1. Know Your Auto Mode
2. Override the Defaults
If you think the white balance or exposure is off, many smartphone cameras allow you to adjust these parameters to whatever you desire. Almost all phones include a slider in the automatic mode that can adjust exposure on the fly, so there’s no reason to capture photos that are too bright or too dark. White balance adjustments often require a switch from auto to manual mode (where supported), but many cameras now support fine adjustments to color temperature.
The best manual modes allow you to change ISO and shutter speed as well, allowing you to choose how much motion blur will be present in your images, and how much grain will be visible. Longer shutter speeds, typically less than 1/30th of a second, will require steady hands. ISOs above 800 on a smartphone tend to introduce noticeable grain, but capture significantly more light than lower ISOs. It’s worth playing around with these settings to find the best combination for the shots you want to achieve, and the great news is more high-end phones than ever include these comprehensive manual modes.
If center-weighted metering isn’t providing the right results, you might also considering switching to spot-metering, which some cameras allow you to do. Center-weighted looks at the entire image and meters according to what it sees, with a preference on the center of the frame. When shooting subjects off-center, it can be a good idea to switch to spot metering so the area around the ‘spot’ you select is exposed perfectly. Not every camera allows you to change this setting, but a handful that include detailed manual modes do come with a metering mode switch.
3. Use Good Posture
If you want perfect stability, it is possible to get a tripod attachment that you can slot your smartphone into. You’ll probably look a bit silly bringing a tripod out and about to use with your phone, but we have seen and achieved some fantastic shots with a tripod in hand. Tripods are especially useful if your smartphone camera doesn’t include blur-reducing optical image stabilization (OIS), or if there’s a manual mode that supports long-exposure photography.
4. Never Digitally Zoom
5. Take Multiple Shots
7. Capture in RAW
For those wondering, RAW is an image format that captures unprocessed (raw) data from the camera. When you capture using JPG, aspects such as white balance are baked in to the final shot, and detail is lost in the compression process. The RAW format captures everything, before white balance and other parameters are set, and without lossy compression. Editing using RAW images provides the most detail, and allows you to modify things like white balance and exposure with far less quality loss relative to JPG.
While RAW is best for editing, photos captured used in this format are typically 3 to 5 times larger than their JPG counterpart. If storage space is a concern, RAW is not for you.
8. Light it Right
Like when photographing with any camera, ideally the sun should be behind the camera’s lens, shining light onto the subject without entering the lens directly. Pointing a camera towards the sun will cause shadowing and a loss of contrast, so try not to do so unless you want an artistic effect. In cloudy conditions the bright sun can be diffused throughout the sky, presenting a challenge for phone cameras with limited dynamic range, so avoid shooting up to the sky if it’s not a sunny day.
9. Sideload the Google Camera App
On some phones, users have seen image quality improvements by using the Google Camera app instead of the included camera app, particularly to dynamic range, HDR, and low light performance. The app isn’t going to magically take a poor camera and make it as good as the Pixel; not every part of the Pixel’s excellent processing is transferrable to other phones through the app. The Pixel itself will always deliver the best results using Google Camera. But in some cases, the Google Camera app is far better than the stock app on other handsets, and is worth installing for a boost to quality.
10. Know When to Use Portrait Mode
As portrait modes are a shallow depth-of-field simulation, rather than the real deal, they have problems associated with them. Edge detection isn’t always perfect, so there are times when you capture a photo and areas are blurred that shouldn’t be. At other times, the blur doesn’t look natural, or looks closer to a Gaussian blur than a realistic lens blur. The key to capturing good photos using portrait modes is knowing when the portrait mode is likely to succeed, and when it will struggle.
Throughout our experience with a wide range of phones, most portrait modes struggle in highly detailed scenes, when there is no clear distinction between the foreground subject and the background you wish to blur. In these cases, you’ll often be left with a worse photo than if you didn’t use the portrait mode. Some cameras struggle if the subject is too close, or if the lighting isn’t very good. Stick to ideal conditions for the best results.
But when everything is working well, some cameras produce fantastic simulated depth of field results that can take the shot to the next level. Don’t simply ignore the feature because it’s not 100% reliable; play around, see what works, because some results can be stunning.