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12 Aug 2021

How to take great photos with a smartphone: six tips from a professional photographer

Modern smartphones have plenty of features that can help you snap a great picture, so make sure you know how to use them

Smartphone cameras have advanced a lot in the past few years, and in fascinating ways. Many of the mobiles we review in the Which? test lab feature three or four different lenses, each with their own unique set of strengths. But are you making the most of them?

To help you get the very best from your smartphone camera, whether your mobile is brand new or a couple of years old, we've teamed up with professional photographer Paul Clarke.

Below, he reveals some of the ways you can improve the quality of your photos, explaining the importance of composition and editing tools that likely come pre-installed on your phone.

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Meet the pro

Paul Clarke, photography expert

Paul has been working with images since 1991. As an accomplished editor and retoucher, he developed an eye for creating memorable images. As a photographer, his work has been exhibited and published internationally.

How to improve your smartphone pictures

1. Be quick on the draw

A common photography phrase is: 'the best camera is the one you have with you' - meaning that it's better to have a basic camera in your hand than an amazing one back at home.

You need to be able to get into camera mode as quickly as possible. On many Android phones, some form of double button-press does the job; with iPhones, it's a swipe from the lock screen.

Whatever the method on your own smartphone, make sure you know it. It will make all the difference when that magic moment happens.

If you have an energetic pet at home, you can practice taking photos of speedy subjects. You may also want to read our tips on how to take great photos of your dog.

2. Control your brightness levels

Most of the time, your phone's camera will make a good decision on how bright a photo should be. But cameras don't always know which part of an image is supposed to be bright or dark, or by how much.

For example, ski slopes can often look grey in photos - the camera assumes they should just be 'averagely bright', rather than brilliant white. You can fix this before you take the shot.

On most mobile cameras, if you long-tap the screen you'll see a sun symbol appear, with a slider bar. Slide your finger along that bar to magically lighten or darken your photo.

3. Perfect your composition

Look at any great photos and you'll see the power of shape and proportion, and how effective it is to avoid 'clutter' in your shots. A small number of elements in a photo, nicely arranged, is often more compelling than a busy mess.

Arranging your subject so that it's not in the dead centre of your photo can sometimes give a more pleasing result.

Tapping your phone screen gives you control over precisely where the camera focuses, so experiment with having a nearer subject in focus against a blurred background.

4. Try editing your photos yourself

You might not get a perfect shot straight from your smartphone - but most photo apps will let you fix this in a second. This isn't a weakness but part of the process of digital photography.

Cropping (changing the size and shape of a photo) matters. You can use it to remove something unsightly, but it can also change how we interpret a picture. Making your photo square helps it look good on Instagram, and a 'widescreen' crop can suggest a cinematic quality and can really boost a wide landscape photo.

5. Keep the lens clean

You'll struggle to take a dazzling photo if your lens is dirty, so keep it clean.

Your phone probably lives in a pocket or a bag, and your fingers can easily leave oily streaks on the lens. Most of the time you'll get away with it, but when bright light hits the lens head-on, expect to see streaks and flares if you don't give the lenses a thorough wipe.

6. Learn when (and how) to use zoom

As soon as you start to take photos with any sort of zoom, you run the risk of camera shake and a blurry picture. Anything that can give you extra steadiness will help you get better photos, so try resting your phone on a solid surface. You may even want to invest in a dedicated smartphone tripod to make things a little easier.

If you're trying to take the shot of 'family in front of famous landmark', zoom is really useful. Many phone users fall into the trap of using a wide lens and bringing their loved ones quite close to the camera, and then wonder why the scene behind them looks so dull. You'll get better results if you step back and zoom so the people still occupy the same proportion of the photo. However, it's easy to push your zoom too far, so experiment with distance and quality.

Which smartphone has the best camera in 2021?

If you're shopping for a new smartphone and fancy yourself as a budding photographer, you'll be looking for a mobile with a powerful and versatile camera setup.

Every mobile phone that reaches our test lab is scored on camera quality. We check the picture quality on the front and rear cameras, paying close attention to colour accuracy and the quality of the zoom. Plus, we test in 10 different shooting environments, which means we can identify which cameras are consistent.

Whatever your budget, we can help you pick the perfect smartphone for you. Browse our full selection of expert mobile phone reviews.

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Additional reporting by Tom Morgan.