JUL 20, 2024 / Mobile Phones

6 simple ways to improve your smartphone photos

One of the most beloved features on modern smartphones is the integrated camera. Long gone are the days of taking a shot on film, wondering if it worked, waiting – and paying – to have it developed and then discovering whether you’d captured a classic moment, or just a blurry shot of your thumb.

Even the cameras on mid-range and some budget phones are pretty good these days, where once you would have to pay premium money for even passable photos.

However, with a little care and attention, and using some of the inbuilt features of your phone’s camera app, you can get even better and more pleasing photos. You may well already know some of these approaches – and they won’t likely be new to camera pros – but everyone has to start learning somewhere.

1. Use your volume keys as a shutter button

Nearly every camera app, whether you’re using an iPhone or an Android handset supports using the phone’s volume buttons as a camera shutter. It’s generally preferable to using the onscreen buttons, because it gives you a physical shutter release that will shake the actual phone – and therefore the lenses – a whole lot less.

It’s especially true if you’re taking landscape mode photos, because you’ll also be steadying the phone in your hands

2. Anything can be a tripod

Ever seen a pro photographer at work? Odds are they’ll be using a tripod, and you can certainly invest in a phone-specific tripod to give your handset even more stability for shots.

However, you can also make do with any other stabilising surface, whether that’s the top of a fence, a nearby paving stone or anywhere else you can safely place your phone. Again, a more stable camera will lead to fewer issues with focusing and more pleasing photos

3. Use the grid to frame your shots

There’s a rather well known principle in photography called “The Rule Of Thirds”, which breaks up the image into a grid pattern. Generally speaking, placing objects of interest on the intersection lines of the grid leads to more eye catching images, and as an added bonus, having the grid (which only appears on the camera, not in any photos you take) makes it very easy to level out landscape shots to avoid wonky angles.

For iPhones, you’ll find the Grid option within Settings>Camera>Grid, while on Android phones it’s usually a setting within the camera app itself.

Someone taking a photo on their phone of a family sitting at a table outside.

4. Lock down your focus

For most photos, you probably know exactly what you’d like to have in crystal sharp focus, and where other areas could be more pleasingly soft. However, your phone doesn’t know this, and has to make its best effort guess based on what it sees in the shot.

You can pick a focus point by tapping on the screen of your phone before shooting, but if you hold your finger there, you’ll lock its automatic focus and exposure point to wherever you left it “looking”, even if you then move the camera slightly. This will also (typically) bring up an exposure dial, sometimes represented as a sun icon, so you can change the exposure and give your shot more or less light.

They might seem like small tweaks, but they can turn an overexposed, blurry shot into something with real focus and character very quickly.

5. Shoot video now to get photos later

If you’re trying to shoot a tricky subject – and especially if it’s a moving subject – you may find your phone struggles to grab focus at just the right time. There are pro settings you can use to try to help with this, and many phones offer a burst mode to take lots of sequential shots, but the other way to handle this is to shoot video instead, even if you’ve no intent of keeping a home movie anyway.

Video will capture sequential images, because that’s what it is, allowing you to spend more time thinking about which of those shots you’d like after the fact. You can either then screenshot your video on playback for a quickly “taken” photo of a specific moment, or slice it up on your computer after the fact for more fine-grained control.

6. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

One of the great changes that digital cameras have brought to photography is the ability to play around at essentially no additional cost. Each photo costs you nothing until you print it (if you ever do), and you can instantly see which shots have worked and which haven’t. As such, it can be immensely rewarding to simply experiment with your phone’s camera modes, even the “Pro” modes. If you take a shot you don’t like, you can bin it in seconds, but even the dud shots can make you think about improving your photographic technique, little by little.

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Photo of Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.