Ever since phones starting shipping with built-in cameras the number of photos taken every year has increased to the hundreds of billions. Facebook alone reported approximately 300 million photos added every day during months in 2012. Instagram boasts 45 million photos per day and 16 billion photos shared. One would assume, with all the pictures we’re taking, that we’re all getting better and better at taking photos. But if you’re frustrated with taking great shots of sunsets, or just want some ideas to improve your smartphone photos, take a look at these 10 tips below.

1. Get your subject in the light


Smartphones and cheaper digital cameras are notorious for having lenses and image sensors that just don’t capture light as well as professional systems. The answer is, simply, to move your subject into better lighting. Who ever said you have to take a photo exactly where your subjects are standing? Move them around, arrange them closer to light sources, or turn on any available lights nearby.

2. Avoid squinting eyes

Clint Squint

When you are outside on a bright day, don’t have your subject facing the sun. If you do, they’re likely to be squinting. And, sunglasses don’t always make the best portraits. Sunglasses and squinting won’t help take a better portrait. Turn your subjects so the sun is to their side (not back), and use flash to soften the shadow (if your smarphone allows).

3. Shoot on cloudy days

Cloudy Day

When there is cloud cover, you essentially have an enormous light box above your subjects. Cloud cover can create nice even lighting free of harsh shadow areas. Even cheap cameras can take great pictures in even lighting.

4. Turn off the darn flash


There is nothing worse than a harsh flash ruining nice analog lighting. (See the image below of an orchid first with flash and second without. Notice the harsh shadows behind the plant, and notice how it looks flat and almost dead when compared to natural lighting.) Most smartphones have a flash, but it points directly at your subject, flattening their faces, creating harsh shadows behind them, and in low-light situations turning their eyes green. Who wants that? Personally, the only time I utilize my flash is when I’m using a flashlight app. There are times however, where you might want to use flash. See the tip on using flash in low light situations further in the article.

5. Set your image quality

Your phone should let you set the image quality of your photos. Look at the settings for your camera and set to the highest quality resolution. When you increase the resolution, you’ll use up the memory on your phone a lot quicker. But if you want higher quality images to work with, and possibly make prints from, you’ll want to max out the camera’s capable resolution.

6. Make sure your image is in focus

out of focus photo

Unless you’re looking to create moody, Impressionistic types of images that lack detail, you’ll want to be sure your camera is in focus before taking the shot. Watch the LCD display. Wait for the subject to be in focus. Then take the shot. There are apps you can use to selectively focus areas in your image. More on apps later. Photo credit

7. Exposure


The basic exposure controls in most smartphones are not going to give you a ton of options. But there are a couple tricks to make sure your camera is exposing the image the way you want. Check out the two photos below. These were made on an iPhone and show how you can expose for different areas of the image. In the first image, the camera automatically takes an exposure from the center of the image. But look how the inside of the room is so dark. That’s because the camera wants to expose for the brightness outside the window. For the second image, I simply touched the display and moved the focus of the image to the bottom where the chair is. That caused the camera to expose for the inside of the room where it’s much darker. But you can see how exposing for the inside completely overexposes the outside. Exposure has a lot to do with what your intentions are for the image. The same holds true for taking pictures of sunsets. Adjust your exposure to meter for the sunset, not the foreground, and you’ll be shooting better sunsets in no time.

8. Use a tripod (or jerry-rig one)

tripod photo

If you want a sharp image, use a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, make due with what you have. You probably know smartphones do not come with built-in tripod mounts like SLRs or compact point-and-shoot cameras. You can either buy an external attachment with tripod mount, or steady your camera as best you can with whatever options you have around. You can lean your camera against a pole, stabilize it on a table or desk, or even place on your forearm for more stability. You can also jerry-rig a mount using whatever hardware you have available. I’ve used a Bogen clamp attached to a light stand to stabilize an iPhone and it worked great. (Make sure your iPhone is protected with a case though if attaching any hardware that could damage it.) The bottom line is, the more stable your camera the sharper your image.

9. When to use flash

Previously, I told you to turn off your flash. I guarantee you’ll be happier with the results in good lighting situations. Well, here are a couple instances where you should probably turn on flash. The first instance is when there is no light. Obvious right? Well, if you need a photo and there is no light you won’t see anything without it. So, turn it on! Flash will also help you see more detail in low-light situations, and is extremely useful as a practical device rather than aesthetic.

You may also want to try using flash in situations where you want a little bit more light on the subject. Let’s say your subject is standing under a tree. You might not like the spotty lighting the branches and leaves are creating. Flash can be used to soften or even remove those shadows. Fashion photographers often use flash to flatten the light on their subject’s face, or even overexpose, so the model’s clothing is the focus of the image.

Another instance you might turn on flash is when you’re in a harsh lighting situation (like on beach with a super bright sun). You could turn on the flash to help soften the shadows on your subject. The only catch is, most smartphones don’t allow you to “force” flash. In these situations the phone’s imaging software determines there is enough light for the photo and will not use the flash. This is unfortunate, but smartphones are far from professional tools.

10. Download an app

best camera app

There are plenty of camera apps out there for Apple iOS and Android devices. Apps can help you selectively focus areas in your image, control exposure, color balance, and . I’ve messed around with several for the iPhone including Camera+, ProCamera, and even the free olloclip app (which is meant to be used with olloclip lens attachments). They can all help you take better pictures before before writing to memory, and therefore lessening post-production time after.

I hope these tips give you some ideas. If you’ve got additional questions on taking better photos with your smartphone, or want to add to the conversation, please post your comments below.

Intro image courtesy of Wired

Jeff Chabot

Jeff Chabot has a background in web development and design, as well as working in broadcast television as a studio engineer, lighting director and editor. He frequently writes about technology, broadcasting, digital entertainment, and the internet.