Quick 'n Dirty Smartphone Photography Tips

By Chris Mills on at

Taking good photos with a smartphone is, at heart, pretty much the same as taking good photos with anything -- it's not a simple art. But that said, smartphones, with their touch interfaces and tiny little sensors have some particular quirks it's worth paying attention to.


Touch to Focus AND Meter

Metering is the way in which the camera decides how much light to let into the camera. On a fancy-ass DSLR, this is set in a number of exciting ways; on a smartphone, generally, the thing you tap on to focus is what the phone meters off of.

Despite the fact that it's therefore ridiculously easy to get the metering more or less right, I've still seen almost literally hundreds of photos where someone's face is pitch-black, but the tiny pinprick of light they're posing next to comes out perfectly.


Clean Your Lens

Because, duh. Smartphone lens covers tend to be made of sapphire crystal, which is both very tough and very expensive -- meaning, it won't get scratched easily at all, and a quick polish-up with a microfibre cloth and some Windex will have it clear in no time. No-one likes selfies with a greasy fingerprint superimposed on top.


Be Intelligent With The Light

The biggest drawback of any smartphone camera is that itsy-bitsy sensor. The bigger the sensor, the more light is easily gathered, and the better your low-light photos will probably look. Smartphone sensors are tiny, so they're terrible in low light, often producing blurry and noisy images.

Simple solutions include: balance your phone on something stable to reduce the blur that comes with a long exposure; turn on the actual lights; maybe use your flash; or orient people more intelligently towards the light (so the light is coming from behind you, illuminating the thing you want to snap a piccie of).


Don't Be Afraid of HDR

HDR is high dynamic range imaging. Basically, it's a software way of compensating for the fact that there are both bright and dark things in a photo: rather than taking just one photo, at one exposure, the camera takes three exposures in quick succession, then takes the best bits from all three and stitches them together.

Pro photographers often hate on HDR, for the 'unreal' images they produce. That's no reason not to use it, though -- for any kind of static image that incorporates both bright and dark stuff (say, your friend standing in front of a nighttime skyline), HDR is a godsend.

The only time not to use HDR is when your subject is moving. In that instance, because of the three different photos being stitched together, you'll get horrible motion blur.


Use Flash Sparingly

Even on the iPhone 5S, with it's lah-di-dah highfalutin two-system flash, camera flashes are pretty terrible. They don't illuminate much, they're harsh, and wash out almost everything in existence. There are cases where the flash is maybe worthwhile, like in a club (but hey, you're not exactly going to be taking good photos there anyway!), but in general, better photos can be achieved by turning the flash off, and trying to improve the light without resorting to that yucky LED on the back.


Digital Zoom

Are you using Nokia's megapixelicious Lumia 1020 or Sony's gargantuan Xperia Z1? If the answer is a gently-pixellated 'no', then you're not allowed to use digital zoom. No. Stop it. It's a terrible, awful blight that will make your picture literally not at all better. If you absolutely have to, just crop after you've taken the picture, since that's all you're really doing -- blowing up individual pixels, and making your photo horribly blocky in the process.


Use The Hardware Button

This sounds like a minor change -- and honestly, it is -- but it can make an unwarrantably large difference. Most phones allow you to use one of the hardware buttons -- normally, volume up or down -- as the shutter release. Make use of it. Once you've got the shot all set up and ready to go, one of the biggest helps you can give your phone is to keep deathly still while you're taking the actual photos. Moving your index finger down to tap the shutter release is a much bigger movement than just pressing the shutter release, and can often contribute to the blur that curses much smartphone photography. Pressing one little button is a far smaller movement, and more controllable.

This week, we're expanding minds and dispensing some of Gizmodo UK's favourite tips, with a "how to" theme week, in association with O2 Guru TV. Bookmark this page for all related features.


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