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Back in the “old days,” if you wanted to capture a photograph, you had to stop what you were doing to find a camera, check to be sure it had batteries, run back, and hope that the special moment was still happening. This doesn’t even include the time that it would then take to go develop the film so that you could actually see the photos you had taken.
Thankfully, advances in technology now provide the ability to have a camera available at all times on your mobile phone and the ability to view your photos right away. In fact, if you own a smartphone manufactured in the last couple of years, it likely has a very good camera – you just have to know how to use it. Sure, you could take mediocre photos that would be “good enough,” but why not maximise the potential of your camera phone? Here are some tips to help you take better photographs on your mobile phone.
First and foremost, you should familiarise yourself with the camera on your phone and its settings and features. (Although you can buy apps that claim to help you take better photos, the default camera app on both Android phones and iPhones can take high-quality photos on its own.) You are probably aware of the basic operations and abilities of the camera on your mobile phone, such as turning the flash on or switching it to video mode, but you may be surprised at what your camera can do. For instance, did you know that your mobile phone camera probably has HDR (High Dynamic Range) capabilities? High Dynamic Range refers to keeping the darkest and lightest parts of your photo in balance. Burst mode is another common feature of which you may not be aware. In burst mode, you can take several photos in one instant, then choose the photo(s) you like best. To capture a photo burst on iOS or Android, just press and hold down the shutter button. These features are just a couple of your camera’s many abilities, which is why it is helpful to research and play around with settings and effects.
Next, clean the camera lens with a soft, lint-free lens cloth each time before you take photos. (Be sure not to use abrasive cleaners so that you don’t damage the lens.) Fingerprints, grease, dirt, and dust can greatly affect the photo quality. If the lens is dirty, your photos will likely have blurs, smudges, or dust spots on them. This practical tip seems obvious, but is often overlooked.
The third tip is one that applies to all types of photography, mobile phone or not: be sure your subject is in focus. Whether you are using an iPhone or Android, you can change the focus of the photo by tapping anywhere on the screen. This provides another benefit because it will also change the exposure level to match the point you selected, as we will discuss later. On an iPhone camera, the focus and exposure can be locked so that they stay in place, or you can tap, hold, and drag up or down to change the exposure level manually. If the subject of your photo is in motion, be sure to tap the screen right before you take the photo to ensure that the subject is in focus. Along this same vein, it is also important to keep your camera steady; otherwise, your photos will turn out blurry. To do this, you can hold the phone with both hands, rest it on a solid surface, or use a tripod made to fit smartphones. Keeping your camera steady is especially important in low-light situations, where the camera will already be struggling to get sufficient light into the lens.
Additionally, it is very important to get the exposure correct on your photos. “Exposure” refers to the brightness or the darkness of the image. The exposure can be adjusted manually. When you tap on the subjects to get them into focus, as discussed above, the camera will also set the exposure based on the focus point. It is not always best to have the camera set the image’s exposure based on the focus point, however, which is why Apple introduced a manual exposure tool in iOS 8. This feature has an exposure slider that can be adjusted by swiping the sun icon that appears when you set the focus. Swiping the sun icon up brightens the overall image, while swiping it down darkens it. Using this tool is one way to really affect the look of the overall image.
What is another way to take better photographs on your mobile phone? Do not use the zoom! Unlike the optical zoom on most professional cameras, the zoom slider on the iPhone is digital, which means that the image gets cropped as you zoom in closer. Unfortunately, this means that zooming in several times results in a significantly lower quality photograph. So, what do you do if your subject is far away from you? You have a few options. The simplest option would be to just walk closer to the subject and take the photograph as you normally would. You could also crop the photo afterwards to bring the viewer closer to the subject. If the ability to zoom in is really important to you, a third option would be to buy an external smartphone zoom lens that can be purchased inexpensively.
The sixth tip is to use the Rule Of Thirds, another basic photography technique. Using the Rule Of Thirds involves mentally dividing up your photo into a grid of four lines, two horizontal and two vertical, that breaks up your photo into thirds. (Actually, most smartphones now come with an option to display these exact grid lines on your screen when taking a photo!) Then, position the important elements of the image along those lines or the points where the lines intersect. The idea behind this rule is that off-centre composition makes a photo more interesting than if the subject were simply in the centre of the frame, and adhering to it results in more balanced, appealing photographs.
Next, it is crucial to capitalise on your light, especially in mobile phone photography because the camera only has one aperture setting and one focal length. “Good light” for photographs gives an image depth, colour, and direction. It can be difficult to find this type of light, though, as several factors have to work together just right for it to happen. Good light occurs naturally right before sunrise and at sunset – pretty specific times – but shooting near a window with natural light can also work well for lighting. On the other hand, taking photographs indoors with artificial light, outdoors in the middle of the day, or outdoors on a day with overcast skies could all result in flat, boring light. If you have taken many photographs on your smartphone at all, you have probably discovered that it is very rare to find a great smartphone photo that was taken with a flash. A flash will usually make a photograph look overexposed and the subject washed out. Using the flash is not the only way to take a photo after dark, though. Instead, try to find and take advantage of sources of natural light, which can give you a chance to play with shadows or silhouettes. The “Exposure” tool in most photo-editing apps can also help to make images slightly brighter; just be sure to use it in moderation, as with all editing tools, so as not to make the photo too grainy. As you can see, light can be tricky but is really important in mobile phone photography!
Finally, take lots and lots of photos! A huge advantage of digital photography is the ability to take as many shots as you want and then just delete the ones that you don’t love later. Take multiple shots from lots of different perspectives, distances, and angles. Try a bird’s eye view, or get down on the ground to switch things up. Another advantage of mobile phone photography is its lightness and accessibility; use that to your advantage!
The ability to take high-quality photographs at any moment on our mobile phones is unprecedented and extremely valuable. Do yourself a favour and learn your mobile phone camera and what it can do for you and for your photography. Get out there and practice while taking lots of photos. With these tips, no one will even know your photos didn’t come from a “real” camera!