Making the Most from your Phone Camera

People often say that phone cameras are so good nowadays that you don’t need another camera.I disagree (despite deciding to not bring my DSLR for my current trip). Phone cameras are still severely limited compared to even your average compact camera. But there are ways to get the most out of your phone camera, and that starts with knowing its limitations.

Your phone camera has a wide angle field of view.  And it’s fixed.

  • Meaning: you’ll fit more of what you see into the frame, but it also means that objects further away are going to appear much smaller than even how your eye sees them.
  • How to take advantage: It’s great for landscapes and getting a group shot from not too far away. Easier to have foreground, mid-ground and background subjects be distinctly separate, so you can get interesting compositions that way. Or you could get extra lenses for your phone, but they’re kind of clunky…
  • What you’re missing out on: No proper zoom, so you’re not going to get that close up of that bird – it’ll just be a fraction of the frame. Digital zoom gives you less sharp and detailed photos. You’ll never be able to “compress” objects in your frame (to appear closer together) because of the wide angle.

wp-image-1259846667jpg.jpgWide angle gives you that distinct distance between the sign, trees and mountains at the back

Your phone camera’s aperture is set. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

  • Meaning: How wide the opening that lets light in is fixed.
  • How to take advantage: It’s automatic. Most phones are trending towards larger apertures, so you’ll get more light reaching the sensor, which should help with lower light shots.
  • What you’re missing out on: No option to close the aperture for having more subjects in focus or for longer exposure shots

Your phone camera’s sensor size is tiny

  • Meaning: the physical space that will detect light is small, even compared to cheap compact cameras and especially compared to mirrorless/DSLR’s, so your phone needs to draw more information from the smaller space in order to give you a decent sized photo (which is why megapixels don’t matter much).
  • How to take advantage: You already are! But having the camera fit in your phone. But because dynamic range is going to suck (e.g. big differences between sun vs shade in the same shot), most phones have a HDR mode, so use that when you run into that issue.
  • What you’re missing out on: Small sensor size equals no opportunity for decent bokeh (blurry background). Detail and colours are bound to be lost compared to bigger sensors – there’s only so much that image processing (the computing brains) can do.

DSC_1798Non HDR vs HDR straight from the camera – HDR recovers some cloud detail and exposes the mountains on the right better

You don’t really have manual controls (for most smart phones)

  • Meaning: You obviously can’t change the aperture or focal length, but you also can’t really set the shutter speed or ISO (on most phones and with the default camera apps), so you just have to trust the camera’s brain to set it all correctly for you. You can probably adjust to slightly under expose or over expose as to what the phone thinks or right, but that’s about it.
  • How to take advantage: It allows anyone to take decent photos. You don’t ever have to learn about shutter speed or ISO, so it’s quick and easy. Get familiar with the brightness setting so you can use it when your camera is blowing out the whites in the image.
  • What you’re missing out on: You can’t underexpose or overexpose all that much. The phone might set the ISO to be way too high to maintain a decent shutter speed which will give you grainy photos, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


So yes, your phone camera is limited, but you can still make the best of what you’ve got. Do I wish I brought my DSLR? At times, but then I remember how heavy it is and how amazing it has been to travel light, so no, it was the right decision to leave it at home.

For reference, the phone I’ve been using for my photos is the Sony Xperia Z5, with an aperture of f/2.0 and a focal length equivalent to 24mm


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