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Ten Commandments of Smartphone Photography

For many years now, smartphones have made taking and sharing photos easy, but how good are the photos you see on an average Facebook or Instagram feed? More often than not, they are blurry, grainy, dark, or distorted. Sometimes they obscure the subject more than they reveal it.

That’s because most people use smartphone cameras in their native, automatic mode, and don’t fully understand their limitations. If you’d like to elevate your smartphone photo game to another level, here are the Ten Commandments you should follow:

1. Clean Thy Lens!

Have you seen where your phone has been? It can get pretty gross, so do yourself a favor and wipe the schmutz off the lens before you take the photo. The image will be clearer, and you can avoid some really nasty lens flares. Also keep this rule in mind if you’re shooting through a windshield of your car, and never take a photo while you’re driving. If you’re the passenger, for best results open the window (or the sunroof!), but keep your limbs inside the moving vehicle at all times.

2. Get Close to Thy Subject!

The lens on your phone is wide angle, which means it can fit a whole building in the photo from a short distance away. Unfortunately, it also means that, unless your subject is the size of a building, it will appear very small in the photo. Or, if the subject is more than 10 or so feet away, it will cover only a small portion of the frame. Therefore, if at all possible, get close to your subject, fill the frame with it, and you’ll create a more impactful image.

3. Thou Shalt Not Use Digital Zoom!

If you’re not close to your subject (see above), you’ll be tempted to use the digital zoom, and pinch open your thumb and index finger. Resist that temptation. Unlike most cameras not attached to your phone, you don’t have an actual optical zoom, so what you’re doing is degrading the quality of the photo you’re taking. If you simply cannot get any closer (say you’re at a concert and the stage is too far), consider obeying Commandment #10 below. The only exceptions here are some newer phones that have two rear lenses (Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone 8, for example), but even those have limitations.

4. Thou Shalt Be Mindful Of What’s In Thy Frame!

The top half of your photo is nothing but ceiling. The bottom half is nothing but backs of heads of people in front of you. There’s a pole growing out of the head of the person you took the photo of. And you forgot to notice the clutter behind your subject. Come on, you can do better than that! Pay attention to what the camera sees and observe carefully the entire frame. Photography is the art of exclusion, which means you have to purposefully exclude elements that don’t belong in your photo. In other words, composition is key – change your point of view, turn the phone sideways, move your feet, guide your viewer’s eye. Often, a little goes a long way. Remember, nobody will ever have the same experience with your photo as you do, so make an effort to bridge that gap.

5. Know Thy Camera’s Settings!

Does your camera app have a “Pro” mode? Try swiping left or right, maybe it’ll pop up. In Pro mode, you can override your camera’s automatic settings and directly manipulate ISO, aperture, shutter speed and more. Look for the “Settings” icon in your camera app for advanced features of your rear and front cameras. And if you have a newer phone, you may even have the ability to save RAW files, which will come handy in the very next Commandment.

6. Develop Thy Photos!

That’s right, I said “develop”, just like in the film days. There are countless apps that will allow you to manipulate the photo after you take it. Reduce the highlights to bring back the detail in those white clouds; increase the shadows in areas the restaurant lighting didn’t quite reach, add a little saturation to your colors to make them pop, and so on. It’s kind of like making your own Instagram filter. This is a lot easier to do with original RAW files instead of the JPEGs that your camera processes automatically, so see if you can turn on this feature.

7. Thou Shalt Be Smarter Than Thy Camera!

If you ever took a photo of someone standing in front of a window and ended up with a dark blob where the face should be, you need to learn the power of exposure compensation. The icon has a plus sign on top of a minus sign, and that’s the basic concept – plus makes the whole photo brighter, minus makes it darker. Or, if that’s too hard, most phone cameras will let you tap on the area of the photo you wish to expose properly. Be aware of your background, recompose if you have to, but don’t be limited by what your phone thinks your photo should look like. Practice, so you don’t have the fumble around with your phone when it really matters.

8. Let There Be Light (From Thy Flash!)

Or, if you’re taking a photo of someone standing in front of a window, use your flash! Keep in mind that it’s very tiny, but it can add light to a subject that is close. That’s again an important point – if you’re shooting something far away, your flash will not help you, because its power drops rapidly with distance. However, in cases where your lighting is uneven, flash might just make your photo that much better. And after you take the photo, apologize to your subjects for their temporary blindness.

9. Respect Thy Camera, and Doth Not Make It Do Too Much!

Sometimes, you’re just not going to be able to get a good photo with your phone, and that’s okay. They’re not really made to take photos of everything, especially things moving fast, things that are far away, things that are very dark or very bright. Do your best, and if it’s not good enough, remember the next Commandment, which is perhaps the most important.

10. Behold the Beauty Before You, and Let Not The Moment Pass Thee By!

It’s a beautiful sunset, I know. Go ahead, grab the photo so you can show those amazing colors in the sky. But then, put down the phone, and just enjoy the moment. Don’t get caught up in taking photo after photo, hoping one of them will be perfect. Instead meditate, let the beauty inspire you, just stand there and stare. Your to-do list will be there when you get back to it.

All photos in this article have been taken with my fabulous Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and processed with Photoshop Express app. Share your favorite tips or your best smartphone photos in the comments below!