How to Take Professional Caliber Photos With Your Smartphone

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If you’re like many people, the days of carrying both a camera and smartphone to special occasions are over. Today’s smartphones can take pictures that rival all but high-end digital cameras and take up way less space in a pocket or purse.

Smartphone cameras just keep getting better. Here are two examples of the latest improvements in smartphone cameras, at the high and low ends of the price spectrum:

  • iPhone 6S: This year’s iPhone models feature big camera improvements, including a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera, upgrades to the FaceTime camera and improvements to the front-facing camera (for taking selfies) that include a flash and 5 megapixels for improved image resolution. The new 6S and 6S Plus (from $649 and $749 respectively) also enable video recording in 4K resolution, about four times higher resolution than the 1080p in last year’s iPhone 6 models.
  • The Nokia 222: Nokia, owned by Microsoft, recently released this $37-phone with a 2-megapixel camera, according to ZDNet. The 222’s camera is a solid improvement over the 0.3-megapixel camera in the $29 Nokia 215, which Microsoft has called the “most affordable Internet-ready phone.” Other camera features in the 222 include video recording at QVGA resolution.

Such improvements make it possible to take better photos. With more than 70 million photos uploaded to Instagram each day, image-sharing and the urge to capture ever-more beautiful or arresting images define communication and online life for many users.

Phones with better cameras still don’t guarantee great photos, however. Tweaking your phone’s settings and learning a few pro tricks can go a long way toward boosting the quality of your photos.

1. Get the lighting right

One of the major challenges with cellphone cameras: They’re not ideal in low-light situations. To fix this, take extra care so you don’t end up with shadowy subjects.

Natural light works best, with cloudy days ideal for even lighting. For bright conditions, put your back to the sun and let your subjects face the light. When indoors, have subjects face the light source and move them away from windows and walls.

2. Use the flash with care

While a flash helps solve the lighting limitations of cellphone cameras, a flash that’s too bright can make people look like ghosts.

If you’re on the fence with the flash, snap one photo with flash and one without. View and edit later and choose the best result. Or skip the flash altogether, as explained next.

3. Try a longer exposure

Instead of turning on the flash, try adjusting the exposure time for low-light environments. Longer exposure time will provide brighter photos with better color when the environment is a little too dark.

For the iPhone, you can lock the exposure by tapping and holding on a certain area of your screen and waiting for the box to blink. With other apps, simply adjust the brightness settings on your camera app to get the desired effect.

4. Use HDR mode to replace flash

Another option for flash-free photos is to use the High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode. This is a built-in feature on many phones. HDR will capture a wide range of tones and colors that often results in better-looking photos than those using your phone’s flash.

5. Clean the lens

While normal cameras may protect lenses when they’re shut off or stored in cases, cellphone cameras tend to have lenses exposed and may get touched by oily fingers.

Give the lens a wipe, or you’ll risk crummy photos no matter what techniques you use.

6. Turn up the resolution

For high-quality photos, make sure to max out the resolution settings and set your camera to take the largest-sized images. High-resolution photos will fill up your phone’s memory faster, but you’ll be able to enlarge images without risking a grainy photo.

7. Don’t digital zoom

While an optical zoom will actually magnify the subject of your photos, digital zoom does nothing more than blow up the existing image. You’re better off moving closer, and you can always crop and enlarge the image later with the same effect as digital zoom.

8. Hold steady

Just as with point-and-shoot cameras, holding your phone steady while snapping a photo is crucial to prevent blurry shots. To ensure clear images, there are a couple of tricks.

Some phones will use the built-in accelerometer, which senses movement of the device, to make sure you’re still before the photo is taken. Check to see if your photo app has this feature and that any stable-shot settings are turned on.

To keep your phone and body still, act like a tripod: Hold the phone with both hands and rest your arms against your body to keep them from shaking. Or rest your phone on a nearby surface, like a table or shelf.

9. Adjust white balance

White balance is another potential flaw for cellphone cameras in low light. Many cameras will self-adjust simply by waiting a few seconds after opening the camera app. If your photos still look off, try making manual changes for the type of lighting to improve photo color for your environment.

10. Watch shutter lag

Many cameras don’t snap photos the exact moment you press the button. Make sure you’ve experimented and have a good feel for the shutter speed on your device before an action shot calls for perfect timing.

11. Adjust colors

To adjust color, dig a little deeper into the settings. Tweaking the saturation, contrast and sharpness can give your photos a different look when the default settings don’t provide the desired results.

Editing colors on your computer might prove easier than fiddling around on your phone. Software like Gimp, iPhoto and Adobe Photoshop can take care of any color adjustments after the fact.

12. Use the “rule of thirds” for correct composition

You may be tempted to capture your subject in the dead center of the frame, but that’s not what the pros do and neither should you. Instead, use the “rule of thirds” by imagining vertical and horizontal lines splitting your screen up like a tic-tac-toe board.

You can easily enable an on-screen grid for the iPhone Camera app by turning it on in the options screen. For Android, the ProCapture app will allow you to do the same. Then, put your subject a vertical or horizontal one-third line (or both) for the best photo composition.

13. Check the background

While you might be focused on the faces right in front of you, check the background of the photo, too. Objects popping out from behind someone’s head can make for an awkward photo that distracts from the image you were trying to capture.

14. Upgrade your camera app

While smartphones come with a camera app, there may be better options available for download. These add-on apps offer more settings to customize and improve photo quality. The features and options are expanding. Instagram, for just one example, offers users photo editing tools and instructions here and here. Here are four articles reviewing some of the best apps:

Look for more by searching online for “best photo apps” or “best Instagram apps” and by reading user reviews in Google Play and the App Store, which are the safest sources for downloading apps.

15. Try pro techniques

Just because you don’t have a fancy camera doesn’t mean you can’t use special photo techniques for more unique photos. Try the panning technique by moving your camera at the same speed as a moving object or person. The background will be blurry while the subject in motion remains in focus.

Many apps will also let you take panoramic photos on your phone. It’s as simple as turning on the proper settings and taking a series of photos. Your phone will stitch them together, creating a perfect wide shot.

16. Add a lens

An add-on telephoto lens, a wide-angle lens or macro lens makes your smartphone camera even more versatile. You’ll find speciality lenses that snap onto your phone or attach magnetically. Gizmag profiles smartphone accessories, including lenses, tripods, mounts, cases, flashes, remotes and, of course, selfie sticks.

Marilyn Lewis contributed to this post.

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