Not so long ago, a photo taken with your phone was just a fuzzy, one-inch square. Now, smartphone cameras have sensors with up to 8 megapixels—good enough to replace many traditional point-and-shoot cameras. Mobile photography has developed its own classes, awards (The MPAs), blogs (iPhoneography) and social networks (LiveShare, Photobucket). “Phoneography” has officially come of age.
To ensure you’re making the most of everything your phone’s camera has to offer, here are four things you need to know.
A smartphone camera’s zoom function isn’t a true zoom, warns writer and photographer Aimee Baldridge, author of The Camera Phone Book. Phones lack a moveable lens, so they “zoom” by cropping the image and enlarging the remaining pixels, reducing photo clarity.
Adding an external lens with a magnetic mount is one remedy. “My recommendation: Take the picture without using the zoom, and later, on your PC, you can crop it,” says Dave Johnson, writer of PC World’s Digital Focus blog.
Eight is enough
More megapixels isn’t always better. “Having too high a resolution in a camera phone is not necessarily a good thing,” Baldridge says. “You’re putting diodes on a sensor—the more diodes you put on it, the more visual noise you get.” Grainy-looking photos can result.
A bigger sensor may not be the answer either. “The physical sensor is important, but software processing is also important,” Baldridge says. “It’s a combination of things. There’s no clear indicator of image quality.”
In terms of megapixels, the sweet spot is between five and eight. Make the most of them by turning up the resolution and quality in the camera’s settings.
Grab some photo apps
If your camera’s interface doesn’t offer easy exposure control, try a “camera replacement” app like ProCapture, Baldridge says. Apps can also let you control your focal point (ideally, you want to control that separately from exposure), ISO and white balance.
A depth-of-field app (e.g., ColorUp Lite and Tilt-Shift Maker) can help overcome the camera phone’s depth-of-field issue. “Camera phones tend to have a lot of depth of field, so things in the background that you may be not paying attention to will be in focus,” Baldridge says. With these apps, you can apply selective focus and simulate a variety of depth-of-field effects.
Johnson is a fan of simulated High Dynamic Range (HDR) apps, which help reveal the lightest and darkest tones a camera phone often misses.
Fix shots after the fact
Enhance a good shot (or rescue a not-so-good one) with photo-editing apps or desktop software. Top photo-editing apps include PicSay, Retro Camera, Photoshop Express and Camera+. For pro-grade desktop software, Baldridge likes Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®: “It’s ‘raw’ processing software,” she says, meaning it’s typically for use on full-resolution, unprocessed/uncompressed image files, usually created in the RAW or DNG (digital negative) format. “Not something you’d normally use with a camera phone, but it adjusts exposures from a camera phone nicely.” Noise-reduction software can improve images too—some camera replacement apps, like ProCapture, have a noise-reduction mode that works its magic even as you take the shot.
Don’t rush to toss a failed photo—run it through an effects app to give it more character, something like Vignette, and you might decide you love the shot after all.
What are your tips for taking the best pictures from your mobile device? Tell us in comments.