6 expert smartphone photography tips

Smartphone photography: top tips
(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Smartphone photography has improved hugely over the last few years. To make the most of the excellent technology available to us, you need to know how to use our phone camera settings properly. In this article, we'll offer six top tips to help you harness the power of your smartphone for better photographs.

Okay, so smartphones are never going to compete with the dedicated DSLRs or mirrorless cameras marketed for the serious pros, but as a compact alternative that's always on your person, the best camera phones can still capture some impressive images. There are even plenty of good detachable lenses and filters on the market, which complement the phone optics. And you can always add to your smartphone with one of the best cameras for creatives, for when it comes to more serious photography sessions.

Routinely we use smartphones in less than ideal lighting conditions, using whatever automatic exposure and focusing the device comes with. More often than not, the results are lacklustre, leaving phone users frustrated and confused. But if you take a few steps to learn about your tech, and keep one eye on the lighting, you can avoid some of the common problems associated with smartphone photography. 

Read on for some advice that you can use every time you pull the phone from your pocket, wherever you are, to make the most of that sophisticated computer-powered camera you almost always carry with you.

01. Take portraits in shade

smartphone image taken in the shade

Shooting in the shade produces more flattering light

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

The best way to immediately improve your portraits and selfies is to move into shade. Stand under the shadow of a tree or building and notice the soft, diffused light that wraps around the face. This is the quality of light that you should seek to complement features most. 

If outside, shoot towards open shade by placing your subject at the very edge of the shaded area. If posing inside, place the window to one side of you as you shoot the subject. This will provide similarly diffused light as open shade, but with more directionality. Look for a triangle of light on the subject’s cheek that’s farthest away from the window – this is called Rembrandt lighting, named after the painterly master himself.

02. Tap to meter

smartphone with meter

Tell your smartphone where to meter the light from so you end up with a clear shot

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Smartphones struggle to expose dark, dimly-lit subjects against bright backgrounds (think shaded landscapes in midday sun). There’s no smartphone hardware out there (yet) that can cope with such a wide dynamic range, so you must tell the device where to meter the light from in order to get a clear shot. 

It can be useful to manually override the automatic exposure settings by tapping on the dark subject to expose the shadows. By telling the device where to meter from you can make the image brighter and thereby regain detail in the darker areas of the frame. 

The reverse is true for shooting subjects brighter than their surroundings. When faced with bright scenes, the device can overexpose the image, producing clipping in the highlights – this means the camera reads the area as completely white, and you'll be unable to restore detail during the editing process. If you want to capture detail in the brightest sections of your scene, tap on the bright section to deliberately underexpose your photograph.

You may even want to switch on HDR mode to stop the bright sky from clipping and bleaching out. If you're going to do this, hold the camera still during exposure or it can all get a bit blurry.

03. Know your camera shortcut

camera shortcuts on a smartphone

Make sure you're able to capture the moment 

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

The ability to react to a fleeting moment is half the battle when it comes to snapping a great shot. To take photos quickly you should learn your smartphone’s shortcut for accessing the camera. 

For some Android phones, such as the Google Pixel 3, this means double-tapping the power button, whereas iPhones might be a quick swipe-up from the corner of the screen or hard press of the camera icon. If you’re shooting with an iPhone X, swipe down the Control Centre, then press and hold the camera icon to display multiple camera options such as Take Selfie or Record Video. 

Whatever smartphone you have, make sure you know how to get your camera up quickly, so you can capture the moment.

04. Use portrait mode

lamp in a dark room

Portrait mode is great for isolating subjects against a background

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Smartphones have wide-angle lenses that inherently produce a long depth of field – meaning the images are mostly going to be pin-sharp from foreground to background. This might be good for a huge vista, but it's not so good for isolating your subjects against the background, and can produce unflattering portraits of even the most photogenic of us. 

Shooting on a wide aperture, a longer focal length lens (such as an 85mm f/1.4) provides a flattering shallow depth of field. Since in-built smartphone lenses don’t do this naturally, the phone’s software works hard to apply a filter to mimic this. This filter is normally called Portrait mode. 

Engage this mode and you can expect to generate an effect where the environment behind your subject is nicely blurred. But beware busy and cluttered backgrounds, as the filter (try as it might) sometimes can’t keep up. Although named Portrait mode, this function works well on any subject that benefits from a touch of isolation from the background.

05. Shoot in Raw

Two images of houses: smartphone photography tips

The original RAW image (left side) and edited version (right)

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

A Raw file is a compressed lossless image file format that saves much more image data than a typical lossy JPEG. More data equals more editing flexibility. That means it’s far easier to adjust exposure levels, check white balance and manipulate colours when editing in apps like Snapseed, VCSO and Halide (take a look at our guide to the best photo editing apps and software). 

However, that comes at the cost of a bigger file, which if you’re tight for space on your handset, you might want to avoid for everyday use. Engage Raw shooting mode when you’re aiming for better quality editing controls or if you want to print your photos from that once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

For photo editing in double-quick time, explore our roundup of the best free Photoshop actions.

06. Clean the lens

cleaning the lens of a smartphone: smartphone photography

How often do you clean your phone?

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

It might sound obvious, but when was the last time you turned your phone over and gave the lens a good clean? A simple wipe with your top will do at a pinch when you’re out and about, but it’s good to use lens cleaning fluid or glasses wipes every so often to lift residual dirt and debris. Natural oils from your hands build up on the lens during use, so they attract dirt and debris. This combination of dirt and oil can produce unsightly flaring, and at worst make your photos appear soft. Give the lens a good clean every few weeks to eliminate flare, improve contrast, and take sharper shots.

Jason Parnell-Brookes is a photographer, educator and writer, He was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014 and is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and the former technique editor for N-Photo magazine.

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