How to take sharp smartphone photos

With a few simple tips, sharp photos from your smartphone are within easy reach.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
3 min read

Watch this: Taking sharper photos with your smartphone

Struggling to get your smartphone photos looking sharp?

Here are a few ways to ensure your mobile photography is crisp rather than mushy.

Many of these principles also apply to photos taken with conventional cameras, so don't feel left out if mobile photography isn't your thing.

Hold it steady

Motion blur can make photos look soft. The first step to ensure sharp photos is to have a stabilization system for the handset.

There are several tripods on the market designed specifically for smartphones. Otherwise, if they are too cumbersome for point-and-shoot moments, try using both hands to firmly grip the camera before taking the shot. Holding a deep breath before taking a photo can also reduce any shakiness.

Mini tripods designed for phones include the Joby GripTight. Lexy Savvides/CNET

Camera shake can also occur when you touch the screen to take a photo. To reduce the possibility of movement, use your phone's self-timer mode.

Some handsets also have physical buttons that can be used to take the photos rather than pressing an on-screen icon. Even headphones can be used to trigger the camera shutter without needing to touch the screen.

Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET

The next option is to use a handset that includes image stabilization. Some phones that include optical image stabilization include the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Nexus 6 and Lumia 930.

Otherwise, digital/electronic image stabilization is either available through the native camera app or third-party apps. On Android handsets, look through the settings menu and see if there is an anti-shake option like on the Galaxy S5 (right).

For iOS, ProCamera has an anti-shake feature included, while Android users can try Camera FV-5.

Clean the lens

Have you cleaned your lens lately? It might need a bit of attention if your phone has come into contact with sticky fingers or rolled around in a pocket all day.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Smudges and residue left on the lens can act a bit like petroleum jelly: images look soft, smeary and out of focus. Bring back clarity by gently wiping the lens with a soft cloth. Ideally, use one that is designed for cleaning lenses or glasses.

Get the focus right

Sometimes a lack of sharpness comes down to the subject being out of focus. Most smartphones let you tap directly on the screen to choose where you want to set the point of focus, avoiding autofocus (AF) mishaps.

Using a feature called AF lock can also help keep focus exactly where you want it to be, even if you recompose the frame.

Press and hold on the screen to bring up AE/AF Lock on the iPhone. Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET

On the iPhone, press and hold the focus square over the desired point. The square will flash, and an AE/AF lock option should appear at the base of the frame, showing that the exposure and focus have been locked. To change or remove the lock, just tap again on the screen.

Some Android devices will need a dedicated app to help lock focus. One such app is Camera FV-5 in either the lite or paid versions. Focus lock is called AF-L in this particular app.

Look for the light

Shooting in ample light will generally deliver better results than low light. Unlike their point-and-shoot companions, phone cameras have a fixed aperture lens. To alter the exposure, the phone has to adjust shutter speed and ISO rather than aperture.

With plenty of light to work with, getting a sharp shot is easy. Lexy Savvides/CNET

To get the correct exposure in lower light, the phone camera has to hold the shutter open for a longer period of time, thereby increasing the chance of blur, shake and noise.

Also, avoid using digital zoom where possible as this can make photos look very soft and mushy.

Sharpen with apps

Even with meticulous technique, some photos still need a little help. In this case, try editing photos using an app, or importing them into a program like Photoshop to get them up to scratch.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Many third-party apps such as Snapseed (free for iOS and Android) have an option to apply a sharpening effect to photos during processing. Make sure to inspect the image at full resolution periodically, as over-sharpening can look very obvious.