How to Take Camera Phone Pictures

It’s not always possible to have a camera at all times, as many of you know. You can’t always take photos everywhere you go, no matter how hard you try. Or do you? Everybody these days has a smartphone that can take photos. Although you might dismiss the capabilities of your phone as a camera in general, it is possible to take photos with it. This article will cover cell phone photography basics, such as the differences between several camera apps. I also explain how to use apps to process the images you have captured.

Capturing Images

A Camera Is A Camera… Or Is It?

It doesn’t really matter if you are using a professional DSLR camera or a smartphone to take a photo… the fundamentals of photography remain the exact same. It is important to remember the essential factors that influence how you create an image, such as your subject and composition as well as the quality light.

Cell phone photography is challenging in many ways. You need to be more mindful of what equipment you are using. You can’t use the default lens on a cell phone. You might experience flare and distortion issues as well as smudges from your phone being used as a phone. There are many apps you can use to capture pictures. Each one performs differently.

Here are some notes before we get started

Let’s start with some assumptions. First, let me make some assumptions. I assume that everyone has used the camera on their phone before. I will skip steps like installing and opening apps, reviewing images, and opening the camera app. I assume most people have a fairly recent phone or operating system. There will be some people reading this who don’t have the capabilities or features I mentioned. I apologize that this excludes you from the technical aspects.

Last note: Most of my app recommendations and screenshots will come from my own experience with the iPhone and my Samsung Galaxy Note5. I don’t intend to exclude Blackberry or Android users. Almost everything I talk about will be applicable to any mobile phone that can take photos. Unfortunately, Android phones will have subtle differences in the controls of their default camera app. I find it easier to refer to what I know (currently an iPhone 7+ running iOS 10.2), and let you translate depending on your phone and OS.

The basics of cell phone photography

As I mentioned above, cell phone photography is a simple form of photography. I won’t go into details on them here. Let’s talk about what makes a cell phone camera great for photography and how you can get started. We’ll assume that you have a smartphone with a touchscreen and a rear camera. You can also download and install apps. Also, we will assume that you are using the rear camera and not the front-facing one.

Before you start taking photos on your cell phone, there are some things that you need to be aware of. You can control everything through the touchscreen. It’s best to get familiar with the interface of the camera before you start taking photos. Although most cell phones can only shoot JPEG, some manufacturers have begun to offer RAW capabilities. Most cell phones have only one fixed focal length lens that can be interchanged, but some manufacturers are adding dual lenses. These dual-lens sets have one lens that is wide-angle and one that is normal or telephoto. The iPhone 7+ has 28/56mm equivalent focal lengths.

Apps are another feature that makes cell phone photography unique. You can download and install advanced apps. All phones come with a basic camera application. Different social media apps have their own camera built in. Which one should I use? Let me explain in a moment. Let’s first discuss how to actually create images using a cell phone.

Create Images with a Cell Phone

Now grab your phone and open the camera application. There is an easy way to get the camera app on many phones without unlocking it. This shortcut can be used to take quick photos on your phone without unlocking it. You’ll find a number of controls once you are in the camera app. Below is an iPhone screenshot. There are many icons to choose from and a label for each one.

You might see something similar if you are using an Android phone.

These controls are not necessary. For the vast majority of my photography, I don’t think I need to alter anything here. If I am photographing someone in a dark environment, I will occasionally turn on the flash. Sometimes I use the timer to switch to the front camera. However, other times I let the camera decide when HDR is used in an image. I never use in-camera filters or Live Photos.

There is more to cell phone photography that just clicking the big button and letting it make the decisions. You can tell your phone where to meter to instantly improve the quality of most photos you take with your smartphone. This will show you the default exposure of this scene.

Adjusting the exposure can be done by touching the screen at the area of the image you wish to properly expose (notice: the focus on that spot will also be set by your phone). Let’s suppose I want the shadowy part of the building properly exposed. The exposure of the entire image will increase if I touch the darkened building. Notice how a square appears on the screen where I touched it?

