How to take good photos with your phone

Follow these tips and tricks to take the best photos with your phone

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Never use digital zoom

Another thing that should be avoided at all cost is the digital zoom function on your camera. This is because the zoom function on most phones doesn’t work in the same way a normal camera would. When you use a camera with optical zoom, the lens adjusts its inner optical elements, enabling it to increase or decrease its focal length. The digital zoom on a smartphone doesn’t do this. Instead, it merely zooms into the photo by effectively cropping in, making subjects appear closer, but with a loss in fidelity. Admittedly the digital zoom in the latest phones, such as the iPhone XS, have improved, but we would still avoid it.

The only good way to photograph something far away is to actually get closer. For example, here is the same subject photographed with the digital zoom, and then photographed again up close.

Notice how the first photo has far less definition than the second. The details are blurrier, the colors a bit washed out, and overall it’s a subpar image. Moving closer to the subject preserves the image quality. If you can’t move closer, you’re better off taking a regular photo and cropping the final image in post-production. You’re effectively doing the same thing.

Camera modes, HDR, and RAW

When using the default camera app, you might notice there are various “modes” to choose from, as well as an automatic option. It’s likely that most people simply leave the app on auto. This lets the camera adjust settings based on on a variety of factors within the environment, from exposure to color temperature. That’s fine if you’re casually shooting something quickly. But sometimes you need a little more from your camera.

Using specific modes can help you take better portraits, create panoramas, and more. Try browsing through the various settings within your camera app of choice and figure out what mode best fits the scene you’re trying to capture or style you’re hoping to replicate.

One of the more useful settings is HDR, or High Dynamic Range. This is a form of image capture and processing that helps your camera balance the highlights and shadows in a scene, thus allowing it to create images that better resemble how the human eye sees an image.

Although it varies from app to app and from one smartphone manufacturer to another, more often than not, the HDR function takes three photos – a darker image, a lighter image, and a neutral image – and smashes them together, producing an image that clearly conveys all the highs and lows of the scene. This is a useful tool for some situations, such as photographing landscapes or backlit scenes, though it can cause problems when you’re photographing moving subjects or scenes with lots of vibrant color.

Newer smartphones and operating systems, let you dive even further into capture and creative modes. They mimic shooting modes you would find in an advanced camera, such as aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual, as well as ISO (sensitivity) and white balance. Using these manual settings gives you greater control over the final image, instead of handing the wheel completely to the autopilot. Casual users will find this overkill, but in certain situations, it may come in handy. Still, a phone is not like a “normal” camera, so don’t expect the same performance, but it gives more advanced users some flexibility.

Another pro-like feature is uncompressed RAW capture, which many phones now offer. Almost all smartphones save photos as compressed JPEGs, a common file standard. While JPEGs are fine for most uses, RAW photo formats give you more post-processing opportunities, since it’s retaining a lot more data than the compressed JPEG files. You can pull out more information from the highlights and shadows, more accurately adjust white balance, and overall pull more from the image without losing quality as you would with a JPEG.

Experiment with different editing apps, and saving the photos

best raw camera apps android ios iphone vsco
Screenshot from the popular Android and iPhone photo editing app VSCO

One of the more snide reactions during the early days of Instagram has been to lament how people simply throw random filters on to photos, giving the pretense of art without any sort of deeper intent. While it’s true that Instagram and other image-editing apps have given the average smartphone photographer tools that they might not know how to use correctly, that should not reflect poorly on the tools themselves.

Critics once decried the creation of electronic instruments, but rather than destroy music, they have only added additional layers to the creative process. The same holds true for image-editing software. When used properly, filters and digital editing can be a great tool for expression. In addition to the stock camera apps, there are are multitude other camera apps available for Android and iOS devices, as well as apps for editing photos. Experiment with different apps and tools to find the best look for the job.

Remember that photography is an art, and like any art, knowing the rules is important, as is breaking them. Use the aforementioned tips to improve your photos, but do not be afraid to experiment.

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