A Definitive Guide to Taking Better Photos with Your Smartphone


If you’re just starting out with cell phone photography, you should try to master these simple tips and tricks before anything else. Even if you’re an accomplished photographer, you may well find that some of these techniques are new to you and can be helpful in taking better mobile device photos. 

For the sake of capturing quality visual content for use in social media marketing, there are a few guidelines that will help everyone get the best quality images up representing your company and brand.

CLEAN YOUR CAMERA LENS

Your pocket is not a clean place, and the grime that lives within loves to glom onto your smartphone camera lens. The result are hazy, dark images that won’t look good no matter how many retro filters you slap on them (yeah, don’t do that, by the way). 

The lenses are now remarkably tough, so giving them a quick wipe with a soft cloth can’t hurt (and your T-shirt will do OK in a pinch, but try not to make a habit of it). Once in a while, it’s worth the effort to break out the lens cleaning solution and really get the grime off of it. It may not look dirty and you might not even notice it in your photos, but often a deep clean will make a difference.

DON'T USE ELECTRONIC ZOOM

Smartphone cameras usually offer a digital zoom function, but you’re almost always best served by pretending it doesn’t exist. Even in the live-view preview, you’ll be able to see how noticeably your images degrade the second you start to “zoom.” The camera is simply extrapolating what’s already there and basically guessing what the image looks like. It gets ugly fast. In other words, it’s a faux zoom—don’t use it. Want the subject to fill the shot better? Get closer!

GET CLOSE TO THE SUBJECT

Many cell phone cameras, especially the iPhone, really start to shine when you bring them in close to your subject. The small sensor provides a relatively wide depth of field so you can get entire objects in focus where cameras with bigger sensors and longer lenses would have trouble. 

When getting close, you can also usually have more control over the lighting of your subject. Are bright patches in the background of your composition throwing off the camera’s meter and making your subject dark? Get closer and block it out all together. Small detail shots can be quite effective if done right.

HOLD THE PHONE STILL

Keeping a steady hand is important in capturing a clear image. It is especially important if you are shooting in low-light situations. One useful trick is to lean your camera phone against a solid object, then quickly tap the capture button and step away. Some phone cameras can also be triggered by a set of headphones with volume or phone answer buttons. Test yours to see if that works, because it can act as a simple shutter release to avoid camera shake in low light conditions. Keep in mind that many camera phones also suffer from ‘shutter lag’ (i.e. the time between when you press the shutter and when the camera takes the shot). On some, it can be as much as a second or so. This means you need to hold the camera still a little longer to ensure it doesn’t take a shot as you’re lowering it away from the subject. 

There is also a myriad inexpensive simple clamps and mounts to allow you to affix your phone into an inexpensive camera tripod, or tripods made specifically for certain phones. Large bean bags also make nice make-shift phone bases to use the phone remotely or in a time lapse sequence.

TAKE MANY SHOTS, NOT JUST ONE

If you see something that catches your eye don’t just take one shot and hope for the best. The chances of getting a good photo with your first shot are very slim. You should try to take multiple shots from various angles and distances. Chances are that if you should 6 images of a simple scene, there will be one that is better than the rest. And, it’s almost never the first photo you took.

LOOK OUT FOR DISTRACTING BACKGROUNDS

If you have a cluttered background in your photos it can distract attention away from your intended subject. If the backdrop to your photo has a lot of clashing and distracting colors, the best solution in this situation might be to convert the photo to black and white. By eliminating all color, the distraction is reduced, if not removed. Another solution is to avoid cluttered backgrounds altogether. One way to do this is to get down low and used the sky as your backdrop. This really helps your subject stand out. 

Be aware of random items in your scene, like pop cans, water bottles, trash, and things that are not something that you would be happy to see attached to your company’s image. If you don’t want your mom to see it, don’t leave it in your shot.

MAKE SURE THE SUBJECT IS WELL LIT

The better lit your subject is, the clearer and more dynamic your photo is likely to be. If possible, shoot with natural light or turn on lights when shooting inside. When outside, positioning your shot with the sun at your back will almost always yield the best results. If you’re turning on lights in a room to add extra light to your shot be aware that some artificial light drastically impacts the color cast in your shots and you might want to experiment with white balance to fix it. Many phones and apps allow the adjustment of white balance to correct the color of the light in the room. If you can’t balance the white levels, don’t worry too much, as we can fix it when it is color corrected later on.

Studio lights helped give this CNC drill dimension when photographing indoors.

AND DUMP THE FLASH

The problem with many smartphone flashes is that they don’t actually flash. They’re glorified tiny single LED flashlights, thrust into a duty they’re not fully capable. They are bright, but the color temperature can be gross and they miss one of the primary duties of a strobe light—freezing the action. The actual “flash” duration is much too long, so you end up with an image that’s both blurry and poorly lit. Not to mention how physically close the flash is to the lens, which makes those horrible red glowing demon eyes almost a given. 

