Point-and-shoot cameras have gone the way of the dodo. Sure, expert photographers may turn to DSLR cameras, but most of us are just getting by with the camera on our smartphone.

Smartphone cameras are getting better every year, but some things never change. These tips will help you get better photos. And no, using a selfie stick isn’t one of them!

Focus, Focus

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Before snapping a photo, look at the screen and ensure the focus is correct. If the object you want to take a photo of isn’t correctly in focus, try adjusting the position of your smartphone or moving back.

You can also touch the part of the scene you want to focus on on the screen, and your smartphone’s camera will focus on that part of the scene. Be sure to always glance at the screen and ensure the focus is right before snapping a photo.

Don’t Zoom — Digital Zoom is Bad

Here’s the biggest difference when switching to a smartphone from an old point-and-shoot camera: Those point-and-shoot cameras offered optical zoom — when you zoomed in, the lens physically moved to magnify the image.

Modern smartphone cameras still let you zoom in by pinching, but you shouldn’t do this. There’s no physical lens that moves in to magnify. In other words, digital zoom is really more like performing a crop. Picture taking a normal photograph, and then later cutting up the photograph, taking a single part of the photograph. That’s exactly what digital zoom is doing. You’re just cropping a photo before taking it, and you’ll lose detail you could pick up by moving closer to the thing you’re photographing.

Sure, sometimes you’ll want to use digital zoom anyway. Maybe you’re taking a quick photo of something and you don’t care about the detail. Just keep in mind that digital zoom is the same thing as cropping, so try to avoid zoom if possible. You can always crop the image later, which is the same thing as performing a digital zoom.

Don’t Use the Flash — Use Environmental Lighting

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This tip applies to old point-and-shoot cameras, too. Flash usually isn’t helpful, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. The bright light of a camera’s flash can illuminate an area and capture an image of something dark, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sure, this is good if you need to get detailed images of a crime scene at night, but you probably don’t just care about accurately documenting every detail. You’re probably trying to capture a photo that looks more like what you’re seeing at the moment. Just picture a photograph of a candle at night without flash — you’ll see the glowing candle and little else — with a photograph of a candle with the rest of the room illuminated with a bright flash.

Rather than use your camera’s flash, illuminate the thing you’re photographing with normal light from your environment. You may want to go into your Camera app’s settings and disable the flash to prevent it from firing off automatically. This one tip — avoiding the flash unless absolutely necessary — will help you take much better-looking photographs.

There’s a place for camera flash, but you should probably avoid it unless you know what you’re doing. It shouldn’t be a brute-force tool you use to take photos in any environment without thinking about the lighting.

Use the Back Camera, Not the Front Camera

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Selfies are all the rage, so many people are going around taking photographs with their smartphone’s front-facing camera — the one above the display. That’s all well-and-good for silly selfies.

However, smartphone manufacturers generally include better, higher-detail cameras on the back of the phone. Just taking a photo with your smartphone’s rear camera instead of its front camear can get you a better picture. Of course, it’s tougher to take a selfie in this way. You could always ask someone else nearby to snap a photo of you. That’s what we all had to do before smartphones with front-facing cameras.

(Incidentally, this is similar to the reason why it’s not the best idea to take photos with an iPad or another tablet — tablets generally include worse cameras than smartphones.)

Try Alternative Camera Apps with Manual Controls

The latest versions of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS both include a camera API. Third-party camera apps can plug into this API to get more advanced control over the smartphone’s camera, offering advanced controls over the camera hardware that aren’t offered in the default camera app.

Just switching apps probably won’t give you a better picture. However, if you really know what you’re doing — or you want to start learning — you may want to get familiar with these apps. They offer more control, and that control can lead to better pictures if you take the time to tweak various opitions. Examples of such apps include the popular Manual app for iPhone and Camera FV-5 for Android. Both are paid apps that boast “DSLR-ike control” of your smartphone’s camera parameters, although expert photographers may just want to use a proper DSLR camera instead.

Be sure to keep your smartphone’s camera lens clean, too. You may need to carefully clean it if it’s picked up dirt and smudges. Try to avoid putting your phone in your pocket along with keys, coins, and other objects that could potentially scratch the lens. How resilient your phone’s camera lens is depends on the type of material it’s made of.

Image Credit: Robin on Flickr, Cristian Iohan Stefanescu on FlickrSteve Jurvetson on Flickr, Susanne Nilsson on Flickr, Hajime Nagahata on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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