Although default camera apps don’t allow for control over shutter speed or ISO settings, most cameras have the ability to adjust exposure by moving your finger up and down on the screen. After you have adjusted the exposure, touch the area and hold it there. Then drag your finger up or down to adjust the exposure. This will give you greater control over the final image’s exposure. This adjustment resets every time you take a photo, so you should be ready to adjust the exposure multiple times if more than one shot is being taken.

Press and hold the screen until it appears like this:

If you see AE/AF lock, your phone has successfully locked focus and exposure. You can then take multiple images with the same settings. Simply touch the screen again to restore focus and metering to normal.

You can also focus your phone very close to the subject. These phones are great for taking photos of flowers or other small objects that have a lot detail. Once again, frame your subject and tap the screen to adjust the exposure. As with macro photography, you will find that any movement of your camera relative to the subject will be amplified. If you are photographing very close, you should be ready to take several images before you can get one that is correctly focused.

Advanced Camera Apps

Most people will find that the default camera app is sufficient to allow them to create images they love. There are many third-party apps that offer more control over your camera settings, or a completely different interface.

An iOS-only app called Camera+ was one of the first apps I tried when I began to take more seriously phone-photography. Camera+’s manual mode gives you complete control over ISO and shutter speed. This is one of Camera+’s most appealing features. Auto mode allows you to set your focus and exposure points. You can also adjust the white balance. This feature is something I find lacking in many default camera apps.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Mobile is an app that can be used on both Android and iOS that provides full manual controls, as well as DNG capture. Although it is not a dedicated camera app for mobile, the camera has all the features you need and is a wonderful example of a well-designed cell phone camera.

There are many camera apps available, but they all do the same thing. If you want to choose the best camera app for photography, you should focus on an easy-to-use interface that allows you to quickly create images you are happy with. This is the default camera app for most users, including me.

Use Cameras in Other Apps

All cameras are not created equal. Some apps have more control than others, while others offer less. Some apps also produce photos with poor quality. Photos taken with dedicated camera applications should be at their highest resolution, lower ISOs, and JPEG compression. Apps that have built-in cameras, such as Facebook, will usually use the highest resolution for their app and higher ISOs in order to avoid motion blur.

These are two images. The first was taken using the default iPhone camera app, while the second was captured and saved to Instagram Stories. Stories doesn’t record camera settings so I can’t tell what ISO was used. However, you should be able see that the image quality is definitely lower. It also has a lower resolution (1280×720 vs 4032×3024). They looked very different on my phone screen, but they look much better on a computer screen. Compare the details in the wood grain with the cat.

Instagram and Facebook have very limited camera controls. They also don’t automatically save photos that are taken through their apps. Most social media apps allow you to share images taken outside the app. I recommend that you use a dedicated camera app unless you are only looking to quickly share a photo.

Additional Considerations

Image Organization Besides deciding on the app that you will use to take photos, you also have to keep track and record all images taken. You might not be able view all your images in one place because some apps have their own folders. Some apps won’t show images taken with them before they are exported. This means that you won’t see the photo along with other images until you export it.

Sensor Limitations Another important consideration is the sensor’s actual capabilities. A phone will not produce the same results as a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Don’t expect to get the same results from a phone. Although the high ISO performance and dynamic range capabilities of this phone are not comparable, it should be obvious. It is a phone, after all.

Add-On Lenses If your phone doesn’t have a standard lens, an add-on lens might be able to replace it. There are many types available, including macro and telephoto. You’re sure to find the right one for you. Be sure to research the product and review it before you buy. Quality can vary widely from one manufacturer to another.

Smudges When it comes to lenses, make sure that your phone’s lens is free from smudges. They can degrade image quality and add streaky lens flare to images with bright light sources. My lens is often covered in fingerprints so I make it a point to clean it up before I take any photos.

Lens Flare – Lens flare is also a problem for cell phones. Flare can happen quite frequently if the phone doesn’t have a lens hood or the lens is not flush with the body. While you should usually be able to hold the phone with one hand, flare can sometimes occur. Flare can sometimes take on a color cast due to special coatings or materials used in some lens covers. This is an extreme example taken from my iPhone 5 review.

Lens distortion: Near the edges of the frame, most cell phone lenses tend to distort. This is particularly noticeable when photographing someone from a distance using portrait mode. Lens distortion can ruin images.