If it comes right down to it, though, getting a bad photo with a flash can be better than getting no photo at all if you want to capture a moment.

HAVE SOME PERSPECTIVE

You should always look at alternative points of view when taking your photos at any location. Most beginners will take shots from a standing position, but the beauty of a cell phone is that it’s so small and light it can be used in places that a bigger camera won’t work. Consider getting down low and shooting from ground level. This technique is great for creating a unique view of your scene that people normally wouldn’t see from standing height. Also try shooting from high up to get a bird’s eye view of your subject. A plain scene of any object can change dramatically and become more interesting with just a simple change in camera perspective.

FOCUS

The most important thing to look out for when taking a photo is to make sure that your subject is in sharp focus. To set the focus on an iPhone camera you simply tap the screen where your subject is in the frame. A small yellow square will appear to confirm the focus point. If your subject is moving around, make sure you tap the screen just before you take the shot to ensure that they are in focus. 

While they are relatively tiny and primitive lenses in camera phones, you can create interesting depth of field photos by focusing on a single element in the frame, with the rest of the shot out of focus.

ADJUST EXPOSURE MANUALLY

When you tap on the subject to focus on them, the camera will also use the focus point to set the exposure in the shot. Exposure simply refers to how bright or dark the image is. Allowing the camera to set exposure on the focus point isn’t always ideal. For example, if the subject is in a dark area of the frame, this could lead to the overall image being over-exposed (too bright) or vice versa. 

On a current iPhone, when you set the focus by tapping the screen, a small sun icon appears on the side of the focus square. When you see the sun icon, simply swipe up or down on the screen to adjust the exposure slider. Swiping up will brighten the overall image, and swiping down will darken it. When you’re happy with the exposure/brightness of the image, release your finger from the screen. This manual exposure slider allows for much greater control over the look of the final image. 

Some phones allow you to choose what resolution you want to take photos at. It almost goes without saying (but we like to state the obvious) that the higher your resolution the clearer your shot will be. This is especially true for camera phones which often have sensors of under 1 megapixel in them. Keep in mind however, that the higher the resolution the larger the file size of the images you take. This means if you want to send images through text or e-mail, they can end up taking a bit longer to send.

WORK THE SCENE

What does it mean when a photographer says they need to work a scene? Well, it’s pretty much as it sounds—don’t just stand there, compose and snap one photo and move around. Change angles or perspectives. Get closer. Move away. Maybe a better shot will come along in a minute, or in five minutes. Or maybe you can compose the same scene in a different way, or three different ways. Taking a good photo means giving it some thought. Otherwise you’re just taking simple, boring snapshots. Unless you get really lucky, your chances of getting a good photo that way are relatively slim.

Photos are compositionally more interesting if the important elements of the image lie on one of the gridlines or their intersections.

THE RULE OF THIRDS

Without good composition, your photo isn’t likely to be very eye-catching. The rule of thirds is one of the most useful composition techniques in photography. The rule of thirds involves mentally dividing up your image using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, like a game of tick-tack-toe. You then position the important elements in your scene along those lines, or at the points where they meet. 

You should try and put your subject in line with one of the vertical lines. If there is a horizon in your photo, it should be in line with one of the horizontal lines. The idea behind the rule of thirds is that the off-center composition makes for a more compelling photo. 

On an iPhone, you can place a grid over the screen which will help you when you’re trying to compose a photo. To display the grid, go into Settings, Photos & Camera, then turn the Grid on. For beginners it’s very useful to leave the grid on as it will help train your eye. 

As with anything, rules are made to be broken, and sometimes the situation calls for a different approach. It’s always important to learn the rules before breaking them, though. So learn to compose your shots using the rule of thirds. Then once you’re happy with it, try breaking it on purpose sometimes to create a different impact with your image. As always with photography, don’t be afraid to experiment. You might be surprised with the results.

DON'T EDIT OR CROP THE IMAGES BEFORE SENDING

Once you have the shots you want, don’t worry about cropping or editing the raw images before sending them to us. We will color correct and adjust, then crop all of the images for their specific needs before using them. What works great for Instagram might not be the best for LinkedIn. Don’t limit the potential of the image by cropping or altering it before you pass it along. 

When you do send us images for your social media content, though, please do give us a brief description of what or whom we are seeing. It will help us in the description and eventually tagging of the image wherever it is used.

CONCLUSION!

Taking interesting and pleasing photos with a camera phone is not difficult, but it requires you to maybe see things a little differently than you have been. It also helps to have a bit of insight into the basics of photography. Taking great cell phone photos for social media will help everyone improve the image of their company, and keep your brand visibility at the highest possible levels.