How To Take Better Pictures With Your Phone's Camera

Cameraphones have come a long way in the past few years, but they don't always take point-and-shoot quality pictures on the first try. Here's how to squeeze the best quality photos out of your smartphone's camera.

They say the best camera is the one you have with you, but that doesn't mean it'll always give you the best-looking pictures. If you have a great shot in sight, but don't have the time to grab your DSLR or point-and-shoot, you'll have to make do with your phone's camera. Depending on your cameraphone and the lighting conditions, the results are often dull, ugly photos that are barely worth looking at later on. You can do better, though; you can take most cameraphone shots from forgetful to interesting with just a few tweaks.

All phones and cameras are different, so your mileage may vary with any given tip. While most cameraphones suffer from similar weaknesses (most notably the inability to take good pictures in low light), each has its own idiosyncrasies as well. The iPhone, for example, usually takes photos with pretty good colour, while the Droid often produces colours that are less than stellar. That said, most of these tips can apply to your phone and favourite camera app pretty easily.

Don't Forget Basic Photography Rules

After doing lots of research and asking around, some of the best tips I got were the most obvious (yet rarely heeded) rules of photography. When you use your phone's camera, make sure you aren't forgetting about the basics.

Use Your Light

It's important with all cameras to make sure your subject is facing the light source and you're not, but it's even more important with cameraphones (Unless, of course, you want to take a silhouette — like all rules, this can be bent). As I mentioned above, your phone's biggest weakness is its inability to take good pictures in low light, which means you generally will want to get as much light as you possibly can on your subject. This may require a bit more thought and a bit more moving around than it might with a point-and-shoot camera, but you'll thank yourself in the end.

Clean Your Lens

It may seem silly, but give your lens a wipe down before you start snapping photos with your phone. While most people are pretty good about keeping their grubby fingers away from camera lenses, it's not as easily done with cameraphones. If you have a dirty lens, none of the other tips in this article will make your photo look like less than crap, so keep it in mind.

Avoid Digital Zoom

You've probably heard this one a million times, but we can't overstate how useless this feature usually is. If you need to get closer to a subject, you're much better off stepping closer to them. If you can't, you can always crop the picture later on, which is all digital zoom really does — you can always crop down, but you can't crop up.

Pay Attention to Your Flash

Sure, LED flashes have been hyped on recent smartphone cameras, but they're not always all they're cracked up to be. If you don't have enough light to work with, they can at least ensure that you get a picture, but a lot of phones tend to use it more often than necessary, and that white LED light can really harsh. You may find, even in some lower light situations, that turning off the flash will give you a better result, so snap one with and one without if you're ever in doubt. You can always tweak them further in post-processing (which we'll talk about in a moment), so you have nothing to lose by giving yourself options.

If you find that you still need the flash, you can also soften it by placing a thin white sticker over it, like a small piece of tissue or white label. You'll still have some light from the flash, but the sticker will take away a bit of the harshness that tends to make people look ghostly.

Tweak Your Camera App's Settings

Depending on your particular phone and the camera app that comes with it, you may have a few settings you can adjust before taking a picture. In almost every case, though, you can do better by grabbing a more advanced camera app, like CameraZOOM FX for Android or Camera+ for the iPhone. There are a ton out there, so shop around, but those are the two that I've used in the past.

Check Your Resolution

Most camera apps have a setting that allows you to take pictures at differing resolutions. Low resolutions are nice if you're just sending a quick photo via MMS, and they'll save to your phone faster, but if you're taking a photo you want to keep around, you're better off taking it at a higher resolution. It's a simple and obvious tweak, but something you definitely want to check before you start snapping — there's nothing worse than taking a bunch of really cool pictures, only to find out once you put them on your PC that they're just 640x480. (Also worth noting, some phones will resize images when you email them — make sure you send them at full resolution when quality matters.)

Turn On the Stable Shot Setting

Phones are difficult to keep stable while you're getting your shutterbug on, and sometimes it's hard to detect the blur of a shaky photo on a small screen. While you can always rest your elbows on something solid and breathe like a sniper, enabling a stable shot setting in your camera app will help a great deal. This setting will use your phone's accelerometer to measure how much you're shaking the camera, and won't snap the picture until your hand has been steady for a certain amount of time (usually about one or two seconds). Some apps may even let you set the sensitivity of the stable shot, so your phone will wait until you're barely moving to take the photo.