Alternative Shutter Buttons Many cell phones should also include a physical button to trigger the camera shutter when you open the camera app. An iPhone’s volume buttons will trigger the camera shutter. This feature is useful when you only have one hand for taking photos, or when the phone is being held in an unusual manner.

Use the simulated shutter button in the app or on your phone’s physical button. But be cautious about how hard you press. People will often “peck” at their screen with their fingers, which causes the phone to move when the image is captured. This creates blurred images.

Capturing HDR images: My phone is set to auto-HDR mode. This means it will capture HDR scenes if necessary. I also have this setting that saves a normal copy of every image captured in HDR. This is because I sometimes prefer the non-HDR version to the HDR one. I end up with two images. However, I have made it a habit of reviewing images at the end each day and deleting any duplicates to ensure that my phone storage is not clogged with duplicates.

Photography Action: It can be difficult to use your phone’s camera to capture action, but it is possible. You can ignore it if you are in low light conditions (unless you wish blurry photos). You can shoot multiple images if you have lots of light. Because of the “shutterlag” on phones, it is unlikely that you will capture all the action in one shot. You can greatly increase your chances of getting the shot that you want by shooting in burst mode (just hold the shutter button down).

Optic vs. Digital Zoom If you don’t have an optical zoom (which is usually only available if you have more than one lens), then you should ignore the zoom option. Digital zoom quickly degrades image quality. Digital zoom should not be used for serious photography.

Low-Light Photography: Low-light photography is possible with your phone, but it’s not impossible. The shutter speed of your phone is usually quite slow, so there’s more chance for motion blur. You can compensate for this if you are aware. This is an image that I took by panning with the streetcar while it was moving along Market Street in San Francisco.

Cell Phone Photography Low Light-1

Capturing images on a smartphone: Summary

You should give the camera feature a second chance if you have been neglecting it because you don’t believe it can produce good results. Modern cell phones boast amazing cameras that can deliver surprising results. You must realize its limitations and not expect miracles from it. You might be able to leave your “real” camera at work once in a while with a little practice.

You might consider downloading an advanced camera application if the default app is not giving you enough control over your camera settings. You might be able to access a wide range of options, which may include full manual control over exposure and RAW capture mode.

No matter if you use the default app, or download something more advanced; make sure to take the time to get to know it. You won’t get the best shots with a high-end DSLR if you don’t know all the options and how to use them.

You can also use a “real” DSLR if you prefer. It’s clear that DSLRs and mirrorless camera are better than the ones found on cell phones today. If you don’t want all the extra weight and expense of carrying heavy gear around, you could try going out with just your phone. For me, it gives me a sense of freedom to walk around with just my phone. Sometimes I wish I had my DSLR, but other times, I am content with what I can do with my cell phone.

Additional Image Samples

The next section will discuss a few different apps for editing photos. Here are some images I have taken with my phone (and edited). These images should prove that modern smartphones are capable of taking professional photos and that they can be used for personal purposes.

Editing images on a smartphone

This section will show you how to edit photos using different apps on your smartphone. You can import photos from your smartphone onto your computer to edit them. However, if you want to share images via social media, you can save some steps by uploading everything directly from your phone.

This section assumes that you are familiar with editing photos on a computer. Although I won’t cover all aspects of photo editing, including the various controls and the basic principles of editing photos, you can refer to this section for more information.

How to Edit Images

If you are used to shooting JPEGs with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then the images will look pretty good. Although any image can be improved with post-processing, phone photos are especially susceptible to this. Your phone’s lenses are not made with the same quality glass or special coatings that your camera lenses. You may find your images need to be edited before you are satisfied with them.

You should ensure that your images are properly exposed if you have followed the advice in the previous section. However, there is more to a great image than proper exposure. A boost in saturation and contrast can improve almost all phone images. It is possible to also adjust the tint or white balance. Editing images gives you the chance to personalize it and make it yours.

This post will use the same image, but I will edit it in different programs. This will hopefully show that the results they produce are pretty similar. The more editing options you have in an app, the more complex your edits can be.

Image Editing App Choices

When you begin looking for an app to edit photos, you will notice that there are many options. How do you choose which one to use? Here are some of the most popular choices, along with my opinions. You can try them all, and find the one that you love.

