As part of my job reviewing tech gadgets, I get my hands on some of the best cameras available on the market. I also get plenty of queries about the best camera to get for a variety of needs, preferences and purposes. And it would surprise you – most times, the most practical (and indeed, portable) device is the one that’s already in your very pocket. It’s cliched to a fault, but the best camera really is the one you have on you.
There’s plenty of reasons why smartphone cameras are now a viable alternative to dedicated DSLRs, mirrorless, and especially compact cameras. Advances in sensor technology, AI and camera optics have made the tiny cellphone shooter a formidable performer for its size.
I’ve heard it far too often in the courses I’ve conducted for mobile photography – people complaining that their smartphone cameras just aren’t good enough. Shutter lag, poor low-light performance, and horrible-looking selfies. It wasn’t like this when you bought the phone, so why do these happen to you?
1. Wipe your lens.
You’re probably familiar with those hazy selfies your annoying aunt uploads that look exactly like they were taken in a sauna. The fix is bleedingly simple: wipe the lens before snapping, every time. The oils from your face and hands get plastered on both front and rear cameras and act to diffuse the light captured by the cellphone, making photos look like you’re trapped in a frosty winter.
Also, for posterity’s sake, try not to scratch the front element of the camera. Marks on the lens affect the sharpness of the images tremendously. You probably usually set your phone back-side down on tables, so a phone case helps to lift the camera’s front element off the table to avoid wear and tear.
2. Laggy shutter? HDR’s probably on.
You’re trying to capture the moment your infant child leaps into the air, but your camera seems to only snap the photo a beat after you’ve touched the on-screen shutter button. You curse Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai – the smartphone gods must be dead, you decide. Before you commit to those sacrilegious thoughts, check if you’ve left your HDR option activated.
HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a mode on most cameras that automatically combines information from multiple photographs to ensure all parts of the image are equally visible. That is to say, details in the bright bits that would otherwise be completely blown white, or the dark bits that would otherwise be perfectly black are rendered visible by combining a special image that is perfectly exposed for that portion.
I’ve seen too many instances where people complaining about a laggy smartphone shutter have left this option on, which means the camera takes a heartbeat longer to capture the multiple images required for the composite.
You should leave this mode on for specific instances where you want everything in your image equally bright. And that’s not every time.
3. Your nose isn’t that big – your phone’s too close.
On most smartphone cameras, the front-facing camera is a wide-angle one. This helps in some situations where you’re trying to fit your extended family in the frame without chopping off grandpa’s bald head, but really works against you when you’re trying to snap a doozy for Tinder.
You see, wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective by making nearby images look a lot bigger than they really are. Selfies make your nose look bigger by about 30%, which has apparently resulted in an uptick in the demand for nose job cosmetic surgeries.
Click on images to enlarge
To counter this, make sure your phone is held far from your face. There’s much less perspective distortion, and the eight megapixels you get on most front-facing cameras on smartphones is more than sufficient for you to crop away at your neat little rectilinear self-portrait.
Added pro-tip: make sure your face is in the middle of the image so that your forehead does not get pulled to Talosian proportions. In group photo situations, somewhere near the middle also preserves your perfect facial ratio for all to admire.
4. That’s noise in the night sky, not stars.
City skylines are always breathtaking. New York, Shanghai, Singapore – nothing says “I’m having fun travelling, hope you’re having fun in your little 9-to-5 cubicle” than posting on your Instagram account a shot of city lights and bank logos against the pitch black night sky…
Except they’re not pitch black.
Click on images to enlarge
Whip your phone out and snap, and you’ll see a sea of bright-coloured purple flakes where the photo should be black. Where you see sharp squares of window lights, the photo captures a mess of white smudges instead.
If you’re unfamiliar with photography, the easy fix for this phenomenon is to simply compensate by underexposing. A usual photo usually has a certain level of brightness across the picture. So, most cameras that aren’t equipped with AI or other smart features would not ‘know’ that you’re taking a picture of the night sky, which means it would ‘think’ the image is too dark.
Even for cameras with AI features that can figure out the scene and situation you’re in, they tend to be slightly overexposed anyway. The sample images above were taken on the Sony Xperia XZ2, which sports a camera system that recognises the scene.
To tweak the exposure compensation, tap to focus and slide your finger up/down on most phones. In general, you’d want to underexpose anyway for most digital photography. Details that are too bright (white) tend to be lost, while those that are too dark can be recovered in photo editing apps.
If you’re a pro (or want to be a pro), delve into your camera’s manual mode. The idea is as low an ISO as possible (in most cases ISO100). This means the camera sensor is used at the sensitivity it is most comfortable with. There are plenty of caveats for this rule of thumb, but you’ll learn more if you play around with the settings regularly.
5. Close-ups? Forget autofocus, shift your hands instead.
Apart from taking photos of city skylines and selfies, most of us use our phones to snap our snack for the ‘gram. You’re not alone if you’ve struggled to get your meal in focus – repeatedly pawing away at the screen to no avail.
Well, this issue is not restricted to food photography – taking pictures of flowers, handicrafts and other small objects can be challenging. There’s a reason for this: your smartphone uses on-sensor autofocus which has its limitations. Objects of the same colour or without sharp features can prove difficult for your smartphone to successfully autofocus.
If you’ve got a manual mode on your camera app, locate the manual focus (MF) option and select the appropriate focusing distance. If its a small bead or a tiny flower and you’re trying to get as close as possible, choose the shortest distance.
What you do next is to bring your smartphone and push it back and forth from the subject before you visually confirm focus. Snap a few shots to increase your chances of catching a decent one.
This helps you keep a firm grip on your phone without having to awkwardly paw at the screen to re-engage autofocus.