White Balance

Usually, cameraphones are pretty good at detecting the white balance, but when you get into low light they can have trouble. The first thing you can do is give the camera a second do adjust itself — if you just open up the camera app and snap away, you might get a remarkably orange picture. Give it about five seconds to adjust itself, and you may get a better-looking shot. You also might try pointing your phone at a different light source, which will adjust your phone to a different balance, then popping back.

However, if you've given your phone a minute to acclimate and the picture still looks off, try adjusting the white balance yourself. You can usually set it to one of a few different light settings, like "daylight", "fluorescent" or "cloudy". You may find that choosing one manually gives you a better result than the auto setting does.

Exposure

As the biggest problem with cameraphones is their inability to make up for low light, the exposure is one of the best settings to play with in dimmer situations. Setting the exposure higher lets more light into the lens, which means kicking it up a notch will likely get you a brighter, more vibrant photo. I've found that exposure tweaks often produce the biggest immediate improvement in my phone's photos.

Salvage Bad Photos with More Extreme Edits

While you're better off tweaking some settings before you take the photo, you can always make a picture look better by editing it a tad after you've downloaded the pictures to your computer. Here are a few simple edits that you can make on your PC to cover up some of your phone's shortcomings. You don't need to be a Photoshop expert to pull these off — in fact, you can make these tweaks in pretty much any photo editor around, whether it's Photoshop, the GIMP, Paint.net or iPhoto. You can also make these edits many camera apps if you need to do it on-the-go, but it's always easier to edit a photo when you see it full size than on a dinky phone screen.

Tweak the Colour Levels While some cameras (like the iPhone) have pretty good colour, others (like the Droid — which is also, incidentally, my phone) really don't. If adjusting the white balance and flash still don't get you the best results, tweaking the colour levels in the photo can definitely make a difference. We've talked about how to get the best colours from your photos before, and it's a good skill to have — but even if you're not an expert photo editor, you can make a few small tweaks that make a world of difference.

Throw your picture into your favourite photo editor and find the colour settings. For example, in GIMP, head to Tools > Color Tools > Levels. In iPhoto, you can just hit the Edit button at the bottom of the window and then hit Adjust to bring up the colour level HUD. Without going too crazy, you can raise the red level a little bit to give skin tones a more natural look. Similarly, you can fix any exposure or contrast issues you still have in the photo — again, a little experimentation will help you find the right tweaks for a given photo.

Go Black & White

If minor colour edits aren't helping at all, you can always go full black and white or sepia. This will get rid of any major colour issues your picture has and can salvage a dull picture. Sure, you still may not have colour, but you can make the lack of colour look more intentional and less like you're just using a bad camera.

Note that while you can take black and white pictures in a lot of camera apps, think hard before doing so. You can always make a colour picture black and white, but you can't make a black and white picture colour again. Of course, you can always shoot two pictures and save yourself the trouble later on.

Embrace Your Camera's Mediocrity

In the end, you may still be unhappy with some of your cameraphone's photos. After all, while all these tweaks can take your photos from crappy to passable, most phones just can't measure up to a point-and-shoot. However, that doesn't mean you're left without options. A lot of people enjoy using camera apps (like Hipstamatic or previously mentioned Instagram on the iPhone, and FxCamera on Android) that emulate old, cheap, cameras with digital effects.

Surprisingly, it adds a whole new dimension to your photos — so even if you can't get them to look like they came from a $US100 Canon, you can give them a lot of style by making them look like they came from a classic LOMO or Polaroid instead. It's a strange trend, but you can't argue with the results — some of the photos produced by these apps are remarkably beautiful (in cases where their cameraphone counterparts would certainly be boring and ugly). If you're not convinced, check out some of the photos in the Hipstamatic Flickr group, and you may find yourself singing a different tune.

Of course, you don't need to be taking super artsy shots to make use of this — if, say, your cat happens to do something humorous and you don't have time to grab your real camera, these types of effects can simply make the photo look a little nicer and less like they were taken with your mediocre smartphone camera.

We've mentioned a few good apps in this post, but both the iPhone and Android have tons of great options available. The above are merely the ones that I've personally used, but be sure to check out our favorite photography apps for iPhone and Android to see a few more.

Again, not every one of these tips is applicable in every situation or with every camera. It'll take a little bit of experimentation on your part to find what works best for you, but these should help point you in the direction of better pictures. Of course, if you have your own tips that we haven't mentioned (or you just want to give a thumbs up to one we did), we'd love to hear them in the comments.


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