Cellphone Photography 101

Tips and tricks for getting professional quality photos with your phone

By Nancy Tillberg


Is cell phone photography REAL photography? It’s a big question for anyone who loves photography, but especially for those who have previously worked with or spent gobs of money on a modern DSLR or a mirror-less camera.


Why would anyone use a cell phone to take their special vacation or family shots instead of a “real” camera? Answer: You likely have it with you. That means no more missed photo opportunities. Besides that, today’s cell phones take photos with megapixels sufficiently adequate for making some very large prints.


Several key differences exist however, between a cell phone and DSLR or even a “point and shoot” camera. The first is aperture. Aperture can be defined as a space through which light passes in an optical or photographic instrument, especially the variable opening by which light enters a camera. Basically, it’s the hole in the lens that lets light in.


The size of the aperture either adds a dimension to a photograph by blurring the background or bringing everything into focus. A cell phone has a fixed opening lens while a large DSLR has interchangeable lenses through which you can vary the aperture size.


Typical smartphone cameras have an f stop (the term used to describe the size of the opening) of around 2.0 and a focal length of 3mm to 5mm. 5 mm is a very wide angle, which makes the phone ideal for landscape shots, but makes it difficult to achieve any shallow depth of field, which is that lovely, artsy, blurry background behind close-up objects.


The second big difference is the shutter speed. Most cell phone cameras have one shutter speed, although newer phones may have a manual setting buried somewhere deep within the settings (like treasure).

PC Shine Photo Studio

Aperture and shutter speed go hand in hand for controlling the exposure of your picture. If you love the control of a “real” camera, then there are several apps available that will allow you to turn your phone into one!


Two of my favourite apps are Manual Camera which sells for $2.99, and Open Camera, which is free. Manual Camera features the ability to control shutter speed, ISO, distance, white balance, exposure compensation, and the ability to shoot RAW (DNG) photos. For any die-hard camera buff who loves toting around 25 pounds of gear or more in their backpack during a hike, that’s a pretty impressive set of features for zero net weight gain.


Open Camera doesn’t offer RAW support, but it does offer manual focus, manual exposure time, and manual ISO. This app also offers an auto-stabilize option. That’s an option that generally adds about $800.00 to the price of a ”real” lens.

Settings on a cell phone camera will vary widely by phone generation and maker. Each generation of camera sees significant improvements. For example, the new iPhone X offers improved selfies by gently blurring out the background. This is similar to the selective focus mode that you would find on the Samsung Galaxy 7.

PC Shine Photo Studio

Mode shooting offers fun and easy creativity. Modes on your phone may include:


  • Just the camera in the phone decide what’s perfect.
  • Manual controls for exposure value, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, white balance, focal 
length, and color tone. No app needed.
  • Selective focus. Focus on subjects up close, and blur out the background.
  • Wi-i-i-i-de photo size.
  • Slow motion. Record videos at a higher frame rate so they play back in slow motion.
  • Hyper- drive. For fast playback, may also be a mode on your phone.


With an iPhone, you can use the volume control buttons on the phone as shutter buttons, but beware of camera shake while doing this. The volume buttons on headphones also work to trip the camera’s shutter.


Downloading your photos for permanent storage and backup may not be as intuitive as simply plugging in the phone to your computer. For anyone who has ever lost a significant number of photos when their device has failed, or for those who just believe in the importance of a good back up system, here are the steps to follow.

Samsung: Plug in your phone. Navigate to DCIM. Choose Camera. Double click. Drag and drop to your computer.

iPhone: Plug in. Select Apple iPhone. Choose Internal Storage, followed by DCMI. Double click each which will create a folder with a numbered name. This folder contains your pictures. Cut or Copy & Paste, or drag and drop.

Many great, geeky, and funky accessories exist in cyberspace for phone photography, although when writing this article, I wasn’t able to find much for sale locally. There are clip on, stick on, and magnetic lenses ranging from wide angle to super zoom. There are plug in, stick on, and hyper-bendable tripods. Bags, tags, microphones, and stabilizers are all available plus so much more!


So …. is cell phone photography REAL photography? This past year, professional photographer, Ella Putney Carlson, shot an image of a bathroom sink with his iPhone and won a Diamond Award, thereby effectively inducting the cell phone camera into the professional arsenal of tools.


Is one phone better than another? Canon and Nikon have been having a similar discussion over cameras for decades. It might just be fun to add the iPhone/Android battle to the mix.