Only 3 or 4 years ago, smartphone photography was a joke. The photos were so bad that you couldn’t even post them in low resolution to be viewed on mobile devices.
Phones had a fixed lens, small sensor and an awful performance in low light conditions (and by low light I don’t mean scenarios such as concerts or something like that but even for sunrise and sunset shooting)
Recently things have changed, especially in the last two years. Who would have thought that mobile phones would shoot in RAW format, that dimension of those photos would be 30, 50 or even 108 MP and that those file sizes would be 80MB or more?
Who would imagine that you have a couple of lenses on your smartphone, one for wide-angle, standard and telezoom photos?
Can you believe this is taken with a smartphone? Check out amounts of details, sunrays, foreground, and background:
So let’s start this comprehensive guide to smartphone photography by looking at how to choose the right phone.
How to choose the best smartphone for photography
Choosing the right phone can be difficult (and often depends on your personal preferences) but the best way to start is by going to the DXO Mobile reviews and read their articles and reviews. They run sophisticated tests and are quite objective, meaning that what you read there is quite likely to happen.
Also, their test is not just for photography but also for video, so if you are videographer it can help you.
The best smartphone for photography is one that can capture images in RAW format as it stores more information that’s crucial for post-processing.
Purchasing the flagship model (not the lite version) is my second recommendation when choosing the phone. Like with normal cameras, this is more expensive but it’s worth investing in. Flagship models have the best camera, battery, chip, etc.
All brands announcing their flagships models once a year, so if you buy a new one, you have the best thing for the next 12 months.
Now that you’ve selected your phone, you’re ready to head straight out photographing. Or are you?
Preparing the best menu settings for smartphone photography
While smartphones have a pretty simple menu, they aren’t that different from the standard menus on DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. Those menus are here to help you to get better photos and to avoid errors.
The first thing you want to check in your settings menu is the resolution. I recommend setting it to the highest possible; don’t shoot 10MP if you have 40 because maybe you’ll capture a great shot and if it’s not captured at the highest resolution, you won’t get as much out of the file as preferred.
Next, if possible, shoot in RAW. The phone stores the image in both JPG and RAW when using this setting. That means you can delete all the files you don’t need later on.
Note: the RAW files on my Huawei are almost 80MB, which is 2 or 3 times larger than the raw file captured with my DSLR camera. So to save storage on your phone, delete the unwanted files.
Despite the large file sizes, photographing in RAW is essential if you want to improve your smartphone photography. Especially if you’re into landscape photography. This is because there’s so much information in highlights and shadows that you can work with. Only a little bit of editing will make the image a whole lot better than the original file.
*Tip: Most smartphones have only digital zoom. Try to avoid this, shoot in full resolution and then crop that photo in post-production – the quality of that file will be better than the quality of the photo taken with digital zoom. If you are shooting in the highest resolution, and you want to zoom or focus on something in your photo, you’ll have more pixels to crop later and that photo will have better image quality.
Turning on the Grid View and Horizontal Level
The next thing that will help you is the famous rule of thirds, an assistive grid that helps you get a better composition.
The idea is to place the most important parts of the photo on one of the intersecting lines or along them; is the sky the most interesting part of your photo? Put horizon on the lower third. Do you have good leading lines and an interesting foreground? Align the horizon to the upper third.
There are, as always, situations where you want to break the rules. One example is when you photograph reflections and place the horizon in the center to get a ’50-50 shot’. That being said, the Rule of Thirds helps you capture eye-catching and well-balanced images.
After turning the Assistive Grid on, there’s one more thing you should activate to get even better images: the Horizontal Level.
It’s easy to forget to hold your camera straight when shooting in really bright conditions and trying to correctly align your image with the grid view. The Horizontal Level tool changes its color between yellow and green to show you if the image is straight or not. Simply tilt your phone a little back and forth until it becomes green.
Be careful; there are a lot of critics out there and if the horizon is not straightened, they will mark you as an amateur...!
Using the Timer function
People tend to always think of the Timer function for taking selfies but there’s another great advantage of it too.
