Take Better Smartphone Pictures Pt 2

Taking a smartphone image of yellow flowers in a field

If you’ve looked through Part 1 of our guide to taking better pictures with your smartphone, you’ll already have the key skills to improve all your images from your phone.

This second part looks at the camera app, and some of the features now available in both stock apps and 3rd party apps from the app stores.

Exposure

Women taking image in the dark of sunset at the water

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.

HDR

Taking an HDR image of a landmark building with people walking the square

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. Our advice is to turn it off until you need it.

Burst Mode

The legs of a couple of athletes all lined up to start a run.

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. 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 posing for a picture in a backyard

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

Three men posing for a picture in a backyard with a blurred background

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

Photoshop opened on a laptop to edit an image of a child. Laptop is on a wooden desk near a window

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.

Zoom

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

A sparkling clean 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. Images you think might be out of focus or “soft” might just be the result of a greasy lens.

And there you have it. These tips, together with Part 1 of our guide to taking better smartphone pictures 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?

Rachel C.
Rachel C.
Rachel is the researcher and blog writer for the Mr Aberthon website. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and eventually made her way to Connecticut in order to become a part of the Mr Aberthon Team. She is passionate about technology and electronics, and nothing gives her more pleasure than discovering insights into the latest gadgets to hit the electronics market.