How to take better pictures with your smartphone

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| December 20, 2012

Since I ordered my iced americano and snagged a table at this coffee shop, I have watched no less than four individuals snap a picture of their drinks or of the artwork on the walls. All I can do is assume what they did afterwards.

Did they send straight to Facebook in hopes their faux-friends would be jealous of a mundane pictures of coffee? (Guilty. I do this all the time.) Did they apply some filters, add a frame, degrade the quality and send it to Instagram? I can't help but thing how awful those pictures must look.

For what it's worth, I take terrible pictures, too. All the time. Most of the time, though, I strive to take the best pictures possible. And, chances are, your smartphone is capable of taking notably better pictures with the right techniques and a little tender loving care.

Below, I have composed a handful of tips to help take better pictures with your smartphone. (Click any image to view a larger sample.)


Play with lighting and exposure

For photographers, lighting is everything. And if you're taking pictures with a smartphone, lighting is crucial. Smartphone cameras do not typically excel in low-light situations. The sensors are small and shutter time is usually fixed, meaning capturing more light is not an option.

But there are ways you can manipulate the lighting or play with it to get a much better shot. Keep the light source behind you, and try to keep it out of the frame. You can also adjust exposure settings. Most phones set exposure level based on the brightness of the object in focus. For instance, in the picture above, I focused on the dark part of the counter and the exposure was bumped higher. In the right image, I focused on the brightest part in the frame, and exposure was adjusted down accordingly.

Some applications, such as Camera+, allow the user to separate exposure and focus. By doing this, you can focus on a dark part of the picture without blowing-out the whites or, likewise, focus on a dark part of the picture without the exposure adjusting too low.


Turn off flash

Note: Unfortunately this section applies only to iPhone users. There are no applications available for Android phones that allow the user to adjust the shutter speed. So, in many cases, flash may be your only option.

When it's dark, your basic instinct is to turn on flash. I can count the times that I have used flash on my iPhone on a single hand. In short, without a nice rig, it's a terrible fix for little to no lighting. In poor lighting, the camera's auto-focus generally has trouble properly focusing. People's faces get blown-out, the picture usually turns out a little blurry and nothing looks natural.

If you like using flash, keep on keepin' on. And in some cases flash works well … or sufficiently well. But if you truly want better looking pictures, take the time to use an application that allows you to manually adjust the shutter speed, like Slow Shutter Cam or Shutter Speed Controller. You will need to stabilize your hand, though, so find a table or lean against a wall to keep the phone steady.

With the right practice, you can churn out pictures with your smartphone that look far better than anything you could imagine. They will still be a bit noisy, but I guarantee they will look better than anything you could capture by using your iPhone's flash. The picture of the Rogue bottle above was taken in a very dimly lit alehouse from this weekend. The stock camera app's viewfinder showed a nearly pitch-black image. 645 PRO, however, was able to produce a rather impressive shot.


Fine-tune with post-processing, not filters

Applications that offer faux-vintage filters are a dime a dozen. And it's never made any sense to me. I've used them from time to time. But rarely do they look great. They purposefully wash out photos and seriously reduce the quality of an image. If the picture was terrible to begin with, a filter isn't going to magically make it look better.

Instead of applying a filter, open the picture in an application like Snapseed. (For iOS users, iPhoto isn't a bad alternative, but it's more expensive. Android users, Snapseed is, by far, the best photo editing app available.) While it also has filters to use, it allows the user to fine-tune brightness, saturation, contrast, ambiance and white balance in a quick and intuitive manner. You can make an otherwise boring and unmoving shot dramatic and beautiful. Just go easy on the alterations.

Take the picture above, for example. The original shot was pretty boring – just a hood for and old Ford truck. I upped the contrast, dropped all saturation and added a touch of brightness to make a great looking picture.


Use HDR where applicable

HDR is an acronym that stands for high dynamic range. This is especially useful when you have very dark and very light objects in a single frame. When HDR is enabled, your smartphone's camera will take multiple pictures – one at standard, one high and one low exposure – and merge the results into a single photo. Most newer smartphones offer HDR as a native camera option.

A great example of how HDR can help you capture more detail in an image is one I posted in the review of the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Pilot Mountain itself was dark enough to adjust the exposure and blow-out the sky. The original photo shows a nearly white sky with little to no details. The second photo, which was taken with HDR enabled, showed gray clouds in great detail.

The downside to HDR, though, is that your phone is taking multiple pictures, and these need to line up perfectly, or your picture will be quite blurry. Luckily, most smartphones can take these three pictures very fast and you will only need a moderately stable hand to get a decent image. For a more crisp shot, find something to rest your phone or hand on.


Use panorama mode for wide angle shots, take pictures in landscape

This tip is courtesy of Marc Flores of Know Your Cell and is quite genius.

Most smartphones come with a panorama mode built right into the stock camera application. And if yours doesn't, panorama applications are widely available. As Marc explains in his collection of composition tricks, smartphone cameras are already fairly wide – most smartphone cameras are fixed at 24mm to 30mm. But if you can't step back and need to get more in your frame, Marc explains a clever way to fake a wider angle shot. Open your phone's camera and switch to panorama mode. When you're finished, crop the photo down just to what you want or need.

I cringe at how many people I always see taking pictures in portrait. It's as if they don't know the camera will rotate and take pictures in landscape mode.

For example, a friend of mine took pictures of some beautiful scenery in North Carolina and shared them to Facebook. The problem is she was shooting scenery … in portrait. Two-thirds of her pictures were uninteresting grass. Another took pictures of a barn, and instead of stepping back or switching to landscape, she shot several pictures in portrait and cut off an easy 20 percent of the sides of the barn.

In most cases, rotate your phone 90 degrees and take a step or two back. You will be able to enjoy much better photos. Chances are, they'll look better online, too, since most web formats are better designed for landscape pictures.


I'm no photography expert and, like I said, I take some awful pictures myself … all the time. But I do enjoy taking pictures, especially with my smartphones. There are dozens of tips and tricks out there that I have yet to pick up on. These are the ones I have learned over the years and do almost every time I reach for my phone to take a picture.

To this day, I'm still surprised at the quality of pictures my phones are capable of taking.