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 are now capable of taking much better photos compared to years ago, and with more than 40 million photos being uploaded to Instagram each day, sharing photos has never been easier.
While phones with better cameras still don’t guarantee great photos, tweaking the settings and knowing a few tricks can make all the difference.
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-less photos is to use the High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode. A built-in feature on many phones, using HDR will capture a wide range of tones and colors that often results in better-looking photos than 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 if your photo app uses this feature and that any stable shot settings are turned on.
To keep your phone and body still, hold your phone with both hands and rest your arms against your body to keep them from shaking. You can also use a nearby surface, like a table or shelf, to rest your phone.
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 gotten a good feel for the shutter speed on your particular 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 on an intersection of those lines 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 CortexCam app for iPhone ($2.99) “combines dozens of individual photos to create a single high quality and noise free image.” For Android or iPhone, Snapseed (free) allows one-touch auto-correct and the ability to tweak photos in lots of ways.
To add retro effects or interesting tints to your photos with just a few touches, check out Instagram. Instagram is focused more on funky photos with friends rather than tweaking settings for professional-looking shots, but it’s simple and lets you instantly share photos.
And these are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of apps for any number of photo tweaks and corrections. Do a search for “Best Picture Apps,” and you’ll see what I mean.
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 appears in perfect 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.