The latest phones have 50x zoom and, let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get a sharp image with that big of a magnification handheld. So if you want to use that much of a zoom, you’ll need a tripod for your smartphone.
Here’s a short procedure on how to do that:
- Mount your smartphone on a tripod.
- Set the timer to 2 seconds (or more)
- Adjust the composition and tap to focus
- Press the shutter button and the phone takes a delayed photo
The main reasons that you want to use a tripod and delayed shutter (especially when working with extreme zoom levels) are to avoid unwanted camera shake and to get the sharpest images possible.
Tip: adjust your focus to the subject you’re shooting; don’t just point and shoot without doing that. If you have a complex scene, with information in both the foreground and background, focus on the first third of the scene to get the maximum depth of the field and ensure that a large part of the scene will be well focused.
Choosing between color styles
Some smartphones allow you to choose between standard, vivid or smooth colors in your photos. This is in many ways similar to what we know as Picture Styles in DSLR cameras (such as landscape, portrait, standard and neutral)
There’s no right or wrong choice here and it’s not a bad idea to choose something that suits you best. However, if you intend to edit your images it’s better to leave it to the standard one and rather work on the individual color changes in post-production.
Pro Tip: Clean the lens!
Your smartphone spends most of its time in your pocket or hands. Those are not clean places and it results in a lot of dirt, grease, and fingerprints all over the lens and screen.
Make sure to clean those areas with a microfiber cloth before you start photographing. Be careful not to scratch the lens when you’re doing this.
Failing to clean the lens from dirt and fingertips will blur your photos and in some cases, you might get a lower contrast and unwanted flares.
Remember that the rules are made to help you get better photos but sometimes they should be broken.
Understanding the smartphone’s Shooting Modes
One of the differences between smartphone photography and ‘regular’ photography is the different shooting modes you can choose between. But which one should you choose? The short answer is: it depends on what you’re shooting.
So, let’s start from the beginning:
With the Aperture Mode, you can blur the background of photos to emphasize subjects that are within 2 meters of your lens.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Aperture in Landscape Photography
Using this mode is as straightforward as it comes; choose the aperture you want to use and watch the background become blurry.
If you feel that the blur is too much or too little but you’ve already taken the photo, no problem! Simply tap on the part you want to have in focus and move the slider from left to right to adjust the aperture.
For example, on my Huawei, I have an aperture range from f/0.95 to f/16 and it’s possible to edit and save as many versions as you want from the original photo.
Compare the images and see whether you like it better with an aperture of f/1.4 or f/5.6 and choose the best one. This is an especially nice feature for portrait photography.
Watch this video to see how it works:
This is a shooting mode that has amazed me.
Depending on the available light, it requires an exposure time of a few seconds. Sometimes it’s 4 seconds, other times it’s 8 seconds but the best and most unbelievable part is that you can get sharp results handheld; no camera shake, no blurred parts and if the subject is not moving too fast you’ll get it sharp too.
In Night mode, the smartphone takes several rapid photos and combines the image data to get the maximum light and color information. Utilizing AI Image Stabilization makes the resulting photos look crisp even when shot handheld, which eliminates the need to use a tripod or turn on the flash to snap a great shot.
Another impressive feature about this mode is that while it combines the photos to get more information from the shadows it also reduces burned highlights.
As the name indicates, the Portrait Mode is used for taking photos where the background is blurred. It’s similar to aperture mode but it has 2 more advantages: the Beauty and Bokeh effects.
Beauty smoothes your face (some women can’t live without that!)
Bokeh allows you to blur the background lights with shapes of circles, hearts, swirls, discs, etc. A great feature for Christmas time when everything is decorated with thousands of lights.
Tip: avoid shooting portraits (and other photos) with flash as smartphones don’t have a sophisticated flash and the shadows will look too harsh.
If you don’t have any idea how to shoot and use the various settings, simply shoot in photo mode where everything is set to auto.
Also if you have AI turn it on and the smartphone will suggest you mode for shooting. For example, if it recognizes clouds, the Blue Sky mode will turn on or if you’re out in nature, Greenery will be activated.
