We’ve all been there before. You pull out your phone to take a super-awesome photo but when you look at what the camera captured, the photo is nowhere near as great as you thought it would be. It’s probably dark and grainy, or even blurry. It can be frustrating.
But that’s just the nature of smartphone cameras. Because they’re so small, smartphone cameras have limited photographic capabilities compared to bigger cameras, which impacts the quality of the photos they produce.
But that’s not to say you can’t take good pictures with a smartphone. The internet and social media, in particular, are littered with millions of amazing mobile photos that could rival some photos taken with certain larger cameras.
So, how are some people able to take such good photos with their mobile cameras?
In this article, we’ll look at what you need to do so that you too can take good photos with a smartphone camera.
Use a phone with a good camera
I think it goes without saying that in order to capture good photos with a mobile camera, you need a phone with a good camera. You can’t expect a cheap phone with poor mobile camera specs to take pictures that look good.
For example, a low-resolution camera will not take sharp photos. You need a camera with enough megapixels to take good photos. For example, a photo taken with a 5MP camera will not contain as much detail and clarity as a photo taken with a 16MP camera.
Also, a smartphone with a small sensor and small pixels will not perform well, particularly in low-light settings. That’s because the sensor is what captures light to create an image. The larger the sensor, the more light it can gather. That ultimately leads to better photos.
There are, of course, other factors that impact a mobile camera’s ability to produce good photos, such as the aperture, the quality of the lenses, the AI, and others. If your phone has some really good specs, then you’re off to a good start.
A phone with a good camera doesn’t necessarily need to be an expensive one. If you know what to look for in a smartphone camera, then you can avoid blowing money on marketing hype.
Pay attention to lighting
Because the sensor and pixels of smartphone cameras are so small, you need as much light as possible if you want to take good photos with your smartphone.
The best lighting by far is natural lighting from the sun. It’s free and readily available, but it changes throughout the day and according to the weather. So, you need to keep that in mind.
In low-light scenarios such as taking photos indoors or at night, it is a must that you use extra lighting. If you don’t, your photos will turn out dark and grainy because the camera will have compensated for the lack of lighting by boosting the ISO up too high.
If your photo looks dark, move to a spot where there is better lighting. Or, if at all possible, set up your own lights. There are several lights and light kits specifically made for smartphone cameras that you can use to add professionalism to your mobile photos and make them look good.
When figuring out the best lighting, you and your subject (even if it's you) should be positioned in such a way that the light illuminates the subject well and to your liking. The light could come directly from the front for even lighting, from the side for a more textured three-dimensional image, or the back for a glow around the subjects head or silhouette.
Just be aware of where your shadow falls as the photographer since the sun will be behind you so that it doesn’t creep into the shot.
Whatever you do, do not use the flash that’s on the phone camera. It will do the exact opposite of making your phone pictures look good.
ALSO READ: The Best Lights For Smartphone Photography
A well-exposed photo means that the image is neither too overexposed nor too underexposed. In other words, the photo is not too bright that parts of it turn white and loses image data, especially in the highlights (bright areas) or too dark that you can barely see any detail.
There are a few ways in which you can adjust the exposure of your photo. One way to do so is by using metering. What metering does is analyzes the light from the scene and then adjusts the camera’s exposure settings to best suit the lighting conditions.
Another way to increase exposure is to adjust the exposure value. This appears most commonly on the camera display as ‘EV’ and refers to exposure compensation. Adjusting the EV allows you to change the recommended exposure setting on your camera to make the photos darker or brighter.
The EV can be adjusted by using a slider. The standard setting is 0. By moving the slider to the ‘+’ side will increase the brightness of the image. Moving the slider to the ‘-‘ side will make the picture darker.
But don’t get too carried away when adjusting the exposure value. Moving the slider too far to the negative or positive side will result in a noisy or dull photo.
ALSO READ: What Is Metering Mode and How Do You Use It?
Shoot in manual mode
Taking photographs in manual mode allows you to control the settings of the camera, pretty much the same way you would on a normal DSLR camera. In this mode, you can control other things like ISO, shutter speed, manual focus, and white balance.
