Take Better Smartphone Pictures

We now take more pictures using smartphones every day than we do with “real” cameras. The problem is that most of them are pretty poor. They’re good enough for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Whatever, but wouldn’t pass any kind of real quality test. But seeing as how phone cameras are getting better all the time, surely we can all take better smartphone pictures with them.

Well, yes, we can, and it’s not that difficult. All it needs is a few minutes getting to know your camera, and a little bit of thought. If you want more than just selfies, and want to have a go at something approaching real photography, your phone can do a decent job of it. As long as you know what to do. Anyone can take better smartphone pictures when you use these tips.

There are 3 basic elements to any picture – light, composition, and subject. Each is important, and getting them right will make a massive difference to your pictures. They’re not complicated for our needs here, so take a second to digest the information on each. In no time at all, they will become second nature. Muscle memory will kick in before you realize, and better pictures will become effortless.

Smartphone Camera Differences

person taking photo with smartphone

Before we dive into how to take better smartphone pictures, we’ll start with a slight disclaimer. We can’t hope to cover every camera in every phone. Nor can we cover every camera app in both app stores. We might mention features you don’t have, or not mention features you do. This guide isn’t about the specifics, it’s about some general techniques to get better smartphone pictures.

So, now that’s out of the way, we’ll continue.


Stacked rocks sunset photo grid

If you’ve never heard about the “Rule of Threes”, make it your goal to take at least this one piece of information with you. Sometimes, we see a picture which we like but, if we were asked why we like it, we wouldn’t really be sure. Part of that is the composition, and part of composition is the rule of threes.

Your camera app may have an option to show a grid on the screen. This grid is normally two horizontal and two vertical lines which intersect 1/3 of the way in from each side, 1/3 from the bottom and top. These are the “thirds” we talk about, and here’s how you use them. If you don’t have the option to show a grid, then a little imagination will do the trick. Here’s the lines as they are when displayed, so you have an idea if you don’t show the grid

Hopefully, that gives you an idea of where the rule of thirds comes from, as the screen is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically.

If you are taking a shot which has any kind of horizon, try and put it along one of the horizontal lines. Whether you choose the top or bottom line will depend on what you want in the image. In our example above, you will see the top of the mountains are used on the bottom line. It doesn’t have to be exact, but should be close enough.

You may also have noticed one critical thing about the image above. That is that the rocks – known as a “cairn” – isn’t in the middle of the picture. If you have a single subject, the composition works better if you put them in line with one of the vertical lines. If it is a person, have them looking into the frame towards the biggest part) rather than out of it. In just a head and shoulders portrait, put one of your subject’s eyes at the top crossing points of the lines. This makes a much better balance.

This one simple observation will improve many a picture.


person recording concert with smartphone

No picture works without light. Unfortunately, despite how many times manufacturers will tell you otherwise, smartphone flash is terrible. Even LED, even Dual Flash. It’s all terrible. Unless you’re taking a selfie in a dark room, you should try and avoid using it altogether. Your phone flash has an effective range of about 6-8 feet, which makes it useless for all but the quickest snapshot. Even then, it takes forever to actually kick in and take the shot. Seriously, try and avoid it.

Fortunately, many recent smartphones have some sort of image stabilization built in, which means we can get away with lower light. Low light means longer shutter speeds. Long shutter speeds means more shake because it’s difficult to hold anything dead still for a second or two. Image stabilization is a great benefit here.

However, if possible, try and include as much natural light as you can. This will improve the quality of the picture enormously. If you take a picture of someone, have the light off to one side. This creates nice shadows on the face, and means they don’t have to squint into the sun. It also means the camera isn’t being overloaded with light, and you won’t end up with a horribly bright background or, worse, an impossibly dark subject.

If you plan a photography trip, then try and avoid the midday sun. Midday has terribly harsh light, and flatters neither people, buildings nor landscapes. Morning or late afternoon/evening are much nicer times. The light is warmer, the shadows softer and the overall mood just much more pleasant.

Look at Estate Diamond Jewelry if you want good examples of using light to enhance photography. They have their lights focused on one side of their jewelry and it creates a strong shadow on the other side. As a result, the rings and earrings really pop.


person wearing hat looking at building

If you are serious about photography, then you will probably end up favoring one particular area. It might be landscapes, people, architecture, abstract, black and white or any one of a thousand others. Each have their own specific requirements, but there are a couple of tips which carry through to most types of photography, and easily transfer to your smartphone.

If taking pictures of people, animals, still life or any other relatively compact subject, try and get down to what passes for eye level. With people, especially kids, the best images are when the shutter and eye are broadly in line. With still life, which can be anything from food photography to cars, to just about anything, imagine what eye level should be and use that. It might sound vague, but you will get used to it. If in doubt, try a few different levels.

Don’t always demand that your subject pose for you. Seize the moment. Often, candid pictures are the best kind. That unguarded moment that tells a story of its own.

close up of sheep

Focus, focus, focus. Most smartphone cameras now have a touch focus feature for better pictures. This is where you tap the screen on the point where you wish to focus. Use it, and use it well. It doesn’t always need to be the obvious point. Be creative, and see what happens.


person taking photo with smartphone at dusk

The exposure of a picture is, in its simplest sense, the amount of light used to create it. Less light, darker picture and vice versa. Your camera actually does a great job of figuring out exactly how much light to let in to get the best exposure, but you can still do better. You don’t even need to go into full manual mode to do it.