Remember that JPEG images are being edited. Your images captured by your phone’s camera will always be JPEGs unless you have a specific phone or app that supports DNG. So expect limitations in how far you can push them.

There will be differences between apps available for Android and iOS. With the exception of Camera+, all of the apps I have discussed in this post can be used on both platforms. Nearly every default camera app will include basic editing capabilities. Every Android phone will have a different default app for editing photos, so I cannot guarantee that it will work with your particular model. You’ll also have different options. I recommend exploring the options in your camera app to determine if they work for you, or if you need something more powerful to edit your images.

Default Camera App

Let’s begin by examining the default editing features that your phone comes with. I use an iPhone 7+ running iOS 10.2, so this is what I will be covering first. You can find the editing options when you review images, even though they aren’t available in the camera app. You can view an image you have taken (either inside the camera app, or within Photos), and you will see three lines that look similar to sliders at the bottom. This will give you access to all the editing options.

You can quickly fix the problem by pressing the magic wand located in the upper right corner. The image will be adjusted as needed. You can also use the icons at the screen’s edge to gain more control. You can adjust the properties of your image like color, exposure, contrast/shadows and intensity.

Android is my Android Galaxy Note5 from my wife. The editing tools on her phone were not very impressive to me. These options were basic and didn’t relate to other editing software. You might have other options if you have a different operating system or a different phone. However, I would not recommend the default editing app for my daughter’s phone.

No matter what type of phone you have, the editing tools that come with the default camera app can be used to make quick adjustments and do basic image adjustments. You should have some experience with image editing and be able take photos from dull to polished in no time.

VSCO

VSCO is a popular photo editing app. It’s pronounced “visco” and stands for Visual Supply Company. VSCO is a popular photo editing app that allows you to quickly and easily change the appearance of your images. You can personalize a preset to change the appearance of your image. You can’t see the actual changes made to your image when you apply a preset. It’s difficult to change one aspect of a preset. Sometimes, you have to accept the changes made. If the preset adds too much blur, you cannot reduce it, but you can increase it. You can adjust the white balance to warm up the image if it cools it too much.

You can edit your images manually if you don’t like presets. The tools are not named so it can be difficult to know what each does. VSCO has many of the same adjustments as the default editing app. You also have the option to adjust your perspective, skin tone, vignetting and split toning. VSCO is my favorite app for photo editing. It can be used to create simple, clean images as well as moody, complex images.

VSCO is available for free and includes some basic presets. Additional presets can be downloaded for free or purchased.

Instagram

Many people who use their phones to take photos also prefer to share them on Instagram. Instagram has a built-in photo editor. Here’s how you can share photos on Instagram without having to open another app.

Instagram’s first claim of fame in photo-editing was its ability to add filters. It didn’t have an option to edit images when it first launched. You could only change how a photo looked by adding a filter. Instagram evolved over time and now offers basic editing capabilities. You have all the standard suspects (brightness and contrast …), as well as one of the original tools that made Instagram special: the simulated tilt-shift effect.

A word of caution about editing photos on Instagram. To get your edited image to show up with the rest of your images, you must share it using Instagram. It is not possible to export the image for personal use. You cannot export it directly to your computer for personal use.

Download Instagram here. You can also visit my Instagram page. It is strictly cell-phone photography. However, I use VSCO to edit my images.

Lightroom Mobile

Lightroom Mobile is very similar to Lightroom Mobile if you are familiar with Lightroom on your PC. Of all the different apps I’ve tried, this one is definitely the most professional and photographer-friendly. There are many options for lens correction, curves adjustment, and other basic adjustments in addition to the usual filters and basic adjustments. Although the Lightroom mobile app doesn’t have the same advanced controls as the desktop version, it is still one of the most feature-rich apps.

This app is great for editing and capturing images on phones that support DNG. It is a great way to organize your photos by keeping everything in one app. You can use Lightroom Mobile’s camera function to edit JPEGs from other apps, but you cannot use it for editing DNGs created in other apps unless Adobe CC is subscribed.

