The rapid adoption of smartphone cameras has introduced a wider audience than ever to the joys of making pictures. And if you're new to photography, nothing is more frustrating or perplexing than feeling like you've got a great shot, only to find that it's come out blurry. The good news is that there are concrete, practical steps you can take to maximize your chances of capturing a crisp, sharp image. In this installment of our Simple Photo Tips series, I'll show you six of them.
Clean your lens
It may seem a bit obsessive to carry around a lens cloth for your phone, but keeping the lens's optical path clean is one of the most basic ways to improve picture quality. Whether your lens sits flush with the phone's exterior or even worse, extends outward, it's inevitable that a finger or other oil-depositing object will frequently come into contact with its clear protective cover, leaving residue that can smear image details.
A quick wipe with a clean lint-free cloth (available from any camera or eyewear shop) before you start the day's shooting session ensures a clear view of your subject.
Get a (good) grip
There's no denying the convenience and portability of a smartphone compared to even a compact standalone camera. It's equally true, however, that the small size and light weight of smartphones can actually make them more difficult to hold steady while taking a picture. And a shaky camera equals a blurry photo. The most stable method of holding your smartphone is with two hands, whether you're holding the phone in a horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) format. Just as with a dedicated camera, keep your elbows tucked in towards your body and hold the phone closer to your face rather than extending it at arm's length.
If you take a picture by tapping the screen, you should know that many phones and/or camera apps allow you to designate the volume button as a shutter release, eliminating the possibility of nudging the phone while tapping the onscreen shutter button. The iPhone, shown in the example above, has its volume "+" button along the side of the phone and in both images my left thumb is positioned to use it to take the picture. The size of your phone and your hands may influence your choice of external versus onscreen shutter release. Use whichever feels more comfortable and of course, results in less camera movement.
You may also find that a hard rubber 'bumper'-style case provides a more reassuring grip. And if you have larger hands, a phone case that creates a larger surface area may actually feel more comfortable in hand.
Zoom with your feet
All current native smartphone lenses have a fixed focal length, and it's a relatively wide one, anywhere from about 28mm to 35mm (compared to a full frame camera sensor). Any zoom features on offer are of the digital, rather than optical variety. This means that the image is simply resized, or more specifically, upsampled, after the image is taken to produce a magnified view. Digital zoom always produces a lower quality, less detailed image.
What's more, magnifying your scene elements, whether by optical or digital zoom will actually accentuate the effects of any camera shake. Photographers have always countered this by purposely setting faster shutter speeds when shooting with telephoto lenses; an option you may not have on your phone. So the next time you're tempted to drag your camera's zoom slider, use your feet instead and get closer to your subject. You'll end up with a much clearer and more detailed image as a result.
Shoot in good light
The best hand-holding technique in the world won't help much if your subject is moving during the length of the exposure. Smartphone lenses have a fixed aperture (the size of the lens opening) so one way your camera controls scene brightness is via the shutter speed (the amount of time the sensor receives light). When you shoot in low light, the shutter will stay open longer to allow enough light to produce an image. Unfortunately, this can make it all too easy to record even the slightest movement by your subject. This is known as motion blur.
The other method your camera has at its disposal for handling low light scenes is increasing the ISO setting, in essence making the sensor more sensitive to light. There's no such thing as a free lunch, however, as this increased sensitivity inevitably leads to a nosier, less detailed image.
Use an anti-shake app
There are times, obviously, when you're forced to hold your smartphone in a less than ideal position or shoot in dim light. In those instances, you'll be thankful for having an app with an 'anti-shake' option.
Name aside, 'anti-shake' doesn't actively prevent camera motion. Instead, this feature uses the phone's accelerometer to detect when the camera is still. You press the shutter button as usual, but now the camera will hold off on taking an exposure until it detects no camera movement. In addition, since the shutter is fired after you press the button, you don't run the risk of accidentally nudging the camera with a shutter button press at the time of exposure.
Carry a minipod
Even in the smartphone era, the fundamental principles of photo technique apply. And photographers have always recognized that taking the sharpest possible picture involves using a tripod. Several small, inexpensive and easy to use options exist that are made specifically for smartphones. Joby, maker of the popular GorillaPod, has a range of support options for your smartphone.
The GripTight Micro Stand (US $29.95) is a sleek three-legged tabletop device that supports your phone in both landscape and portrait orientations while providing 36 degrees of tilt in any direction.
The company also offers mounts that allow you to use your smartphone with the very flexible GorillaPod (shown below) or any standard tripod's 1/4 inch screw thread.
The final word
As you can see, getting a sharp picture isn't just random luck, but it doesn't require a Herculean effort either. All it really takes is being conscious of keeping the camera as still as possible. Try one or more of these tips the next time you pull out your camera phone and you'll see sharper results that are well worth the extra bit of effort.