I get asked about some tips to get good pictures using a mobile phone camera. This article shares a few things that I have learnt while shooting exclusively with a mobile device.
I migrated from shooting with a full-sized camera to shooting exclusively with my mobile phone in 2019. With it, I had to shift my expectations. However, every year, the technology behind phone cameras continues to improve by leaps and bounds, and while in 2021, they still don’t quite match a DSLR, they do offer an acceptable high degree of quality for most use cases.
With that, here are a few of my tips for getting good pictures using a mobile phone camera.
Get an up-to-date phone camera
This is perhaps stating the obvious. With mobile photography, the capability of your device to capture great images will be the primary influencing factor on image quality. In 2021, I currently shoot with an iPhone 11 Pro, which has since been outdone by the iPhone 12 and the Samsung S12.
I also had an opportunity to compare the image quality between the iPhone 11Pro, the iPhone XS and the iPhone 7. See for yourself below. The images speak for themselves.
While you do not need to have the absolute latest device on the market, you’ll find that the difference in quality between devices that are 4 year apart are far wider than devices that are a year apart. If you’re keen to get great pictures, keep your hardware up-to-date.
Be aware of the lighting
As far as mobile phone cameras have come along, even in 2021, they still struggle in low light for the most part. Ideally, you’ll want to shoot where there is plenty of light.
This can’t always be controlled. When in low light conditions, typical issues that one will experience are underexposure, blurred images, and noise. The first two can be somewhat compensated for by keeping the camera stable – usually by placing it on a steady surface and triggering remotely. This may still result in noise, which again, to some extent, can be addressed using a noise reduction program. I personally use Imagenomic Noiseware which is available as an app for IOS.
Composition is Key
This is something that applies to photography regardless of what you shoot with, and is perhaps more important than the quality of your phone camera. Capturing your image well sets a great starting point for an image.
This is as simple as holding or placing your camera properly.
Perspectives matter. Don’t just shoot from your eye level and consider to go low, or go high. This is particularly the case when photographing animals or young children. Get down to their level to connect with them. When you shoot from above, you’ll cause foreshortening which can be undesirable. This also extends to adults. When shooting a full-body image, get your camera to the level of their chests to minimize any foreshortening.
Be mindful of whether you want to go wide to show scale, or zoom in to show detail. Depending on what you’re photographing, you may find that placing the subject to the side of the frame will make it look a lot more aesthetically pleasing than having it dead centre. Also consider how much void space you have in the frame and whether it is meaningful to the overall image.
Using environmental patterns help bring focus in an image. Leading lines are some of the most common patterns that help lead a viewer’s eye to a subject.
Other patterns that also work are diagonals, arcs, arches, and circles. Be mindful of the patterns that you have in your environment and take advantage of them.
Images aren’t always shot horizontally. Sometimes, you need to change your perspective. Where the opportunity arises, consider shooting from above (like a bridge for under-passing subjects)…
… or from below (like stairwells, ceilings, and openings). Also when shooting from below, a fisheye lens is amazing to give you 180° field of view.
Use a foreground element. This is particularly the case for landscapes which can be a tad boring if all you see is a wide open space. A foreground element very often helps convey a story.
Reflections are cool! Enough said. Also – consider venturing out just after it has rained to take advantage of any puddles that have formed on concrete or asphalt.
Big Curves call for a fisheye lens. They help exaggerate the physical form and add depth. If you don’t have a fisheye lens, you can fake it using panorama mode.
When photographing food, remember to arrange the items in aesthetically pleasing patterns. Be mindful of the lighting and avoid dark shadows that can ruin an image. If possible, use props to add context to the image. Consider shooting or portrait mode to bring the focus to the food item on display.
When shooting moving subjects like water or traffic, use a long exposure. This is particularly pleasing when shooting in low light conditions. This is essential when photographing lightning.
When photographing a subject, photograph them straight on, or photograph them at a well-defined angle. Just be sure to commit to your perspective. Do not try to do both… you’ll end up doing neither.
Also – it’s important that horizon lines are horizontal and that square corners are square. This sometimes requires perspective correction in post processing.
As mobile photography has become more popular, there are an increasing number of accessories available to push the boundaries of what you can do with your phone camera. Here are a few accessories that are available.
Lenses and filters
In 2021, several higher end mobile phones come with multiple lenses. There are certain lenses that still haven’t been incorporated into mobile phones. These include a good macro lens, a fish-eye lens, and an anamorphic lens. While several places will sell cheap variants of these lenses for about $15, I have found that image quality severely degrades while using such lenses.
If you are going to get external lenses for your mobile phones, I recommend the ones made by Moment. They’re a company in Seattle that makes cases that will allow you to mount lenses onto your phone cameras, and offer a wide-angle lens, a tele lens, a macro lens, a fish-eye lens, and an anamorphic lens (which is particularly useful for shooting video). They’re pricier than what your local mobile accessory shop will typically sell, but the image quality they provide makes it worth it. Moment lenses require a Moment case to mount them against the camera lens. They currently support iPhones (from the iPhone 8), Google Pixel phones, Samsung Galaxy S (from the S9) and Note (from the Note 8) phones, and the OnePlus 6, 6T and 7 Pro.
Moment also makes a 62mm filter adapter that is compatible with their wide-angle and fish-eye lenses. These are great for shooting long exposure shots and when shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is really bright.
Tripods and Mounts
Consider getting a small tripod such as the ones from Manfrotto, and a mobile phone tripod mount. Another great accessory is a Z-flex tilt tripod.
These are great for triggering the camera without causing vibration. Apple devices can be triggered with an Apple Watch. All devices will respond to generic bluetooth adapters like the one shown below.
Apps and Software
Along with the hardware, there is the software to also consider. The following are a few options that are available.
The native cameras on modern phone cameras have come a long way, but they do not give one complete control over their cameras. I personally use the Moment camera app which allows me to control f-stop, shutter-speed, and ISO. It also supports bulb mode for super long exposure, and will allow for lens correction when using moment lenses.
The most comprehensive editing option is offered with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. This is a premium option that is around $120/year and offers use on both mobile and desktop platforms. It comes with 20GB of Cloud Storage, and manages your images in the Cloud. It also allows you to use custom presets to give your images a consistent look and feel. If you’re half-serious about photography, this is the best application to have for your mobile photography.
Lightroom supports presets which you can make yourself, or you can purchase from third parties. They enable on to achieve a consistent look and feel to their images with a single click.
To remove unwanted items from an image, I recommend an app called Re-Touch which is available for IOS and Android. It easily removes unwanted objects using a content aware fill algorithm all on your mobile device.
Portrait modes on phone cameras use algorithms to provide a depth of field. The Focos app does a stellar job to add depth of field for portraits and macro shots.
For Noisy images, Noiseware is my application of choice.
When you’re out and about looking to take some good photographs, you can end up wasting a lot of time if you haven’t planned ahead. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) an amazing planning tool which will tell you everything you need to know and more about sunrise, sunset, and where shadows are going to be on a particular day and time. Use this along with a Google Map to plan your outdoor photography shoots.
The Ultimate Rule
At the end of the day, you can purchase the best camera that money can buy, and all the software that is out there on the market, but if you’re not present in the moment, you’ll never get the shot. My ultimate rule for photography: “Be There!”. You won’t capture a scene unless you’re at the scene, and you won’t get the best light unless you’re there when the light is best.
Now go and have fun!