The secrets of taking good pictures: Cellphone cameras

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

couple sitting by the sea 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
couple sitting by the sea 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
I’m never without my cellphone and I use its integrated camera almost every day. A few years ago cellphone cameras could only take low quality snaps but now they can produce excellent high resolution pictures that are often as good as many compact cameras.
The older models had fixed focus lenses and recorded small-sized images only suitable for texting or emailing. Modern “smartphones” have autofocus, scene modes, digital zooms, and many features found on proper cameras. You can take pictures that are of good enough quality to enlarge for exhibitions. They do have limitations, however, and you need a little skill, knowledge, and patience to get the best out of them.
For the best picture quality, shoot in bright light outdoors. Avoid using the digital zoom because this can degrade the image. Zooming simply enlarges the picture while cropping it to fit the screen. It magnifies the small movements of you hands and can cause “camera shake” and blurred pictures. Rather than zoom go closer to the subject, or crop the picture afterward.
The sensor, or “digital film” chip, is truly a technological marvel. It is necessarily tiny, perhaps only 3 x 4mm, and is usually crammed with at least five million light-sensitive cells. It’s about one eightieth the size of a professional camera’s sensor and this causes problems, especially in lower light levels.
Pictures taken in room lighting can be grainy and blurred as the sensor struggles to record an acceptable image. If your phone has a flash it will be too weak to help much. You usually get the best results if you switch off the flash, hold the phone very steady, choose a moment when the subject is still, and take three shots. If there is a “burst mode” use this to take a number of quick consecutive shots. Choose the sharpest picture afterward.
Smartphones, such as the iPhone and Galaxy 9000 have an unexpected advantage if you are taking candid shots. Stand with your left side to the subject, hold the phone in your left hand to your ear as if making a call. Use your right hand to press the on-screen button to take a candid shot. Of course you will have to take a few shots to make sure of the composition.
One of the greatest disadvantages of pictures taken with cellphones is that almost everything is in focus. This is fine for family snaps where you want to see people clearly, but is limiting for creative photography where out-of-focus effects are important.
It is possible to create a blurred distant background but only if you first focus on something very close to the camera. You can use this limitation to your advantage by looking for compositions with a natural focal point close to the camera complimented by an interesting background that will be blurred.
In my photography career I have very often had to work within quite severe limitations and yet produce professional results. I enjoy the creative effort necessary to get good shots out of my cellphone, and if you do too, your photography will improve.
Send me a cellphone picture 
Send me an exceptional cellphone picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.  Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected]. Mention “cellphone picture."  
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at:
Photo critique
Kevin Leigh of Southend-on-Sea took this excellent, creative shot of the seafront. Few enthusiasts could have taken this shot since it shows a very high level of visual awareness.
What works?An arresting composition that contrasts hard, mechanical shapes with a romantic couple against a lovely sunset. As a visual awareness exercise it gets top marks.
What doesn't work?Pictures tell stories, but I’m not sure what the story is here. The bike probably just happened to be there, but there is no relationship between it and the couple. The prominent handlebar silhouette looks uncomfortably like a military weapon.
Could it be improved, and how?
The sunset and the couple are romantic and this could be emphasized by omitting the bike. The bike could be replaced by the silhouette of a clocktower, some street lamps, a statue, a fountain, or some trees, etc.
I’ve retouched the shot to indicate some possibilities. The palm trees were the first silhouettes to hand – slightly less exotic tress would have been more appropriate for Southend-on-Sea.
A suitable contrasting foreground object could be a traffic sign. The Stop sign makes a slightly humorous reference that many people in relationships could appreciate!