Your smartphone is always with you, a constant companion that can connect to the web to look up any tiny nugget of trivia, and generally keep you in constant contact with the outside world. It's one of the key items you grab before leaving the house, and the last time you (probably) turned it off was at the movie theater.
This also makes your phone your take-everywhere, shoot-anything digital camera. Just a few short years ago, making images and video with smartphones was a compromise, with poorer image quality but a heck of a lot more convenience than a good point-and-shoot camera.
But times have changed and phone cameras have gotten better and better. The latest models offer superior imaging and video to budget point-and-shoot cameras, and offer nifty software tricks to blur backgrounds, just like an SLR and f/2 or f/1.4 lens.
Check out these tips to get the best images you can get from your phone. But remember, even with the latest tech, phones aren't as versatile imaging tools as modern interchangeable lens cameras.
Start With a Good Camera Phone
Smartphone camera quality has enjoyed a big leap forward in quality over the past couple of years. If you're using an older handset, chances are the camera isn't up to snuff. If camera quality is a priority when shopping for a new one, make sure you peruse our list of the top camera phones we've tested. But remember that you really can't go wrong with the latest Apple iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy devices.
Look for the Light
Smartphones have very bright lenses, but sensors are much smaller than you find in a premium compact camera with a 1-inch sensor like the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II. That gives them a distinct disadvantage in image quality in dim lighting. To get the best shots, look for opportunities where your phone's sensor can shine. If you're indoors, try to set up your shot so there's light falling on your subject—some window light will do more to improve your photos than a new phone or camera. It's always a better option to find good light as opposed to using your phone's underpowered LED flash.
Smartphones are the modern point-and-shoot, but the apps that run their cameras typically offer some level of manual control. The most basic adjustment you can make is exposure—brightening or darkening a scene—and using it effectively can turn a bland image into a head-turner. Use it to brighten the shot of your fancy dinner to make it perfect for Instagram, or to darken shadows in a portrait for a more dramatic look.
The feature isn't always labeled the same. On an iPhone you'll want to drag the sun icon, to the right of the focus confirmation box, up to brighten an image or down to darken it. Android phones typically have the more traditional +/- icon for exposure adjustment.
Turn On Your Grid
Pro SLRs typically have framing grids in the viewfinder window to help you better square up shots and conform to compositional guidelines like the rule of thirds. (For more on composition and other photo basics, read our tips for basic photography, which apply as much to smartphones as they do to pro cameras.)
You can turn on the same thing in your phone's camera app. Adding a grid line gives you help in keeping the horizon straight and is a big plus for portraits in front of famous landmarks. With the notable exception of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it's generally a good idea to keep upright structures perfectly vertical in your photos.
Learn Your Camera's Features
The imaging capabilities of modern smartphone cameras are staggering. We've seen advances in computational photography that allow you to blur the background of images, mimicking the look of a wide aperture lens and big image sensor, and some handsets can also capture insanely slow-motion video.
Your phone probably has a good burst mode too, and it's never a bad idea to take a few images in a sequence to get the best one—just make sure not to post all of them. iPhone owners can check out Live Photos, which mix still images and video together.
Try an Add-On Lens
Your phone's camera certainly has one lens, and some models offer dual rear cameras with the second lens capturing a tighter or wider angle of view than your phone's main eye. A quality add-on lens will cost you—the bargain-basement ones we've reviewed have been universally terrible. Go with a trusted brand like Moment or Olloclip.
Picking the type of add-on lens is important too. I think a macro adds the most versatility to your phone's camera, but you may prefer an ultra-wide, a fish-eye, or a telephoto conversion lens.
Even without a macro add-on, your phone can focus pretty close. Use it to your advantage. You can snap a shot of your fancy dinner and get close up, but keep the whole frame in focus. That's something you can't do with a big camera shooting at f/1.4 or f/2, and one of the areas where small image sensors have a practical advantage over larger ones.
Get a Gimbal
It's not all about images. Entry-level compact cameras are stuck at 720p, but if you've got a recent smartphone you have a 4K-capable video camera in your pocket. Flagship models include optical image stabilization, but that can only go so far. If you want truly smooth, great-looking video, think about a powered gimbal to keep your phone steady. Our favorite is the DJI Osmo Mobile 2, a $130 device that steadies video, can track moving subjects, and also supports time-lapse and panoramic stitching.
Add a Microphone
When shooting video, good audio is more important than sharp footage. Your phone's internal mic is meant for making phone calls—not recording high-quality audio. Headphone jacks may be disappearing from phones, but you can get a microphone that plugs directly into your USB or Lightning port, or one that works with your phone's audio dongle. Just make sure to read some reviews to make sure the mic is compatible with your particular phone and its operating system.
Edit Your Shots
Your phone is a powerful handheld computer, just as capable of making basic image adjustments as a high-end laptop running Photoshop. You should download some image editing software—my favorite is VSCO, a free download for both Android and iOS—or use the basic image editing tools built into your operating system.
More advanced photographers can enable Raw capture, which will deliver much more leeway in editing. And if you have a dual-lens iPhone, you can add an app like Focos, which allows you to adjust the amount of and quality of background blur in your Portrait Mode shots.
Your Best Tips?
We hope you've learned something new and will continue to use your smartphone to capture the world around you. For more advanced suggestions, check out our 10 beyond-basic digital photography tips.
Do you have a favorite tip, photo app, or accessory for use with your smartphone's camera? Please share it in the comments below.
Like What You're Reading?
Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.
Thanks for signing up!
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!Sign up for other newsletters