Get better photos from your smartphone

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If you own a smartphone, it's probably your primary camera. Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz even called the iPhone "the snapshot camera of today."

Like the prevailing snapshooters of yesteryear (think of the legendary Polaroid Instant Camera or Kodak Brownie), smartphone cameras aren't built to take the best photos — they just make it easy and convenient to take decent ones.

While the iPhone 5 or HTC One will never substitute for a serious interchangeable-lens camera (at least not anytime soon), you can take a few easy steps to make the most out of today's convenient, carry-anywhere pocket cameras.


Smartphones are built to slide into a pocket or purse and sit there inconspicuously. Screen sizes keep increasing, but bodies keep getting slimmer and lighter. The Samsung Galaxy Note II, for example, is 20% slimmer than the original iPhone but has a 5.5-inch screen — closer to a small tablet than the smartphones of just a few years ago.

Looking at pictures and movies on a phone has never been more comfortable, but actually capturing them is a different issue. Big, skinny phones don't handle well. They don't have any grip, nor do they have a comfortable, responsive shutter button.

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Their light bodies are prone to wobbling, too. Factor in issues such as the rolling-shutter Jell-O effect and ersatz image stabilization, and it all adds up to jittery videos and blurry, low-light photos.

So when you're taking photos in dim, indoor settings or shooting any kind of video, hold your smartphone with two hands. Stabilize it on a table, your knee or some other surface.

Simple phone cases can add grip, too. Some are even built specifically for photography, such as the Photojojo Lens Dial for the iPhone 5 ($249).

And please, please turn the phone sideways when you record video. Have you ever seen a vertical TV or movie-theater screen?


A zoom lens is a bulky contraption, engineered around lots of little moving parts. It can easily break with daily wear and tear, and it isn't the kind of gear you want to stuff into and pull out of a pocket or purse thousands of times over the course of a few years. That's why the vast majority of smartphones are built with durable, low-profile, non-zoom lenses.

In place of real optical zoom, smartphones instead come with a digital zoom feature. It's not a good substitute for the real thing. Imagine hacking the edges off of a printed photo and trying to stretch the leftovers out to the original size — that's what digital zoom does. It distorts details in the image and magnifies the flaws.

Whenever you can, zoom with your feet — walk closer to your subject. Even if your subject is distant, you're better off manually cropping the shot — it'll still be big enough to fill your phone's screen.

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Apart from instant sharing, apps are the biggest advantage that smartphones have over dedicated cameras (though even that is changing, because a few Wi-Fi-enabled cameras can now download photo apps). Many apps are free, so start experimenting.

Scoff as you will at hipsters, selfies, food porn and those tacky filters, but Instagram has inspired thousands of people to take more photos and share them instantly — it's better than letting them sit on a hard drive, unused. Snapseed brings tons of editing power to your fingertips, as do mobile versions of Adobe Photoshop. And there are dozens of specialized apps for everything from 360-degree panorama shots to animated GIF-makers.

So before you blame blurry, blown-out pictures on your smartphone, see if you can do better yourself.

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