How to improve your mobile phone photos

Handy tips to take better mobile phone pictures

How to improve your mobile phone photos

Gone are the days when an unexpected photo opportunity made you wish you'd packed a camera - you always have one on you. However, the poor quality of many mobile phone photos might put you off pointing and clicking.

It's not really the device's fault. Or, more accurately, it is its fault, but you're not compensating for its limitations. Mobile phone cameras have their foibles, but you can work around them. As you read on, we'll talk you through how to take better pictures possible with your phone.

Lets begin with the obvious question: when compact digital cameras are so small, why use your phone? Aside from the fact that it's always there, your phone has a couple of clear advantages.

For one, it's a phone, so no one notices when you take it out. Mobile phones are great for snapping candid action and getting pictures discreetly.

Secondly, your phone is well connected. When you've taken a picture, you can publish it almost instantaneously to blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. A digital SLR like the Nikon D90 can take great photographs, but it can't publish them instantly. The result of this convenience and connectivity is that mobile phone cameras tend to have slow responses, poor resolution and awkward design features compared to dedicated cameras, but we can work around this.

Picture resolution

The picture resolution of modern mobile phones caught up with entry-level digital cameras a couple of years ago. It's now common for smartphones to boast camera resolutions between three and five megapixels. The iPhone 4 has a five-megapixel camera, for example, while users of LG's popular budget Android handset the Optimus One have three megapixels to play with.

There are exceptions, like the relatively new Nokia N8. More like a camera with a phone built in, it boasts a 12-megapixel camera and professionally tooled Carl Zeiss lens for pin-sharp results.

What do these figures actually mean? You determine the megapixel count by multiplying the maximum number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical pixels. For example, a three-megapixel camera has a maximum resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 pixels. Multiply those two figures and you have 3,145,728 pixels, or 3.1 megapixels.

However, you'll only get that full count if you select the highest resolution on your camera phone, which may not be the default setting. Your phone will probably have a 'Normal' setting that only uses a fraction of the camera's capabilities. You need to set it to the highest possible resolution (often labelled either 'Fine' or 'Superfine') to get the most from your mobile pictures.

On Android phones you'll see the resolution in width, height and megapixels. It's important to remember that higher resolution images take up more of your available storage space.

One way around that, if your phone supports it, is to upgrade your storage. Most Android and BlackBerry phones have additional media storage that uses Micro SD cards. This is easy to upgrade, because you can just buy a higher capacity card. A cheaper way to maximise your storage is to regularly transfer images from your phone, wipe the media from it and start again.

Fibres and dust will inevitably find their way onto your mobile phone's camera lens as it rattles around in your pocket. All it takes is a quick wipe with a clean tissue before you start to shoot to avoid the disappointment of images obscured by eyelashes and crumbs. Better still, try the lint-free cloth that came with your phone - the one you thought you'd never use.

composition

And while we're on the subject of occlusion, the compact form factor of the average mobile phone is more suited to making calls than taking pictures. That makes it easier to ruin an image with a dangling strap or errant thumb in front of the lens. Double-check for obstructions before taking your shot.

Look for light

Getting the best photographs isn't just about having more megapixels, memory and higher resolutions. To get the best from your images, you need to get the light and composition right.

Digital imaging is notoriously bad at coping with low light levels. Our advice if your image looks too dark is not to even try to compensate for it. All built-in light compensation does is boost the brightness and contrast levels, which tends to lead to grainy images with an orange cast. If you have a built-in flash, expect hard shadows and a blue cast instead.

The only real cure for dark conditions is to add more light, which isn't always easy in the kind of impromptu situations where you might use a mobile phone camera. Try to shoot outdoors for the best results, and make sure the light source is always behind you.

If you can't do that, then use the camera's flash to fill in the subject or you'll end up with a photo full of silhouettes.

Your mobile phone's lens is fixed, which means that when you zoom in on something, it's done digitally rather than optically. That means that the software samples part of the image and blows it up in real time. While you get the illusion of zooming into the image, what you're actually seeing is a portion of the image in the viewfinder resized to fit. You'll get much better results from cropping and resizing a portion of an image after you've taken the picture.

Better still, try to use the 'human zoom' instead - get as close as possible to the subject of the photograph to get the best possible image.

Avoid the shakes

blur

One of the worst problem affecting mobile phone photos is motion blur. A variety of factors contribute to this issue; the small form factor of the average phone, cameras that are slow to respond, and interface design that's bolted on rather than built in.

The worst culprits for this are touch-screen operated devices. To get rid of blur, you need to eliminate shake, which isn't always easy.

There are a few things you can try to keep your phone steady. Brace yourself against something sturdy when you take a picture - plant your elbows on a wall, or lean against a doorway. In an ideal scenario you'd use a tripod, but that defeats many of the advantages of using a mobile phone camera. You may as well use a DSLR if you're going to carry extra equipment anyway.

The best solution we've found is a lateral one: use the timer. You might usually only use this function if you want to get into shot, but it can also help you get sharper pictures by eliminating the shake when you press the shutter button. What you'll lose in spontaneity, you'll gain in pristine pictures.

We've already advised against using light compensation and zoom on your camera, but these aren't the only in-camera tools you should forget. Turn off all effects and shoot images as plainly as possible. When you filter effects, you're degrading the image - subtracting data that you'll never get back.

With mobile phone images, every pixel counts. If you do want to add effects to an image, do it in post-production on your desktop for the best results. In fact, it's a good idea to do all of your picture editing on your PC rather than in your camera.

You don't need to spend a lot of money on image-processing tools either. Photoshop is a superb application to use if you can afford it and know how to make the best of it, but for editing mobile phone photos, all you really need is something simple that lets you crop, resize and colour-correct your pictures. Google's Picasa does all that for free.

Picasa

You can also use Picasa to share your images and organise them into albums. Windows Live Photo Gallery is a similar application, also free.

Follow these tips and make them part of your mobile phone photography routines. You'll end up with superior images that can compete against those taken with dedicated digital cameras.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

First published in PC Plus Issue 308. Read PC Plus on PC, Mac and iPad

Liked this? Then check out 10 best camera phones

Sign up for TechRadar's free Week in Tech newsletter
Get the best tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register

Follow TechRadar on Twitter * Find us on Facebook