These manual settings can make a big difference in your mobile photography, especially ISO and shutter speed. Having already touched on exposure and exposure compensation, it’s important to know and understand these two settings and how they can impact your mobile photography to avoid landing in the pitfalls of blurry or noisy photos. You need to learn how to balance ISO and shutter speed together.
Having full control of these and other settings allows you to take images that look the way that you want them to look, not the smartphone’s calculations of what it “thinks” looks good. You are in control of how you want to deal with various lighting situations.
Taken in Auto mode
Taken in Manual mode
Not to say that Auto Mode doesn’t take good pictures. It most certainly does. Sometimes you just want to do your own thing. Without being able to control your camera settings manually, what you can do visually with your images becomes very limited.
Does this mean you have to shoot manual all the time? Of course not! With things like street photography, it oftentimes might be easier to shoot on the go in Auto mode.
However, when time allows and you’re in control, it’s always good to take the time to set up your shot, choose your settings, and capture the image that you want to.
ALSO READ: Manual Mode: A Complete and Detailed Guide
Unless done for artistic purposes, a photo’s focus should always be sharp. It’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye. And if the subject has eyes, that’s where the focus should be. Because perfect human vision is 20/20, we expect the pictures we see to look the same.
During the day or when there is enough light, your phone should not struggle to focus automatically. You can also choose where to focus by tapping on the point of interest on the display.
However, it is common for smartphone cameras to struggle to focus on their own in low-light conditions. In this instance, switching to manual focus and finding the area you want to focus on yourself might be the best option.
Having adequate lighting will make it easier for you to capture photos with crisp focus.
Don’t use digital zoom
Smartphone cameras don’t have zoom lenses the same way bigger cameras do. Therefore, they don’t have optical zoom. In most cases, they employ what is known as digital zoom, which degrades the picture quality.
Optical zoom is found only in lenses that have movable glass elements that magnify the image. But, because of size and space, these type of lenses are not found in smartphone cameras. Instead, mobile cameras have fixed focal length lenses, which means they cannot zoom.
Sure, some smartphones claim to have 2x, 3x, or even 10x optical zoom. That’s because they have a telephoto or periscope lens with a much narrower angle-of-view than the primary camera. But, in a lot of cases, the phone uses hybrid zoom when switching between the wide-angle camera and the telephoto camera as it zooms in.
Hybrid zoom and optical zoom on smartphones don’t degrade the photo as much as digital zoom does. But they also have their limits. If you continue zooming further than the camera’s indicated optical zoom factor, then the camera will switch to digital zoom, which will then cause your mobile photos to not look as good as they could be.
If your phone doesn’t have optical zoom, it may be tempting to use digital zoom. Instead, if possible, walk closer to your subject. The image quality you get will always be better when you get closer to the subject instead of zooming in digitally.
ALSO READ: What Is Optical Zoom On Smartphone Cameras?
Protect the lens and keep it clean
Our phones go through a lot. They come into contact with rough surfaces. They rub against other objects in our pockets and handbags. Even our oily hands and fingers come into contact with the camera.
Because of all this, smartphone camera lenses are more susceptible to fingerprints, dirt, and damage. These things can cause blurry photos, and that will have a negative impact on the quality of the photos you capture.
So, you need to make sure that the lens is clean every time you take a photo. If it’s not, use a soft cloth to wipe it clean.
Keep the phone steady
A shaky camera is an enemy of good photography because it causes blurry photos. That’s why it’s important to keep your phone steady, especially in low-light conditions when the shutter speed might be very slow because the slower the shutter speed, the more camera movement may become a problem.
Smartphone cameras these days have amazing OIS systems that help keep mobile images sharp, but there’s only so much they can do. If your hands are shaky or the shutter speed is very slow, you should rest your hands, elbows, or phone on whatever surface you can in order to stop the camera from shaking.
However, the best way to keep your smartphone steady when taking photographs is to invest in a good camera support system. The most popular support system is the tripod, although there are plenty of other options available. Even tripods themselves come in various types and sizes, from the big and sturdy to the small and pocket-size.
Besides preventing blurry photos, there are other benefits of using a tripod because it opens up more opportunities for you to explore in mobile photography. For example, you can do long-exposure photography or light painting. It’s really worth the investment.
