How to shoot better photos with your phone

Most of us shoot with our phone camera on Auto but using your phone's manual camera can deliver stunning results.

Most of us shoot with our phone camera on Auto but using your phone's manual camera can deliver stunning results.

It used to be easy to tell when a photo was taken with a phone but now smartphone cameras are easily comparable to a good point-and-shoot.

However, there are a lot of tricks involved in capturing great photos with your phone.

Simon Woolf, one of New Zealand's top photographers, offers some expert tips. 


Out-of-the-box the camera settings on most phones aren't ideal but fixing this is easy. Fire up your phone's camera. First, choose the highest photo resolution that is 16:9. 

"I always go through and check default settings, and adapt them to what I require. In a number of the phones the cameras have all sorts of features that can be enabled," says Woolf. 

"When shooting landscapes I always enable the grids, which help me keep my horizontals and verticals straight."


Knowing what your phone's camera can do makes a huge difference to photos. Play with its different shooting modes to test capabilities. 

For example, if you're shooting something larger than what you can capture in one photo then try panorama mode.

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"When I get a new camera, I usually head into the garden and test it out. I play and experiment over a few hours. I use all the modes and put the camera through its paces. A smartphone camera is no different. Have some fun and see what the camera can do," says Woolf.


If your phone's camera app is missing a few tricks, or you're finding it hard to use, don't fret. There are lots of third party camera and image editing apps that can extend the capabilities of the camera on your phone. Jump to the app store and search for "camera". 

Woolf recommends Google Snapseed. "It is like Photoshop for phones. It enables a great deal of creative control too. With some high-end phones, you can open up Raw files." 


Most of us shoot with our phone camera on Auto. Most of the time it is fine for snapping a quick photo, but there are times when using your phone's manual camera mode to tweak shutter speed, exposure or ISO can deliver stunning results.

"I like to use the manual modes it gives you total control. On some higher specced phones you can choose ISO ratings," says Woolf. 


This is so often overlooked. When we pull our phones out of our pockets/purses, we often smear fingerprints over the camera lens. Wiping the lens with a small microfibre cloth before shooting will give you sharper photos. 

Woolf says he can't believe the number of cellphones where users only clean the screen. "I have also seen a number of people blame the phone for poor photos when the camera lens is smeared and filthy. I clean all my cameras lenses regularly. It ensures maximum quality." 


When shooting outdoors, timing is everything. Just after sunrise or before sunset, light often takes on a softer red/golden hue. This can be the difference between a good and a great photo. When shooting outdoors during the day, try to keep the sun at your back (unless you want an artsy silhouette effect).

"The magic minutes are within the first hour and last hour of the day. The light is often softer, and more dimensional, having a greater range of enriched colours and tones," says Woolf.


The digital zoom might look OK on your phone, but it usually looks terrible once printed. Because of this, try to walk closer rather than using the digital zoom. 


Where possible, avoid using your phone's flash. Most phone cameras use a LED flash, which gives photos a harsh, unnatural hue. Because a flash puts out a uniform illumination over nearby objects, they can sometimes look overexposed. 


Take lots of photos of the same subject. Move around, try different compositions and shooting modes. You'll end up with a pile of useless photos but one or two might be just what you're after. 

Woolf says he deletes very little when shooting. "I have seen so many photographers miss the next shot through deleting, or chimping (the industry term for continually looking at your display screen). You have plenty of time to review, delete or edit later when you are less likely to make critical mistakes.


When lighting is dim shutter speeds are slower. Even small camera movements can blur photos. In these situations, try a tripod (or prop your phone up against a stable object). Failing that, keep your smartphone as steady as possible by holding it with both hands. 

"There are some great tripods and gizmos for stabilising phone cameras. My latest phone tripod came with a Bluetooth remote control, which makes shooting using slow shutter speeds even easier," says Woolf.


Once photos are taken, you can still improve them. Most phones have basic image enhancement capabilities or free PC apps such as can adjust hue, colour, exposure and sharpness. 

"Most of the new smartphones have reasonable photo editing options. If in doubt I go back to Snapseed - especially for use with social media," says Woolf.


Backing up your images is a no-brainer. Should you lose or damage your phone, your photos will still be there. One of the easiest (and free) ways of doing this is the Google Photo app. 

"Back up, back up, back up. It is rule one at the end of the day. Plug your phone into a computer and download," says Woolf.

"I have heard terrible stories of people losing months of their precious memories because they didn't back up their image files."

 - Stuff

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