Phone Photography 101: Get the Picture

Are you ready for some phone photography 101 to take you from a point, shoot, and get the picture kind of photographer to a full-fledged Galaxy guru?

You should be because phone photography is the next big thing in the world of both pretty pictures and professional photos, and some photography 101 is what you need to make sure you’re ready.

New iPhone

So, you just bought the latest, most technologically advanced, and most expensive iPhone model. Finally, nothing stands between you and some professional mobile photography.

Think again.

As the great Ansel Adams said, “the most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it.”

Yes, he was referring to the photographer.

 So, if the camera isn’t the most essential tool to get the picture, then your photography knowledge must be!

Prioritizing mobile photography knowledge means, teach yourself everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide and get your expertise to where it needs to be.

Photography 101

A lot of people tend to assume that great camera specs on a cell phone are guaranteed to lead to magnificent photography. That is as true as saying that a state of the art Fender makes a great musician.

You get the picture, right?

Well, the truth is no matter how advanced your cell phone camera may be, the better you understand the basics of good photography, and the strengths (and limitations) of cell phone photography, the better your photographs will be.

Even if you are no newbie to photography and have experience with DSLR’s,  it is a good idea for you to understand how cell phone photography is both similar to and different from DSLR photography.

How is a cell phone camera different from a DSLR camera?

DSLR smartphone comparison

Well apart from the obvious which includes size, functions, and technology there are several points to consider (and we’ve done so more in depth before):

In a DSLR – or Digital Single Lens Reflex camera – the light comes through the lens and is reflected by a mirror or prism. It then goes to the viewfinder where it is visible to you.

When the button activates the shutter, the mirror flips up, opening the shutter, letting the light hit the image sensor which then converts the light energy into electrical energy and saves it as a digital image.

 In a cell phone camera, the process is much less complicated, and the light directly hits the image sensor. After passing through the lens following a series of conversions, the display on the screen shows the live image.

The cell phone’s process is more similar to that of a mirrorless camera. These mechanics are an indication of the growth of technology in recent years.

Let’s talk sensor size:  DSLR’s have much larger image sensors. As a device meant only for photography, they are built to house this larger sensor, whereas cell phones are not.

As a result, compared to a cell phone sensor images, the quality of DSLR images is much crisper and cleaner. While this is irrefutable fact, the disparity in quality is closing, and it’s closing fast.

It’s worth noting that at higher ISO’s and in poor light a camera phone will register more noise. The increase in noise is a result of the smaller sensor size, but it won’t handicap your ability to get the picture when the photo’s composition is right.

Portability, ease of use, and connectivity are factors favoring cell phone cameras.

The pros of mobile photography are apparent. There are times when lugging a DSLR t isn’t practical, but most people have their cell phone camera handy 24/7. With advances in technology, almost all cell phones also have the option of advanced editing apps within the device, though we don’t recommend it.

Add to that the advantage of connectivity, which is useful and even critical to social media content creators while they are on the move. The cell phone camera also wins in regards to practicality in processing and publishing what it loses for the versatility in image creation and quality.

Do you get the picture yet? There are pros and cons to consider when choosing between your smartphone camera and a DSLR, but the choice isn’t as easy as you may think!

Smartphone cameras still sort of suck at lowlight photography and zoom.

Smartphones use digital zoom, which is just a magnification of the image captured. Digital zoom is the physical altering of the focal length of the lens. This type of zoom is very different than true zoom in a DSLR. With the wide variety of better-designed smartphone lenses available today however this zoom issue is less severe than it once was.

But at the end of the day, regardless of technology, a camera takes photographs. So whether it is DSLR photography or cell phone photography, there are some essentials in hardware and technology, but the criteria for making a good (or bad) photograph are the same in both.

What’s the big deal with megapixels?

Megapixel comparison

Seriously, why are megapixels always mentioned first when it comes to camera specs?

Does a higher megapixel count mean it is a better camera?

In short, no.

Well, megapixels are essential to great photography but not the end all be all when it comes to the camera’s specs. Megapixel or MP refers to one million pixels. So, if your camera is 2 MP, then any image taken on that camera will be comprised of two million pixels.

Photos With Phones gives you the necessary components of manual photography, the pros, and cons, and some tips to make the best of the manual features for cell phone photography.

With improvements in cell phone camera technology, a lot of high-end phones offer an increasing number of manual controls on the device.

Before getting started with the basics of manual options in cell phone photography, let us understand why it is a good idea to take control of the camera settings.

Why would I want more megapixels?

Digital images, as in a DSLR, are stored in a tiny file consisting of many pixels (think of a tile floor for imagery). More pixels means a higher resolution, more details, and a finer and sharper image quality.

A higher MP on fixed focus phone camera lenses also allows you to zoom in on the image without losing on the details.

