I think it’s safe to assume most people take their smartphone cameras for granted, despite the leaps and bounds made in pocketable picture-taking technology. Unfortunately a lot of the time our smartphones produce overly blurry photos, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.
A lot of the time blurry photos are the result of simple user error and sub-par stock software. With the right techniques and apps you can vastly improve the results provided by your smartphone’s camera.
I took the photos featured in this article with an iPhone 5, you can find them on my Instagram profile.
Stand Still & Focus
There are two main reasons photos end up being blurry – a lack of focus and movement. By paying attention to your technique, you can improve your results and photographic skills in general. The first seems obvious, but most of us are guilty of ignoring it: stand still. If you or your subject moves when you press the shutter, there’s a good chance the image will blur.
Touch-to-focus is now a market-wide feature found on iPhones, Android devices and many more smartphones. You can even lock focus on many phones – for example by holding your finger down for the stock iOS camera app – which will stop your phone re-focusing constantly.
The ideal camera technique for Android Jelly Bean involves holding the shutter to focus, then releasing your finger to shoot. iPhone and other iOS users can also use this feature under iOS 6. The idea here is that the motion caused by you removing your finger will cause less of a shock than tapping the screen, as you can see from the video below.
On the iPhone (and many, many Android and non-iOS handsets) buttons on the side of the device can also be used to fire the shutter in addition to using the remote on your headphones, for truly shock-free shooting. I personally find it easier to frame and steady the shot using the increase volume button on my iPhone, which only requires a gentle squeeze to depress. Either this, or the finger-release method will provide much sharper pictures than tapping your screen.
Get A Better Camera App
This may provide the biggest improvement of all, depending on the app you choose. For iPhone users I’d recommend Camera+ or Camera Awesome, both of which support burst fire shooting. Android users can get similar functionality from Camera360 and ProCapture. Burst shooting mode captures a series of images, allowing you to choose the best of the lot and discard the rest. If you’re in a scramble for a picture (say at a sports game or a concert) then this will probably provide the best results.
These advanced apps also allow you to set focus, white balance and exposure separately along with a ton of other enhancements and customisations you’d normally only expect from high-end point and shoots. Fixing focus is one way of ensuring your suject remains sharp while locking exposure gives you indirect control over shutter speed. Exposing for a light part of your scene will result in a faster shutter speed, and less chance of blur (but a darker photo).
Using Blur To Your Advantage
Standing still and locking focus is all good and well when you have time to mess around, but not every photographic opporunity involves stationary subjects. In this occasion, you should choose to either move with your subject or to allow the motion in your shot to blur intentionally. Both of these effects can work to your advantage, like the tram photo below. The low light and movement have resulted in the illusion of motion, but the subject is still in focus:
Conversely, the following photo shows a train speeding through a station. The blurriness contrasts with the static commuters and straight lines of the track and platform, again adding some motion to an otherwise static and boring image:
Neither of these photos will be winning Pulitzer prizes, but they’re not bad for quick smartphone shots and together form great examples of how you can use blur and motion to your advantage.
One of my favourite techniques for taking smooth smartphone video is by using windows on trains, trams, buses and even cars. By pressing your device right up against the glass, you will steady your smartphone and eliminate all but a small amount of light refraction. It works for video, and it works for photos too as that’s how I captured the following image from a moving car in South Africa:
Similarly, the photo below was taken by getting low and steadily positioning the iPhone lens between fence wires, giving the illusion that I was in fact standing right in front of the lion. I took a few shots in succession here, and the fact that this was the best image highlights a flaw in relying on touch to focus. If you look closely, the focus is actually sharpest on the grass rather than my subject (but I was still quite pleased):
I firmly believe you can capture great images regardless of the tools you use, but that the right techniques can make all the difference. Good smartphone photos have little to do with your camera’s technical specifications and everything to do with how you take advantage of photo opportunities and overcome limitations using techniques and the environment around you.
It might be a cliché but the only camera you need is the one you’ve got on you, even if it’s grainy and touchscreen operated. Oh, and remember that DSLR-quality 20-something-megapixel images are not the be-all and end-all of photography.
Let us know any of your top tips for reducing camera blur and improving smartphone snaps in the comments, below!