How to Take Better Photos With Your Camera Phone

Camera phones have come a loooong way. Some of my favorite images I was able to capture with my phone (partly because it’s the one camera I always have with me).

Photo taken with my iPhone of Boston, Massachusetts, from the Skywalk Observatory in the Prudential Center. By Kim Olson

Photo taken with my iPhone of Boston, Massachusetts, from the Skywalk Observatory in the Prudential Center.

Compare the above image taken with an iPhone with the one below, taken with a Blackberry a few years ago.

Photo of San Francisco, California taken with a Blackberry phone.

Photo of San Francisco, California taken with a Blackberry phone.

You can probably tell that camera phones used to take really crappy photos. The above image has a weird quality to it – almost like it was a watercolor painting with no defined details.

Needless to say, I’m thankful things have improved considerably. I had a friend blow up an iPhone photo onto a canvas that was about 16×20” and it looked great. Not just acceptable but actually great.

Because so many people had been raving about how well their phones captured images, for some reason I thought that the transition to taking photos with my iPhone would be seamless and similar to taking photos with a compact camera, or point-and-shoot. But that was a mistake for a couple of reasons:

  1. Camera phones are phones primarily and taking photos is only a secondary function. That means you’re not really gonna get the same quality you will with a dedicated camera.
  2. Because the camera phone is quick and convenient, I think it tends to make us a bit lazier in taking photos. I think we’re a lot quicker to just pull out the camera and snap away, and don’t put in as much effort into actually making a decent image.

So, due to the inherent limitations of using a phone that happens to also be a camera, we need to treat the way we take photos a little differently.

 

5 Tips on Taking Better Photos With Your Camera Phone

 

1. Stabilize Your Camera By Using Two Hands.

I’ve found it’s actually pretty hard to take a photo with my camera phone with just one hand versus two. But I think many of us are still so quick to just take a quick snap that we kinda forget to hold ‘er steady.

Camera phones unfortunately don’t have the same fancy stabilizers that your DSLR or point-and-shoot cameras and lenses do, so they’re more susceptible to shaky hands. This means you need to be more careful in holding your phone steady as you take the image.

Believe me, you’ll be happy to find that you have more sharp images and fewer blurry ones.

Bottom Line: Hold steady at all times.

Photo of Sunset at Washington Park in Denver, Colorado by Kim Olson

Because it was sunset, there wasn’t much light in the scene and I needed to be extra sure to hold my phone steady so I wouldn’t get unwanted camera shake. (Photo of Sunset at Washington Park in Denver, Colorado by Kim Olson)

2. Limit Your Zooming.

As of this writing, most camera phones are only capable of digital zooming and not optical zooming. And digital zooming is awful. It essentially just crops out the edges of the frame and leaves you with an ugly, pixelated image.

So, this means that even though your camera seems like it’s capable of “zooming” you should pretend that it isn’t. If you do this, you’ll still have the ability to zoom by using your feet – and some would argue that that’s the better method of the two, anyway.

Bottom line: Don’t zoom (or do so on very rare occasions).

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine by Kim Olson

To get a better shot of the lighthouse with my phone without zooming, I wandered all around the grounds until I found this composition. (Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine by Kim Olson)

3. Anticipate Shutter Lag.

Another thing I noticed about my camera phone is that it’s quite slow to actually take the photo once you press the button. This is called shutter lag.

If you know that your camera phone suffers from this, the best you can do is to try to anticipate the shot and be ready to push the button a moment before you want the camera to take the photo. I know this sounds a bit tricky (and it is) but just knowing that the delay is imminent may help you be better prepared.

Bottom Line: Be prepared to shoot before you need to shoot.

Dog running in the snow in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Kim Olson

To get this action shot of my dog running in the snow towards me, I really needed to anticipate when she would be in that exact spot so I could press the shutter in time. (Photo by Kim Olson)

4. Use Your Finger to Select Your Focus Point.

On my DSLR it’s a given for me that I choose my own focus point, but on my compact camera, I let it choose where to focus for me. I assumed that would be the way to go with my camera phone, too.

While some phones do a decent job of focusing on the subject it thinks you want to focus on, you can’t always trust it.

So the best way to get focus on what you want to focus on is to do it yourself. Most phones give you this option and it’s as simple as tapping the screen to select the area you want in focus.

Bottom Line: Select your own focus for more control.

Photo of a lily taken with my iPhone by Kim Olson

I was able to get a really lovely photo of this lily by selecting the petals as my focus point. And as a bonus I also got a nice shallow depth of field.

5. Don’t Expect Good Images at Night.

Much as I’d like it to, my camera phone doesn’t perform miracles. And it doesn’t take very good images at night, either.

I’ve tried taking photos at dusk and then later when the sun has set but I’ve basically given up using my phone at night for any serious image taking. It has a lot of trouble focusing and when it does eventually take a photo, the image is really grainy/noisy and unusable.

That doesn’t mean that as a last resort it won’t work, but if you plan to go somewhere that’ll be dark and hope to just bring your camera phone instead of a “real” camera, know that your photos will probably not look all that great.

Bottom Line: Camera phones are best utilized when there’s lots of light (aka daytime).

Night shot of Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado.

Night shot of Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado.

5. Don’t Rely on Your Camera Phone Providing Good Light.

When I did try to use the camera phone at night and found it wouldn’t take the photo at all or would take a really poor-quality image, I thought, “Hey! This thing has a flash. I’ll just use that.”

Turns out the flash is pretty crummy, too. I mean, how can it really be all that great when coming out of a tiny little phone? Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than nothing, but high-quality images it does not do well.

So, yes, you can use the camera phone’s flash and it will help illuminate your subject when it’s dark, but you’ll probably end up with a less-than-stellar image.

Bottom Line: Limit your use of flash.

Not awesome photo using the flash on an iPhone, but it did the job in a pinch.

Not an awesome photo using the flash on an iPhone, but it did the job in a pinch. Of course I could’ve edited their eyes and removed some grain, but I wanted to show you the raw image straight from the phone.

To Sum Up

It took me a while to learn how to better utilize this awesome little camera that I basically have with me everywhere I go.

And while my tips may seem like they point out the camera’s limitations, it’s only because I wrongly expected it to do it all for me. That’s my fault.

Hopefully you’ll find some of these helpful and will see noticeable improvements in your camera phone images once you start employing them.

This Week’s Challenge

Whether you’re a pro at using your camera phone or perhaps the new owner of one, see if you can apply one or more of these tips to improve your images this week.

Have fun & happy shooting!

Share Your Work

Once you’ve played around and taken some photographs, feel free to come back and share your favorite by posting a link to your photo in the comments below.

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5 Responses to How to Take Better Photos With Your Camera Phone

  1. Traveling Well For Less February 23, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Great tips especially the last two, definitely explains why my iPhone inside photos come out horrible.

    • Kim February 25, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

      Definitely – when I first started taking photos at night I was so disappointed with how crappy they looked. But, I guess I can’t expect it to do everything and at least the other stuff it does do pretty well! :)

  2. Carol March 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    I just started using my cell phone as a camera. I have been frustrated with the pictures. These tips are very helpful. Thanks!

    • Kim March 10, 2013 at 10:05 am #

      I had the same problem, but these things definitely helped. Hope it works for you, too!

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  1. First Glimpses of the Wildlife in Anchorage | Travel + Photography + Simplicity :: Kim Olson Photography - April 17, 2013

    […] Sadly, I didn’t have my DSLR so I had to take the photos with my phone, but they didn’t turn out very well at all or I’d show you (doesn’t help that phones take really crappy photos when you zoom). […]