As good as the camera is at guessing, it can sometimes be confused by what it sees. If, for example, you are in a dark room and point the camera at a bright window, the camera has to decide whether the dark room or the bright window is “correct”. If you don’t like what you see on the screen, tap to focus, but keep your finger on the screen. A slider graphic will appear which allows you to change the exposure. Slide up on the screen for lighter, and down for darker.

Just be aware that too much either way can ruin the quality, rather than make it better. Be gentle.


people walking by buildings

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. In a nutshell, dynamic range is the difference from the darkest detail which can be determined, to the brightest. Outside this, things just look black or white. The human eye can see about 20 stops, or levels, of dynamic range without losing the ability to see details. The best dSLR cameras manage about 12. Your smartphone might be able to see 9 or 10, at the very most. This means that a lot of detail is lost when taking a picture of a scene with lots of bright areas and lots of shadow. And this is where HDR comes in.

In HDR mode, your camera processes the picture up to 5 times. One will be the “normal” image, and there will be 2 brighter and 2 darker versions. It then combines all 5 images to include as much detail form those bright and dark areas as possible. The difference can be quite astounding. Above is an image showing the difference between no HDR, and using it.

In the left half, although well exposed, it all lacks a little detail. This is because the camera has had to work very hard to capture as much information as possible. As a result, you have a very average picture. With HDR applied in the right half, you can easily see much more detail. The effect is overdone here, to illustrate the point, but shows what detail is available.

Your camera app may have 3 settings for HDR, On, Off and Auto. In all honesty, we’re really not sure what Auto does, apart from extend the time it takes to take a picture. This tip will help you take better smartphone pictures but our advice is to turn it off until you need it.

Burst Mode

legs at starting line

In most apps, burst is turned on by default. If you keep your finger on the shutter button, it will keep taking pictures until you lift your finger off you smartphone. If you’re wondering why this might be useful, in most cases, it isn’t. But, if you are taking pictures of your kids doing something, or a sports event, or even just trying to get a group photo without someone blinking, burst mode is ideal.

It does take time to process a dozen or more pictures, of course, so your camera becomes unusable for several seconds if you have fired the shutter in burst mode.

Live Blur

Also known as Live Bokeh, this feature allows you to change the focal plane of your image. When you tap on the screen to set the point of focus, everything just in front and just behind where you tapped will be in focus. Everything outside this shallow area will be progressively out of focus. Live Blur will allow you to increase or decrease how much blur your image has. Some apps will even allow this to be changed afterwards. They do this by taking all images with infinite focus, and then applying the blur according to how you set the slider.

To see how effective this can be, look at the two images below. The first has no blur at all, and almost everything right back to the trees behind is in focus.

three men on soccer field

But, when we apply the blur after, the difference it makes to the picture is huge.

three men on soccer field blurred

At this level there are some issues but, if used carefully, pictures containing people, like the one above, can be greatly improved by using live blur. Isolating the subjects from the background brings the picture to life.

Editing Images

smartphone laptop on desk using photoshop

Every camera app has editing options these days, even the most basic stock app. These can be used to rotate, crop or resize any picture. They can also be used to apply a number of filters. Some of these are more subtle than others, and can be useful. Some, though might have early novelty value, but not for long.

If you are serious about photography, then look for some of the great free apps that are available. Even Adobe Photoshop has a mobile “Express” version. It doesn’t come close to offering what the desktop version does, of course, but goes further than many. Other longstanding apps are Snapseed and Pixlr. Both put a number of great controls at your fingertips. If you have an older iPhone, and might be missing some of the features that have since appeared, try Camera+. Much of what the app has been doing for years is now in every stock app on any platform.


This is simple. Don’t use it. Very few smartphones have optical zoom capability, where the lenses move to zoom in and out. Even those that do don’t do it very well. Most phones use digital zoom, which sounds great but is awful. When you zoom in, the camera tries to recreate the section of the image you’re looking at, but bigger. Try zooming all the way in on anything and take a picture. You’ll see how awful it is.

Given the high MP counts in modern smartphone cameras, get as close as is practical, and then crop the image. Unless you want to print at large sizes, this is your best – read, only – option.

Stay Clean

up close camera lens

The lens on your smartphone camera is small. Very, very small. Your hands, your purse, your pocket, they are all filthy. Pick a clean glass up and press your just-washed finger on it. It will leave a fingerprint. Now imagine that much dirt on a lens the size of a pen tip, and you’ll see the problem. If you can, and you should, always wipe your lens with a clean cloth before taking pictures on your smartphone. Images you think might be out of focus or “soft” might just be the result of a greasy lens.

And there you have it. This is our guide to help take better smartphone pictures, these tips should help you to do just that. As bugs go, photography is one worth getting. If you get it, then why not put a little work into being better at it?

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