The Monochrome Mode can be very useful for shooting street and architecture photography or if you want to produce some fine art photos.
Some smartphones also have a Monochrome Aperture Mode, Monochrome Portrait Mode and Monochrome Pro Mode which give you even more opportunities to explore.
If you shoot in Black and White you will have to think more about textures, patterns, lights, and shadows then normal. You’ll also find that you need to edit your monochrome photos to get more contrast and impact.
Super Macro Mode
When you want to photograph something which is too close to your smartphone and you can’t properly focus on the subject, try the Super Macro Mode.
Compared to the normal camera mode, close-up shooting can capture more details and even give you small surprises that are not easily noticeable by the eyes.
Most smartphones difficulty focusing and become blurry at five to six centimeters away, so this is a great feature for you who like to take close detailed shots.
The most common subjects for Super Macro are flowers, bugs, butterflies or bees but sometimes you can photograph food and get a new and possibly better perspective.
Light Painting Mode
Huawei has four options for adding awesome effects for your photos. For most of those modes, you’ll need a tripod and you’ll notice that they work very similar to Bulb Mode on DSLR cameras.
Traffic Trails is great during the blue hour for cityscape shooting. Put your smartphone on a tripod and try to catch the warm yellow and red lights of cars against the cold blue sky.
Light Graffiti is a fun mode that you can get creative with. Find a light torch or something similar and start painting in the dark.
Silky Water lets you replicate the effects of Long Exposure Photography but most impressively, you don’t need any (expensive) filters for this! Also, you don’t need to think about the exposure time either it’s in the middle of the day, at sunset or sunrise. Just focus on your subject, push the shutter button to start shooting and again to end it. This makes the sea blurry, without any patterns and give that milky effect to rivers and waterfalls. One of the best things? No blown highlights!
Still, the best thing about the Silky Water mode is that you can shoot 10, 15 or more seconds handheld and get sharp photos! Blurry parts like water, clouds or trees will be blurry, but stones, rocks, buildings, etc will remain perfectly sharp.
Here’s a video that shows exactly how the Silky Water mode works:
Star Trails is used for long exposures like 20-30 minutes. It can be used to capture the moving stars at night or to completely blur any moving elements at day.
Don’t get me wrong, these photos I’ve shared are not for winning awards but I want to show that even beginners can use all these modes from day one because the smartphone takes one initial shoot which is used as a background layer and then it keeps on adding extra data by taking continuous shots that focus on capturing areas which are emitting light.
This means that the background layer never gets blown out by too much light and you can keep shooting for as long as you like to capture more details (which is not the case with regular cameras).
All these techniques require patience, so try a couple of times and make the necessary adjustments before you get the perfect results.
The only bad side of photos captured in this mode is that they can only be in JPEG.
Tip: don’t edit files in this shooting mode too much. Like I’ve said, those are jpeg files and since the sensor of a smartphone is small, you get too much noise and artifacts if you’re playing too much with sliders.
The HDR Mode is able to recreate the same effects many of us are familiar with from regular cameras and post-processing. This is a technique that improves the details in the brightest and darkest areas of the image to give a better dynamic range and range of colors.
Most modern smartphones have their own presets or filters that you can use to shoot with. Alternatively, you can photograph without filters applied but use them in some of the apps for editing later.
First of all, make sure that your smartphone is waterproof and whether it’s IP67 or IP68. There’s a difference between waterproof and water-resistant!
Waterproof means that something is resistant to water regardless of how long it is submerged, while water-resistant means that a product can stop water entering it to some degree but not entirely.
My advice is to avoid putting your phone in the water without any protection; at some point, you’ll have issues with it. This could be immediately or in a couple of months but it’s something you want to avoid.
When you protect your smartphone using an underwater case or pouch you can capture amazing images in the Underwater Mode.
The Pro Mode is my favorite of them all as it’s where everything is under our control. This mode requires some more knowledge about the fundamentals of photography but it’s the mode you should use to get the very best results.
