Snapping Good Photos with Your Phone

Anila Bangash's
Travel News Collection

Every family has its designated vacation photographer, so it was, to put it mildly, a moment of sheer horror when I arrived at the Naples airport last summer with my wife and two children for a brief stay on the Amalfi Coast and realized that I had forgotten my camera.

It wasn’t the first time. Many years ago, a friend asked me to photograph his wedding. I packed film but for some reason left my usual camera, a Nikon single-lens reflex, behind and found myself left with a simple Ricoh point-and-shoot camera. I heard the bride’s mother say, “I thought you told me he was a professional.”

But as it turns out there is a savior: your smartphone. Much to my children’s embarrassment, I have a cracked first-generation iPhone 4. Things have come a long way since I bought that phone over three years ago. The cameras on cellphones today have become sophisticated instruments, with between 8 and 16 megapixel sensors, which allow you to make extremely detailed and sharp images. However, there are many other aspects, such as actual pixel size and aperture size, that affect the quality of a phone’s camera. But even an older phone like mine, which has a 5-megapixel sensor, can take great shots.

Of course, cellphones have their limitations, and it’s important to understand what they do well: landscapes and portraits in good, even light. It is equally important to know what they do less well: any shot with poor or overly contrasted light, and scenes in which there are several light sources. Flash is also rarely satisfying, mostly because it is too weak to richly illuminate a dim scene. It works much better in situations when it is used as fill-in flash, to pop a bit of brightness into faces and eyes.

There is also a host of apps available for Apple-, Windows- and Android-based systems, though the choice is wider for the iPhone. For me, the best apps are the ones that are easiest to use. The technical capabilities are more than most of us will need, so the important point is to find the interface you find the simplest and most fun to work with. Here are a few suggestions:

Hipstamatic Available for Apple- and Windows-based systems, this app is a personal favorite. It’s square — great for an Instagrammer or if, like me, you have spent years shooting on medium-format cameras. In fact, I used this app for the Amalfi photos displayed here. Two tips: Set the file size regulator to maximum to ensure the sharpest photo. Second, make sure the viewfinder is full frame so you see what you are getting in the picture.

Camera+ and 645 Pro Both apps are for iPhones and offer clear, improved controls for making 35-millimeter-style photographs, including easy zooming and exposure control. These apps are designed to give you the feeling that you are holding a real camera.

Camera Zoom FX and Vignette There are limited choices for upgrading an Android camera, but these apps, which offer easier control for framing and zooming, are two of the more useful ones.

Snapseed A well-designed editing program to make up for the sometimes frustrating simplicity of cellphone lenses. It uses swipe-style controls, which makes editing simple and fast.

These are handy apps, and I relied on one, but the best thing about a cellphone is that it’s in your pocket — at least you hope it is. Even my kids grudgingly admitted that the Amalfi pictures weren’t bad.

- James Hill/NY Times


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