TIP: Viewing the image at 100% on the computer monitor is not the best parameter to judge its sharpness. It is more practical to decide on display size and then work to optimize sharpness from there. It might work just fine at the scale of its intended use.

But that’s not the whole story – there are more elements there that determine the image quality that your cell phone camera can produce.

So, should you be shooting in manual mode to get the most control over the elements dictating image quality that you can? Well, whether or not you should shoot in manual need not be the cause of an existential predicament.

Don’t panic if you cannot immediately spot ‘manual mode‘ on your smartphone. Not all phones come equipped with them. On some phones, it may be marked as ‘pro mode,’ short for professional mode.

Android’s Pro Mode

Even if you don’t have a manual mode on your phone’s camera app and you are using an Android, you, my friend, just hit the jackpot!

Anything is possible with Android. There are apps on the Google play store that will let you shoot in manual mode. Listed below are some of the free manual mode Android apps.

These apps will give you a range of manual mode features including saving raw, controlling shutter speed, ISO, exposure, color balance, shooting time-lapse or fast motion video, slow-motion videos, geotagging, color effects, photo stamping and so on.

While each app will be different from the others, some fundamental aspects apply universally. Mess around with them, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Why you should shoot in manual mode

phone photography manual mode

The truth is that most cell phone cameras, especially smartphone cameras, are increasingly comparable in specs and hardware quality to a dedicated DSLR. However, to make the most of those, it is best to take over the camera controls with manual mode so you can get the best out of what you have.

Once you understand and can efficiently manipulate the capabilities and the limitations of your device, you can take the images you want to. A good photograph will not come because you to take hundreds of shots of the same thing so that at least a few will be great.

For one, how would you know out of those hundreds which of your shot was an award winner, bad or average unless you learned how to capture fantastic photos?

That is precisely why you would want to invest time to understand and practice the basics of good photography because you don’t want to do great photograph by accident. 

Our Advice

Taking multiple shots is advisable in all circumstances, but some more so than others. For example, if you are a beginner, if you are stuck in less than ideal shoot conditions or if you have camera specs beyond your control. Always look to have a couple of potentially good shots before giving up on a shoot. Taking lots of photos is not a substitute for teaching yourself to take great photographs, that would be counter-intuitive.

If you are new to manual mode photography, those controls can intimidate you. To deal with all those controls, you know nothing about can be stressful. But, once you have read through the primary and most universal elements of manual cell phone camera options, you will begin to get the hang of it.

TIP: To improve your photography, take multiple shots of your subject and use the metadata of the image as a note taker about which calibrations lead to what kind of results.

Universal Manual Features and How They Work

Are you looking to gain a little more control with your mobile photography? It wouldn’t be a proper photography 101 guide without providing you with manual photography tips and know how!

Well, using manual or pro mode can help you there. By doing some experimenting in these modes, you’ll be able to control settings like aperture, exposure, and shutter speed, among other things.

Exposure Triangle:

photography 101 exposure triangle

If you have not come across this mystifying term before, no need to worry. It is a simple principle of how a camera makes a photograph. It includes:

Manually controlling Aperture on your phone

Every camera has an opening which allows light into the camera to reach the sensor. The Aperture controls how wide or narrow this opening is.

A wider aperture will increase the amount of light that reaches the sensor. The aperture isn’t usually controllable in smartphones with the exceptions of some Samsung Galaxy models which let you switch between two aperture settings.

For now, we will work with a set aperture as is available in most cell phone cameras.

Manually controlling Shutter Speed on your phone

 Shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter opens and closes. It affects the length of time for which the sensor gets exposed to light.

A faster shutter speed results in less exposure – leading to a darker but sharper image, whereas a slower shutter speed is useful in low light conditions where it will let in more light to compensate for the available light.

Manually controlling ISO on your phone

All you need to remember when it comes to ISO is that the higher the number, the greater the sensitivity of the camera sensor to the light. The lower ISO numbers indicate a reduction of the sensor’s sensitivity to light.

Another vital thing to remember is that at higher ISO’s the image quality is lesser than at lower ISO’s. That is to say that at a higher ISO, you will get a grainier picture with more noise.

Different calibration combinations of these three elements determine how dark or light the image will appear and how sharp it will be. There is a mutual equation referred to as the exposure triangle.

To get high-quality images, you have to find a  balance between these three elements and remember how each of these three elements affects image quality.

TIP: to understand how it works take several different shots of the same subject at different exposure triangle settings while keeping the frame and shooting conditions constant.

Manually controlling White Balance on your phone

In most phone camera apps, the white balance setting is available. White balance is an option that lets you tweak how warm or cool you choose the whites to be for more creative or accurate shots. Once there is an established white balance, the tone of the other colors shift accordingly.

