By Patrick Lucas Austin
August 26, 2019

Smartphone cameras have only gotten more phenomenal in the past three years, with companies beefing up photo resolution, adding more lenses, and integrating photo storage options that keep you snapping without fear of filling your camera roll. Ask anyone with an Instagram account and you’ll soon discover the camera is the killer feature on any smartphone.

If you’ve got the latest and greatest smartphone, you should step up your photography game to match. So here are some tips from professionals, along with some accessory recommendations, that will take your snapshot game from amateur to Ansel Adams.

First, start with a clean slate

Before you shoot a single picture, you’ll want to make sure your gear is in order. Often, that means doing a bit of pre-shot cleaning. “That’s the first rule for me,” says portrait and fine art photographer Henry Oji. “Always clean your phone camera lens before you take an image.”

While wiping your lens on your jeans might do the job, using coarse materials, like a cotton shirt, or a napkin you dipped in water, may end up damaging your lens over time. If you’d like to keep scratches at bay, use a softer material — like a microfiber cloth — to clean any smudges off your camera lens.

A little framing goes a long way

Artfully framing shots may require a more creative state of mind, but that doesn’t mean you have to line everything up all by yourself. Luckily, you can employ your camera to assist you when it comes to framing and composing your shots.

In iOS, visit Settings and select Camera. From there, enable “Grid” to deploy a rule-of-thirds overlay in the Camera app. That grid will help you better compose your image, and keep your shot parallel with any vertical or horizontal lines in your shot. On Android devices, visit Settings > Apps > Camera, and select “Grid Lines” to choose between a rule-of-thirds overlay or a square overlay for perfectly framed Instagram images.

That framing is one part of composing the image itself — and so is making sure you’re not capturing any unwanted subjects while you shoot. “Composition, composition, composition!” says portrait and nightlife photographer Kenny Rodriguez, whose subjects rarely stay in one place for long. “I would suggest making sure that everything in the frame is there because you want it there.”

Ditch the digital zoom

As much as you’d love to get a closer look at that dog across the field, you might have to be content with a picture. But zooming in before you take the shot is not the solution. Digital zoom shots are simply cropped and resized images, unlike the optical zoom functionality you might find on a full-blown camera. Digital zoom will not only yield a grainy image, it will reduce the resolution of the overall photo and exacerbate any vibrations from your hands, leaving you with an inferior representation of that adorable canine. That includes shots taken on phones with multiple camera lenses, like the iPhone XS or Samsung Galaxy Note 10+.

In general, avoid digital zoom as often as possible — but knock yourself out with the telephoto lens on your smartphone, if it has one.

Look for light before making your own

The flash of an LED light from a smartphone doesn’t flatter anyone, no matter what pose you’re striking. And that glaring light coming from a single source will more often than not give your images a harsh, odd-colored look compared to light being diffused from one or multiple sources.

Instead of depending on an underpowered light to properly illuminate your subject, try to find other sources of light you can use, be it the waning sun, some indoor lights, or even some candlelight if you want to get artsy with it. If you’re really at a loss for light, you could always employ another smartphone’s flashlight mode to provide a more consistent light source.

Watch out for cloud storage shenanigans

Cloud storage services, like Google Photos or iCloud, can be a great way to take a ton of photos without worrying about how much space is left on your phone. But some of these services don’t automatically store the highest possible resolution version of your photos, or, if you take lots of pictures, you may have to pay a monthly fee to back up all your high-res photos. “A cloud-based backup service is actually one of the best investments you can make,” says architecture photographer João Morgado.

If you’re willing to sacrifice image quality for increased storage space, then feel free to send only low-res photos to the cloud. But if you want to hold onto every pixel, or prize image quality above everything, storing photos in their original format and paying the premium of a few bucks each month might be worth it.

Steady yourself — or use a tripod

If your shots of the city skyline look a little off-kilter, or your images during sunset seem a bit blurry, you should familiarize yourself with the photographer’s most useful tool: the tripod. “A good tripod … is absolutely essential, but for smartphone photographers it is usually left out,” says Morgado.

Sure, a steady hand is always better than a shaky one, but neither can match the tripod’s versatility when it comes to putting your own spin on your photos. “It gives you an amazing range of new techniques and photography styles: long-exposures, time-lapse, low light photography, light painting and many many other uses.”

Pocket-sized tripods are perfect for smartphone photography, and are often device-agnostic, meaning you can use it with almost any phone. You can even purchase smartphone cases with built-in mounting threads to stick them on more professional tripods or other camera accessories like shoulder straps.

Go remote with a shutter button

Hate setting a timer and sprinting into frame only to get an awful picture out of it? Sounds like you need a remote shutter, an ideal accessory for shooting images that require a more steady hand, or self-portraits. “Tapping the screen, no matter how careful you are, it will cause vibrations that will affect your photography,” says Morgado, whose architecture photography often requires long exposures. “It is a no-brainer for long exposures and night photography and it will for sure improve your technique.”

Some devices, like Samsung’s Galaxy Note series of smartphones, feature an included stylus that doubles as an inconspicuous remote shutter button, and can be concealed in your hand or pocket when you’re ready to take the shot. Not an Android fan? Remote shutters are pocketable, inexpensive, and connect to your phone via Bluetooth.

Or tell your (Android) phone to take a picture

Since your smartphone’s already constantly listening, waiting for you to demand its attention, why not make it take your selfies, too?

On Android smartphones, you can ask your Google Assistant to take a photo, selfie, or timed image and watch your smartphone open the camera app. On Google’s Pixel smartphones, you can have Google automatically detect the perfect moment for a photo, be it a big smile or a kiss, thanks to its AI-powered face detection features like Top Shot and Photobooth.

On iOS, Siri will open the camera app for you, though you’ll have to press the button yourself.

Experiment with exposure

Exposure can make or break any photo, and is the difference between showcasing a subject in all their splendor, or ending up with a shot that leaves them looking like a shadow of their real self. “Always tap the screen to lock focus on the subject you’re photographing,” says Oji. “This is particularly useful when shooting people against skies. It prevents you from having dark images.”

Of course, if that’s the artistic look you’re hoping to showcase to all of your followers, there’s an easy fix. “If you want silhouettes, just tap the sky, to underexpose your subjects.”

Portrait Mode works when there’s light

Using any device’s “portrait mode” feature, which simulates the shallow depth of field found in photos shot on professional cameras, will usually net you a more visually appealing shot. “It’s better for taking portraits of people,” says Oji.

While everyone loves the look of a photo from an expensive “real” camera, relying on it too much can hurt more than it helps, especially if your environment isn’t exactly conducive to portrait shots, like in dimly lit rooms. “But if you’re using an iPhone, use portrait mode only when you have sufficient light.”

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

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