02 Oct 2015
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How to shoot great photos with a smartphone

By Patrick Pilcher

The big irony of the whole smartphone buzz is this: The cameras baked into the latest crop of smartphones may be capable of taking stunning photos, but most people are stuck taking fairly average snaps.

Smartphone cameras have strengths and weaknesses. Knowing these and being aware of the some basic photo composition rules can make a huge difference to phone photography.

Here’s my top tips for taking great photos using a smartphone:

Image composition

Following these simple photo composition rules can help transform what would be an average photo into something truly eye-catching.

The rule of thirds: Most smartphone cameras have an option to superimpose a 3x3 'noughts and crosses' grid on the screen of your phone.

This provides a simple tool to help you compose the elements of your photo. Where the grid-lines intersect is ideally where you want to position subjects that you want to be the key focus of your photo to be.

The one exception to this rule is action shots. When shooting action, leave more space to the side of the photo where the action is happening. This is a clever way to let the photo tell a story.

Where to put the horizon: It’s the perennial question that perplexes many an amateur photographer shooting landscapes. Photography professionals say that most pictures tend to look better if the horizon is positioned either just above or just below the middle of the photo, rather than directly in the centre.

Scale: When shooting a large-scale landscape it can be hard to know how to effectively use scale. Should the key landscape subject of the photo be zoomed in on to fill the entire spce, or should other elements be included to help tell the story?

Leaving too much empty space can make what could be a dramatic photo look boring. It can also make your subject matter seem smaller than it needs to be.

People looking at the photo need visual cues to what they’re supposed to be looking at. Avoiding these issues isn’t difficult - ideally you should get closer to the subject in question and then move out until you’ve got a great photo lined up.

Leading lines: When objects have strong lines or curves, try to use these to help compose the photo. These lines lead the viewer’s eye through the photograph to the object(s) you want emphasised. Strong lines can also be the main subjects of the image.

Declutter: When we look at a scene our brains are hardwired to pick out key subjects. Cameras are not this clever. This means that you, the photographer, must do it instead.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds. When shooting a photo, choose your subject, and then make it the key area of emphasis in the photo. Keep other objects in the background unless they’re part of the story.

Make the most of your phone camera

There’s a heap of really clever tech built into smartphone cameras. While some features such as OIS (optical image stabilisation) just work, other features are not always so obvious.

Exploring and tinkering with your camera app to uncover its many shooting modes and other capabilities can make a huge difference (and can also be a lot of fun).

Learn about your camera app: Some of the really nifty tricks that smartphone camera apps can do are not always obvious to new phone owners.

For instance, touching the screen on some camera apps can bring a specific area into focus - or allow them to be blurred. 

Some camera apps also have a tracking focus feature that’ll keep a specific part of a subject in focus when you move the camera. Don’t be afraid to explore your camera app.

Avoid digital zoom: The digital zoom function is an oft-touted phone camera spec, but is also one of the most impractical.

Digital zoom works by enlarging existing pixels, and can quickly transform an otherwise excellent photo into a blurred mess. Don’t use digital zoom unless you really have no other choice.

When editing, don’t use filters: There’s a heap of people using filters to add some extra zing to their photos. The downside of applying the same filter effects as everyone else is that your photos will lose a lot of their individuality.

Filters are also not smart. Because you shot the photo, you know what sort of look you were aiming for. Using a good photo editor app sparingly (some smartphones come with a basic photo editor built in) and applying only minimal effects can make a photo shine.

Upgrade your camera app: Although each successive generation of smartphones pack better cameras than their predecessors, the apps often lack a lot of fine grained control and shooting modes.

The good news is that there’s a tonne of amazing 3rd party camera apps for iOS and Android. They’re easy to get hold of, and can give the camera in your phone a lot more smarts.

HDR - nothing ventured, nothing gained: Avoiding over exposed and washed out photos or dim and underexposed images is a constant challenge when shooting with a smartphone camera.

Using the built-in HDR (high dynamic range) mode allows the camera to take multiple shots, each with a different exposure setting.

The final image is the averaged result of all these photos which should in theory have a more natural looking exposure levels. The quality of HDR modes varies widely between different smartphone brands, but enabling HDR is worth a try.