You might remember coming across smartphone pictures which seemed to have an unnatural blue tone or an incandescent light or a yellowish tone. This tone problem can be corrected using the white balance.

Tip: To get a good idea of the tone problem take alternating shots of the same subject at different white balance settings to see what tones the camera produces.

Manually controlling Focus on your phone

Tap your finger on the live view screen. This photography tip is better and sharper focusing than the automatic focusing of your phone camera.

This style of manual focus is mobile photography 101. It’s the easiest way to make your photos appear crisper and more focused. Be sure to tap different portions of the image based on the lighting because the focus will change the image’s appearance drastically.

Shooting in RAW on Phones

RAW is a format for unprocessed lossless images.

A lot of cell phones today provide you with the option to shoot RAW images. When an image gets saved in a RAW format, it preserves all the details untouched to be processed by you. On the other hand, when an image gets saved in JPEG format, the camera’s image processor amends the image.

The benefit of shooting in RAW is to gain absolute control over the image quality. We’ve discussed why before.

You should start by opening the image in a RAW editor like Photoshop. After the optimal processing, you must convert the file into the desired image format.

The Principles of Good Phone Photography Composition

While the definition of a good photograph may vary person to person based on subject, style, and execution, there are, however, some universal photography tips that should always be considered.


Correct exposure in photography refers to the general rule that is well explained by Canon:

“When nothing is blown out (highlights) or lost in shadow in an image, it has achieved correct exposure.”

A useful photography tip for understanding exposure is to try to guess if photos are underexposed or overexposed. By getting good at knowing the difference, you’ll better be able to judge when photos are correctly exposed. Exposure isn’t really a compositional piece of the puzzle, but more of a necessity. Auto-mode should deliver acceptable exposure.


Framing refers to the adjustment you make in your vantage position to get the best angle or perspective by adjusting your own or your camera’s view. Pro photography tip, you can even decide your final frame of the shot after capturing the image with a cropping tool.


The composition is arranging the elements you have framed by eliminating and simplifying unwanted items from the shot. You do this to create and maintain the focus on a specific interesting, appealing, or engaging point of interest.

Rule of Thirds:

The most common and easy composition technique is the rule of thirds. The frame gets divided into nine equal rectangles, three across and three down. The same principle applies to the grid visible in the live view. Placing the photo’s subjects at the points of intersection of the grid lines leads to a more appealing composition.

Understanding and using Symmetry:

Subjects like building features, natural formations, and reflections on water or mirrors are great for placing across the center of the frame to create a symmetrical shot.

Experiment with symmetry in your photography and watch your compositions improve.

Leading Lines:

The presence of leading lines, like pathways, walls, or patterns in your shots, draw the viewer in and direct the eye towards the photo’s primary elements. The elements are located usually at the end of the leading lines. They could be either straight or curved.

Diagonals and Triangles:  

Triangles and diagonals are great for adding dynamic tension to the scene.

Patterns and Textures:

Patterns are repetitive and represent discipline and harmony. These could be human-made, like tiles on the floor or natural, such as the arrangement of leaves on a branch. They are naturally pleasing to the eye and should be incorporated into photos when possible.

Left to Right Rule:  

People read a page from left to right. So, it only makes sense to capture the shot’s movement from left to right.

Fill the Frame:

Filling the frame with the subject creates intimacy, drama, and establishes a closer connection between the subject and the viewer.

Golden Ratio:

The most complex and hard to achieve, the golden ratio is the most complete composition to ever bee used. A favorite with the legendary Henry Cartier Bresson, It consists of dividing the frame into the Fibonacci spiral and arranging the elements accordingly. This organizational tool is considered to be the most pleasing ratio to the human eye.

Apps for Editing and Photography

So now with that out of the way, you have a few new photography tips to begin capturing some photos with your cell phone camera.

But what about those filters you wanted and what about processing? Whether you wish to edit and correct the exposure on your photos, or you want to convert them to a different format, there is an app for every need. We have already discussed the first app you may need – the manual mode apps -which let you shoot in manual mode on your phone camera.

Here are some additional useful apps that would be worth adding to your photography tool belt. They’ve been broken down based on what the photographer can gain from each of them.

Remember, photography 101 is also about the tools you need for success!

