How to take Better Smartphone Camera Pictures

Anyone that has met me in person already knows how much I like to talk about my Nokia Lumia 1020 Windows Phone, which for the time being is running Windows Phone 8.1, as it’s older and just runs like butter, where on 10 Mobile it was a bit rough. The key to this piece is that while I love to boast what the 1020 can do, and no it’s not a matter of “Moar Megapixels = Better Pictures!”, it’s more complex than that, please read and make informed comments before assuming my love for the 1020 is a “More Megapixels” game straight up.

After listening this morning to Daily Tech News Show # 2678, Tom discussed this subject of smartphone camera’s and taking better pictures with Myriam Joire, I decided this would be a great time to do a quick article with some of my photos, along with Myriam’s advice from the show. First up, we’ll dive straight into the advice points from Myriam on DTNS, and then I’ll do some quick samples from my various devices:

    1. Simple: Think about your shot and how you want to set it up, if you’re just taking quick shots that you don’t care about, continue on. But if you really want a great picture that friends will appreciate, take the time to think briefly about your angle, where your light sources are, etc. Aka: Setup your shot.
    2. Device: Myriam quoted that with most Smartphones the key on quality comes down way more to software and not the hardware. Some manufacturers have great hardware lenses that look great on a spec sheet, but when processing is done in reality, the photo quality is just “ok”, or outright bad. For devices that have had the best reputation of doing great software/hardware combos, this is what Myriam listed (of course it’s opinion based, I’m sure this list could be much longer or modified):
      1. Apple
      2. Samsung
      3. Nokia/Microsoft Lumia
    3. Camera MP: As I started off, Myriam confirmed that in the case of most devices, more megapixels is not to your benefit, he said with the exception of mostly of software post-processing and work done on Sony and Nokia Lumia devices, which do some very cool thinks with large 20-41 MP sensors, any other device you don’t need more than 8 MP, maybe 12 MP if you plan on 4k video.
    4. Application: While not an issue on Apple devices as it forces the usage of the native app, on Android and Windows Phone, stick with the native camera app provided by the manufacturer. This is because as in the Device point above, the majority of the processing from the hardware is done by the software, and the device manufacturer has optimized this. Most 3rd party apps are instead using an OS API that do not have full access to the camera capability. This was the case in earlier Windows 10 Mobile previews where Microsoft explicitly told Lumia 1020 owners to hold off as the native camera app at the time could not properly utilize the 41 MP camera.
    5. Clean your lens: This should be simple, but given how much we carry our phones around and all they go through, often poor photo quality is simple a fingerprint or smudge on the lens. Any soft, lint-free fabric will work, such as a cotton t-shirt your wearing, microfiber cloth, or regular denim jeans.
    6. Get close to your subject: The focus of this…avoid using the zoom features unless you absolutely need to. Most smartphones only support digital zoom which kills the quality at a rapid pace, and even phones like the new ASUS ZenFone Zoom with a 3x Optical Zoom Lens built in you’ll get better photo’s if you don’t use the zoom at all, period.
    7. Frame your shot: This one is a pretty basic Photography lesson, and applies just as well to your smartphone pictures. Don’t aim to centre your key subject, instead apply the Rule of Thirds, more here.
    8. Focus & Exposure: On most smartphones, the Auto-Focus is decent, but it may not know what you want the subject to be. In most devices you can simply tap on the screen on your subject to get the native camera software/app to focus on that subject and adjust the exposure appropriately. Using even this method greatly improved my auto photography at shows by picking different details, especially on big, long cars, to focus on.
    9. Don’t Flash People!… No seriously. Except for rare cases where you need to fill in some light (light a person subject during the daylight with loads of light behind them), leave the flash turned off, don’t use it, period. Ever notice that professional photo shoots have all sorts of external lights and manual light sources? That’s because they are not using the flash as well because it’s harder to control the results. Again, lighting is a massive subject I’m not getting into, but don’t use your flash 99% of the time.
    10. Practice: This is the final tip, and should be obvious…but take these tips, and any others you can find, and practice! It does not matter what hardware your using, you can practice with these tips and get great photo’s and upgrade your hardware later if you really need it. But you can take amazing photo’s with less than amazing hardware, see below…


This first set of photo’s was before I was into any type of photography, and was not aware of these tips above in any real capacity, but I was already covering the basics of thinking about my shot, the lighting, and my subjects. These photo’s were taken with my first Windows Phone, and Nokia Lumia 520, pretty much the most basic phone I could get at the time with a simple 5 MP camera, no flash, and no front camera, and yet they turned out pretty good for starters and I’ve seen way worse photos from iPhone 6’s and the like.

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Even this black and white one above while a fair amount grainy and dark, turned out way better than when I attempted it with the flash turned on, and the effect is also way better with the rule of thirds where I did not fully centre the car or motor in the shot.

Following up with better hardware and software and more attention to detail on these rules, framing and planning the shot, are some photos taken with my Lumia 1020. No flash, no zoom, and these are the 5 MP over-sampled shots letting the software do it’s work, not the raw 34 MP shots. Even these photos I was only just learning the rules, but the pictures turned out pretty fine, but could be better with more application of the rule of thirds:

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Finally, a pair of raw 34 MP shots, which can be good and bad, they are very high resolution with a lot of raw detail, but without the oversampling to make an amazing 5 MP – ish picture. Overall when you look at it on your display though, they probably don’t look remarkably better than the shots above. But they still look great as some time was spent thinking about and setting up the shot, avoiding usage of zoom and flash, and generally doing more than just standing in-front of the subject and taking a picture. For automotive pictures I’m usually kneeled down, or flat on the ground to get the angle I like…but it makes for a cooler picture than just square in-front of the subject. Obviously the first shot was edited, but only to remove colour and then quickly re-add the red taillight, the second shot I planned out more intentionally, framed off-centre and came out with an awesome camping shot.



(Also, that’s a fake vanity plate meant to look authentic, not a real one, so I didn’t both blurring it out.)


I’ll say it up front, my Photos are far from professional photography yet and most of what I’ve posted here for samples are before I learned rules similar to what I’ve listed above. It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve started to pay attention more and have likewise flagged that one of the key features I want in a smartphone now is a great camera set (hardware & software), as that is what I like to use the most. As I continue to take more photos I’m absolutely going to be paying more attention to the tips mentioned via Daily Tech News Show, and expect to see continued improvement in results. My next big test will be in March at this years International Auto & Truck Show in Calgary, Alberta!

Scott Haner

Thanks for reading TechZerker! I’m Scott, a Canadian tech professional for over a decade with a wide range of experience. I created TechZerker as my own source to talk about a variety of tech subjects, from reviews of hardware I get my hands on, challenges I see in my tech work, gaming with focus on nostalgic gaming (games over 10-ish years old, but not Retro), and more recently my explorations in Linux and Linux gaming as a long time Windows Insider and fan. I am passionate about the tech I work and live with and enjoy a good, intelligent discussion on all these topics.