A flagship phone with 108 megapixels is nice to have for capturing moments with family and friends. But unless you plan to sell your photos as stock images or start a career in mobile photography, it’s not worth splurging on a phone that’s only used for occasional selfies. Sometimes, simplicity is key. While your phone’s megapixel count matters, you won’t see its full potential if you don’t know how to take pictures.


With the right feature combination and techniques, you can shoot pictures on a budget phone and create the illusion of using a high-end one. Follow these amazing tips and tricks to learn how to make your photos look their best.

Clean your camera lens

This step is often neglected, but it should be your top priority. Over time, your phone collects dust or dirt that can cover your camera lens. When you take pictures, specks and smudges cause images to appear blurry, but you can resolve this issue by wiping the lens with a microfiber cloth. Microfiber has thinner weaves that produce gentle friction against your camera lens without scratching it. Tissues can leave residue and smudges that worsen the situation, so avoid them.

If you must use liquid to remove tough stains, get a lens wipe mixed with isopropyl alcohol. The moisture evaporates almost immediately, reducing the risk of liquid entering your phone and damaging it. You don’t have to clean your camera with alcohol before every picture, but wiping it down gently doesn’t hurt.

Banner with the AP logo in black along with a black and gray smartphone. The text

Adjust focus and exposure

When you tap a spot in your camera app, this action makes the camera lens focus on that area. If you take the picture, your chances of getting a detailed shot are better than when you rely on your phone’s autofocus settings. While this setting is great, its automatic design can be a problem. It focuses mainly on high-contrast areas, which means if your object doesn’t appear there, the sensor doesn’t place importance on it.

With manual focus, you define where the lens needs to look, which is a great option when moving objects are in the scene. Having good lighting would be useful in this case. If you don’t have good lighting, your camera lets you increase the exposure. Camera exposure refers to the amount of light that enters the sensor. The more you expose the sensor to light, the brighter your photos will be. Be mindful of how much you tweak this setting. Otherwise, you’ll end up with overexposed or underexposed photos.

Overexposure happens when the white parts of a picture are too bright and the camera fails to capture detail. Underexposure is the reverse case when your photo turns out too dark.

Exposure works best in the daytime. Use this setting when you need to brighten pictures a bit. In the dark, overexposure makes pictures grainy.

To use these features on your Android phone, tap a spot on the screen to make your camera lens focus on it. A slide appears beside the focus circle. Drag the sun icon to adjust the exposure. The padlock icon keeps the focus on a specific spot. The lock remains until you tap it or another part of your screen. On an iPhone, you may need to tap and hold a spot to lock the focus.

Use natural light

Camera exposure and flash settings help to brighten pictures, but they’re more assistive features than complete replacements for natural lighting. Because the flash aims directly at your subject, the result is a jarringly bright subject and darkened background. Let’s not forget the catch light that gives your subject ghostly eyes in the dark. You should only use such lighting options to soften mild shadows around your subject.

In most cases, natural light is the best option. Although sunlight presents harsh lighting conditions, you can manipulate it to produce the desired effects. The most important part comes down to timing. When done right, you can capture images without manipulating the saturation and brightness settings too much. If you need to take pictures outside, do it during the following hours:

  • Golden hour: Occurs 30 minutes before the sun sets and after sunrise. It produces a warm golden hue that’s great for creating a silhouette.
  • Midday: In the afternoon at and after 12 p.m. when the sun is bright. It’s a tricky time to navigate because you’ll have harsh shadows around the eyebrows and forehead of human subjects. It’s best for taking landscape or nature subjects, such as lakes and rivers.
  • Blue hour: Also known as twilight, occurs 20 to 30 minutes after sunset and before sunrise. It produces a cool blue hue that’s great for shooting cityscapes.

Tweak the aspect ratio

The aspect ratios in your camera app determine how big your pictures appear. The first number typically represents the width, while the second represents the height. By default, your camera app uses 9:16, the vertical form of the popular 16:9, for viewing landscape shots on monitors, TVs, and computers. It’s the ideal size for taking pictures and shooting videos on phones. However, the ratio doesn’t consist of the maximum megapixels of your phone.

