Making the most of your camera phone

More photos are taken with camera phones than any other type of camera. To make the most of your camera phone, it’s good to understand more about photography. Making great photos is less about what phone (or camera) you use, and more about ways of thinking and seeing. Read on for our seven top tips.

Camera phone photography

Camera phones have limitations compared to full cameras but they also have advantages. For example, they’re always with you and their onboard computing power allows creative editing and easy sharing of photos. Sales of point and shoot cameras fell by 97% between 2008 and 2022 (by unit, PetaPixel). Phones are now the camera of choice for casual photography and are pushing the point and shoot camera towards extinction. Also, as phone cameras have improved, serious photographers also use them to make work. They have limitations when compared to a well designed camera but are multifunctional powerhouses. Here’s how to make the most of your own camera phone.

Seven top tips for your camera phone

1. Know how the camera works, so it’s not a distraction

Great photography demands your attention to be in the moment, observing, deciding what to include in your frame, and choosing your moment to press the shutter. If you don’t know how your camera works, it will distract you from image making and you’ll miss moments as they pass.

Any camera is a tool for image making. The gift of great photographs is with the photographer not the camera. Just as great writing is with the author, not the pen. How many times is an author asked about their pen?

The moment of display. Camera phone image, altered with Snapseed app

Because camera phones are multipurpose tools, understanding them well is not always as intuitive as a full camera that is dedicated to making photographs. Check how yours works and that you’re not missing out on functions that make it more than a point and shoot (or point and hope) camera. For example:

  • How do you access your phone’s camera quickly when it’s screen is locked or you’re mid-reading social media or news?
  • Are there ways of releasing the shutter, other than by pressing the screen?
  • On the touch screen, do you know the different swipes and multi-touches that allow you to access the camera’s more advanced settings? For example, temporary and fixed adjustments to exposure.

Start with your phone’s online guide and check for hidden customisations in the phone’s settings. If you need more help, see our introductory course, getting to know your camera phone.

2. Human versus camera seeing

Are you familiar with the disappointment of a photo not looking like what you remembered seeing? It’s a frequent complaint from beginning photographers.

The reason for this happening is simple. It is because humans and cameras see in very different ways. Our brains determine how and what we perceive, placing our concentration on our interests. We general see with huge blind spots as we ignore anything not of interest. Unless you’re aware of this when taking photos, there is likely to be disappointment. But also possibly surprise at something you didn’t realise you’d photographed.

1960s family photo, in context of decor and technology

A photograph is very different to reality – accepting this and learning to work with this is one of the most important steps in learning to be creative with your photography. The example family photo includes fascinating context – perhaps everyday at the time but social history now. On aspect of photographic seeing is paying attention to what you include in the frame and how it helps the meaning of your image. Imagine if that shot was against a sterile white backdrop in a photographer’s studio – would it still hold the same interest?

If you’d like to understand more about seeing photographically, we have a short course, Learn to see like a camera and improve your photography.

3. Use your camera mindfully

With modern cameras, many people take photographs unthinkingly. It is easy to point and shot when a camera takes care of exposure and focus automatically. Also, there is also no incremental cost to taking multiple photographs when working with digital only images. For some there is a risk of experiencing chunks of life mostly through the screen of a camera phone – you sometimes see it at concerts with people seemingly watching an expansive visual spectacle through a few square cm of phone glass.

Photography, like writing, can be used for many different purposes. But because cameras can produce images so quickly and easy, it is much easier create a stream of visual gobbledegook than written. Without care it can become a block to experience the here and now. We’re unlikely to start writing without some idea of what we want to say. Likewise, think about how you use photography and what you want to say.

Read more about photography

Want to understand more about why photography is the easiest and the hardest thing to do?

4. Perfect practice

We of creatures of habit and our auto-pilot allows us to manage the routine, while not needing to give it all our attention. For example we can mostly hold a conversation while driving a car.

Practicing good habits helps us eventually use a tool as if an extension of ourselves. For example, choose a local walk with the intention of practicing using your camera rather than making great shots. That way you become fluent in handling and using in the camera phone and begin to express your own ideas. Use your camera phone often, and experiment with its features when you’re not in important moments.

5. Learn manual exposure and focus

Exposure (the amount of light) and focus (sharply defined areas) draw attention to whatever you want to be the main subject. Focus and exposure problems are one of the main causes of disappointing images.

Phones have a deep range of focus due to their technical configuration. This means images of general scenes, are unlikely to experience unintentional blurriness. However, depending on lighting conditions, exposure can be more problematic. For example, when there is a bright sky behind your main subject and the camera phone places it in deep shadow. In comparison with dedicated cameras, phones are limited when manually controlling exposure and focus. However, there are ways to manually adjust settings on phones.

Learn what these are for your particular phone and experiment with using them. It can make a huge different to your images if they are creatively exposed, rather just using the camera automatic average exposure. Our getting to know your camera phone course explores exposure and focus adjustments on camera phones.

6. Think creatively

All cameras have built in filters that render images how manufacturers think will be appealing (unless you shoot RAW files). However, it is also possible to shape the appearance of images after you’ve taken them (post-processing). This can become as much of a creative pastime as taking the photos themselves. What’s more because phones are also powerful computers, it can be done right in the device.

Creativity starts with what and how you choose to shoot and ends with processing. Experiment with adjustments in the phone’s own photo application, or one of the myriad of third party applications. We recommend the free yet powerful Snapseed app and have created a course, getting started with Snapseed.

Colours enhanced with post processing in camera phone app.

7. Stay organised

With a phone’s ability to rapidly make a large number of photos, keeping images organised, with only a small phone screen can be challenging. Being mindful of what you are taking is a good starting point that saves time down stream. But there will inevitably be an editing task to sort the wheat from the chaff and free up space from the phone/cloud back up. This also helps later, when looking for important images.

If you keep your images only on your phone (and cloud service), using albums and regularly culling the duds is a good practice. If you also using a laptop, additional help is at hand – particularly the use of smart albums that can help with sorting and editing. Finally, be aware that the cloud ‘backups’ on your phone are not technically backups – if you delete them one device, they are deleted everywhere. Read more about backing up camera phone photos in our separate article.

End thoughts

The smartphone has replaced the small point and shoot as a simple convenient camera that is always with you. It has both limitations and new possibilities compared with a full camera. But in the end it is all photography, and mostly down to how you think and see. Use your phone with a creative mind and intention and make some great images!

I hope you’ve found this article useful and do comment with your own experiences and ideas.



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