Snapseed

Snapseed is one of the best image editing apps available today. Snapseed includes many filters, as well as all the tools you need, such spot healing, curves adjustments and even a brush. Snapseed also includes tutorials that show you how to use the more advanced features. Here is the main editing screen.

One thing I found different from other editing apps was the fact that after you have made an edit to the image (say, a +10 Contrast adjustment), and clicked the checkmark to apply it, the slider will be reset to 0. If you go back to adjust contrast again, the slider will be applied to the previous adjustment. While the previous adjustment remains in effect, you cannot see any changes you made to the image. Although it doesn’t affect the app’s performance, I find it somewhat annoying that I can’t see whether I have already modified something in an image that I am editing.

Editing Cell Phone Images with DNG

Do you think it is worth paying for an app that allows you to shoot DNG images from your phone? What is the dynamic range? All of the reasons you might use DNG to shoot images are valid? Are the images better without JPEG compression from the default camera? Let’s have a look.

These are two images I took around the same time. The first image is a JPEG, which was edited using the default camera app for my iPhone 7+. The second image is a DNG, which was edited using the Lightroom Mobile app. You can ignore the differences in color temperatures, since I edited them separately and didn’t match them perfectly.

Are there any differences between these images? Let’s zoom in at 100% to see what happens.

It is not noticeable that there is a significant difference. The DNG doesn’t have as much detail as the JPEG, and the shadow information is almost the same.

I wanted to test if the computer version of Lightroom could edit the DNG. I thought the export compression might make it less obvious and allow for more detail. Unfortunately, before I ever got started I ran into a snag. It seems that Lightroom Mobile can only shoot DNG images. It stops you from downloading or exporting DNG images from your smartphone unless Lightroom Mobile is synchronized to Lightroom CC. To shoot in DNG, Lightroom Mobile is not required.

This restriction was not applicable to me as I don’t use Lightroom CC. I therefore had to shoot new images. Camera+ is an iPhone app. Camera+ allowed me to shoot in DNG, then download the images to my computer for Lightroom editing.

DNG Image Edited In VSCO App
DNG Image Edited In Lightroom On A Computer

Here are the 100% crop side-by-side results of an edited DNG. One edit was done on my computer in Lightroom, the other on my phone using VSCO.

100-percent crop of DNG edited in Lightroom in VSCO
100-percent crop of DNG edited in Lightroom on a computer

As you can see, I was able recover more detail from the highlights and shadows when I used Lightroom instead VSCO to edit the DNG file. The most surprising thing about the Lightroom-processed image was the amount of noise. It says that it was taken at ISO 20. However, there is quite a bit of noise in the shadows and even in the sky. This is probably why images from apps appear soft. It’s not the JPEG compression that causes the image to look soft, but the noise reduction.

Additional Considerations

Non-Destructive Editing It is important to remember that many apps, such as VSCO and Lightroom Mobile, are not destructive editing tools. You can make edits in these apps without affecting your original image. However, the chances are that your original image will be altered if you use the default editing app. My phone saves the changes made using the default app and can be reverted. However, this may not be true for all models. It is best to not use destructive methods when importing images into the app.

Spot/Blemish Treatment: If your work involves editing images on a computer you are probably familiar with spot removal tools. Unfortunately, Snapseed is not the only image editor that offers such tools. Photoshop Express is the only app that I have found that offers full editing capabilities and spot healing. These are not very useful, but they can be helpful in an emergency.

Other apps: These are not the only apps out there. They are the ones I use the most. These are two apps I have used previously that you might want to try: Afterlight, Priime.

Summary: Editing images on a smartphone

You have many options to edit your images from your cell phone. The default camera app on your phone should have basic editing capabilities. Lightroom Mobile, if you are familiar with Lightroom on your PC, is a great option. VSCO, if you prefer to add mood and tone to your images, is another great option. Snapseed is a great editing app.

If you are planning to shoot in DNG without Lightroom CC, I highly recommend that you use another app than Lightroom Mobile. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if DNG is necessary. The images look almost the same as if I had just edited a JPEG. Although you may get better highlight/shadow recovery, I don’t believe it’s worthwhile.

No matter whether you shoot in JPEG, DNG or both, there are many editing apps that you can use to edit your images on your smartphone. You should download several different apps and give them a try, because each one has something unique.