Shooting techniques

Shoot many, delete often: Some habits are hard to shake. With old school cameras you were limited to 24 or 36 photos per roll of film.

Digital cameras, on the other hand, free you from this limitation. Taking lots of photos and reviewing them means you can delete the not-so-good shots and find that photographic gem.

Getting into the habit of quickly reviewing photos as you shoot is also a great idea.

Experiment: As good as photography rules are, they’re only guidelines and rules are made to be broken. Trying out different things as you shoot can sometimes yield surprising results. Best of all, you can delete photos that don’t work out.

Get closer: The image sensors and optics used in most smartphones provide a wide depth of field - in non-camera geek speak, this means you should be able to get entire subjects in focus by leaning in.

Getting closer also gives you greater control over other factors such as how your camera handles varying light and exposure levels.

From a distance, bright patches of light can lead to an under-exposed/dark image. By getting closer you can block out uneven light and gain a little more control over exposure levels.

Lens flare: Lens flare is both a blessing and a curse. JJ Abrams copped a lot of flack for adding lens flare effects into his star trek movies, but he knew they can add some artistic flare (pun intended) to a photo.

It isn’t difficult to do, either. Because phone cameras have such tiny lenses, they’re often more susceptible to lens flare.

Controlling the amount of lens flare in your photo can be as simple as moving the camera around to adjust the amount of flare from nearby light sources.

This said, some smartphones don’t react well to lens flare effects, and some devices such as the iPhone 5 have been known to get purple fringing effects around the edges of images.

Avoiding lens flare is also pretty straightforward. Simply cup your hand above/below/to the side of your smartphone camera lens to shade it and lens flare effects should be significantly reduced or eliminated.

Clean your camera lens: This may seem obvious, but it is overlooked so often. Smartphones are fingerprint magnets. Making matters worse, rear shooters also pick up a lot of grit, grime and pocket lint.

This can result in blurred photos that scream 'taken with a phone camera!!!'. Most camera lenses are easily able to withstand being wiped so cleaning with a micro-fibre cloth won’t scratch the lens on your phone.

Better still, head to a sunglasses shop and pick up a micro-fibre cloth and some sunglasses cleaning solution, it’ll get the grime off of your phone’s camera lens and give you sharper snaps.

Night shooting: Shooting in low light can be a mission impossible with some smartphone cameras. While many camera apps feature a night shooting mode, most use a slow slow shutter speed (which maximises the amount of light directed towards the cameras image sensor).

The downside of this is that camera movement can transform your shot into a blurred mess. While phone cameras such as those on Huawei’s P8 and most Nokia devices have greatly improved night shooting modes, they all still need to be kept very still.

Investing in a small tripod or camera stand can make a huge difference. Failing that, try to rest your phone against something to keep it steady.

Some smartphones also support voice commands so you can tell your phone’s camera when to take the photo. Doing this can reduce camera wobble, giving you a sharper shot.

The flash: Smartphone flashes are usually LEDs. They may be bright, but their cooler colour temperature can result in inaccurate colouration.

Furthre complicating matters, smartphone LED flashes often illuminate for far too long, which can lead to blurry photos. Use a flash often enough and it’ll also drain your phones battery. Where possible, seek out alternative light sources.

Bonus round: Camera apps

Google Camera: (Android, Free) Google's camera appmay be the default camera app on some devices, but it's easy to acquire and sports some useful shooting modes.

Features such as touch to focus, a grid overlay, timer, HDR setting and modes including 360 sphere, panorama, and blur all make it a pretty versatile app.

Even handier is Android Wear support, which allows Android Wear users to set up a shot, and then step into thewithout the stress of fiddling with a timer.

Camera MX: (Android, Free) This app comes with a pile of extras, including effects and photo editing capabilities. It also features touch to focus, a timer and an anbundance of filters, overlays and frames. Photo effects can be applied and previewed in real time.

Camera+: (IOS, Paid) Camera+ was an early stock IOS camera app replacement that has continued to evolve. It sports functions such as image stabilisation and manual exposure control, plus photo editing and a clean and well thought out interface.

VSCO Cam: (IOS, free) This app has a clean and uncluttered interface and focuses on a classic offering to give keen photographers full control over their iPhone cameras as well as a large selection of filters.

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