I know cell phone cameras are the lowest rung, but when reading reviews of phones, the reviewers always have sample shots that are much better than what I can manage.

What are some ways to take decent shots with a cell phone camera? (I'm thinking of the higher end Android or iPhone cameras).

  • 2
    The reviewers probably shoot outdoors, in easy to photograph situations that these cameras excel in. Either that, or they have indoor locations with good soft lighting.
    – dpollitt
    Jul 19, 2011 at 1:58
  • 3
    Just to add to what everyone said there is one big advantage for a phone camera over anything else, which is the fact that you have it with you all the time. "The best camera is the camera you have on you" Jun 30, 2012 at 19:29

7 Answers 7

  • Composition is king. No matter what kind of camera you're using, all the usual composition techniques still apply. Sophisticated camera features won't save a poor composition, but a strong composition will shine through even when other aspects of the image aren't perfect.

  • Work with the camera, not against it. Don't try too hard to impose your will on the image you're creating. Your (phone) camera has a number of characteristics that you can't change (fixed focal length, fixed focus, tiny aperture), so you need to find the image that you can create with those features rather than trying to adjust the device to recreate the image in your head.

  • Manipulate the environment instead of the camera. If you can't zoom, move the camera closer or farther from the subject. If you can't control the exposure, do what you can to improve the lighting (sit your subject near a window, aim some lights at an adjacent wall, go sit under a tree...).

  • The LED "flash" isn't worth much. It's fine for taking utilitarian pictures of text or objects, but it doesn't make for great photographs. On the other hand, if you happen to be using an iPhone, the HDR feature in iOS 4 can really improve the lighting in an image.

  • 1
    I loath the HDR "feature" in iOS. Seriously it is terrible. You could do better in post if you really want to try.
    – dpollitt
    Jul 19, 2011 at 1:57
  • want to get better result for cellphone shot. Find a cell phone that actually use good sensor. Don't use an iPhone! Don't use an iphone app that would "make your shot better" by applying crazy effect, it just seem fake.
    – rvpals
    Jun 29, 2012 at 22:35
  • @Caleb, Btw, why do you call the LED flash a "flash" (in quotes)?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 22, 2015 at 4:32
  • 1
    @Pacerier Because it's quite a different thing from the xenon flashtube that provides a "real" flash. The light from the LED isn't nearly as intense, and the duration is much too long to freeze motion. The LED on a phone camera provides very little of what's good about flash photography. PS: I trust that readers can find further resources on good composition, including other questions here; I only wanted to call out composition as the key to making better images with limited equipment.
    – Caleb
    Dec 22, 2015 at 5:18

First, a few examples of what an iPhone 4 can take straight out of the camera, no manipulation or post processing done.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Tips and tricks that helped me to get shots like these:

  • Pay close attention to your horizons. With a small camera or cell phone it is easy to take a shot tilted from one side to another.
  • Become familiar with the focal length of your camera, and pre-visualize good shots
  • At night, try using software such as Camera+ to take multi-shot exposures to improve your chances of getting a shot that is blur free
  • In the iOS camera app, using the "touch the screen to focus" method really comes in handy. This allows you to set the exposure off of an area of the screen, and also focus where you would like. You almost need to do this in many situations.

Understand that the resolution is not the limiting factor for these cameras. Things like the maximum aperture and sub-par high ISO performance are really where you are going to hit brick walls. This isn't any different from the basic understanding of regular photography, you just have to know that small cameras(sensors) typically have even more issues on a cell phone than a point-and-shoot.

Accept the fact that at least in today's world, the built in LED flash that these units have is nearly pointless. If you find yourself in a situation that REQUIRES it to get the shot, you must understand that the outcome will not be pleasant.

Finally, I absolutely do not consider my iPhone 4 to be the lowest rung on my camera list. I find it to be a joy to carry, pull out of my pocket, and snap shots at anytime or place I wish. I have a high end point and shoot camera(USD $500) that I leave at home, because the iPhone 4 is better, that is right I said BETTER. Better because I have it with me 100% of the time, I don't have to worry about memory cards, storage, battery, or anything of that sort. I can just take pictures, and excellent quality pictures I might add.

  • 3
    Back from vacation eh? Good shots. Stop in chat and show us some more!
    – rfusca
    Jul 19, 2011 at 2:41
  • 'sub-par low ISO' - you mean poor high ISO performance?
    – rfusca
    Jul 19, 2011 at 2:43
  • 2
    @rfusca - Fixed the typo, thanks. I haven't even culled the images from my DSLR yet! Another nice feature about images on my phone, I don't take thousands!
    – dpollitt
    Jul 19, 2011 at 2:57
  • @dpollitt, Hmm, the last image look visibly tilted. Is that intentional?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 22, 2015 at 4:33

I would encourage you not to think of cell phone cameras as the lowest rung -- rather, they are the "best camera" (paraphrasing, among others, Chase Jarvis) because they are the ones you most often have with you. Some photographers like Jay Meisel are disciplined enough to take their cameras everywhere -- even out to the corner drugstore. Not so for most of us.

So tips:

  • Use it a lot
  • Learn to hold it parallel to the plane of the subject to avoid strange parallax or focus falloff
  • Look into apps that may enhance your creativity, but don't use them as crutches. Hipstamatic comes immediately to mind as an app that is so kitchy it is hard to ignore but also can affect your shooting style and lend a certain "sameness" so your work
  • Find a clip/clamp setup so you can keep the darn thing still between composition and when the exposure is actually made. These are usually lighting accessories designed to hold light flags or cards -- bendable arm, clips on each side. They're not hard to make either.
  • What are some tips to "hold parallel"?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 22, 2015 at 4:40

This is a great question since the best camera is the one you have with you... and no one leaves home without their cellphone.


