How to Take Quality Pictures With Your Phone

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If you have “digital camera” on your holiday wish list but only take Facebook photos of your friends, family, and possibly your pets, you might want to ask for something else instead this Christmas – at least, as long as your cell phone has a camera.

It doesn’t even matter if the phone and camera are several generations old. I took the photos you see here with a first-generation iPhone – which has no flash and only 2 megapixels. By comparison, the new iPhone has a built-in flash and 5 megapixels. (The more megapixels, usually the sharper and more colorful the photos.) Most of the new Android and Blackberry phones also come with a flash and at least double the megapixels of my beat-up 3-year-old iPhone.

I’m not claiming these photos elevate me to the level of an Ansel Adams (the famed black-and-white nature photographer) or Annie Leibovitz (who takes celebrity portraits). But I’ve learned enough tricks and shortcuts that I don’t need another camera when I go to parties or family functions.

I was reminded of this last week when a photo delivery service called PostalPix gave its own advice for taking better cell-phone pictures…

  1. Use two hands with elbows in tight to keep photos from being spoiled by camera shake.
  2. Press and hold the camera button until ready to snap, then release to reduce last-second shake.
  3. Always make sure that the camera is pointed away from the predominant light source.
  4. Try different angles to add creativity to pictures and show something common in a fresh way.
  5. Landscape mode, or the sideways shot, is better suited for scenery, group, and family photos.

While that’s solid basic advice, if you want to take your cell-phone shots to look like they came from a real camera, you have to invest a tad more time, although not any money…

Get lit

At the family gathering where I shot these photos, I stealthily went around turning on more lamps in the house. Why? Because even if my iPhone had a flash, I wouldn’t want to use it. When your flash goes off, direct light hits the person smack in the face. That washes out their complexion and doesn’t look natural.

But here’s another problem: If those lamps or lights are directly behind the person, that’s even worse. Then their faces are completely dark. What you need is for the light to hit your subject from an angle. While this is sort of a general photo rule, it’s amplified in phone cameras, since the lens is so tiny – which means less light gets collected when you hit the button.

Get close

Another problem with that tiny lens on phone camera is that there either isn’t any zoom, or the zoom that’s there fairly stinks – it usually makes photos come out grainy. So move in close. This is much easier to do holding a tiny phone than a big Canon or Nikon with a massive lens.

Because that lens is so small, you want to fill as much of the frame with faces as possible. That will mean less enlarging later (see below). You’ll also get a crisper picture. And wait until your subject isn’t moving, because unlike regular cameras, cell phones don’t capture movement very well. You’ll just get a big blur.

Get touched

Once you have the photos, spend a few minutes re-touching them. It makes all the difference. That means cropping the photo so the action is front and center, making the colors richer and the focus sharper, gently lightening up dark areas, and vice versa.

Another trick: As shown here, I combine several photos into one, which not only makes them more interesting but also hides the fact that the resolution on camera phones – regardless of the megapixels – aren’t very sharp when they’re blown up even to the standard Facebook size. Combining photos isn’t hard to do. But you need the software to do it.

I use Photoshop, but that costs $175. Other use the stripped-down version, called Photoshop Elements, but that’s still $60. Thankfully, photo-retouching technology has come so far, you can do a great job using free software.

If you’re on a Mac, that’s easy. Your computer came with iPhoto, which allows you to do some rudimentary cropping and retouching. If you have a PC, and that’s still most people, here are the Top 5 Free Photo Editors for Window, each with its own balance of powerful tools and ease of use.

And, of course, we’re just talking still photographs here. When it comes to video, Money Talks News has already covered that topic – in a video recorded on a phone. Check out Making Movies with Cell Phones.

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  • Magdelina

    Ok very good advice . But I was misslead into thinking I was going to get the software that would allow me to take those great pictures, not from an i-phone, but from any cell phone, like mine, so what is the name of the free software ?

  • Michael Sarlitt

    Thanks for mentioning PostalPix Michael! I’m one of the founders and am happy our advice was useful. Once you take some good photos with your iPhone, our service allows you to order prints directly from your iPhone.

    If you or any of your readers that have iPhones want to try our app, here’s a coupon code to use at checkout that will give you 25% off your first order: moneytalks10 (expires Jan 15th).

    You can download the app by searching for “PostalPix” in the app store or through this link: