Tips for Better Smartphone Photographs / by Joshua Cook

iPhone and Austin Monthly Magazine

I'm about to lead a workshop on photography and multimedia communication and I know one topic that's bound to come up is smartphone photography. There are oceans of amazing smartphone photographs out there taken with Iphone, Android or even Windows phone cameras. Just browse through Instagram and you'll find too many examples to count... after you sort through all the awkward selfies. The question remains, though, that if there are so many great examples out there, why don't your smartphone images look up to par, especially after you get them off the phone and look at them on a large screen. There are lots of reasons, but here are a few of them with tips on how to take better smartphone photographs with the camera you always have with you.

You're not shooting at the highest quality you're capable of. This isn't a crack at your skill level, but a statement of fact. If you're shooting with the basic camera app that came with your phone and the factory settings, you're only getting a fraction of the image quality your smartphone is capable of capturing. It's not a ploy to get you to spend more on fancy apps or external lenses (although those can help too). The reason is that digital photographs take up a lot of memory and memory is something often in short supply on your phone, so your phone is set up balance storage space and the quality it thinks most users will actually need. But you're not "most users," are you? You're a super parent with 2,000+ smartphone photos of your toddler that you want to hold onto and enjoy forever, right? Luckily the fix is pretty simple. Download a new camera app like Camera+ ($2.99 on the Apple app store) that let's you change the quality settings with a few quick clicks like this:


Now that you're getting higher quality photos, it's time to take more control of them. I won't go on about shooting manually or things like that. With a smartphone, what you really want is the ability to set focus and exposure separately.  Camera+ does this by allowing you to slide two fingers across the screen (see left photo above). One little box sets focus an the other one sets exposure. It's that simple. There are a lot of other great apps that allow this too like Camera Awesome, VSCO Cam or POMELO.

Most of these apps will also help you compose better photographs by displaying a Rule of Thirds grid on the screen. I talk more about that here, but the idea is simple. Try to line up subjects along those tic-tac-toe lines and the composition of your photographs will instantly improve. Start experimenting with the idea and then explore new compositions, like lining up your significant other alone one of the vertical lines to the left or right and then the horizon along one of the horizontal lines. It's one of those rules of aesthetics that just appeals to us all much more.

And now one of the biggies. For great photographs you need great light and for great smartphone photographs, you need LOTS of it. Compared to larger cameras, your smartphone is incredibly limited in its light gathering ability and light is the fundamental ingredient in photography. Smartphone camera lenses and sensors are just too small to allow great quantities of light into the camera. Instead, they will automatically increase the ISO or sensitivity, resulting in all those grainy, fuzzy images sitting on your camera roll. I know you know what I'm talking about. Again, though, the solution is simple. Move your subject to a place where there's more light.

Go outside. Cloudy that day? Even better, because the clouds naturally diffuse the sunlight, resulting in softer, more flattering light for your subjects. Also, a cloudy day outside is inevitably brighter than it is inside your home with artificial lighting. If you're stuck inside, turn on some lamps and make sure the light is in front of your subject, not behind them. Don't be afraid to move them around either. If you're trying to get a great shot of your toddler, then you just have to look for the best light and be patient. Eventually they'll toddle over that way.

These really are just a few basic steps to start improving your smartphone photography and hopefully inspire you to start taking some of those photographs off your hard drive and put them up on your wall. If you have some tips of your own or just want to share the results of what you've learned, I'd love to hear/see them in the comments.