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Simon Crowe/Instagram

How to turn your smartphone photos from good to great

Anyone can use a smartphone camera, but what do you need to keep in mind if you want to take a great photo?

WITHIN THE SPACE of a few years, smartphone cameras have seen a massive improvement in quality.

While it’s not going to match that of traditional cameras, they’re catching up with better cameras and smartphones appearing on the market, and since you always have your smartphone on you, it’s become many people’s go-to camera.

Yet while taking a photo is simple, getting a good one requires you to put a little more thought into it. With St Patrick’s Day happening tomorrow, chances are you will have many photo opportunities then so here are a few things to keep in mind when snapping.

The Rule of Thirds

One of the main principles of photography, the Rule of Thirds is when you divide your photo into nine equal parts – two lines across and two down – with the focus of the image placed where these line intersect.

Thankfully you don’t have to imagine it as all smartphone have a grid function available in their respective camera apps (iPhone users will have to go into settings proper to turn it on).

What it does is teach you not to put your subject in the centre of the photo. By placing the most interesting subjects or points of interest a photo in the intersections or along the lines, it usually makes the photo more interesting to look at.

It takes a little bit of time to get used to it, but the grid function makes the process a lot easier.

Focus, focus, focus

Sometimes, your smartphone can have a bit of difficulty figuring out what it should be focusing on, but you can correct it by tapping on the screen. Doing this will adjust the lighting and focus so you get a better picture of both your subject and its surroundings.

If you want to keep the lighting consistent, hold down instead of tapping and the focus will lock on that particular part of the image.

imageIf things appear blurry when you boot up your camera, either tapping or holding down on the screen will readjust the focus (Image: Quinton O’Reilly/TheJournal)

Avoid using zoom

All cameras give you the option to zoom in, but in reality, you’re just zooming in on the image itself, meaning the quality goes down.

It’s normally better to move closer to the subject or take the photo where you are and crop it later, although the latter can result in your photo looking cramped if you overdo it.

Know when to use HDR

It takes a moment or two longer to process when you take a photo, but turning on high-dynamic range (HDR) will make your photos that little bit sharper in certain situations.

HDR adds greater range to your photos by taking three photos at different contrasts – one under-exposed, one normal, and one over-exposed - and merges them together automatically, which is why it takes a little longer to process than an average photo.

For the most part, HDR can brighten up a photo – handy if it’s a low-light scene – and is best suited for landscape shots where you can get a better contrast between the sky and land.

Any photos with movement should be avoided since three photos stitched together will make your subject blurry.

Learn how to edit

There is no shortage of photo-editing apps out there, but whichever one you use, you will be looking at the numerous features they have and wondering what they do.

While it’s tempting to settle for auto-enhance or slap a filter on and call it a day, taking the time to learn the different functions can help improve your photos.

These would be the main features you want to look at.

Exposure – Controls the amount of light in a photo, making it really bright or dark depending on how far you go.

Contrast - Referring to the difference in light between the brightest and darkest parts of an image. Increasing contrast will make an image look more dramatic, while decreasing it will cause both to blend in.

Temperature - Adjusts the mood of a photo, or to put it simply, it’s controls how blue or orange a photo looks. Decreasing it will give it a more somber look while increasing it will make it look happier.

Saturation – Increases the intensity of all colours in your shot while decreasing it will make your photos grey.

Cropping – Allows you to cut out the unnecessary parts of your photo if you want your image to focus on one aspect.

imageImage editing tools like SnapSeed allow you to touch up and improve photos (Image: Snapseed/Google Play)

Take more than one photo

Smartphones have a lot of storage and since photos process quickly, it means you can take a number of photos in a short space of time. When you have the opportunity, move around, take photos from different angles, up close or far away, just get different shots.

There are two reasons behind this, the first is that practice makes perfect. The more photos you take, the quicker you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. If you take a bad shot, you can just delete it later.

The second reason is that smartphones storage is far greater now than it was before, meaning you can try out different shots and compare them later.

On the off-chance that you don’t have enough memory on your phone, a number of Android and Windows Phone devices have a slot for an SD card which can add extra memory. The smallest SD card can add an extra 4GB to your phone, and are relatively cheap too, so it’s worth considering even if you don’t intend to use it for photography.

Learn from the best

So we have the basics out of the way, but is there anything else you should keep in mind? We asked a number of photographers for their take on snapping a great photo and here’s what they had to say.