Let’s take a closer look at the tools and settings found in this more manual mode:
Metering is used to choose the type of exposure metering. The options are the common center or spot metering modes but your smartphone might have more options to give better results. Press the information button on your smartphone to have each metering method explained.
ISO controls the camera’s sensitivity to light. A higher ISO gives you shorter exposure but introduces more noise and grain to the photo.
Shutter (S) sets the exposure time and all the other perimeters will change automatically
Exposure compensation (EV) changes the recommended exposure setting to make photos brighter (+) or darker (-)
Focus is used to set the preferred focusing method. You can choose between Single Shoot Autofocus (AF-S), Continuous Autofocus (AF-C) or Manual Focus (MF)
White balance lets you choose a preset white balance setting (AWB, Cloud, Tungsten, etc.) or customize your settings based on the light source.
Tip: Check out your photo on the screen after taking the shot. Make sure to also check the RAW files as they sometimes aren’t exactly the same as the JPEG.
In this chapter, we’ve covered all the Shooting Modes found in your smartphone. There’s no right or wrong and you should spend some time figuring out which one best fits you and the scene you’re photographing.
Hopefully, you’re already starting to see a difference in your images. Let’s move on and look at the process of capturing the image itself.
Photographing with a smartphone camera
We are done with the camera settings and have looked at the shooting modes available, so let’s look closer at the different lenses and methods you can use to get the most out of your smartphone.
Only a few years ago, there were huge difficulties in photographing landscapes with smartphones because they didn’t have a wide-angle lens. The solution was to invest money in buying an extra clip-on lens but the additional problem was that those lenses were not appropriate for all smartphones, so you needed to find a lens for your particular model.
What happened next, after finding the right lens, was that you were left disappointed with the image quality. Most of these lenses were plastic, which meant that placing them on your phone severely reduced the image quality.
It was also a common occurrence that part of the clip lens was in the frame if it wasn’t placed correctly. This was a really bad investment and the result was even worse.
Everything has changed now that wide-angle lenses are built into the smartphone. Until this, you couldn’t put everything in the frame but now you have a wide-angle and a new perspective.
Some of the smartphones now have a 120-130 degree field of view which can be very useful. Now that all top brands have put a wide-angle lens in their smartphones it looks like this is something mandatory for all new models.
With a wide-angle lens, you can include more of the foreground and properly use leading lines, which honestly is something I have missed before.
With a standard lens, I mean something similar to 26-30mm on full-frame cameras. Those are the standard lenses that smartphones have always had, so their quality is really good.
Using the telephoto lens
The zoom (or telephoto) lens can give some amazing possibilities but it depends on the smartphone you have. Make sure to check whether it’s a digital or optical zoom.
Avoid using the telephoto option if you have a digital zoom. The reason is that the quality of those files is simply not good enough.
If you have the optical zoom, however, there are many more possibilities. The quality of those photos is more than good enough in terms of smartphone photos.
Another great feature that people like to use on their smartphones is the Panorama Mode.
You can take horizontal and vertical panoramas for extremely wide photos and it’s quite simple: just point and shoot and you’ll have immediately stitched panorama in a few seconds.
Should you be photographing in landscape or portrait orientation? There’s no right answer to this question but I don’t recommend that you shoot in portrait format just because it looks better on your phone when scrolling through social media.
Make it a habit to explore with other orientations too. Try shooting in landscape format by turning your phone around or perhaps try shooting in 1×1. Experiment and you’ll find what suits you best.
Post-processing of your smartphone images
Most people don’t take smartphone photography too seriously and leave the images on the phone without ever doing anything with them.
With the growth of Instagram and other social media, there are more and more people who are trying to edit their images. Typically, these photos are being edited with smartphone applications such as Lightroom for mobile, Adobe Photoshop Express, VSCO, Snapseed, Photo Collage and Afterlight 2.
Most of those applications are free, so you just need to download them and register.
All of the applications have their own presets that I highly recommend you try. Some of them can be very useful and with just one click you’ll get a much better photo. It’s also very popular to buy someone’s Lightroom presets these days and you can instantly replicate the effects of your favorite photographers.
