Phone camera for photography

Today a friend told me that he has been using his mobile phone camera to do photography. Were there any quick tips to help him?

In my opinion, camera never matters. Any good camera can be used, even the built in cameras from mobiles. Good photographs are created by the people behind the camera. First step to creating good photos is to learn the functioning of the camera itself. (Knowing my camera) Depending on the mobile phone, the camera may have various settings available. Color temperature, exposure Value and compensation, High Dynamic Range (HDR), flash, option to use manual settings, various built in filters. Each of these should be explored and understood.


(Seawall made of cement stones – clicked using Oppo R2001)

On my mobile phone, I use these settings – Daylight (color temperature), flash – off, HDR mode on, exposure compensation depending on the scene. Unfortunately I do not have any manual settings on my phone camera. It does have exposure compensation and I thank my lucky stars for that. There are third party apps available for getting the manual settings enabled for my phone’s camera. I have not downloaded any such app. I am old school. For me phone is primarily for calling and a dedicated camera is for photography. I do sometimes click photos on my phone though.


Butterfly clicked on iPhone

(Butterfly – clicked using an iPhone 5s and processed on Affinity Photo.)


Mobile phone cameras also have some limitations and advantages. A small sensor with a wide angle lens is usually used to keep the phone cost low and usability high. This leads to very large depth of field reducing focusing errors. This comes at the cost of bokeh. The backgrounds can no longer be turned buttery soft and out of focus as they can be with dedicated photography cameras. The size of individual pixels in phone cameras is small and prone for noise. Once a user understands the capabilities and limitations of the phone camera, the biggest hurdle is already crossed.


Plastic Flower

(Plastic flower and decorative lights – iPhone 5s. This kind of bokeh is not bad for a phone)


Learning to compose the image strongly goes a long way. Some of the common composition clichés used by photographers can be found here- Composition Clichés – Part I , Composition Clichés – Part II The same can be used with mobile phone cameras too.


Evening Sky

(Evening Sky – clicked using Apple iPhone 5s)


Some of the tips for using mobile phone cameras –

  • Clean the lens before use. Pockets are not exactly the best place for optics. Lint gathers up on lenses. Fingerprints are also quite common.
  • Do not use the built in flash. It is underpowered, weird colored and gives ghastly results. It is useful only to be used as a flash light and for photographing documents if required.
  • Selfies are sick. If you want your own photographs, make friends with local people and someone will surely oblige. Front cameras are usually not as good as the rear cameras on the phone. Rear cameras are meant to be used for photography. Front cameras are meant to be used for video chats and video calls. This is another reason why I do not support selfie sticks.
  • Keep the images simple. Avoid the temptation to get everything into a single frame.
  • Doing portraits with mobile phone cameras is a bad idea. Wide angle lens and the tendency to go close with such a lens causes faces to turn roundish. This is fallout of perspective changes when standing too close to the subject. If you want to click pictures of a person, maintain some distance.
  • Do not zoom. Digital zoom is terrible. Either go close or crop the image later on.
    Avoid bright light sources in the frame. Phone camera lenses do not have very high quality optics and are quite prone to flare.
  • Keep the hands stable. Camera shake is the single biggest factor causing poor quality images.
  • Do not use effects available with various apps. They spoil the images. Download the images on to the computer and edit using any image editing program.
  • Compose a strong image. A good composition looks good regardless of the camera used.
  • Edit your image on your computer at 100% magnification rather than on phone. If you have to use your phone itself for minor corrections in the photograph, try Snapseed. It is a free app developed by Google.


Light House

(Light House – clicked using Oppo R2001 and cropped on computer)


Mobile camera accessories

Now a days, there are various mobile phone camera accessories available in the market. The most common ones being the selfie stick, add on lenses and mobile phone stand.

I discourage selfies and for the same reason selfie sticks. In most mobile phones, the rear camera is better than the front camera and while clicking selfies, the front camera (which is of inferior quality) gets used. Secondly, I recommend making friends wherever you are. They can click your photos on your phone. Such photographs look far better than high viewpoint selfies or those pouted lips portraits which seem to be trending. (If you still want to click selfies, then do see this article – Un-Selfie)

Add on lenses are an added layer of glass in front of the mobile camera. Extra glass means reduced optical quality of the setup. Avoid these as far as possible. If you want a shot of a bird sitting far away, then these are the lesser of the two evils (the other evil being the digital zoom). Do purchase these add on lenses if your camera is of very high quality and you foresee lots of photography requiring these lenses. There are three common options available in the market – wide-angle, macro and tele. Instead of using wideangle, stitch your images in your favorite image editor. For tele, I once again recommend using a dedicated camera rather than buying these stick on lenses. Macro add-on lenses let you go really close but with very shallow depth of field and excessive distortion. Choice is yours!

Mobile phone stands – The biggest advantage with mobile phone cameras is their mobility and presence on a person most of the time. Every added accessory reduces this advantage. Do you really need these stands? Think twice before throwing away your money.



(Grasshopper – Clicked on Oppo R2001)


Which mobile phone to buy for camera use?

Once again let me clarify it. Buy a phone to use as a phone. Buy a dedicated camera to indulge seriously in photography.

If you still want to buy a phone for photography, here are my recommendations –

  • Don’t go by megapixels. These are just an indication of resolution. The number means nothing while making a decision to buy a camera phone. Do read this – Megapixels
  • Try the camera before buying the phone. Click a couple of photos in broad daylight and then check them out by zooming on a computer if possible. Look for clarity and digital noise specifically. If a computer is not available, then share the test photographs to a phone (using bluetooth or a cloud service, and not social or messaging apps) that you are used to using and check the image quality on that.
  • Good cameras cost money. Same is applicable to cameras in phones too. Usually the expensive phones have better cameras too.
  • Dual cameras are the latest trend. The second lens is able to capture details which the first lens misses out – a greater depth of field or maybe just a blurred background. The electronics in the phone combine these images from two different lenses, to produce a single good image.
  • HDR mode – captures multiple exposures of the same image and overlays them on top of each other so as to give a better dynamic range. In this mode, not as much information is lost in bright and dark areas as with ‘normal’ mode.


Black butterfly

(Photograph of a butterfly captured on iPhone SE. More about the story behind this image – On the trail of Cascades & Waterfalls)


Disclaimer: Some of the photos here have not been clicked by me but have been given for use on my website. The pictures have been clicked by ‘non-photographers’.

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