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How to take your smartphone photos to the next level

Reviews often rate phone camera quality. But should they really be looking at what pictures we take with those phones once they're in our pockets?

It's now been a year or so since I switched from Windows 10 Mobile and Android to using an iPhone 7 Plus as my main phone. It's a device that's stood me in good stead, handling my day-to-day use nicely. But there's another area where it has needed to work well to support my phone habits: it needs to be a good camera.

I've been an avid user of phone cameras since the first devices to add cameras hit the market, using everything from HTC's clip-on modules for its first Windows CE-based devices to Nokia's early partnerships with Zeiss, via the early iPhones and Android, and on to the first computational photography platforms with Nokia's first Windows Phones.

While I'm now a generation behind in Apple's devices, the iPhone 7 Plus dual-lens camera is standing up well to the demands of everything from casual photography to product shots for reviews and articles. It might not be the Lumia 1020's excellent Zeiss-lensed 38-megapixel camera that's still my reference point for what a phone camera can be, but it's certainly better than most pocket cameras I've owned in the past.

A screen full of iOS camera apps

A screen full of iOS camera apps

Over the year, I've put a selection of different camera apps on my phone, swapping them in and out as I've found new versions of familiar tools or apps that do something different with images. There's a screen full of camera apps on my iPhone, with everything from 360-degree capture tools to powerful image editors. Some, like Microsoft's Pix, are replacements for the iOS camera app while others, like NightCap, are designed to take images under very particular circumstances -- here providing support for low night and night sky pictures. Others are more trivial, using machine learning (ML) models to stylize both still and moving images.

Real time stylized video using Olli​

Real time stylized video using Olli

Applying ML in real time to images is a fun stunt, but there's a lot to be done yet in using these tools to extend camera capabilities. Adobe's ML features in the latest Lightroom releases show what can be done using ML to improve image quality. With Apple and ARM adding ML cores to their processors, we can hope to see these computational image processing features coming to the next -- or the one after that -- generation of phones.

Software is important, but like using a DSLR, the underlying sensor and lenses are really the most important part of a mobile phone camera. Cheap plastic lenses distort images and add blur, while sub-par sensors mean both poor low and bright light performance. Luckily things seem to be getting better, with image stabilization and other important features arriving on phones -- even adjustable aperture settings on some recent devices.

Additional lenses also add capabilities, with companies like Olloclip's clip-on lens system offering a easy route to adding additional capabilities. I'd recommend using the company's case for additional protection, as it's easier to use a compatible case than slipping a device in and out of a case every time you want to use a new lens.

The Olloclip iPhone case has a cut out that's designed to fit its clips, along with a modified version of its lens clip that's designed to fit over the case easily. It's possible that the combination is easier to use than the standalone clip, as the cut out locates lenses more accurately and the shape of the case simplifies sliding clips on and off.

Olloclip's Filmer's Kit.​

Olloclip's Filmer's Kit.

While the basic set of lenses Olloclip provides add useful wide-angle features to lenses, the Filmer's Kit is a case full of lenses that add more options -- including a 2x telephoto lens. Use that in conjunction with the telephoto camera on an iPhone 7 Plus (or an 8, or even an X), and you get a native 4x zoom capability. You'll need an advanced photography app that lets you access the phone's cameras separately -- I've been using Camera+ or ProCam for this. Your mileage may vary as to which is best for you, but I tend to prefer ProCam for zoom photography while Camera+ offers a more general-purpose set of manual controls.

The Olloclip zoom lens needs to be handled carefully, it's heavy and can unbalance your phone. There's a handgrip in the Filmer's Kit, which makes it easier to hold the phone, though it doesn't give you the capabilities of a dedicated stabilization unit. You'll probably want to use the zoom lens for middle distance and distant objects; close up the iPhone's autofocus struggles and images can be blurry. Stick with the Olloclip macro lens options for extreme close-ups!

Apple isn't the only company delivering decent camera performance on its mobile devices. There's also significant development happening on Android, even on mid-range devices. Partly that's due to the capabilities of modern ARM SOCs, with powerful enough processors to handle the heavy lifting needed to work with images in real time. Computational photography is an important element of the modern smart phone. Pick up a modern device like the Nokia 8, with its dual mono and color cameras, and you've got access to a range of intriguing features.

See also: Mobile device computing policy

With the Nokia 8's camera app some of the features I'd grown to like from Windows Phone have made to Android, including a reasonable set of manual tools (though not yet the same level of control as I got with my Lumias) and a variable focus tool that lets you play with depth of field. I've enjoyed using a long lens on my DSLR to get depth of field effects like bokeh, when taking pictures of flowers or wildlife, so it's nice to have that function on my phone.

There are some oddities: I've grown to like having a grid to help compose photographs, and the Nokia 8 adds a useful level to simplify getting just the right angle for landscapes. There is also the option of displaying onscreen compass and altitude information, but it overloads the user interface and makes things a little too complex.

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Choosing cameras in Nokia's Android camera app

Still, the result is a usable camera phone. Dual cameras help to deliver sharp images, and a range of intriguing color effects. It's not quite up there with Apple's iPhone camera, but it's certainly better than most run of the mill Android camera apps.

One thing that's occurred to me recently, is as much as I enjoy playing with photography apps and tools, they really aren't what I reach for when I'm out in the street. All that really matters is quick access to the default camera app, and an easy way of saving and sharing images. After all, what's better: a clear shot of some cherry blossom in the early spring sunshine, or a highly stylized picture of the same flowers?

Where those apps come in to their own is for post processing the images I've already taken. Now that I have that flower, I can pass it through as many filters as I like. Some might get the darkroom treatment in apps like Adobe's Lightroom. Others might get passed through layers of machine learning-powered post-processing to end up styled as if they were Van Gogh paintings. It's just a matter of how I feel, and then, of what tools I have installed.

So what are my recommendations from the foray into the mobile phone photography world? First and foremost, get to know your device's stock camera app inside out. It's more powerful than you think, and can get you decent, usable images at a click of a button. Secondly, find a post-processing app that does what you want. Today's phones are more powerful than the machine I learned Photoshop on, and there's a lot of capability out there.

Once you've got those two things, and you're ready for the phone photography world, go wild. Try out apps to get inspired, find tools that stretch your phone's capabilities, and just get creative. Even splash out on a few extra lenses if you want to give your photos wider angles or deeper zooms. All that really matters is that you're taking the photos you want.

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