Multi-Purpose Editing Apps

Phone Photography Apps
Gotta Be Mobile

Snapseed: FREE

  • precise control over color and exposure
  • Packed with editing tools.
  • Portrait enhancement, lens blur, and vignette
  • Double exposure, frames, and text
  • Exposure, color, and sharpening adjustments

Quick Image Enhancement Apps

Instagram: FREE

  • Exposure, color, and sharpening correction
  • Crop, rotate, straighten, and correct perspective
  • Vignetting and tilt-shift options
  • Share your photos on your page with a final enhancement

Vintage-Feeling Editing Apps:


  • Filters to create classic film looks
  • Adjustable filter strength
  • Editing tools to crop and correct, exposure, color,     and sharpness
  • Built-in camera app with advanced manual controls

Artistic Editing Apps

Enlight: $3.99

  • Black & white, paint, and sketch effects
  • Selective control to correct exposure and color
  • Correction tools available
  • Draw tools, frame text, borders,
  • Filters, two-tone gradients, light leaks, and vignettes
  • Clone tool
  • Double-exposure, photo montages, and tilt-shift,
  • A seamless blending of effects using the masking tool
  • Nifty tools to straighten, rotate, crop, and add perspective 

Afterlight 2: $2.99

  • Exposure, color, and sharpening correction
  • Free filters from well-known photographers
  • Double-exposure allows the blending of images
  • adding text and artwork layering
  • Dust and light leaks for overlay

Necessary Equipment for Phone Photography

Smartphone photography equipment

So, in this guide we’ve harped on the importance of knowing what makes a photo good or bad, but having the right gear in your arsenal can certainly make taking pretty pictures easier for you.

Whether you’re in the market for Google Pixel accessories, the best iPhone accessories, or the best phone tripod we’ve got the gear you need all in one place.

A well-made tripod, a reliable source of power, and a set of diverse cell phone lenses will aid in your mobile photography endeavors. Having the right tools in your arsenal is one of the best photography tips we can give.

Here are a few good pieces of equipment to get you started:

Phone Tripod:

[amazon box=”B018E5LYDY” /]

A lightweight full-size phone tripod for $59.54 is a little on the expensive side. At the same time, the Manfrotto Compact Light Phone Tripod is excellent because of its superb alloy extendable legs. It comes with a ball head for smooth movements and both horizontal as well as vertical phone positioning.

When fully extended, it can give you proper height and shooting angle as well. It’s folded down length is just 15.7 inches, so it’s easy to carry around. Ease of transport is as useful a photography tip as any.

The Manfrotto Compact Light Tripod may be more substantial than other tripods, but it is reliable in windy conditions, and that makes it an excellent choice for outdoor shoots.

Cell Phone Camera Lens Kit:

[amazon box=”B07L683FCN” /]

So, Erligpowht’s new and updated cell phone lens kit comes with 11 different offerings.  They include:

  • 0.36X(120°) Wide Angle Lens
  • 198°Fisheye Lens
  • 20X Macro Lens
  • Zoom Telephoto Lens
  • CPL
  • Kaleidoscope Lens
  • Starburst Lens
  • 4 Color Lenses (filters are red, blue, green and orange)

You may be thinking that at this price point and with so many pieces there’s no way that this lens kit is any good. Well, it is; especially if you’re a mobile photography beginner.

A photography tip worth remembering is that when you’re beginning, using as many different kinds of equipment is to your advantage. Learn to use them all, so that nothing can trip you up in the future.

Best Single Cell Phone Camera Lens

[amazon box=”B07DYTWW54″ /]

Moment lenses are a popular choice and for a good reason too. The quality of the lenses is excellent, and the price is reasonable enough to invest in. When it comes to investing in a lens that can do it all, Moment’s Wide Angle lens is the way to go.

We’ve done a complete write up on Moment. So, if you’re interested in both their story and their lenses then check it out. If you’re looking for something with a little lighter price tag, both our clip-on lens post and smartphone photographer starter pack post may be for you.

Power Backup:

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Having a power backup is essential in mobile photography. All the photography tips and photography 101 knowledge can’t help you if your phone is dead,

If you are going to use your phone for photography, the constant use of the screen will guzzle down power quickly. The best buy in regards to power backups would be a MOPHIE POWERSTATION PD XL. It is sleek and allows the charging of multiple devices at once.

At almost $100 this is a  bit of an investment. At the same time, at 12,000mAh for a portable battery with build-in switch-tip cable, this will last a while.

You may also browse and choose your products. Even having the most basic equipment is more desirable than having no equipment.

If your wallet can’t handle certain investments, pick something accordingly. But remember that these are the bare essentials!

Take-Home Lessons From Photography 101:

Photography 101

Was that a lot of information for one sitting?

Well, there is so much to learn about photography, that no matter if you use a smartphone or a DSLR, this photography 101 guide is barely even a proper introduction.

However, it is also true that every person has a different sense of what makes a great photograph. It’s worth noting that not every great photo must follow the rules. If they did, then all images would be carbon copies of each other.

The whole point of photography is to have fun, right?

Your reasons for stumbling onto this photography 101 guide are your own. But, we’re reasonably sure your goal is not to spend all of your time reading and gleaning photography tips and tricks from photography enthusiasts and experts.

Real growth will come from putting these photography 101 tips and tricks to practice.

So, pick up your cell phone camera, shoot, and get the picture. Use these guides as just what they are – guides. 

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