, while others have a specific camera case that wraps around the phone and allows lenses to be screwed into the case.

As smartphones become increasingly clever with multiple camera units on the rear of devices, you can also get extra lens attachments that sit on top of the existing lenses in the cameras. Choose from macro, telephoto, or ultra-wide angle adapters for special effects.

These 10 tips for smartphone photography won't just improve your snaps when out and about with your phone, but can actually be applied to all types of cameras and photographic applications. For example, you want to pay close attention to the quality and direction of light with whatever subject you're photographing and with whatever kit you happen to have. Compositional techniques such as the rule of thirds or creating frames within frames can be utilized by operators of DSLRs, mirrorless, bridge, or film cameras. 

Main image icon by multiple authors, used under Creative Commons.

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3 Comments

Michael Krueger's picture

Good general article but I'm surprised you didn't mention shoot RAW.

Also worth noting a lot of smart phone lenses are dirt cheap plastic or low grade glass that negatively impact image quality and vignette on newer smart phones due to increased sensor sizes.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Somehow the rule of thirds is that one thing everyone forgets about and then we are getting pictures like "Me taking pics of my friends Vs. My friends taking pics of me". But I don't really agree about using Portrait Mode as sometimes the blurred background doesn't give the photo any good. Maybe it's better to take a picture and blur the background later in some photoworks or maybe take 2 different pics, but having only one shot done with Portrait Mode just doesn't sound right to me.

Alexander Gusev's picture

And turn off the flash