On the other hand, the 4:3 or 3:4 ratio uses the full rectangular area of your camera’s sensor, therefore using the maximum pixels. It’s best for mobile photography, especially for taking pictures that will appear in print media. The downside is that it appears smaller, and you’ll sacrifice some features, such as zooming, taking bursts, and selecting your desired flash option.

Depending on your phone model or operating system (OS), you can change your camera’s aspect ratio within the app. Samsung’s phones have the button in the top area of the app, while other devices may require you to swipe up or enter the app’s settings menu.

Don’t zoom, go closer

DSLR cameras have optical lenses you can adjust back and forth with your hands to magnify distant subjects. Your smartphone does not. Instead, it uses a digital lens. The design is too flat and restrictive to allow the lens to move back and forth as many times as needed for optimal optical zoom.

The more your camera zeros in on the subject, the more the lens crops the image to enlarge it. This process makes the subject look pixelated and blurry. If possible, go closer to it. If not, take the picture from a far distance, and crop it yourself. You will lose less quality this way.

Balance shots with grid lines

Grid lines are a combination of horizontal and vertical lines that are essential for camera alignment. Suppose you want to photograph a cityscape and make the buildings appear perfectly straight. Grid lines train your camera and your eyes to see where the shot is tilted and how you can adjust it. This way, you don’t need to run it through a series of cropping and perspective editing afterward.

Person taking a picture with grid lines on mobile phone

If you prefer to shoot images with grid lines, use the Rule of Thirds. It’s a principle that guides how you use the lines. On most smartphones, two horizontal and vertical lines make up the grid lines. So you have nine boxes. Instead of centering your subject in the middle boxes, the rule suggests aligning with the left or right lines and boxes for balance. Also, it keeps your image from looking bland or basic.

Take photos in bursts

Mobile phone cameras are terrible with fast-paced action. The slightest flick of your wrist can send your phone lagging for a few seconds and cause you to miss an opportunity. With burst mode, you can take quick shots in rapid succession without needing to time the moment.

Afterward, you can swipe through the shots and delete the ones you don’t need. This feature works when you’re jumping, dancing, or performing other erratic actions. Depending on your device model, you can slide the camera button down or hold it to shoot bursts.

Download editing apps

Your camera app is a powerhouse of features, but there’s only so much it can do. You can take decent pictures with basic exposure, aspect ratio, and filter settings. But if you want advanced effects and capabilities, download an alternative app.

Also, you can use one of the top-rated photo editing apps on your phone instead of exporting pictures to your PC. By default, smartphones save the pictures you take as a JPEG file. The quality loss becomes worse if you transfer them to your PC, edit them, and save them in JPEG. A mobile app saves you time and reduces the amount of quality that is lost in the editing process.

Shoot images in RAW format

RAW files retain the original and uncompressed details, colors, tones, brightness, sharpness, and contrast your camera captures. Automatically, your phone compresses photos you take before saving them as a JPEG file on your phone. This process causes some quality loss. If you want to edit pictures with photo editing apps, shoot them in RAW format for the best experience. The drawback is that the format is heavier, which you may struggle with if you run out of storage space.

Shooting in RAW format only works if your phone supports Camera2 API, a second-generation technology that allows for more manipulation than the Camera1 API. Most Android phones support it. On iPhones, you can shoot in ProRAW format if your device is an iPhone 12 Pro or newer model running the iOS 14.3 OS version or higher versions. The ProRaw format is Apple’s version of the classic RAW format that processes images with Smart HDR and Deep Fusion and is much heavier.

Exploit negative spaces

Person taking a photo of a pier with negative space surrounding the subject

Negative space refers to the empty area surrounding subjects in a photo and is a way to keep yourself or other subjects as the focus of attention. For example, imagine yourself standing on the beach or a pier with nothing but the ocean view behind you.

You may think this technique makes your photo boring, but the result is the opposite. Emptiness emphasizes what’s important: the subject. Too much activity happening behind it only causes confusion or is a distraction.

With great photos comes great responsibilities

It’s not enough to aim your camera at a subject and press that round white button anymore. You could end up with blurry, misaligned, or underexposed shots. Even the best editing apps may not save you. Most mobile phones, whether expensive or cheap, are equipped with basic features to help you capture whatever you need. More importantly, every phone isn’t the same, and there’s more you could uncover if you explore your camera app and learn how it works.

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