How to Shoot Pictures Like a Pro With Your Cellphone Camera

The camera on your phone might just be all you need to take the pictures you want -- as long as you pair it with some free software.

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 year — assuming your cellphone has a camera. Most do, and the quality of the images they can take just keeps improving.

Historically, the number of megapixels was a major factor in determining the quality of the pictures you could take. More megapixels meant sharper and more colorful photos. So, for instance, my first-generation iPhone had 2 megapixels. These days, an iPhone 7 has a built-in flash, wide-angle and telephoto capabilities and image-stabilization technology, with 12 megapixels. (You can see similar specs for Samsung Galaxy, Samsung Edge and Google Pixel cameras in this review.) If your phone is in this ballpark, according to gadgethacks, you don’t need to keep chasing more pixels:

[W]e’ve reached a point where all smartphone cameras have more than enough megapixels. For instance, a 1080p HD TV has a resolution of 2.1 megapixels, and even the highest-end 4K displays top out at 8.3 megapixels. Considering that nearly every smartphone camera has a double-digit megapixel rating these days, your photos will be in a higher resolution than most screens can even display.

In short, most of the later-generation smartphone cameras are pretty incredible. All you really need are some tricks and shortcuts that will allow you to take great images when you travel or attend family events — and leave your big old camera at home.

First, some basics:

  1. Use both hands and keep your elbows in tight to avoid camera shake.
  2. Avoid pointing the camera at the primary light source. Position people so their faces are lit by that source; if they are back-lit they will appear as silhouettes.
  3. Try different angles, whether taking pictures of people or things.
  4. Landscape mode, or the sideways shot, is better suited for scenery, group and family photos.

That’s for starters. If you want your cellphone shots to look like they came from a real camera, you have to invest a tad more time, although not any money.

Better people pictures

Suppose you’re at a family event and you want to capture everyone in a group picture looking good at the same time. It can be difficult, but these ideas will help.

Before you start shooting, look at what appears in the background and move people to avoid, say, a limb that appears to be sticking out of someone’s head.

“Let’s say you’re shooting a picture of a couple,” says professional photographer Barry Schein. “Mom and dad, aunt and uncle, grandma and grandpa, whatever it is. Let them stand next to each other. Put their heads together. The minute their heads touch, they will break out into the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. It works 100 percent of the time. They will say, that’s the best picture anyone’s ever shot of me.”

Get close. Some smartphones have a zoom, but using them may undermine picture resolution. (It’s another part of the technology that’s changing rapidly.) If possible, move closer to the subject so you can fill the frame with the most important part — usually faces if your subjects are human.

If you fill as much of the frame with faces (or another key subject) as possible, it will mean less enlarging later.

Another way to improve your chances of getting a group of people all looking good at the same time is to use the “burst” function on your phone camera, if you have one. On the iPhone 6, for instance, that simply means keeping your finger on the shutter button, causing the camera to take a series of images in rapid suggestion. Of the dozen or so pictures shot in a few seconds, you may find a few in which no one has their eyes closed or is looking the wrong direction.

Another trick. Stand on a chair, so that your subjects are looking up at you. It’s often a more flattering angle.

Observe the lighting

Indoor photography can be tricky because of lighting. At a family gathering where I was shooting with my cellphone camera, I went around stealthily 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. (It’s a challenge for photographers that tends to be amplified when shooting with a cellphone camera.) What you need is for the light to hit your subject from an angle.

You can improve your travel or nature photos, too, by focusing on the light. If you see something fantastic at high noon, you can take the picture, but chances are it will be a better picture in low-angle, late-afternoon light. If you can, return when it’s perfect.

Sometimes using your flash makes a positive difference. For instance, if you are taking a picture of your children in front of the Grand Canyon in daylight but their faces are in shadow at that time of day, try using your flash to “fill” the light on their faces.

Touch it up

Once you have the photos, spend a few minutes retouching them. It makes all the difference. Normally, that means basic edits like cropping the photo so the action is front and center, altering the colors to make them richer, sharpening the focus and adjusting the exposure and contrast.

I use Adobe Photoshop — a powerful editing tool — but it’s expensive and it’s overkill for most people. Thankfully, photo-retouching technology has come so far that you can do a great job using free software.

There is a wide array of free photo-editing programs to choose from whether you have a PC or a Mac — and free photo-editing apps for smartphones. Digital Trends offers an extensive review of the best options.

As you explore and experiment with these tools, you will get a better idea of what tools you need and want, and take your photos to a whole new level.

How are your digital photography skills? Do you have tips to add to these? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Kari Huus contributed to this post.

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