Your camera phone can create amazing photos, but only if you know how to use it. Here are my favorite tips for getting the most out of my mobile camera when my “real” camera isn’t available.

The screen shots in this tutorial come from my iPhone 6 Plus. However, most of these features are available on most smart phones today.

Top 10 Tips for Better Camera Phone Photos

Tip 1: Turn off your flash – this is the same advice I give my dSLR photography students. Turn off your flash unless you absolutely can’t get a shot without it. Looking at the screen shot below, you’ll see what a “flash turned off” indication looks like. It’s in the top left corner.

iphone hdr

Tip 2: Shoot HDR – HDR means “High Dynamic Range.” You know how it’s hard to get a photo where both the darks AND the lights are exposed well? HDR attempts to expose both ends of the tonal range better. You can shoot in HDR on your phone. The screen shot above displays the word “HDR” at the top – when this indicator is white, the camera is in Auto HDR mode. iPhones in Auto HDR mode turn on HDR when they “think” it’s a good idea.

For full-time HDR, tap the HDR button and click on the word “On.” Regardless of whether you are in Auto or full-time HDR, you’ll see the yellow indicator just above your shutter button to indicate that the camera is taking HDR photos.

hdr 2

When you look at HDR photos in your photo album, they’ll have a light gray HDR indication at the top left corner (on iPhones anyway). It’s circled in green in this photo:


hdr indication

The way that cameras take HDR photos is that they take several photos at different exposures and combine them. That means you have to hold your camera phone very still while the photos are being taken. You only need to press the shutter button once, by the way – it will look like it’s processing a tad longer than usual.

I shoot most phone photos in HDR. The basic iPhone HDR effect is subtle. You can see an HDR & non-HDR version of the same photo here. The non-HDR is “Before” and HDR is “After.”

hdr before after

(The iPhone records two versions of each HDR photo. The first is non-HDR, the second is HDR. Look at the highlights in the lower right corner – they are much darker in the After. Also, the leaves are lighter in the After, so they have better detail. This is why I shoot full-time HDR.)

For those that like photos with the more traditional high contrast/high saturation HDR effect, check out the Pro HDR X app. It lets you manually choose 3 points in your photo for your camera to set exposure from – those boxes in the screen shot below are movable.

app hdr

Tip 3Shoot on Burst mode. On the iPhone, if you hold down the shutter button, the phone will snap photos until you release the button. It will show you how many photos you’ve taken in this burst in a small number above the shutter button.

You’ll find your photos in the Burst folder of the Photos App. The top left corner indicates how many photos you took. To view the individual images, press the select button at the bottom of the screen. You can then scroll through the photos and choose what you’d like to keep and delete from the burst.


Tip 4 – Use a tripod or tripod substitute. While you can adjust both ISO & shutter speed on most smart phones, it’s still very easy to capture blurry photos due to camera shake. If at all possible, rest your photo on a table or other stable surface before shooting.

Tip 5 – Choose your shutter speed. To adjust the shutter speed on your camera phone, you’ll probably need to download a separate app. My favorite is VSCO – their filters are beautiful and the built in camera has the features I need without being overwhelming.

To access any of VSCO’s advanced shooting features mentioned in this tutorial, begin by clicking the Advanced button near the top of the screen.

vsco controls

Click on the Aperture button (#5) to bring up the Shutter Speed slider. Using the slider, you can adjust shutter speed from 1/1000 a second to 2 seconds.

Tip 6 – Choose your ISO. ISO works the same way in VSCO.  You can adjust it from 29 to 1856. (That equates to ISOs of about 50 to 1600 on dSLRs.)

Tip 7 – Choose your White Balance Temperature. VSCO also lets you adjust White Balance on your camera phone using the Kelvin scale. Once more, use the Advanced Features menu to click on the White Balance button. You can adjust the Kelvin Temp from 2000 to 8000.

Tip 8 – Manual focus. To add creative blur to your photo, set focus manually. Access VSCO’s manual focus selection just like the other advanced features. Tap button #3 in the screen shot above.

Tip 9 – Set exposure & focus separately. When you tap the camera phone screen with two fingers, VSCO produces two red boxes. Move the one that says “Focus” to the point where you want the camera to set focus. Move the other (it says “Exposure”) to the point where you want the camera to calculate exposure from. This can be useful if you want to focus on a dark eye in a portrait, for example. If exposure is set on the dark eye, the photo will probably be overexposed. So, tap with two fingers to enable the separate focus & exposure points. Drag the Focus box to the eye and the Exposure box to an area of skin.

exposure focus

Tip 10 – Edit your photos. Our phones have many great apps for editing photos. Using them can correct some of the issues that are unavoidable on camera phones. I’ll share my favorites with you in the next tutorial.

What are your favorite smartphone photography tips? I’d love to hear them! Post them in the comments below to share with the rest of us.