Take Better Smartphone Photos With These Tips

- May 13, 2017-

Snap away

The smartphone has brought photography to the mainstream. 

You don’t need to haul around a clunky DSLR or pack up three different lenses to get great photos.

However, the principles behind good photography haven't changed much since the days of silver halide film. 

As good as smartphone camers and editing software are getting, you still need to pay attention to the key elements of good photography if you want a quality picture.

My journey can help. I knew zilch about taking good photos until I became addicted to mobile technology. 

Coming away from a trip or a night out with great pictures thanks to my Pixel (one of many good phones out there) has fueled my desire to learn more. 

If you’re a total newbie like I was, or even a fairly experienced amateur, the following photos and advice should give you some inspiration and new ideas.

Get your camera ready

Whether it’s a brand new phone or one you’ve had for a while, take a moment and get to know the key settings to the camera app. 

For instance, I find HDR to be essential, and camera software continues to evolve well to take advantage of the capbilities. 

I also like to turn on the grid because I’m pretty bad at getting the subject properly aligned without it. 

It makes it easy to compose a shot using the rule of thirds.

The specific environmental settings (cloudy, sunny, etc.) can sometimes help under those conditions, 

but I typically find a good HDR image in the right lighting will get the job done.


HDR is one of the most useful camera features on your phone. It stands for High Dynamic Range, and its goal is to balance exposure between bright and dark areas of a scene. 

It combines different exposures into a single image, which is why you’ll usually see a brief “thinking time” occur after you take the shot.

The image on the left did not use HDR. When the indoors is properly exposed, the bright outdoors is overexposed. 

On the right, the photo is far more balanced, as the phone automatically combined a shot where the outdoors was exposed properly with one where the indoors was exposed properly. 

It’s not perfect (I’d opt for a little color and white balancing) but with HDR you can get a much better starting place. Especially for all the places those pesky cats can end up.

Focus, focus, focus

This image was highlighted on Twitter by the Pixel team, which curates some of the best images that are tagged with the #teampixel hashtag. 

It illustrates another key principle: using focus to make a subject stand out.

This picture is great because one set of flowers really stands out, with the rest of the background slightly blurred. 

On most phones, you can touch the screen to select a focal point. Try it out to see if you can get a similar effect. 

You’ll want to take a lot of pictures when trying this, as different cameras are better at keeping focused on the object than others. 

The effect is more pronounced as you move closer to your subject, but get too close and you can lose focus entirely.

Color is your friend

A good picture uses color well. You’re not always going to have a collection of colorful objects or a cute toddler available, but you get the picture. 

The real lesson here is to look for original moments, as these are the type of images that are going to get lots of shares and likes on social media and be a real hit with the family.

The toddler’s left hand is a little blurry, and in post-production I would typically brighten things up. 

But it’s presented here in raw form to give a more real-world example of the makings of a good shot. 

Look for color, and think about how it can enhance the subject or if it can be too distracting.

Hold off on the flash

Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean you need to bust out the flash. 

This picture uses the ambient light to give a good illustration of the colors in the grass and flooded back yard. 

With flash, you’re liable to wash out the foreground or create needless flare. 

This is why if you know you don’t want flash, you shouldn’t just leave this option set to auto. 

Sometimes the camera will use it when you don't want it, and the result won’t turn out as mood-setting as this image.

Perspective can make for a great picture

The first time I learned about perspective was in a high school photography class. 

That was my last formal training, at a time when we developed pictures in a dark room with lots of chemicals that young people probably shouldn’t be allowed to handle.

This picture illustrates the concept, with the trail dominating the foreground and then going off into the background. 

It’s a nice way to capture a scene, as when you look up from the path you’re treated to the majestic Bridalveil Fall. 

Lighting matters here too—one could argue for brightening the image a little, and if the sun was cooperating you’d get even more of the falls in the picture.

White balance matters

White balance is an essential element of a good photo. Without it, things look too yellow or too blue, and not true-to-life, 

as in this example taken from Ruth Asawa's San Francisco fountain mural (toy soldiers added by some clever visitor).

You can repair some of this with editing, but paying attention to light will also help prevent the effect. 

As you'll see in the next slide, this image turned out far more brown and off-color than it looks in real life.

It’s also a good reminder to use this as part of a mental checklist of what to look for after taking a picture, 

so you don’t walk away from the scene and put all the pressure on your photo editing app. 

Depending on your camera app, there may be a color temperature setting you can adjust to make sure the white parts look, well, white.

After white balance

When you properly white balance your photos, everything looks better. 

Notice how the subjects look more realistic, including the details in the sculpture, the mold that's creeped in, and those toy soldiers. 

White balance is key, but if you don't get the right shot the first time, Google is here to help. Google Photos recently made this one of its available automatic tweaks with a recent update. 

So while you'll want to pay attention to this feature, you can also lean on many of the automatic editing tricks found with Photos and other software.

Go for a little editing magic

With modern smartphones, quick and easy tools to edit your photos are built right in. 

This picture from just outside Yosemite National Park was one of the "stylized photos" that appear from time to time in the Google Photos feed.

I was surprised to see how the background lights really glowed, giving this a rather picturesque effect. 

Snow is always a good place to start when you’re looking for great outdoor images, 

so even if you follow good principles take time to learn the editing menu and see what's possible by taking a lot of shots from the same location.

Without the magic

The previous image was a compilation of these two and a series of other shots taken at the same time. 

Google Photos will automatically create GIFs, panoramas, and other groupings to give you a little bit of photo magic.

The lights don't glow quite as well, although they're still shots that give you a particular atmosphere and mood that only comes about from after analyzing the picture.

Good uses of flash

Don't neglect flash even in instances where you think you may not need it. 

For example, the flash brings out additoinal details of the flower in this photo, but it makes the leaves look sort of "flat." 

Compare with the next image to see how the flower's details are lost, but the leaves look better.

The flash is useful when you have a subject with a light behind it, like someone standing in front of a christmas tree or a brightly lit landmark at night. 

The camera will often expose for that bright light, leaving the face dark and featureless. If your subject is backlit, try using the flash to even things out.

Without flash

This picture was taken without flash. It's not necessarily bad, but you lose the detail in the flower and the green leaves of the plant tend to get lost with the rest of the background.

You could likely tweak some of this in editing, but you have more options if you better capture the foreground by putting in a burst of light. 

Don't let the fact that it's light outside stop you from considering the flash.

Here comes the sun...

Usually when you think good photos, you tend to think of sunlight. However, it's a little trickier in practice. 

Bright sun casts hard shadows that show the geometry of an object, but can also hide other details.

You'll see this in the next shot, which delivers a better quality than the one here. It's not bad, 

but the birght sun causes the sky to be overexposed, as the camera tried to balance the exposure for the building.

capitol shadowsSee larger imageImage courtesy Derek Walter

...but it's not always the best

Putting the subject in the shade or waiting for a cloud can improve your final picture. 

You're able to better focus on the elements of the capitol building without that harsh sun taking up the top half of the photo.

Bright lights and harsh shadows can mess up your photos, whether your subject is a human, plant, or building. 

In particular, try to avoid taking photos of someone's face in bright direct sunglight. 

You'll get hard shadows across their eyes and nose, ruining their features. Look for a shady spot.

Also Read: 10 Tips For Mobile Photography

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