7 Smartphone Photography Tips: How To Take Better Phone Pictures

Don’t have an expensive DSLR? No problem. Even if all you have is a smartphone, there’s very little stopping you from taking amazing photos. Below are my top 7 smartphone photography tips. Let’s get started!

It’s not about the camera. 

Well, sometimes it is. If you are doing some kind of specialized photography (e.g. sports/action, birding, long exposure, etc.) you will need a proper camera, with full access to manual controls.

In 90% of situations, however, a phone camera may be more than enough.

Smartphone Photography Tips: get close to your subject

House cat, Hayes Valley

Smartphones have come a long way, are now hold their own against entry level point-and-shoot cameras. Some even come with a built in flash, and presets for different light conditions. As smartphone adoption soars worldwide, phone manufacturers are investing more money and technology into the camera feature.

It’s possible to take good shots with just a smartphone. Here are 5 tips to get started:

1.) Embrace the limitations of the phone camera

Smartphone cameras have many limitations. A phone camera is small. It has no optical zoom (Apple’s iPhone has a fixed focal length of around 28mm). No optical zoom. Limited shutter speed and aperture controls (if any). And to top it off, no option to export RAW files.

What phones lack in features, they make up in stealth. After all, the phone goes with you everywhere – and the best camera is the one you have with you. See something interesting, or find yourself in a situation worth capturing? Just take it out of your pocket, frame, and shoot!

While the guy with the DSLR is fumbling around deciding whether to use the 50mm or 85mm lens, you have already managed to take two photos. And the moment has passed.

Lack of controls and customization will force you to focus on the core skills – framing the shot, using lighting to your advantage and, in some cases, interacting more with your subject. Not sure how to get around the fixed focal length? Easy – zoom in and out with your feet!

Remember to disable your phone’s auto-lock if you’re doing a lot of shooting (fumbling around with passwords leads to a lot of missed opportunities).

It may only be a phone camera, but at the end of the day it’s better than having no camera. Bring it with you everywhere and snap away!

Smartphone Photography Tips: make use of panoramas

Skiing in Lake Tahoe (stitched panorama)

2.) Develop a proper workflow

The trick to producing better phone pictures involves faking it until you make it.

Pretend for a second that you’re a full time, professional photographer stuck with using only a phone camera. Would you take photography any less seriously simply due to an equipment limitation? A pro would not.

A workflow involves taking each shot with care and deliberation. Then, develop a habit of deleting the really bad shots before you even upload to the computer – anything unintentionally out of focus or underexposed, for example, should be binned on the spot. If you are just starting out, aim for a ratio of one great shot for every 20 you take. This will be hard, but not impossible.

Upload the shots you keep to your computer for any editing. If possible, avoid making modifications (e.g. distortions, filters) with the phone software. Filters can be fun (and are great for on-the-spot entertainment), but ultimately ruin the picture if you’re planning to do any post-processing. Keep the original files preserved for editing – don’t forget to set your phone camera to the highest resolution (file size) setting.

Apps that are great for editing photos include Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop (part of the Creative Suite), as well as Apple’s Aperture.

Get a workflow going. Take the shots, pick out the best candidates, upload for editing and present. Repeat. Your shots will improve, and you will start developing a personal style.

Smartphone Photography Tips: framing is important

A morning walk through Soho, Manhattan

3.) Take advantage of good apps

One advantage of smartphone photography is the great selection of add-on apps.

Apps are great because they allow you to unlock built-in features of your phone’s hardware that are arbitrary disabled by the default software. Examples include: the ability to control shutter speed, flash power/duration, and shutter delay.

Whether you want to experiment with High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, long exposure photography, panorama stitching or even full on replacements for your phone’s default software, chances are it’s already available on the marketplace.

I shoot with the iPhone, and I’ve had great success with Camera+ (full replacement of the default phone Camera), AutoStitch (great panoramas) and SlowShutter (long exposure). Whether you’re using iOS, Android, or something else, take the time to browse through the camera apps. $1.99 is a small price to pay for something that radically improves your workflow.

Sailing in the Bay (long exposure shot)

Sailing in the Bay (long exposure shot)

4.) Breathe (and shoot) like a sniper

Taking sharp photos with a phone is tricky.

The phone weighs almost nothing, and even the slightest movement of your hand can put the whole shot out of focus. This is especially frustrating when you are taking pictures of people.

Try this: notice your breathing pattern. Breathe slowly, exhale fully, hold for a second and then take the shot. Think of it as taking a picture in between consecutive breaths. This is a technique used by military snipers, and translates well to photography.

Smartphone Photography Tips: hold your phone steady

Sometimes, the subject holds still voluntarily!

For best results, try to prop the phone against something when shooting. It can be any surface, be it a wall, piece of furniture or even your other hand.

Another technique is to use an app that delays the photo by at least a second after you press the shutter – this way, you will have time to move your finger off the “take picture” button and steady the phone with your hand.

Start thinking like a sniper, and the average quality of your shots will improve.

5.) Make friends with Golden Hour

Do you take advantage of magic/golden hour?

Magic hour is defined as the first and last hour of sunlight every day, and is almost always the best time to take photos outdoors. Photographers will often check the hours of sunrise and sunset each day they are shooting, and will often plan their day around being on location at those times.

During golden hour, the light is warmer and softer. This means the dark/light contrast is not as stark, so the shadows are not as dark. In short, it creates a warm and “natural” mood that is hard to replicate under any other conditions (or with any special filters).

If in doubt, pick magic hour and give yourself an advantage.

Smartphone Photography Tips: make use of golden hour

Magic hour in North Beach, San Francisco

6.) Avoid using the flash

Just as magic hour gives you warmer colours and softer shadows, the built-in flash gives you the opposite.

A flash is a burst of “hard” light. If not diffused or softened, it leads to very dark shadows and bright highlights. It creates an unnatural look, multiplying even the effects of the “hard” (direct) sunlight that occurs at mid-day.

Try to use the phone flash only in dire situations – that is, when there is no other way to light up the subject (when other sources of light are not enough).

Don’t rely on the flash – I keep it disabled by default.

7.) Master framing

Framing is all about where your subject is in your photo, how it is positioned and in what proportion to the whole photo (the frame). As a photographer, you are free to frame the shots any way you want.

While (most) phones do not have optical zoom, they are light and portable enough that they give you more mobility. Don’t be afraid to get up close to your subject – try to take pictures that will not need any major cropping later. Don’t expect to take a “zoomed out” shot now and extract the detail later – there may not be enough detail there to extract.

One technique to practice is the rule of thirds. Mentally divide the frame into nine squares (tic tac toe style), and try taking the photo with the subject taking up two-thirds of the frame (about six of those squares, whether it’s vertically or horizontally). The result is pleasing to the eye, as it looks well proportioned.

Above all, use framing to convey the feeling or the story that you hand in mind.

Smartphone Photography Tips: the rule of thirds

Rule of thirds: Space Needle

The rest is all practice!

Experiment, experiment, experiment.

You bring your phone everywhere anyway, so always be on the look out for interesting shots. Try to take a photo of something interesting every day, or at least every weekend.

Your lack of professional gear does not mean you’re not a photographer. With the right approach and mindset, great photos are possible!

Note: all the pictures in this post were taken with a smartphone. I gave away my DSLR as it was getting barely any use. I may buy another full-frame camera someday, but for now my phone does the job (and I never leave home without it). 

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