ALSO READ: The Best Tripods For Smartphones
By attaching an additional lens to a smartphone camera, you can widen or narrow the field-of-view of the camera. In other words, you can take wider shots of landscapes than your phone allows, or take mobile portrait photos using a lens with a longer focal length than that of the phone’s camera.
That was game-changing when phones only had one camera. But now that most smartphones have more than one camera, are add-on lenses still necessary?
I’d say so. One thing that is not emphasized in the marketing of a lot of these phones that have multiple cameras is the fact that, in a lot of cases, the other cameras are of significantly inferior quality.
For example, the maximum resolution of the macro camera on a lot of smartphones that have one is only 5MP, yet the primary camera could be 64MP. In such a case, it would make more sense to attach a macro lens to the primary camera in order to take advantage of its superior specs and ultimately take good macro photos with your mobile.
Pay attention to your subject
When choosing a subject for your photograph, choose something or someone interesting. If the subject of your photograph is naturally appealing and interesting, then you’re halfway to taking good pictures with your phone.
Once you have selected your subject, you need to make sure that it stands out and can clearly be seen. This means getting rid of any clutter or unnecessary objects in the frame.
It is a very common mistake many beginner photographers make to want to include everything and everyone in the frame when taking a shot. Avoid doing this. Instead, be selective and focus on one thing at a time.
If your subject is nothing out of the ordinary, then make it interesting to make the photo look good. For example, an otherwise boring picture of an ordinary person could look much better if the subject changes their facial expression or poses differently.
Or you can use props. For example, a picture of a dog is just like any other, except if you have the dog wear sunglasses. Then it becomes interesting.
The same goes for inanimate objects. You can arrange them in such a way that is different and visually appealing. Food is a good example of this. You can arrange ordinary foods in a way that creates humour or conveys a certain message.
Another thing that makes pictures look good is authenticity. When you capture people blissfully unaware and going about their business, there is a certain realness that can make an image powerful.
Choosing the right subject and capturing it properly is very important because it can make or break your photo.
Get your composition right
In photography, composition refers to the way objects and people are positioned and arranged within the frame of the photo.
The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental principles of composition. The idea behind this theory is that photos are more visually appealing when the subjects in them are aligned with the imaginary lines that divide the photo. Important features such as eyes and faces are framed where the lines intersect.
To apply the rule of thirds, you need to imagine the photo has two evenly spaced lines running horizontally across and another two lines running down vertically, effectively dividing the photo into nine equal parts.
The most important thing in that photo is the subject. Instead of positioning them in the middle of the frame, put the subject off-centre to the right or left where the vertical lines run down.
If it’s a full-body shot, then you’ll have to position the head around where the vertical and horizontal lines cross in the top left or top right. The positioning doesn’t have to be exact, but as close as possible.
In the beginning, you might struggle to figure out where to draw the imaginary lines but luckily that shouldn’t be a problem on your smartphone. Your camera app can overlay a grid on your screen that will help you apply the rule of thirds in your photos.
Other things you need to be aware of when composing your shots is looking room and headroom. When the subject of your photo is not facing the camera directly but rather facing slightly off-camera (3/4 profile) or looking out the frame, then there should be enough space for the subject to look into.
When it comes to headroom, an important thing to remember when framing a shot with people is to avoid chopping the tops of people’s heads off by giving them little space above their heads.
Make sure you give your subjects enough headroom but not too much unless something is happening above the subject’s head.
Also, do not cut them off at the joints, for example right on the neck. This ends up making them look dismembered. Instead, frame from above or below the joints. So, instead of cutting your subject off at the neck, you should include a bit of their shoulder in the shot.
However, when taking a close up shot focusing on a detail on the face (such as eyes) then it’s acceptable to chop off parts of the head in order to get close enough to get the shot you want.
Limit the effects and filters
Filters may seem like a good, one-click solution to make your smartphone photos look good and interesting, but such a one-fits-all approach doesn’t always work. And in some cases, filters and effects can end up being distracting instead of enhancing the photo.
For example, some camera apps have a skin-smoothing feature that aims to make people’s skin look flawless. The results are not always great and can end up making the photo look fake.
In-camera filters such as the one that turns your colour photos into black and white might also seem great but ultimately, it means once the photo is captured with the filtered applied you cannot change it. For example, if you apply a black and white filter, you cannot add or edit the colour details later.
