How to: Get the most out of your smartphone camera

Thomas Wellburn
April 8, 2016

The Huawei P9 was released to a pretty raucous reception, with plenty of critics praising the quality of the camera. We’ll be writing a separate how-to guide on the P9 camera specifically but for now, this got us thinking… How do you take a great photo? With so many applications and so many settings at your disposal, it can all get a bit overwhelming at times. We’ve decided to compile a simple how-to guide that will hopefully let anyone take a half decent photo with their smartphone.

Download a third party camera app


Lets face it, the default camera app on most Android and iOS phones is a bit crap. Windows has a phenomenal camera app (but not much else), but it also has less than 5% of the overall smartphone market. Unless you’re the owner of a Windows device, chances are that you’ll be using one of the awful stock camera apps that ship with Android and iOS. For the former, consider Proshot, Open Camera or DSLR Camera Pro. For the latter, Camera+ and VSCO are your best options. All of these include full manual controls, but for Android users, you’ll need to check that your phone supports the camera API. If it doesn’t, you’ll sadly need to make do with the awful included shooter apps.

Use the basic framing techniques


Use the basic rules for composition: If you want to get the best framing for your subject, consider reading up on the ‘Rule of Thirds’. It’s a simple concept applied by using a 3×3 grid. Some smartphones can display the Rule of Thirds grid via the settings, so it’s worth having a dig through to help with your composition. The general idea is to align your subjects and horizon lines with the intersection lines, so that the main parts of the image naturally flow from one box to the next.

Use appropriate lighting for the scene


Smartphone cameras are still pretty weak in low light but progress is being made very quickly. Still, even the Samsung Galaxy S7 can’t avoid letting a little bit of noise creep in when things get dark. As such, you’re going to need a well lit area to get the best photos. If you’re deadly serious about getting the best pics, it really wouldn’t hurt to carry around an external camera light for better illumination. The majority of them can be found for very cheap and they have the benefit of giving off some frontal light to eliminate shadows on the face; perfect if you’re doing a piece-to-camera and want to appear as though you have a flawless complexion.

Learn what each control means


Obviously, we left this until last because admittedly… It’s a pretty hefty step. It’s easy to just give up and shoot on auto because you have no idea what things mean, but photography really isn’t that difficult once you put in a bit of effort. A lot of the manual controls are based on pretty simple concepts and once you learn them, you’re unlikely to forget. Here’s a simple breakdown for all you newbies out there.

EV Compensation


Exposure Value Compensation, or EV for short, is one of the simplest controls that is available on almost every smartphone. Some manufacturers call it brightness adjustment to avoid confusion but in essence, they all do the same thing. When filming an incredibly bright object such as the sun or a lamp, the sheer amount of light can create severe glare and completely ruin the image. If you’ve ever wondered why the scene goes extremely dark when a bright object is in the image, it’s because the smartphone instinctively exposes the image with the lightest part of the shot in mind. To compensate for this, we use the EV Compensation to turn down the overall brightness of the image, therefore limiting overall glare from the object and keeping things evenly exposed.



International Standards Organisation, or ISO for short, is a measurement of light sensitivity for emulsion based film. Previously, photographers would need to physically change the film in order to utilise different ISO settings. Now, it’s as simple as hopping into the camera setting and adjusting the value. Shooting at a higher ISO will increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light, meaning brighter and more detailed images in low-light scenarios. Shooting at a lower ISO will act in the opposite manner and is more applicable to daytime situations where the extra boost isn’t really necessary. Higher values will introduce more noise; on smartphones this is typically around 800 and above. For a night-time setting, it’s important to balance ISO and shutter speed in order to achieve the best balance of noise, light and sharpness.

Shutter Speed


This refers to the physical movement of the camera shutter and how long it remains open. It stems from traditional film cameras which utilised a physical shutter in order to block out light from the film inside. On smartphones, it simply controls how the sensor remains exposed to light. Slower shutter speeds will increase the amount of light absorbed by the sensor, meaning better illumination in dark scenarios. By contrast, a faster shutter speed limits the amount of light getting inside and is more suitable for brighter conditions.

Shutter speed also has another use in photography, which is directly related to motion and the perceived effect within the image. A fast shutter speed will capture moving objects much clearer and, when combined with a burst shooting function, is ideal for sports coverage. A slower shutter speed tends to blur images unless the camera operator can hold the device very still, though this can also create some cool visual effects such as light trails.

White Balance


Ever taken a photograph with your smartphone and wondered why it had a slight colour tint that made it look unnatural? It’s likely that the white balance was not properly calibrated for the scene. While talented post-production can usually fix situations like these, it is sometimes more efficient to tune it at the time of action. Smartphones tend to deal with this setting in numerous ways, with some offering a series of pre-sets and others a full kelvin meter for more accurate adjustment. If you’re an owner of the former, simply select the correct setting for the scene you are trying to shoot. For example, if you’re shooting in a bar under fluorescent bulbs, pick the setting applicable to that lighting scenario. If your phone uses the latter, you’ll need to move the kelvin dial until it roughly matches up with the scene. This can be tricky if you don’t know which levels represent what lighting condition, though on a basic level higher is cooler and lower is warmer. A typical halogen bulb is around 3,200 kelvin.



If you’re lucky enough to own a fully-fledged smartphone shooter like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1, you’ll probably have access to aperture controls. This setting is typically reserved for more professional shooting equipment, since the average smartphone doesn’t have enough room in the lens barrel for variable aperture. Companies like ZTE have managed to work around this by offering dual-focus cameras like the one found in the Axon Elite, which allows each lens to focus on a different part of the image.

In layman terms, aperture controls how much light enters the sensor by adjusting how wide the lens opening is. This differs from shutter speed where it’s an actual measurement of how long the shutter remains open. Aperture is variable and measured in ‘f-stops’, which is just an easy way to denote the different stages at which the lens is open. Higher f-stops mean that the lens opening is much smaller, so less light can enter and vice-versa. To achieve images with a deep depth-of-field (where the background is blurred but the foreground is in focus), use a higher aperture combined with a short focal distance.

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