How to get better images out of your smartphone

Purists disagree but a smartphone can (sometimes) replace your compact or SLR. Emily Jupp asks the experts how to get it right
  • @EmilyJupp

Summer is here and more of us are taking snaps as we're out and about, especially holiday snaps designed to cause envy among our less fortunate friends still stuck at home. It's likely that many of us are leaving our compact camera packed away in our day sacks and beach bags, and snapping away with our smartphones instead. Most phones are now made with reasonably powerful front and rear cameras, and the picture quality keeps getting better as mobile manufacturers fight to capitalise on our summertime photo-phone fever.

The new Nokia Lumia 1020, HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia S have meaty camera specs and, with 41, 8, 13 and 12.1 megapixels respectively, they are powerful enough to compete with a basic pocket digital camera. Small, covert and always close at hand, mobile phones even offer advantages over point-and-click pocket cameras.

Even professional photographers are turning to smartphone technology, one advantage being the anonymity it can offer; a camera phone makes a professional indistinguishable from a regular tourist. For example, Ben Lowy, a contributor to The New York Times, used his camera phone to document the Arab Spring. He writes on his Tumblr that using an iPhone to take photos is "a liberating experience" – and the results are stunning.

Michael Christopher Brown, the photography co-operative Magnum's latest nominee, is another convert to smartphone photography, using his iPhone to document the effects of the mineral trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But if you're not an expert photographer and your interest in photo-sharing is more limited to collecting a virtual scrapbook on Pinterest of beaches you've visited or tweeting pictures of your lunch with the hashtag "#foodenvy" than documenting worldwide injustice or political dissent, here are some tips for getting better images out of your smartphone.

Get tooled up

Possibly the most important tip is to having as many apps at your disposal as possible. Robert Clark, National Geographic photographer and the author of Making the Most of Your Smartphone, says that, in the world of digital photography, apps are a must-have. "I've had a good run with mobile imaging and I think social-media apps have really helped," he says. He recommends investing in a selection of apps to create different visual effects.

Camera Plus

This an iPhone app that lets you do basic sharpening and adjusting of the exposure. It's being hailed as the next evolution in social multimedia sharing. "It's fun to play with because there are 20 to 25 different choices you can make, like bring the highlights up or make it look like 1970," Clark says. He also recommends Brabble, a relatively new app (free, iOS) that lets you "share life's moments" across video, pictures, audio and text. Users can also reply to your posts in any of those four mediums.

"The photo option on Brabble is like Instagram," Clark says. "Brabble is a good option for me because because I don't want my photos to be sold on." Camera360 (Free, iOS/Android) is another quick and easy-to-use camera app with a full suite of pre- and post-editing tricks. Shooting modes include self-portrait and tilt-shift (where landscapes look miniature and objects look like toys – useful for views out of the aircraft window).

It also lets you layer on special effects after the photo is taken and you can assemble your photos to create montages. And it lets you change the tones of a picture; maybe your Instagram of cocktails on the beach is looking less glamorous than you hoped due to an overcast day. Simply change the setting to "fashion" or "passion" et voilà – a sunny beach scene.

Your settings menu is your best friend

"Most camera phones allow you to override the white balance and exposure manually," says travel and wedding photographer Ryan Li, who won a Guardian award for his portrayal of the Sars crisis in Hong Kong. "This is really useful for tricky lighting situations. Also, if there are people in your photos, turn on the 'face detection' or 'facial recognition' tool – this can help a lot by making focusing dramatically faster, but also accurate exposure based on your subject's skin tone.

On an overcast day, you might find a blue or purple tint to your photos if you used auto-white balance. Changing this to the 'cloudy' setting would result in much warmer and more natural colours. For bright beach scenes and snow scenes, you're much more likely to encounter underexposed (too dark and dull) images. The solution is to increase the exposure; +1.0 is a good starting point for beach and snow."

Turn the sound off

A simple thing like having the sound on can ruin your shot in several ways. Clark says that having the sound on can cause blur with some models, but on top of that, you want as few distractions as possible when you're taking that picture. Also, if you've got the vibrate function on, it could ruin your image at that crucial moment.

Be patient

"Patience is key," says Joseph Fox, a London-based freelance photographer. Imagine you want to take a shot of a nice monument or statue but for some reason it just doesn't look great in your pictures. "If you spot something you want to photograph but it doesn't quite look right then wait for 10 minutes, see how the light changes, until it's exactly how you want it. Also try different angles; people have a tendency to take pictures from eye level but sometimes if you kneel or stand on a bench you might get the better shot."

If in doubt, make it black and white

"A lot of what makes a good photo is the quality of the light," Clark says. "It's best to wait for good light at the beginning of the day or late evening. If I shoot something in the middle of the day when the light is kind of bad, I end up doing a lot of post-production compensation. If you have to take your shot in the middle of the day, just turn it to black and white – it looks instantly better."

The most important camera is the one you have with you

"You don't use a camera phone any differently than you would do a normal compact camera," says Tom Bradley, whose work on epilepsy in Sierra Leone was published in The New York Times. He is also working on a photo-documentary on the effects of leprosy. "If the subject is interesting, the moment is right and the composition is good, then you can get a great photo whether you're using a camera phone or a £20,000 Leica."

Get to know your phone's quirks

The delay between pressing the button and taking the picture varies between phones. For example, on the iPhone it only takes the picture a second or two after you release the camera button but on the Samsung Galaxy Note having lots of apps running will slow the speed down from being almost instant to a few seconds.

Take a lot of pictures of the same thing

Gone are the days of being constrained by a 24-exposure film. Now you can get snap happy. "A lot of people shoot once and then walk off," Clark says. "That was fine back in the day but now you can shoot several pictures of something and move around. It works – I've been doing that for 38 years." When you look back over your pictures, select one or two that you think work and then try to analyse why they work. With practise, you'll find that you need to take fewer snaps to get that perfect shot.

Shoot what you love

"Don't be nervous. The one thing to do is just shoot," Clark says. "On Instagram, people often shoot what they love and I think that will make a big difference to how you feel about your photographs. The most important thing is how you feel about your own photography. If I walk away happy from a job then generally the client is happy."

Keep a photo diary

The more you use your phone to take photos, the better you'll get. Clark takes 30 photos a day on his phone. "The smartphone has become a diary of my life. I take pictures of my daughter or my life and I take pictures of my documents as backup for everything."