Even after taking a photo in colour, simply slapping a filter onto it won’t do. You need to remember that not every photo is the same. The subject, lighting, exposure, etc. are all different. So, a filter that may work very well for one photo may not work so well for another.
Instead of using filters on your photos, take the time to learn how to edit your mobile photos properly so that you can be in control of how the final image looks. Learn and master the photo editing app or software you use. It’ll make a huge difference in your photos.
When it comes to thinking creatively, most often the phrase “think outside the box” comes to mind. As cliche as it may be, it rings very true. But what does that even mean?
Simply put, it means you should think differently. Take an everyday idea, object or subject and turn it on its head. A good example is the picture below. It’s a visual representation of a pun where the peace sign is constructed using something that sounds similar-- peas.
Another way you can show creativity in your photos is by your use of colour. You can experiment with using contrasting or complementary colours in your images. You can use colour as a way to make your subject stand out in a photo or as a way to signify unity.
Juxtaposition is another way of looking at things differently and putting out images that can be deemed creative. For example, if you take an image of a subject set against a background that would ordinarily not be associated with it, it can make the resulting image look stunning. This is especially so if the contrasting elements tell an interesting or powerful story when combined.
Take your time
If you’re absolutely clueless when it comes to taking photos with a phone, you need to allow yourself enough time to learn the ropes. You cannot master the skill overnight. Take the time to practice one thing in particular until you get it right. Then move on to the next one. The key is to be patient with yourself.
Another way in which taking your time can help you capture good mobile photos is when you’re taking the actual photo. Don’t just point the camera at a subject and click away. Take the time to compose your shots properly. Study the lighting and see how it affects the scene and the subject, and adjust it if possible or if need be.
If you’re doing a planned photoshoot in an environment you’re in control of, such as your house, you need to take the time to set up everything in your shot. You can add foreground and/or background elements to further enhance the look of the image you wish to capture.
Patience and forward-thinking is also needed when you’re trying to take candid pictures, as is the case with street photography. For example, you might see a group of people who look like they’re about to laugh. If that’s the moment you wish to capture, you need to take your time to set up the shot the way you want, and patiently wait for that moment to happen so you can take the shot.
Of course, time will not always be on your side to plan and set up your photos, especially when the moment you wish to capture is passing by. But other times, taking the time to plan, expose and compose the shot properly, could lead to great results.
Pay attention to detail
You might think that small details in a photograph don’t matter but they add up and can make a difference. That’s why as a photographer you need to have a keen eye and pay attention to detail.
Call me pedantic but seeing a photo where the subject is meant to be centred but is slightly off centre is off-putting. Just like when you look at a photo where something is in the background that shouldn’t be there. It’s annoying. You feel like reaching into the photograph and removing the unwanted element or moving it around a little bit.
This can be avoided by paying close attention to everything that is in your shot before you take it. Look at the foreground and background. If there’s anything there that you don’t want in your shot, remove it or change your position.
Also, pay attention to your subject. Is your subject well-positioned with no obstructions? What about the detail in the lighting? What is the quality of light and how does it affect the scene and the subject?
Don’t just take pictures for the mere sake of taking pictures. Look at what’s in the frame, how it’s composed, and make sure you’re 100% happy with everything in it before you take a snap. Doing this will help you take photos that are better thought out and possibly quite good to look at.
Learn, be inspired, and practice
One of the best ways to improve your smartphone photography is to have a look at what others are doing and learn from them. Study what they do and the techniques that they use.
From there you can try to replicate what they have done and see if you can get the same results. If you notice that you’re not quite there yet, then keep going at it and practice until you get it right.
The more you do something, the better at it you’ll become as time goes. So, make sure you take a lot of pictures regularly. But don’t just go around taking photos randomly. Be deliberate about it.
Set goals for yourself and try to achieve them. For example, if your goal is to understand and get better at using Manual mode, go out and take multiple pictures while experimenting with different manual mode settings. In time, you’ll know exactly which settings to adjust to get the images you want.
Taking good pictures with a phone can seem tricky to the untrained at first, but it’s not impossible. If you follow the advice above and give yourself enough time to practice, it should soon be second nature to you.