There are a few reasons why cellphones aren't good cameras.

  • Sensor size: There is a lot of items packed into the camera. The sensor needs to be able to distinguish one thing from the other, and the less space it has to do that, the less the quality. This is why you're going to get much better quality from a full-frame with less megapixels than a compact with more.
  • Aperture: The lens can only do so much with so little size. Apple has been really good at putting more elements in their cameras in order to get the image to hit the sensor clear and with a larger sensor.
  • Control: Many cellphones don't have a conventional means of focus or a variable aperture. This means that no app can give you the control you need to bring out better quality. The DOF is impacted by the focus, and vice versa. Much different from a regular camera.
  • Shutter speed: In order to compensate for the sensor not being able to take in a lot of light, the shutter needs to be longer. This is one of the biggest problems as far as stabilization.

Get the most out of a picture

You're going to need to keep those limitations in mind in order to compose a good shot with a low quality camera

  • Light: Since you're working with a small sensor and limited aperture, try to take photos in good light or manipulate them accordingly. People should be positioned into the light so the sensor doesn't have to take as long. With newer phones, you can select where you expose to. Use this, it will greatly improve your photos.
  • Stability: With slow shutter speeds, you're going to have to be very steady. It looks goofy, but it will make a world of difference if you set the phone down or rest your elbows when taking the photo. If you have an actual button you can use to snap the picture, use that (iphone). Just the movement from tapping the screen is enough movement to blur the image.
  • Depth of field: Remember the rules for depth of field. A great post can be found here. In short, think about your distant from your subject and the distance from the subject the background. Be close to your subject and keep your subject far from backround to get that nice bokeh.
  • For the love of God, don't zoom: Just don't do it.
  • I see that you say "don't zoom". But what's the reasoning behind that?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 22, 2015 at 4:38
  • @Pacerier In most cell phone cameras, zoom is only digital. When this is the case, zooming is simply cropping the image ahead of time which doesn't net you a better image than if you were to take the shot zoomed out and crop later. This could have changed since then since more cell phone cameras have adjusting focus.
    – AndyML
    Jan 4, 2016 at 21:18

Short answer - shoot outside.

At least on my iPhone 3GS the problems are extremely poor low light (and even not-so-low light) performance, relatively high lens distortion and that I can't seem to hold the thing straight.

Obviously the fixed focal length, fixed focus and complete lack of manual controls are limiting - but I'm not going to talk about that - that's just the way things are and you are better off using your creativity to work within those limitations than fighting the camera.

The first problem is solved by making sure you have lots of light, if you shoot outside or near a window you'll be fine - otherwise, either learn to love noise or clean it out in post (the 3GS doesn't have the led flash - but I don't expect it would have made a difference).

The distortion can be "solved" by choosing subjects without to many parallel lines - again, most outside photographs should be ok (except architecture, and even that can be ok if you don't have strait lines too close to the edge of the frame) - you can even use that for effect by placing the subject in the middle and have the background slightly "wrap around" it

The third problem - that it's hard to hold the thing strait (it's possible this is just me, if you don't have that problem ignore this paragraph), well, if upgrading the photographer is not an option the only choice left is to be extra careful when composing and tap really lightly to take the picture.


In my opinion, it really depends on your skill & your phone. There are phones that are simply equipped with better optics.

The best camera phone I ever used is the Droid X. It beats the iPhones or a more expensive point and shoot camera. Because it has a mechanical shutter and dual LED light.

In terms of skill and how to:

  • shoot in good lightning condition
  • know the limitation of your camera by experimenting (every camera has its own shortcoming and strengths, even the most expensive camera)
  • Use flash more on phone camera
  • 2
    How does a mechanical shutter increase the chance of getting good results?
    – dpollitt
    Jul 20, 2011 at 17:34
  • Check out this link for comparison : cinematography.net/Files/… For example, the mechanical shutter on my Droid X phone, when you hold down the shutter for focusing or when you fully pressed to take a photo, you actually see the shutter really close down. It's more of optical vs digital kind of comparison.
    – rvpals
    Jul 20, 2011 at 18:24
  • Like the digital zoom that most point and shoot has, it's not going to help at all with your photo quality, if it's a optical zoom, the lens itself actually have that capability of extending that far. Guessing Mechanical shutter physically closes vs digital shutter.
    – rvpals
    Jul 20, 2011 at 18:28

For those of you using an iOS device (other than an iPhone 4S which already takes great photos), you can increase your device's photo ability by jail-breaking it. I have an iPod 4th generation which I was able to improve by hacking it a little.

So if you are adventurous this might be for you. Just visit http://greenpois0n.com/ and download the version that matches your device to install "Cydia".

iPod before and after cydia

Keep in mind that it will void your warranty - but at this point I am more interested in the photos.

  • Why does jailbreaking increase the camera ability?
    – Pacerier
    Dec 22, 2015 at 4:40
  • My guess is that it is standard tweeks iOS used to help most photos stand out better or "pop" more. They also blurred the photos which might help "selfies" because of skin texture.
    – Xeoncross
    Dec 24, 2015 at 15:24

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