Get smart with your phone camera

We've sourced some tips from the professionals, to help you improve photos taken with your smartphone.

We've all seen them. Clumsy, unflattering, out-of-focus photographs of family, food, flowers, whatever, hastily taken on someone's newest toy - their smartphone - and rapidly shared with the world via social media.

Almost every smartphone now comes with an inbuilt camera that outperforms the old point-and-shoot you forked out good money for just a couple of years ago. And you don't have to wait to make your friends jealous with holiday snaps, or show off the amazing dinner your fiance cooked for your birthday.

It's quick, it's easy, but too often it's poor quality.

From low-light fuzziness to poor composition, there are a number of things you can fix to turn an otherwise mediocre smartphone photo into a memory you can actually frame, and not just hastily snap, share, and forget.

Robyn Geering, recently named ACT Family Photographer of 2013 by the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, says smartphones allow people to catch almost any moment without invading.

''I feel like the paparazzi when I walk around with my digital SLR. When I'm trying to be a bit more discreet, I'm pulling out my iPhone all the time,'' she says.


''If you've got a smartphone that is within two to three years of age, you've got a great little camera in there. And the pros to having one of these is just the fact that you've got it in your pocket 24 hours a day, always there, convenient - it's brilliant.''

As a professional photographer, Geering's main tool is her digital SLR camera and she says that when it comes to quality, nothing beats it. But whether it's a proper shoot or a casual snap, she says the same rules apply for coming up with the best possible photo no matter what camera you're using.

''You apply the same techniques across the board. You have limitations with your smartphone, but there are positives that go with it,'' she says.

Good, natural light is the key. If you're indoors, find a window. If you're outdoors, experiment with available shade and sunlight. Have steady hands, but avoid using the flash on your smartphone, which can flatten out images.

''Finding good light is often more critical than finding something interesting to shoot,'' Geering says.

''When you're holding it, have a steady hand [by placing] two hands on the camera and resting your elbows on your chest, or resting your elbows [somewhere] and keeping it as still as possible.''

Apart from good light, Geering says to keep it simple. Know your camera well (for example, most iPhones only take the photo when you lift your finger off the camera button), and get in close - don't use the zoom.

''I've got to be there. And that's what's so good about these [smartphones] is that you can - you're right there, and you can be tickling them [children] under the arm, or you can reach your arm out and grab them by the hand and hold their hand or tickle them under the chin or whatever,'' she says.

When it comes to taking family photos, Geering recommends you aim for a good connection with whoever's in it.

She says simple features - such as turning on the grid on your smartphone camera - can be helpful for composition, and there are plenty of post-production apps that can fix up colours and contrast, or help you stitch a series of photos together to tell a story.

''If you break an image into three vertically, and you break an image into three horizontally, where the lines cross is where you want to have your subject,'' she says. ''The image will always look more interesting if the subject of your image is not right in the middle.

"It's part of the fun of these little iPhones too - don't expect it to be perfect. You've just got to have fun with it … Don't limit yourself to just taking one photo. Take lots of photos with it and then just cull them - this is the digital era, you can do that. Take 50 photos then keep the best one and get rid of the rest.''

But you shouldn't get caught in the trap of shooting without thinking,

in the hope you'll eventually end up with a good picture, according to food photographer David Reist.

Reist, who works for Clonakilla winery near Canberra and shoots an occasional plate of food for The Canberra Times' Food and Wine magazine, says the rise in digital has bred a new type of photographer, a photographer without the pressure of film's cost and finality.

Although it's great people can take dozens of images and check as they go, Reist believes there's no substitute for a considered, thoughtful shot. ''A general tip is just to slow down and put some thought into things, and you're going to get a better image,'' he says.

Despite the fact he's paid to shoot in restaurants, Reist says he understands the mixed reaction within the industry of patrons snapping smartphone photos of each dish. Some restaurants embrace it, others don't. Reist's advice is to be considerate.

''I think it's wise to be discreet about it, not scared. But definitely try to use available light, turn off all the beeps and the sound on your camera, because there would be people that it would bother,'' he says.

''People might be spending $500 on a meal, and they might not appreciate someone standing up, spinning food around, getting on the table, [and] doing overhead shots … Just be thoughtful, some people might not appreciate, some people might not care. But if you can lessen that intrusion, that's probably a wise thing to do.''

Like Geering, Reist says light is key to a good smartphone photo - but getting good light in an ambient, romantic restaurant setting is notoriously difficult. He says if there is a candle on the table, move it close, or if a friend has a smartphone with a torch function, use that (instead of your own flash) to illuminate the dish and take the photo with your own phone.

At home it's a little easier to show off your own dishes. Reist recommends the kitchen as an ideal setting, as most modern kitchens are built with excellent light. But slow down, take your time, and really try to make the light work for you.

''To be honest, there's not a lot to work with, with food,'' he says. ''You've got this object in front of you, and I guess that's what makes it challenging. So you've got to bring out its three-dimensionality, you've got to bring out the texture of it, because not everything has 23 bright colours kicking out at you. Sometimes it's quite bland stuff. Walk around a dish, get down to where you would put your camera, and don't just kind of point and shoot from standing up on top of it. Get some angle on it, get a bit of perspective, and just have a look around with the light and see how it changes. If you take your time, see how the texture on that object changes as you walk around and the direction of the light changes.

''Get in close, get some of the detail shots. If it's just on a big plate or something it can be a bit flat and boring, but start getting in close and get some detail - that can be quite interesting.''

Shoot with a clean lens - Reist says even just rubbing your phone on your jeans before you click can help - and then take a few extra minutes on post-production before whacking your photo up online for the world to see.

''We're not talking all the kinds of crazy filters people put on these days and effects and all that. It's just about adjusting the exposure and the contrast. The contrast is really important,'' he says.

''It sounds maybe more than it is, but just little things like a quick crop can enhance an image quite amazingly. When you're doing things quickly, just have a second look at it and just fix it up a bit. It's quite important and can make a huge difference in a photo.''

Beyond its undeniable accessibility, the other advantage a smartphone offers is the ability to instantly share a photo via a multitude of means - from text message and email, through to social media and online photo-sharing.

But Reist says he's still a stickler for prints. And a photo taken on your smartphone, despite the lower quality compared with a dedicated camera, can still be printed up to the traditional 6 x 4 inches or even 7 x 5 inches.

And, for Reist, there's still no substitute for that little photo book you can slip in a bag and take along with you.

''I think we really need to look at some of our good pictures and get them on to print, because they're going to be lost,'' he says. ''What's going to happen in 20 years? Look what's happened to floppy disks, you can't access them any more. So I think I would encourage people to get stuff printed. Get them off the computer, get them into your hand, and then in a frame and get them up and display them.''

Top tips for phone photography

  • Find good, natural light and avoid using your flash.
  • Don’t use the zoom – get in close instead.
  • Use two hands and rest your elbows on something (or on your chest) to keep the phone steady.
  • When possible, put some thought into your shot, and try different angles or different light.
  • Take more than one shot, then cull dud photos as you go.
  • Use the native camera app (or a dedicated camera app) to take photos, not a sharing app such as Instagram.
  • Experiment with apps – try Camera+ (iOS) or Camera ZOOM FX (Android) for taking photos, Snapseed (Android or iOS) for post-production.