I’m often asked what sort of cheap point-and-shoot camera will help take better photos than a smartphone. But before I make that recommendation, I have to mention that most modern smartphones have surprisingly great cameras. So much so that some people take night photos of the Milky Way with them, something that seemed inconceivable not so long ago!
Here’s a few tips I like to offer to help create better photos instantly. At this point, someone might say, “Well, sure, if you have one of those new, of course you can take great photos.” With that in mind, I will use photos from my cracked, beat up old iPhone 6 for examples with the exception of the featured photo above.
You may rest easy knowing that your mobile phone camera is probably better than mine!
Touch the screen to focus and gain exposure
Touching the area where you wish to focus alone can stop the phone from “hunting” (having trouble focusing) or focusing where you don’t want it to focus, leaving your image a blurry mess. Tap. Focus. Done!
Squeeze the volume button instead of tapping the shutter button
I’ve noticed that when people take photos, they tap the shutter button. Doink! Unless done very carefully, this tap moves your smartphone at the very time in which the camera should be still.
Many mobile phones allow you to take photos by squeezing the volume button. Try it and see if your phone takes photos this way. If you only did this and the previous tip, your images could already dramatically improve.
Keep it steady
Steady the camera whenever possible. You want to keep it as still as possible, so be conscious of that. Rest it against a railing, rock, tree, table or even use a small tripod.
Also, relaxing and holding your arms still with your elbows in and slowly squeezing the volume button (if that’s an option) to trigger the camera can result in much sharper images. To take this image above, I steadied my iPhone 6 on the table.
Never use your flash when it’s dark. Like, ever.
Ever seen a great looking photo with someone using their mobile flash? Yeah. I haven’t either. Sure, you may be able to use it for a fill light when it is bright out sometimes, but when the light gets low, the flash becomes garish.
Try to avoid this unless absolutely necessary to stop your friends from looking like freeze-dried ghosts. It was dark in the restaurant here, but I resisted the urge to use a flash, and it still came out fine.
No, I don’t mean video conferencing. I mean zooming. Doing so will likely result in your image becoming grainy, blurry or pixelated.
Whenever possible, walk up to your subject rather than zooming in from far away. If you’re on a wildlife safari, we will make an exception.
Have fun with the other features
One of my favorite features on mobile phones is the ability to take other kinds of images, such as panoramas. Switch your camera to “pano,” start, and slowly sweep across while being mindful of keeping the camera level.
Fun, right? A pano captures the immense scale of this rusting fishing ship and the beauty of the Icelandic mountains and water.
A panorama can give a beautiful sense of context.
Secret pro tip: Panos can be photographed vertically as well as horizontally! This is great for giant redwood trees, giant waterfalls or Shaq.
Using gridlines is an easy way to help improve your compositions, and it’s easily superimposed over the image on your screen. You can see an example of this in the photo at the top of this article, which incidentally is the only photo that was not taken with a smartphone.
These can help level a composition so the horizon is straight or otherwise keep other elements straight. But it also allows you to be more aware of the “rule of thirds,” which creates appealing images that break images down into thirds horizontally and vertically, creating nine boxes in total.
A lot of times, for example, having someone posing on one of the lines — a third of the way into the photo — might be more compositionally appealing than having the person in the center. This may seem like “training wheels” to you, but professional photographers use this on their cameras and in post-processing software. Give it a try!
Many people are interested in behind-the-scene photos, and what better way to do it than with something as ubiquitous and unobtrusive as a smartphone? Whether it’s revealing the process behind a photographer creating a photo, your friend’s wedding, preparing a nice fire while camping, working on a beautiful quilt or a vintage car, a home improvement project or a picture-a-day of a painting you are creating, these can provide friends, family, or even clients with a fantastic glimpse of something they may not ordinarily see.
Above is a behind-the-scenes photo of my camera setup in Iceland. And remember what I said about trying to keep the horizon level? Yeah. I didn’t do that here. Oh well …
Above is another behind the scenes photo, this one of acclaimed night photographer Lance Keimig setting up an Ebony large format camera in Iceland.
Keep your lens clean!
Clean the lens area periodically with a lens cloth or microfiber cloth. I don’t need to elaborate on this, right? No, of course not, you’ve got this!
Now obviously, there are many more ways to improve your phone photography. Great light, composition, editing your images and more can all help immensely. But the idea here is to get you going as quickly as possible. We would love to hear any ideas that you have.