Ten ways to take better smartphone photos

By Geoff Harris

While smartphone makers make a big fuss about the latest and greatest camera technology squeezed into their phones, there tends to be less emphasis on how to take better photos.

Whether you are using a smartphone or a more conventional camera, a lot of the same principles apply.

Read on for some simple but effective techniques for better images, as well as some practical suggestions for making the most of the advanced features you now get on many handsets.

1) Shoot wide or panoramic

If your phone has a dedicated ‘wide angle’ lens or panorama mode, make the most of it when shooting landscapes in particular. The panorama-stitching function on a lot of phones is now really good and you can get attractive results in less than a minute.

Remember to hold the phone as steady as you can – you might need to straighten up the image afterwards in software, such as Snapseed (see later).

2) Offset your subject

A simple way to get more professional-looking people shots is to place your subject over towards the edge of the frame – imagine the picture is divided into thirds and you place the subject on one of the intersecting lines.

You see this technique used in a lot of photography and indeed paintings, and it can be more visually pleasing than placing the subject dead centre.

3) Use leading lines

Another quick but effective way to add more of a sense of depth to your landscape shots is to use leading lines to draw in the viewer’s eye. This can be a path, as here, or a road.

Because of the narrow aperture of most standard smartphone lenses, you already get quite a lot of depth of field on landscapes, so this is a good way of maximising it.

4) Carefully set exposure and focussing

Your phone may allow you to set exposure – basically how dark or light an image appears – by touching on the relevant area on the screen.

Here, for example, we were able to keep some detail in the sun’s rays, rather than the phone exposing for the whole of the scene and the rays ending up hard to spot.

Certain phones enable you to set the focus and indeed take the shot just by tapping on the ‘hot spot’ – a person’s eyes in a portrait for example. It’s worth seeing if your phone supports these invaluable features.

5) Cut the clutter

Another good tip, especially when shooting landscapes or travel, is to try and avoid lots of distractions in your images.

Try and include a few striking graphic shapes, rather than lots of busy elements – as they say, less is more.

Many phones have lovely colour rendition now, as here, or a graphically ‘pared back’ shot with lots of contrast can also work very well in black and white.

6) See in the dark

Whether you use an iPhone or an Android model, the low-light or night photo capabilities of modern phones have come in leaps and bounds.

As night modes tend to take photos at quite long exposures/slow shutter speeds though, you need to hold the phone very steady – make sure the lens is free from smears too, as these will be faithfully recorded.

For the best results with night mode, try putting the phone on a mini tripod – these can be easily found online. See Amazon's mini tripod

7) Don't forget portrait mode

Most modern phones now enable you to blur the background on a portrait, while keeping the subject sharp – a time-honoured technique from conventional photography. So make the most of these features, as it will really make your subject ‘pop’.

It comes in useful with animal and flower shots too – or check out ‘macro’ (close-up) mode if your phone offers it.

8) The image is only the start

Just as with camera-based photography, the images you get from your smartphone can often benefit from extra editing. While you can get away with just using Instagram filters, for example, there are some great editing apps to try.

Snapseed is one of the best, offering a huge array of editing features – from quick exposure and colour fixes to some very sophisticated effects.

The interface is deceptively simple, so try sliding around the screen with your finger to see more options, or watch some of the excellent tutorial videos on YouTube.

9) Try Manual mode

While the algorithms on modern smartphones are usually very good for producing bright, colourful well-focussed images, your phone may allow you to take full manual control of the image capture process.

So you can select shutter speed, ISO (light sensitivity), white balance (colour temperature) and so on, as with a traditional camera You may be able to save the image as a ‘raw’ file too, without any compression or processing – the idea being, you get the maximum resolution that your phone can record.

It can be useful to experiment with manual settings, particularly in tricky focussing conditions or low light, but just make sure you don’t end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater – after all, millions have been spent on the ‘out of the box’ image processing capabilities of modern cameras, so be careful what you turn off!

10) Have fun and share

Being able to take quick, candid shots without the subject knowing what you are up to is one of the joys of smartphones – they are a lot less obvious than a conventional camera slung around your neck, and you can easily pretend you are texting or browsing the web.

Be sensitive and sensible though and don’t end up upsetting people needlessly or risking a confrontation.

Always share your best images, whatever your shoot: Instagram in particular is a wonderful way of raising your photographic profile and attracting fans.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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