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Snappy Tips for Taking Better Pictures With Your Smartphone

Here’s something that will put a smile on your face: The cameras on smartphones are getting better, so you no longer have to give up features or image quality for the sake of convenience. Companies like Apple, HTC, Nokia and Samsung are incorporating more advanced technology and functions into their devices. Even so, chances are good that your smartphone camera photos aren’t reaching their full potential.

This week, I’ll walk you through some tips on how to take better pictures with your smartphone. While the camera apps vary among different manufacturers and mobile operating systems, the points listed below are general enough that they should apply to most smartphones.

Clean Your Lens
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s probably an overlooked step. I know I don’t do it often enough. Even if you have a case on your smartphone, the camera lens is usually exposed, so it’s not protected from oil, dirt and other debris that comes with everyday use. Take a quick second to wipe the lens, preferably using a microfiber cleaning cloth, to ensure that you get a clean shot.

Resolutions: Check Your Settings
With the exception of the iPhone, most smartphones today give you the option to take photos at different resolutions. Check your camera’s settings menu to make sure it’s set to the largest image size or highest resolution, which will help deliver sharp photos with lots of detail.

Flash or No Flash? That Is the Question
There are several types of flashes found on smartphones, but the most common one is LED. LED flashes are good for lighting subjects at close range, but they can be harsh and wash out the entire picture. To diffuse the light, place a piece of white tissue paper over the flash to reduce glare and soften the image. In addition, if you’re using the flash, make sure there aren’t any mirrors or reflective surfaces behind the subject.

The flash can also be your friend. Ideally, you want your subject, not the camera, to face the light source, to avoid creating a dark silhouette. But if that’s not possible, use the flash to help illuminate your subject and avoid shadows.

Experiment With Exposure, ISO and White Balance
Shooting photos in low-light conditions is arguably the biggest problem with using a smartphone camera. Using the flash can help in many situations, and you can also try increasing the exposure or ISO in the settings menu on Android and Windows Phone.

ISO adjusts the camera’s sensitivity to light: The higher the ISO, the more light it lets in; consequently, this reduces the photo quality. Meanwhile, exposure refers to the amount of light that falls on the sensor while taking a photo.

Another setting worth checking out is white balance. White balance helps adjust the lighting so that objects that are white in real life appear the same way in your photo. If white balance is off, your pictures can end up having a bluish or amber tone.

Most smartphone cameras do a good job with white balance using the automatic setting, but can run into problems in dimmer environments. In those instances, wait a few seconds between opening the camera app and taking the photo, to allow the camera to adjust itself. If the image still looks funky, try changing the white balance setting to one of the preset options that best describes your current environment, such as cloudy, fluorescent or incandescent.

Tinkering with these settings might be intimidating if you’re not familiar with them, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

Switch Up Shooting Modes
Don’t limit yourself to just taking single-shot photos. Smartphone cameras like those in the Nokia Lumia 900 and Samsung Galaxy S III offer various shooting modes that are both useful and fun. For example, if you want to photograph an action scene, turn on burst mode or action mode, which will capture a quick succession of shots, so you get the entire sequence. For extreme close-ups, turn on macro mode.

Panorama is a fun mode that allows you to capture an elongated view of a scene, such as a mountain range or a city skyline. It has long been available on Android phones, and Apple now offers panorama mode on the iPhone 5, as well.

Avoid Digital Zoom
Zoom is one area where standalone digital cameras still hold an advantage. This is because they offer optical zoom, where the lens physically moves to get closer to a subject. Smartphone cameras, on the other hand, use digital zoom, which simply enlarges an already-captured image and, as a result, degrades the quality of the photo. Even if you’re shooting at the highest resolution, the pictures end up looking grainy, as the pixels are magnified. If possible, try moving closer to the subject for better results, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different angles.

Brace Yourself
One of the challenges of taking photos with your smartphone is steadying your hand for a clear image, but there are several things you can do to try to avoid ending up with a blurry image.

A number of smartphones now offer an image-stabilization feature, so check the settings menu to make sure it is on. Next, hold the phone with both hands and then use your thumb, rather than your index finger, to press the capture button. Also, try to keep your arms close to your body to steady your hands.

Alternatively, you can use a prop. I was at the beach the other day, and I placed my iPhone on a waist-high wall along the boardwalk to take photos, and got nice, clear pictures out of it. Finally, try using the self-timer. If you’re not rushing to capture an action shot, the self-timer can free both hands to keep your phone steady.

Edit, Don’t Forget It
Even if you’re not completely happy with the outcome of a photo, don’t automatically delete it. Smartphones offer various editing features that can help enhance your shot, such as the red-eye reduction and cropping tools on the iPhone. In addition to those features, Android phones let you apply various effects, such as black-and-white or sepia tone, which can give photos a cool, artsy look.

Having fun with the Camera+ app for the iPhone.

There are also plenty of third-party apps like Camera+ for the iPhone and PicSay Pro for Android that can help you correct pictures and add fun effects.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus