How to take better smartphone photos

May 8, 2021

Your guide
A keen photographer for over 15 years, Callum McInerney-Riley is a former Technical Writer on Amateur Photographer. He now runs a company that creates photography and video content for a host of large brands. See his website here.  

My relationship with my bag full of camera kit is like that of a carpenter and their tools. A carpenter doesn’t carry a drill around every day on the off-chance they can knock up a bookcase. I am the same with my heavy DSLR kit. I won’t burden myself with all that gear unless I have a purpose, good subject matter, and good light.

My smartphone is with me all the time, however, and has given me the freedom to shoot more, worry less and have more fun with photography.

A classic landscape, taken on a phone

Know your limits
This said, understanding the limitations of your smartphone is also essential. It will help you better select the times and location that you shoot in. You have to accept that you are going to be under-gunned on occasions and you won’t capture every shot perfectly. If you abide by the principles of good photography, however, you can capture incredible images in situations that you probably wouldn’t have even dragged your DSLR out the bag for.

By the time I had fished out my main camera I would have missed this shot but it was easily caught on my phone

Optimise image quality
Smartphone sensors have to be crammed into very slim devices and this means they are generally much smaller than you would find in a designated camera. For this reason, the dynamic range, ISO performance, and rendering of finer details are not as good in comparison to those cameras with larger sensors.

So, to nail a professional-looking photograph you have to shoot in a way that allows you to maximise the technical abilities of your smartphone.

Even a technically difficult scene can be captured using a smartphone. This was shot using the Sony Xperia 5 II using the Photo Pro camera in RAW and edited in Adobe Lightroom CC.

Shoot in raw
One way to get better smartphone images is to shoot in raw format rather than JPEG. Lots of smartphones now have the option to shoot raw in the camera settings menu. A good quality file is going to give you the ability to manipulate colours, shadows, highlights and tone with far more control than a JPEG. Smartphone JPEGs commonly have heavy processing applied so it’s much better to be in control of that yourself.

Using the Xperia 5 II’s Pro Camera App, I was able to shoot with a slow shutter speed and keep the ISO low. That’s given me maximum dynamic range and a good quality raw file for editing this image.

Use manual camera mode
Many smartphones allow you to shoot with manual controls. Often, it’s called something like ‘Pro’ mode when you launch your smartphone’s default camera app.

If you don’t have this, you can always use a third-party app such as Adobe Lightroom Mobile or ProShot, which is available on both IOS and Android.

Using manual mode will give you more control in comparison to the automatic modes. It varies from smartphone to smartphone, but you can usually control shutter speed, ISO, metering and exposure compensation in the app. Slow shutter speeds are great when you can stabilise the camera in some way as you can get more interesting landscape images in low light without having to crank up the ISO and degrade the image quality.

There are many mini-tripods for smartphones or adaptors which enable you to affix the phone to your main tripod.

It’s worth mentioning here that the ISO sweet spot for good image quality is usually below ISO 400 for a smartphone.

Use the Histogram to guide exposure
If you want skies with nice detail, or to pick out detail in shadowy areas, then getting the right exposure is so important. Shooting with the histogram turned on is a really good way to ensure you are not losing too much detail in the areas you care about. Again, you should find this in your camera settings menu.

It helps to ensure your images aren’t clipped in the highlights and shadows. If the histogram is all bunched up on the left, then we know the shadow areas are too dark – unless that is what we are going for.

My bugbear though is blown-out sky detail. When there is a large area touching the right side of the histogram, there’s probably no detail to be saved even in raw files. Make sure you use exposures with a good balance and let the histogram guide you.

Balancing the exposure is so important if you want those colours to stand out.

Using the Xperia 5 II’s Pro Camera App, I was able to shoot with a slow shutter speed and keep the ISO low. That’s given me maximum dynamic range and a good quality raw file for editing this final image.

Edit your shots
Now for the finishing touches. There are a variety of apps available but generally, I prefer Adobe Lightroom Mobile. I like the way it syncs to Lightroom CC on my laptop and I can view my images on a big screen and tweak them before I share them. Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop mobile are also fantastic and will work just as well. Editing will allow you to make the most of golden sunlight, bring out detail in skies, enhance the colours and be creative.

I always try and work a bit of colour science into my edits. This orange and blue edit works well together

Look for light
You can have the most technical know-how and the best kit in the world… but if your scene is boring and the light is ‘bad,’ your image will be uninspiring. First light or even before is great for travel photography as places are usually less crowded and the light is usually good.

You’ve heard it 1000 times – but shooting at golden hour is a sure-fire way of nailing some amazing shots. Especially in touristy places.

The late evening has great potential too. Find good light, take great images – it’s a very basic tenet of photography but without it, your shots are going to be dull.

Why this image works

Capturing the amazing predawn colour of the sky is what really makes this image. The blue, pink, and purple tones marry together well.

The secret to capturing an image like this to ensure you have all the information you can capture in the sky. I kept a close eye on the histogram for this and made sure my exposure was bright enough to capture detail in the foreground but not so bright that I lost colour information in the sky.

When it came to post-production, I used a gradient filter in Adobe Lightroom CC to darken the sky down and enhance those colours.

The fab four: essential tips for better smartphone photos

Use the grid for composition
Without a viewfinder, it can be difficult to compose your shots and get everything evenly within the frame. Turning on gridlines in your camera app settings can help you with composition and ensure you don’t have to crop too much in post-production.

Use your main camera
Many of the latest smartphones have an array of cameras with different uses. While the telephoto lens might get you closer to the action, it usually relies on an inferior sensor or lens to your main camera. Stick to the main unit for the best results.

Use spot metering
For speed, use spot metering, touching the interesting area you want to expose for – tapping areas of bright sky or shadowy foreground elements will ensure your exposure is good. You can adjust the rest of the image in post-production but you can’t get back picture information in a blown-out sky.

Edit creatively
Your style is subjective and you can do what you like with the image once you have captured it. However, adjusting highlights, shadows, exposure and manipulating colours, sharpening, contrast and tonality will all make your image pop. Be playful with editing and find a look you really like.

Best Smartphone Cameras

There is a lot of choice out there, but here are our favourites for serious photography

  • OnePlus 8 Pro – A great phone overall with a 48-million-pixel main camera and fantastic dynamic range.
  • Sony Xperia 5 II – A lot of smart technology has gone into this phone’s camera and software, including a 12-million-pixel Exmor RS sensor and Photo Pro app for advanced manual controls.
  • Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max – A hefty price tag upwards of £1099 but undoubtedly one of the best smartphone cameras out there
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 20 – Scooping Smartphone Camera Of The Year at the Amateur Photographer Awards, the Note 20 delivers excellent colour and tonality.
  • Google Pixel 5 – A solid all-rounder with great software in-camera and impressive technical specifications. Also very reasonably priced at £599.

Further reading
Best smartphones for photography

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