5 top tips to improve your smartphone photos

Dan Rubin

Dan Rubin

Gone are the days where you need a ridiculously expensive camera and top photo editor to create a breathtaking image. Smartphone cameras have come a long way in recent years, but there's more to photography than simply aiming your device and snapping away. So how do you perfect your smartphone technique to take images worthy of The Photography Show?

To help up your game, co-founder of the Photographic Journal Dan Rubin reveals five essential steps every photographer needs to know to capture better smartphone pictures.

01. Capturing images

Smartphone photos: capturing images

Focus your smartphone camera to get the best results

Smartphones are basically advanced point­ and­ shoot cameras with touch­screens (and apps to add extra functionality), so understanding how to control focus and exposure is key to getting the best image possible to begin with.

Tapping the screen will set the focus on most smartphones, but it also sets the exposure (the overall brightness of the image). Tapping on a bright area of the image will expose for that area, making the rest of the image darker, and vice versa. Capturing an even exposure in the original image (nothing too bright, nothing too dark) will give you the most room to edit the image later on.

To move beyond what the default camera app can do (especially on iOS), experiment with third­ party apps that allow you to extend the camera’s functionality through software, such as the effect of a long­exposure that simulates a slow shutter to blur water and other moving objects. This is especially effective on large bodies of water or waterfalls, where you can show contrast between the smoothed water and sharp, still surroundings.

On iOS, CortexCam does this hand­held, while apps like Slow Shutter Cam and AverageCam Pro require a tripod or other stable support (similar apps exist on Android). In addition to this effect, they also allow you to shoot better images in low­light with less noise, and create other effects like light­-trails.

02. Using HDR

Smartphone photos: using HDR

Create images that reflect what you see with HDR

HDR (High Dynamic Range) is an attempt to mimic the full range of what our eyes see by capturing multiple exposures for the highlights, midtones, and shadows, then merging them together to create a single image.

Backlit scenes, or scenes with a lot of contrast will benefit most from HDR, though it still requires some experimentation with exposure (see Tip 01) in order to get the best results.

Note: Most smartphones require you to enable HDR manually, so track down the HDR on/off setting on your device so you can access it quickly (iOS 8 turns it on automatically on iPhone 5s and newer).

03. Burst Mode

Smartphone photos: Burst mode

Burst mode is perfect for street photography

On most smartphones, there is a function that allows capturing multiple exposures in quick succession so you don't miss the perfect moment. On Apple's iOS 8, this is called 'Burst Mode' (the name varies for other devices: for instance, Sony's recent Android devices call this 'Timeshift Burst').

Using it is easy: Point the camera at your subject, and record a series of frames (the exact method depends on the device — iOS 8's Burst Mode uses a long­press on the shutter button; Sony's Timeshift Burst captures a series of images after a single tap).

Practicing with this approach to street photography, children, wildlife, and other examples of movement will give you a good idea of when and how to use it.

04. Editing

Smartphone photos: Editing

Snapseed is one of Dan's favourite editing tools

If you've ever wondered why professional photos – or popular photos on Instagram – look so much better than what you shoot on your smartphone, it likely has a lot to do with whats been done to the image after it's been captured.

Editing (or 'post­production') is commonly required with most digital images in order to fix incorrect assumptions made by the computer inside a digital camera when it makes the original exposure, and in some cases to add effects that change the way the image feels.

While there are many great editing apps available, two of my favourites are Snapseed and VSCO Cam (both free, both available for iOS and Android). Both apps allow you to adjust basic aspects of your image such as exposure, temperature, sharpness, and contrast, as well as adding various effects.

Snapseed also has unique tools like Selective Adjust, which allows you to mask parts of your image and adjust the brightness, contrast, and saturation, and Transform, which helps correct for parallax distortion (especially useful for architecture or interiors where straight lines might not have been parallel to the camera).

I typically use both apps on my images: first Snapseed for basic edits (recovering shadow detail, Selective Adjust, and correcting perspective distortion with the Transform tool), then I save those edits and import the updated photo into VSCO Cam for final edits (crop, sharpness) and applying a preset: I like the look VSCO Cam's presets give to my images, so it's the last step in my editing process before publishing to Instagram or other platforms.

The important thing to know is that there is no right or wrong: the edits you're happy with are the right ones, and you'll figure out what you like most by playing and experimenting with various apps and settings.

05. Sharing

Smartphone photos: sharing

Social media can get you photos in front of millions

Once you've edited your images, it's time to share them with the world. Instagram is the current platform of choice for many people (though there are plenty of other great places to share your images, from Facebook to EyeEm and more), and it's easy to get your images from edit to published.

For example, in VSCO Cam, it's easy to post your photo to Instagram – first, crop the image to a square (if you want the square look), then select the export menu item and choose 'Instagram' which automatically opens the image in Instagram’s publishing screen.

Publishing non­square images to Instagram is now possible directly within Instagram (without any borders) by saving your image to the device's camera roll and then importing it into Instagram from within the app (as of this moment, Instagram doesn't allow third ­party apps to export non­square images directly), or within a square image using one of many available apps – on iOS, I recommend Squaready.

In VSCO Cam (the process is similar for other editing apps), follow the same steps as above but on a non­square image: choose the export menu, select 'More…' and from there, choose Squaready. Once in the app, you can fit it inside a square with a white, black, or other coloured background filling the empty space, and from there export directly to Instagram.

Words: Dan Rubin

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