How to take great photos with a smartphone

Use these tips to improve the pictures you shoot with your phone

Published: May 28, 2015 06:00 AM
Smartphones now include more features for enhanced focus, color editing, and cropping.

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Americans take almost 10 billion photos each month, according to one survey—and 6 billion of them are captured with a smartphone. They don’t have to be just selfies and thoughtless snapshots. With today’s technology, you can use a smartphone to create beautiful, high-impact images.

If you’re shopping for a new phone and want to take great photos with a smartphone, be sure to check out the models in our smartphone reviews. Some of them have the best cameras available in mobile devices. They can’t perform as well as a dedicated camera for certain tasks—notably zooming in on distant scenes—but in many conditions they do just as well as point-and-shoots.

Where mobile devices surpass stand-alone cameras is in software. Powerful built-in apps let you apply filters and do basic editing. For instance, you can quickly turn a color photo into a nostalgic sepia-toned picture. You can correct an image obscured in shadow, or use a cropping tool to turn a middling photo into a provocative image.

And unlike cameras, phones are frequently improved through operating-­system updates. For instance, Apple’s iOS 8, which launched last fall, enabled iPhone users to separately select either an autofocus point or an exposure setting.

Third-party apps are the final piece of the smartphone photography puzzle. Want to try a sophisticated image editor? Download it. Want an app for creating time-lapse videos or an on-the-fly illustration? You can find one of those, too.  

Ultimately, though, the most important way to improve your smartphone photography is to do it the old-fashioned way—go out and start shooting.

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Why cloud storage?

There are two good reasons to regularly move your photos off your phone and into the cloud: to organize them and to back them up. Here are three useful options:

Photo-specific cloud services

Long-established services such as Picasa and Shutterfly are free or inexpensive. A newer option is Mylio. At $50 per year, Mylio’s basic plan is pricey but powerful: It backs up and organizes as many as 50,000 JPEGs and shares them across devices.

Generic cloud services

Apple and Android phones offer automatic cloud backup, and that’s all many shooters need. But photos can eat through your free Apple or Google cloud storage quickly. To protect the privacy of your images, use two-factor authorization.

Social media

Many people simply post the photos they like on social media. Facebook reduces the size and quality of your images. Sites such as Flickr, by contrast, allow you to maintain the original quality of your image file.

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Smart settings

Your smartphone might be able to take better shots than you realize—the secret is in the settings. Here's how to take great photos with a smartphone.

Phones aim to make picture-taking easy by locking the focus and exposure together. But you can set them indepen– dently, too. On iPhones with iOS 8, tap the screen to set a focal point. (A square and sun icon will appear.) Touch the screen again and slide your finger to move the sun icon and lighten or darken the exposure. On Android phones, onboard software varies from model to model, so explore the settings. Or download the free Camera FV-5 Lite app, which lets you independently adjust focus and exposure.

The built-in photo app on your phone provides a few ways to adjust the color in your composition. For instance, you can increase the saturation to produce a colorful Van Gogh-like palette. Decrease it to create a more monochrome shot. All modern phones also include preset, Instagram-like filters to quickly alter the look of an image.

In many cases, this is the secret to fixing the composition after you’ve taken a photo. Built-in editing software also provides a virtual dial that allows you to rotate your image. That can be useful when correcting the horizon line in a landscape—or distorting it to add drama to a photograph.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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