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For the most part, taking great photos with your smartphone requires the same thing as taking great photos with any camera—an eye for creating a scene, good lighting, and an understanding of photographic depth. But there are a few tips that are especially useful when you’re taking shots with your phone. These ten tips will help take your phone pictures from “blah” to “fantastic” in no time!
Take an Extra Second
When cell phone cameras first came out, they offered the chance to take pictures really fast, without getting out your camera or lining up a shot. And they weren’t good for much more than that because the quality of the pictures was all but guaranteed to be very low. But now that smartphone cameras can take pictures that are just as clear and crisp and a regular camera, there’s no excuse for hastily snapped, bad pictures.
So take an extra second—make sure your composition is good, include interesting subjects, see if you can improve the lighting or the angle, and figure out where your viewer is going to be looking. A lot of these are basic checks for good photography, but many people aren’t used to applying them to smartphone pictures. It only takes a few seconds to drastically improve your photos.
Use Principles of Composition
A lot of the things that come intuitively when you’re trying to compose a scene actually don’t make for great photographs. Putting the horizon in the middle of a scene, for example, creates a strangely unbalanced photo, where the viewer isn’t sure whether to look at the ground or the sky first. Learning a few basic rules of composition can make a huge difference in your photography.
Read about these five different rules of composition, and try to apply them in your next smartphone photo. If you only take away one thing from that article, let it be the rule of thirds: place important items in your photos about a third of the way in from one of the sides (top, bottom, left, or right) of your picture. It will drastically improve your pictures immediately. Also, remember that cropping can improve your composition; if you have a photo that has poor composition, a simple crop can turn it into a masterpiece.
One of the biggest problems with smartphones is that they don’t provide any optical zoom, which means that anytime you zoom with them, you’re going to get a lot of distortion and noise in your photo. You can crop later, but the less cropping and editing you need to do, the better your photo is going to look. This means you’re going to need to get close to your subject.
Getting close to an object applies to just about anything—you can zero in on your subject in a landscape, fill the frame with your friend’s face, or just get close to something that you think looks cool. A great way to practice this is to find small things and take a picture from where you would normally take it, and then to take a few steps closer. You’ll see the difference in quality right away. (Or you can get a zoom lens for your smartphone; that’ll do the trick, too.)
Ditch the Flash
The light that comes from a camera flash, even from your phone, can be really harsh—it creates weird highlights and shadows, affects the colors of your subject, and can mess up your photo with reflections. Unless the flash is the only way that you’re going to be able to capture anything at all, I’d recommend turning it off.
Instead, try to find a good place where you can take advantage of natural light, or at least something softer than your flash. It’ll lead to more even lighting and get you a better photo overall. You can also use a small diffuser for your phone’s flash if you can rig one up.
Use a Different Camera App
The standard camera app that came with your phone is fine, and it won’t let you down. But if you want to get great shots with your phone, you’re going to want to upgrade to a better one. Third-party apps generally offer more settings, like allowing you to set the focus and the exposure of your photo separately, take burst shots, use different flash options, and more.
There are lots of different third-party camera apps out there, but some of the biggest names are Camera+, Manual, ProCamera, Camera ZOOM FX, and Camera 360. You’ll probably need to pay a couple bucks to get one of these apps, but the improvement in your photos will be absolutely worth it (I’ve been using ProCamera for a while now on my iPhone 6, and I highly recommend it).
Learn the Settings in Your Camera App
One of the biggest benefits of a third-party camera app is that it will allow you to tweak the settings to better fit the scene you’re photographing. Adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will let you get exactly the picture you want, whether you’re looking for a shallow depth of field, motion blur, tack-sharp clarity, or just an all-around good photo.
Some of the camera apps out there are fairly complicated, so it might pay off to watch a tutorial on YouTube or at least read the instructions on the app developer’s website. And if you’re not sure which settings you should be changing, try messing around with an online camera simulator that will help you learn what the different settings do.
Use HDR—in Moderation
High dynamic range (HDR) is a polarizing topic — on one hand, it helps you get a balanced exposure in a photo that contains a lot of highlights and shadows. On the other, it can be overused and create photos that look a little . . . off. And there are better methods for dealing with difficult-to-expose scenes. If you don’t go overboard with it, though, it can be really useful (in the photo below, for example, there was no detail whatsoever in the window; it was totally blown out by the sun until the HDR balanced it).
Because your phone will take multiple pictures at different exposures and blend them together, you can usually fall back on picking out one of the photos if the HDR blend goes badly, too. In general, I recommend leaving HDR on Auto. You can turn it off if you want to practice getting good exposures (which is probably a good idea), or you could use an app entirely dedicated to the creation of HDR photos, but I think it’s best to let your camera app decide.
Go Light on the Filters
Instagram popularized the idea of photo filters, but there are tons of apps out there that will let you apply a specific combination of effects to get a new look for your photo. But you don’t need to filter every photograph. It can be overwhelming (and a bit trite) to see an Instagram or Facebook feed full of “Earlybird” or “Mayfair” filtered photos.
Instead, take a moment to think when you’re lining up your photo—what sort of look would best fit the mood you’re trying to set? You might be able to use a film grain filter to make a portrait look old-fashioned, for example, or a highly saturated filter to get the most out of a fall leaves photo. And don’t be afraid to let your photos speak for themselves — the hashtag #nofilter can be pretty irritating, but if you took a good picture, show it off!
Learn to Edit
The idea of learning to edit photos can be daunting—there are entire online courses on photo editing that you can take. But learning to make quick, small adjustments through an app on your phone is actually pretty easy, and it’s a lot of fun. You’ll get photos that look better than standard Instagram-filtered ones, and you won’t risk the “hey, I used a filter on this” look.
VSCO is a great way to edit photos for free, and Snapseed is another good mobile option. Download one and start playing around. I found that slightly increasing the saturation and warmth of my photos makes a big difference. Explore saturation, contrast, fill light, tint, grain, and other tweaks to see which improve your photos the most.
Keep Your Lens Clean
Because your phone is going in and out of your pocket or purse all day (along with who knows what else), there’s the potential for getting the lens really dirty. It could be from a food wrapper in your backpack, the makeup in your purse, a leaky pen in your pocket, or just the natural oils on your skin. Wipe off your lens on a regular basis!
I’m speaking from experience when I say that just a tiny bit of sunscreen will give you really blurry photos, and not in an artsy way. If you really want to up your smartphone photography game, carry a lens cloth with you and use it on a regular basis, not just when you clean the screen.
Your Best Smartphone Photography Tips
These ten tips should make a big difference in your smartphone photography, but there are a lot of great ways to take better pictures from your phone. Which pieces of advice have you found most useful? How do you make sure your phone pictures stand out? Share in the comments below!