However, if you’re an advanced user it’s better to make your own style and edit your photos in your way. You can even make your own presets and sell them to other users.
It’s quite simple to transfer presets stored on your own computer to your smartphone and then use them in Lightroom mobile.
Edit smartphone images on your computer
Are you familiar with the statement the best camera is the one you have with you?
If you’re unprepared and don’t have your ‘proper’ photo equipment available it may still be possible to get the shot with a smartphone. But what next? All the editing applications mentioned above are rather limited as you don’t have all the features as you’d have on the computer version.
So if you have a really good photo that you know is portfolio worthy, you can choose to edit it later on the computer. Trust me, it is worth it.
Besides that, there are so many mobile photography contests out there, so why not give the image a little extra love and try your luck?
How to edit photos on a smartphone
Most people use VSCO, Snapseed and other similar applications for post-processing but I really like Lightroom for Mobile because it gives me total control. It also has the most features of all these applications and it’s not that complicated to learn.
Lets me show you how it can be done by editing this image:
When capturing this image I focused on having all the information in the highlights and didn’t pay too much attention to the shadows.
As you can see, it’s pretty dark.
Here comes the part I’ve been repeating all the time: shoot in RAW!
I know my camera and I’m pretty sure that this underexposed image can be fixed in just a few steps. It might look too dark at first glance but I’ve done this many times before and I’m sure I can recover those shadows.
In Lightroom’s Light Menu I’ve pulled my shadows and blacks all the way to +90 and set the exposure to +0,86. This resulted in the highlights becoming a little too bright so I reduced the Highlights to -33 and Whites to -40.
That’s it! The photo and image quality weren’t destroyed, it doesn’t look like an overdone HDR edit and we’re left with lots of information and a well-balanced image.
Had I shot this in JPG instead, it would’ve been a quite different story (hint: I wouldn’t have anything)
I also wanted to have a little more yellow tones in the image as it was a warm day. This was done by going to the Effects menu and choosing Split Tone. Yes, this could be done with the White Balance slider but I wasn’t sure how it will look like if I warm the entire scene. Instead, I decided to only warm up the highlights and not so much the shadows.
There are only two things left to do:
- I don’t like the color of the sky as the blue tones don’t match with the rest of the photo due to all yellow tones. So, in Color Mode I selected the Mix section and moved the blue Hue slider to the left. I also moved the Saturation slider to the left.
- I like the architecture of the building so I want to add more sharpness and micro-contrast. This is done in Effects menu increasing the Clarity slider to +9 and Dehaze slider to +3. (Be careful with those 2 slider because they can change photo a lot)
Heres the final result:
So, is it worth shooting in RAW? Yes! Is it worth to edit photos? Yes!
After you’re satisfied with the shot, it’s time to share it with the world: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter they’re all waiting for your photos. Millions of people are on social networks so join them. If you’re really good, your photos won’t go unnoticed. Just take your time and publish only the best. Maybe something good will happen for you!
Be careful so you don’t get addicted and don’t publish your photos because you have to or because you didn’t publish anything in a while.
Best accessories for smartphone photography
As I’ve mentioned, things in mobile photography are constantly changing for the better. Now that you don’t need clip-on lenses anymore (as wide-angle, macro or telephoto lenses are already built into your smartphone), you can instead invest that money into other accessories.
First on the list for most people is the selfie stick, which is a nice thing for taking photos of your vacation. However, if you want to buy the selfie stick try to buy one with a tripod included, a 2 in 1 version. This will become beneficial at some point.
Tripods are going to be essential if you want to improve your smartphone photography. Joby tripods are something to think about because you can put them almost everywhere.
If you already have a tripod, you can buy something similar to a Manfrotto smartphone clamp and mount it onto the existing one. The advantage is that you’ll have a higher perspective. If you are buying a regular tripod for a smartphone you’ll be quite close to the ground and that can be a problem sometimes.
Another great accessory is a 360 camera. This gives you a whole new perspective and quite interesting photos. There are a few applications for editing those photos, such as Theta. Just download it and you’ll find that you can get multiple photos from the same file; choose between a mirror ball, little planet or fisheye image.
