Essential Android Tips and Tricks

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Take Better Photos With Your Android Phone

The camera in your Android phone likely packs at least 6 megapixels into each shot--but if you don't apply a little know-how to your photography, your images can look as bad as those from a classic 640-by-480-pixel camera phone.

In this article I'll detail eight tips to get great photos from an Android camera phone. You'll be able to take better shots at night, blur the background artistically, keep subjects sharp, and more. The results can beat photos from a stand-alone point-and-shoot camera, so get your picture frames ready.

What camera hardware and software you have access to depends on your phone model. I shot images with a Motorola Droid X from Verizon for this article; other handsets might not have the same features.

Keep in mind, too, that your version of Android can be the biggest factor. Froyo (Android 2.2) wasn't yet available for me to test on the Droid X (although you can get it unofficially). Depending on your phone hardware, the software update may unlock more manual controls that can help with advanced photography. Be sure to keep your phone updated, and poke around the in-camera settings to see what features are available.

Use the Flash to Reveal Daytime Details

Without flash
Without flash
Why use a flash during the day? In bright situations, the flash isn't your main light source, it's your secret weapon--a fill flash. The light provides a burst to compensate for sharp shadows and underexposure, which are common problems on sunny days.

With flash
With flash
Although the flash on the Droid X isn't powerful enough to fill every shadow, activating the flash for daytime portaits helps to improve exposure on the subject's cheeks and in other blown-out areas. Maybe your subject's forehead is bright and the area around the eyes is too dark in the early afternoon, for instance.

Camera phones are especially susceptible to setting exposure on the bright areas, which leads to over-darkened shadows. Turn on the flash by toggling through the modes (On, Auto, and Off). The flash punches up details when you're within a few feet, so stay close to your subject.

Try using the fill flash with backlit subjects, too. For example, avoid the clich├ęd sunset photo with a bland, dark subject in front of the colorful sky. Instead, fire the flash to light up the foreground.

Adjust ISO Settings to Take Better Night Shots

Tap the ISO setting to rein in an auto setting that's too high (causing noise) or too low (lacking sensitivity).
Tap the ISO setting to rein in an auto setting that's too high (causing noise) or too low (lacking sensitivity).

I'm much more sparing with the flash at night. Harsh, flat light can blow out camera-phone images, and weaker flashes might not help enough. Instead, I like to make use of whatever moderate light is available, disable the flash, and ask subjects to hold still. You'll have to hold the camera steady, and turn on the stabilizer in your phone's camera app settings (if available). Admittedly, parts of the image might blur anyway, but you still have other tools to improve night photos taken without the flash.

A camera phone's ISO setting mimics film speed on standard cameras; a higher number is supposed to be more sensitive to light. In reality, cranking up the ISO can fill the image with noise--pixelated bits of color that don't belong. Experiment with the setting on your camera phone; on the Droid X, it's under Settings, ISO equivalent sensitivity. I like to turn it up manually to about 400 in dark situations.

Don't Use Digital Zoom

With digital zoom
With digital zoom
At full resolution
At full resolution
Cropped from full resolution
Cropped from full resolution

Your camera phone has fixed optics; it can't magnify the image--and zoom--by moving its lens. Instead, you have a digital zoom, which you should almost never use.

A digital zoom merely blows up the pixels instead of capturing finer details. You could produce the same effect on your PC with Photoshop or another image editor later. And that's what you should do instead; you can't un-digital-zoom a captured photo, but you can zoom in to an image later on your PC, cropping out unneeded edges.

Want to fill the frame? Walk closer to your subject. If you absolutely can't get closer, such as when you're taking a shot of a reclusive celebrity in the wild, I'd still recommend avoiding the digital zoom and blowing up the area you want on your PC later.

Great Lighting Makes Great Photos

Even the cheapest camera phone can capture terrific pictures in ideal lighting. Since you won't be toting your own lights, pay attention to what's available when you're composing shots.

In most cases, try to get the light at your back. Reposition yourself or ask subjects to move if you're shooting into the sun.

Think about multiple light sources for the best photos. Studios often use a combination of three lights--a key light, a fill light, and a back light--to illuminate scenes. The key light is the brightest, coming from near the camera; meanwhile, a fill light is offset to the side to soften shadows, and a back light sits far to the side or behind the subject to add a sense of depth.

Follow similar conventions when you can. Maybe an indoor, afternoon shot could use windows as the key and fill lights, and a lamp as a back light. Just avoid having bright light sources in the image, since the camera phone will end up setting exposure on that point.

Take Sharper Photos

Toggle to the Sport setting to increase the shutter speed.
Toggle to the Sport setting to increase the shutter speed.

Taking too many blurry photos? Either your camera is moving too much or your subject is. The former produces a picture that's completely blurred, while the latter creates a picture with some sharp elements but a blurred subject. Here's how to fix the problem.

To reduce camera movement, stay still when firing the lens. Hold the camera phone with both hands, and keep your elbows tucked in to the sides of your body for support. Press the shutter button, but make no other movements--such as lifting your finger--until you're sure the image has been taken.

On the Droid X, I hold the shutter button down partway to set the focus, and then push it fully to take the shot. I don't lift my finger until after the image is processed. Move your finger early, and you might shake the camera.

If you're shooting with ample light, you can keep subjects from blurring by increasing the shutter speed. In most cases, such as on the Droid X, you'll do this by selecting Scenes, Sport, since a camera phone typically doesn't include manual shutter-speed settings.

Use Blur to Draw Focus

The portrait setting can help reduce the depth of field.
The portrait setting can help reduce the depth of field.

Use camera-phone blur to your advantage, bringing attention to your subject while blurring the background. A short depth of field (the distance in focus) is the classic way people create such an effect.

You'll need ample light and an Android phone with manual exposure settings for the best results. Set the aperture as low as it can go in your camera app settings' manual mode. If you don't have that manual setting, try putting your camera phone in the Portrait auto-mode if available. (I picked Scenes, Portrait on the Droid X.) Regardless, the effect will be more prominent if you get within a few feet of your subject and stay far from the background.

Motion blur can create a different sort of feel, causing blur if either the subject or the camera moves. If they're moving together, however, only the background will blur. Try focusing on a friend as you walk together, keeping the subject in the same position in the frame. Since you're in roughly the same relative position, your friend will stay sharp but the background will blur. This effect works best in darker situations--such as at dusk--when the camera has to extend the shutter speed. As an alternative, create a lot of background movement, such as by shooting from a moving car.

Use Timer Apps

Camera Zoom FX lets you set several timer options so that everyone can stay in the picture.
Camera Zoom FX lets you set several timer options so that everyone can stay in the picture.

You can capture great photos with the built-in camera app, but add-on apps can enable even more features. In choosing such an app, I looked past the filters and other gimmick apps to tools that add timer functions, something the default Droid X camera lacks.

Camera Zoom FX offers several effects, but right now you want the timer tool. For a group shot, prop up your phone where it can see everyone, and then go to Quick Settings, Settings 3, Timer to enable the timer. Add the burst mode to take a series of shots at once; it's easier than walking back and forth to repeat. Just go to Quick Settings, Settings 3, Burst Mode.

Do Something Different

Many photos have a camera-phone look not because of the hardware but because of the typical camera-phone angle: eye level, far from the subject. To get the best photos, shoot from unique perspectives. Try getting down to kid-height to record children playing, or try capturing a group shot from a low angle after your team conquers a mountain. Perhaps most important, get close to your subject.

Experiment with all of these tips to get familiar with your own Android camera phone. With a bit of practice, you can develop the technical and artistic skills to snap great photos in spite of the fixed, cheap lens.

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