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A guide to taking better photos with your smartphone

If you own a smartphone, these days the odds are that it has a decent camera. However, despite having high megapixel counts, mobile phone cameras can't keep up with standalone point-and-shoots for a few reasons. The physical size of a phone's image sensor is smaller than even the cheapest point-and-shoot cameras, and we've yet to see a phone with an optical zoom lens. But if you're not the type to carry a camera with you at all times, you'll likely rely on your phone to capture an unexpected moment. The good news is that it's still very much possible to use your iPhone or Android handset to grab photos that will turn heads – and we’ve some helpful advice to that end.

Ditch the filters

Whether it's Instagram or Hipstamatic, the square-crop filter look is tired. Filters can go a long way to mask the shortcomings of phone cameras, but they're entirely overused. Instead of relying on funky colours and borders to set your photos apart from the crowd, let them stand on their own merits. There is a social networking aspect to Instagram that you may miss, but it's just as easy to share photos via Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr.

Snap up an app

This advice is aimed at you, iPhone shooters. The iOS camera app doesn't give you much control over your shots. Spend a pound and grab Camera+ from the app store, or experiment with free downloads like Smugmug Camera Awesome.

Android users have a better featured camera app out of the box, but Zoom Camera is a popular download if you want extra control. All of these apps add a digital zoom and also give you more control over the focus and exposure.

Camera Awesome and Camera+ add digital image stabilisation, a number of burst shooting modes, and a self-timer to your iPhone. Knowledgeable photographers will also appreciate the ability to separate the focus point and exposure area when using Camera+, and the fact that it can show you the current ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Camera Awesome has a number of overlays to help with your composition – Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, an Angled Trisec, and a Square Crop frame can be shown.

Take your time

Shooting with a phone puts you in a different mindset compared to when you're working with a more substantial camera. You're likely to go for a quick shot, without giving too much thought to your angle, the lighting, and composition. This is exacerbated by the always-on nature of your phone – you want to get your photo online instantly, so your friends and family know what you're doing at that moment. Slow down. Take your time and get the shot right, or as right as you can get it. If you need to take a few photos to do so, go for it – you aren't paying by the frame.

If you're serious, carry a mini tripod and a mounting bracket for your phone. There are also adapters out there to mount other lenses to your phone. These include compact fisheye and teleconverter lenses, or more ambitious designs that connect an SLR lens. My opinion is that they're more trouble than they're worth – you won't walk around with the lens attached in your pocket, and digging it out of your bag and attaching it to your phone can be a pain. Whenever you add a lens to a lens the resulting image quality is reduced, even with the best conversion lenses – and given the prices, these aren't the best conversion lenses.

Curate and edit

Distancing yourself from the moment will also give you a better sense of the difference between a good photo and a bad one. It's easy to get excited about a shot right after you've captured it, but chances are you'll have a better handle on the quality of a photo hours or days after you've snapped it.

Hack your flash

The flash on your phone isn't a traditional photo strobe, it's an LED light. It's bright, but small, which can create a deer-in-the-headlights type look when using it. You can get better results by diffusing its output – essentially spreading the light it emits out further. This will give flash photos a softer and more pleasing look. You can see that the light is a bit softer on the sample photo (below) with the left side image; it was shot with wax paper covering an iPhone 5 flash. The shot on the right, taken without anything to diffuse the flash, is a bit harsher and accentuates some shininess on the subject's face.

Depending on what type of case you use to protect your phone, it shouldn't be that hard. Grab some wax paper from the kitchen and use it to cover up the flash. This will be easiest if you have a case that covers the entire back of your phone, with a cut-out for the flash and lens. I took a few quick snaps using this method – portraits with the naked flash resulted in a bit of harsh light that was downright unflattering, but adding the wax paper softened it a bit. The difference is subtle, but considering how easy it is to implement, why not try this?

Find the light

Even with a slightly better flash output, your phone's performance in dim lighting is going to be disappointing when compared to a good point-and-shoot camera. Photography is all about lighting, and you'll get better photos when you're shooting in better light. Better doesn't mean brighter; the best natural light you'll get is right after dawn, and again just prior to dusk. You're also better off taking photos on a cloudy, overcast day than you are at midday under a bright blue sky – clouds work to soften the light, whereas photos shot under the noon sun have a harsh look to them.

If you're shooting indoors, try and consider what artificial light sources you can work with. Avoid fluorescent lighting, unless you want a green David Fincher look to your shots. Try and meter indoor snapshots with care – the aforementioned Camera+ app lets you separate the metering area from the focus area, so you can get more natural looking photos with a low-key lighting effect by metering off the best-lit part of your scene and focusing on your subject.

Get in close

It might not lack in megapixels, your phone's camera still isn't capable of resolving the same level of detail as a good compact digital camera. There are reasons for this, including the relatively small size of the lens and sensor. So don't expect to get a detailed shot if you're far away from your subject – even if you engage digital zoom. That can be a useful tool when you simply can't get closer, but remember that you're essentially just cropping your photo before it's taken. If you can get right up to the subject of your shot and frame it tightly, you'll end up with much better results.