Some of you probably remember that jaw-dropping news item circa 2005 revealing that Nokia had become the world’s biggest manufacturer of cameras. Since then the phone camera has only gone from strength to strength, devouring huge chunks of market share and revenues from traditional camera makers such as Canon and Nikon.
With recent advances in computational photography, many of the flagship phones these days from Apple, Google and Samsung can take breathtaking pictures. But most of us can’t afford those flagship phones and have to make do with the more modest snappers in budget- and mid-range phones.
While these are objectively far less capable devices, there are still a few ways in which you can extract the very best out of these, and take great photographs for your Instagram feed. As a user of one such mid-range phone with a mediocre camera, I’ve had to employ many of these methods to keep my social media feeds vaguely interesting. So let me list out a few.
The first and most critical element in wringing every last bit of performance out of your phone camera (whatever grade it may be) is to give it as much light as possible. Despite the recent trend of phonemakers such as Huawei and Xiaomi (and even Apple) introducing bigger sensors, the phone camera sensor fundamentally is tiny, the biggest of them a fraction of the size you’d find in a professional-grade DSLR.
All else being the same, the smaller the sensor the more light it needs to produce good results. Now the fancy flagship phones use all kinds of computational wizardry to compensate for this. You just have to look at night-mode photos from the latest iPhones or Pixels to see this magic, but sadly this kind of wizardry is restricted to top-end phones. So the great levelling move available to the rest of us is to simply resort to good old-fashioned physics and light that scene up!
Open the curtains, open a window, open three windows, move the whole shoot to the balcony, to the backyard, to the road, move the subject closer to the window, turn on all the lights in your room, move the subject from being lit from the back to being lit from the front, bring that old table lamp from the study to the bedroom, or vice versa, do whatever you can to make sure that the subject is lit with as much light as possible.
Unless you’re in a dimly lit bar (remember bars?) where you can’t do much, there are always multiple simple ways to increase the amount of light falling on your subject. A few seconds of thinking and moving is usually all it takes to make the difference between a nicely lit picture and a splodgy mess.
Steady your hands
Another critical component of a good, sharp photograph is a steady camera. Optical image stabilisation, a feature that uses mechanical methods to compensate for camera shake, used to be the preserve of flagship phones but has now trickled down to the mid-range segment (even if not quite to the budget segment), but even that has its limits, especially when the available light begins to drop.
Therefore, try and keep your phone as steady as possible. If you can’t hold your phone steady free-hand, try and rest your elbows on a table, or rest the phone itself on a surface, to get a steady shot. An unsteady phone will more often than not lead to a blurry shot, so it’s worth putting a little bit of effort to ensure you’re getting the sharpest shot possible.
Tap to focus
When you try to take a picture with your phone, it attempts to automatically identify what the subject is, focuses on it, and sets brightness for the image accordingly. But this is, at best, an imperfect science. Leaving this decision to your device can sometimes result in a badly focused and/or badly lit image, particularly in more tricky situations. The solution for this is to tap on the subject before taking the picture. Tapping on the subject tells the phone precisely who or what the subject of your photograph is, so it can make decisions on focus and brightness in a more reliable way. This is even more important when you’re taking pictures of inanimate objects, because phones are a little better at identifying faces and focusing on them.
Do not use the flash
This is a corollary to my first piece of advice. Yes, the phone camera needs light, but the worst kind of light you could give it is the phone flash. Phone flashes are small, harsh blasts of light that more often than not bathe the subject in a ghoulish, unflattering glow, especially if it’s a human subject. Therefore, unless you’re an insurance surveyor or someone who quickly needs to get a discernible image of the subject with no regard for aesthetics, keep that phone flash off. Use any other method to augment the light available (see point 1).
This is actually a somewhat vast subject, but there are a few shortcuts to remember. Firstly, turn on the camera grid lines (almost all phone cameras allow for this, just poke around in your settings or Google how to do it for your particular model). These lines do two things. Firstly they help you to use the “rule of thirds” to compose your image. Without going into much detail, just remember to position the most interesting aspect of the frame, along or at the intersection of these lines. Secondly they help you align the frame neatly. Try and make sure the lines in your image are parallel to the grid lines, to get a more pleasing image.
If you’re shooting a human subject, try and make sure they’re not too far from the camera and therefore too small in the frame. If you’re shooting a plate of food, try a straight above view or a forks-eye view, at a 45-degree angle to the plate. But do make the effort to play with the composition to arrive at a visually pleasing image. There’s no harm taking a dozen different compositions of the same subject and picking out the best looking one for your Instagram.
If you want to take a selfie, a mirror selfie will almost always look more flattering. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is simply that the rear cameras of phones are much better than the front cameras. The second is that using the selfie camera puts it too close to the subject, causing perspective distortion and a broadening of your features. Using the rear camera and a mirror lengthens the apparent distance between the lens and subject and results in a much more flattering image. Just remember to scrub the mirror clean of smudges and specks.
Edit the photos
All phones have built-in photo editing tools, but it’s usually worth downloading something a bit more capable, like Snapseed (which is free). Try and bump up the contrast and/or the saturation judiciously, and fiddle with the white balance (making the image warmer or cooler, or changing its tint) so that it looks nicer or more closer to reality. Be careful not to go too far with this because it’s easy to make things look overprocessed and unrealistic. Remember to use the real-life scene as your benchmark when editing a photo. But do fiddle around and understand what these apps are capable of, so you can improve your pictures.
These are just some of the methods that I employ when using my camera phone, and I hope you find them useful. I’m sure there are other hacks and shortcuts you have encountered while using your phone cameras, and if you have such tips, please do tweet them out to me, so I can also try them out.
Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.