Waterproof cases are a must-have accessory if you want to shoot underwater. Find the best model for your phone and try your luck in the water! Be careful because water magnifies things, so subjects in the water are going to look larger than above water.
Extra tips for better smartphone photography
Before we head over to the conclusion I want to give you a list of extra tips that can help you get even better images using your smartphone:
- Use Pro Mode whenever you can as this gives you full control over all the parameters
- Always shoot in RAW format and edit those files in Lightroom or Snapseed to get something more than just a regular shoot. This gives you a better dynamic range.
- Photograph during the best light. Yes, it’s ok to shoot during the day but if you want something extra special, get up early in the morning for sunrise or take sunset shots at the end of the day.
- Try to capture the mood of a scene. Sometimes bad weather can be great for this
- Don’t hesitate to take a shot, just pull your smartphone and do it! It’s much easier to use your mobile phone than a big DSLR and telephoto lens.
- Take your time when shooting and take advantage of the grids and horizontal level on your screen. It only takes a few seconds to get everything right.
- Frame the scene using various objects if possible
- Use the foreground to get a greater depth of field and use leading lines
- Focus one third into the photo in order to get most of the photo sharp. Alternatively, focus on the closest part of the photo to blur the background
- Share your photos with other people. If you think that they aren’t so great, maybe the best way to share them is on your stories on Facebook and Instagram
- Try exploring different perspectives, don’t just stand and shoot: get low and find an interesting foreground.
- If you are shooting kids or animals shoot from the same level their eyes are
- Always adjust the focus
- Adjust the exposure. Sometimes the overall image is too bright or too dark, so compensate that. Underexpose the image to capture the clouds
- Don’t limit yourself to just one genre of photography; try something different and you’ll probably learn something new, something that will help you develop as a photographer
- When you’re shooting or editing photos, try not to use filters and preset. Instead, create your style. Processing is really important!
- Most of the smartphones have a time-lapse option so try to play with that
- Add a human (in yellow jacket) to your photos, just to get a sense of scale. Sometimes people don’t understand how the mountain is so big without the (tiny) person in the photo
- Play with reflections: people love them! Use a small puddle on the street or in nature and you’ll have something different than usual
- Download all photos to your computer after each trip and store them like you store photos taken with your regular camera
- Delete the images you’re not going to use
- Go outside and look for new locations and perspectives
- Finally, always keep your smartphones fully charged!
Comparing smartphone photos to DSLR or mirrorless cameras is a bit unfair as they don’t cost nearly the same amount of money and they don’t have the same sensor size. But people will often do that.
Both smartphones and regular cameras have their customers and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. However, it’s the people who are using them that have the capability to make the difference.
Advantages of using a smartphone for photography
Smartphones have the largest viewfinder of all cameras and you can see most of the errors immediately. This is different from when you’re shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and you’re most likely not going to see the error until you’ve imported the images to your computer (and then it’s too late)
It’s also not always practical to have your full equipment with you but I’ll take a wild guess that your smartphone is always in your pocket. After all, full landscape gear is quite heavy, while the smartphone is quite small and light.
Finally, your smartphone can be used as a mini-computer; you have a camera, photo editing apps and apps for planning shoots all in one place, and you can share the result immediately on social media.
Disadvantages of using smartphones for photography
It goes without saying that there are disadvantages of using a small smartphone to capture high-quality, professional-looking images too.
The files are still not at the same level as DSLR cameras and you will see a difference when blowing the image up to a larger print. There are especially big differences if you’re shooting at night or during low light situations.
It’s also worth mentioning that the zoom and flash are far away from the quality you’ll find with a regular camera. Getting professional results using the smartphone isn’t going to be as easy as if you were using professional equipment.
That being said, smartphone photography is an exciting field to follow and there’s no doubt you can get amazing images with the right phone. Can you see which of the two next photos are capture with a professional DSLR (Canon 5D Mark IV) and smartphone (Huawei P30 Pro)?