Liam Allen

Liam Allen is a photographer and cameraman based in Dubai, where he works for ChopperShoot, a company that specialises in aerial photography. He can be found on Instagram via @karatechopkid.

A few tips I would have when shooting would be to be careful with the flash. Depending on where the camera is focused, it can fire off in an unnecessary situation and your chance at a beautiful picture might be missed so have it set to on/off as needed.

Also, if you’re like myself and wrap your phone up in a cover, that same cover might bounce the flash light back into the camera – giving your otherwise lovely picture a burned out corner – so be mindful of the covers you use. The rubber ones seem to produce this effect more often.

image(Image: Liam Allen/Instagram)

Exposure is another thing to keep in mind. Let's say you're looking at a breathtaking sunset. Pointing your camera into the sun will cause the camera to expose for the brightest part of your picture meaning everything else is underexposed and your buddies on Facebook are going to think you're trapped at the bottom of a well!

To avoid this, you should touch on a more evenly exposed part of your screen; a bright spot in the sky or a darker area on the ground will even out your shot. Alternatively, use the HDR function on the phone.

A final tip from myself would be not to disregard a supposed bad shot straight away. Smartphones have some amazing and user-friendly editing tools built in so play around with them first and you might just get the look you were going for.

image(Image: Liam Allen/Instagram)

Simon Crowe

Simon Crowe is a freelance photographer and videographer based in Dublin. He is involved in a number of projects including Entre Nous, a series of mini-documentaries looking at the creative community in Dublin.

I love the camera on my iPhone 5. I have a few cameras but you can't beat the camera you're always guaranteed have on you.

I use Instagram quite a bit and my feed is mostly filled with street photography and the odd photo of my cat. The case on my iPhone always collects dust on the lens so I always give that a quick clean before I shoot (usually just a wipe with the end of my t-shirt).

The main thing I would focus on is good compositions in my shots. I'm a fan of 'straight angles' and symmetry in photographs. I would always use the grid in the native camera app to help me with the composition of the photo.

image(Image: Simon Crowe/Instagram)

I tap the screen on a bright area to expose so that there's nothing blown out, and it usually gives you nice dark shadows for contrast. I tend to avoid ever using flash or zooming in much as the quality doesn't hold up well.

More often than not, I go to the trusty VSCO Cam app to process my images and would occasionally use Snapseed or Afterlight as well.

Claire Brown

Claire Brown is a designer at Simply Zesty, and dabbles in some freelance photography. Work is here:

- When framing, keep a square format in mind if you plan to post to Instagram, you don't want to have to sacrifice a vital part of your image.
- Tap the screen on the part of your image you want to keep exposed (e.g.: tap on the sky to avoid it becoming blown out without any detail) as it's easier to brighten a dark image afterwards than to bring any detail back in.
- When you've taken your image, use an app such as Snapseed to make edits such as increasing the brightness in dark areas/ambiance, saturation, etc.

imageThe town of Oia on Santorini island, located 200km southeast of Greece. (Image: Claire Brown)

Philip Joyce

Philip Joyce is a photographer and designer. He is the Art Director for PR Slides and you can view his work on 500px.

Straight off the bat, the one thing that most people aren't doing when shooting with their smartphones is using the on-screen grid. You can have the best phone with an amazing 22 megapixel camera, but if you aren't familiar with the basics such as the rule of thirds/grids, you will be playing catchup.

Of course, these rules can and sometimes should be broken, but it's good to know about them and keep them in mind when framing a shot.

imageThe Rule of Thirds (Image: Philip Joyce)

Another often overlooked feature that most smartphones boast is HDR, where it takes three images and merges them together to create one image that is rich in its shadows and highlights and has tonnes of detail. HDR has been abused in the photography community, but it is perfect for certain photos. Don't use it to shoot something that is fast moving as your camera won't be able to take the three images quickly enough!

Finally, post-processing. Some think post-processing is this new technique that people have just started playing around with, which isn't true - Legendary US photographer Ansel Adams was using primitive forms of dodging and burning back in the 1950s.

Don't be afraid to improve your images with some editing. Apps such as Instagram, Snapseed and (my own favourite) VSCO Cam are brilliant, free tools that are both powerful and user-friendly.

image(Image: Philip Joyce)

Tomorrow, we will look at the best camera and photo editing apps for your smartphone.

Read: Sony’s waterproof flagship phone bets big on HD video >

Read: Watch: This Apple short was shot using only iPhones >

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