Your Old Phone Can Still Take Awesome Photos With These Pro Tips
Just because your phone is a few years old, it doesn't mean it can't still take amazing pictures. Here's how to make them look even better.
Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
The iPhone 15 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra pack amazing cameras, with multiple lenses and computational technology that results in images that rival professional mirrorless cameras. But they also come with huge price tags that put them out of reach for many of us. You can still take gorgeous images, though, even if you've got an older iPhone or Android phone. After all, as any photographer will tell you, it's not just the best camera that takes the best photos.
You will need to put in some effort yourself to elevate your shots from simple "ho hum" snaps to "oh, wow!" pieces of art, but that effort will pay off. There's no reason at all why that old phone sitting in your pocket can't take stunning images you'll want to send to family or display on your wall.
Here, then, are my top tips for how to get the best images from an older iPhone, Galaxy phone or any older Android phone.
Nail your composition
You can take a photo using the most advanced camera system on the planet, but if you've messed up your framing, you'll still get a bad photo. After all, if you're taking a photo of a lovely church and you manage to chop off the spire, no amount of editing will bring it back.
Don't just snap away wildly at your photo location. Instead, slow down, walk around and consider the scene in front of you and how you want it to appear in your shot. Taking a landscape shot? Look for leading lines such as pathways or old stone walls that snake their way into the scene. Or perhaps there's some interesting rocks or flowers that could add some interest in the foreground.
You can also turn on a "rule of thirds" grid overlay in the settings to help line up the different elements in your scene in a visually pleasing way -- or simply to help keep your horizons straight.
If you've got multiple rear cameras that offer a zoomed-in or wide-angle view, experiment with these different options. Maybe zooming in can help eliminate distracting elements, or perhaps that wider view can capture more of the beautiful scene in front of you.
If you don't have a wide-angle view, try using the panorama mode to get a wider shot than the standard camera can achieve -- or use clip-on lenses, as I discuss below.
Tell a story
The most impactful, iconic images through the years aren't simply the ones taken with the best camera, but the ones that tell a particular story or capture a moment in time. And sure, maybe you're not trying to win a photojournalism prize on your summer vacation, but thinking like a photojournalist can help you take images that you'll want to look back on in years to come.
Perhaps you're heading to the beautiful Italian coast this year. Of course, you'll get a nice snap of the ocean from your hotel terrace, but keep in mind what else has made your trip so memorable; the plates of delicious food, the old, dusty streets, the musician playing in the square or the vibrant colors of the fruits and flower stands at the local market. All these elements will make for great photos that capture the heart of the location and tell a great visual story when you look back through them.
And it doesn't have to be something you do only on a big family vacation. A weekend walk downtown to the street-food market will offer up great storytelling opportunities, from the graffiti art you see along the way to the plates of vibrant cuisine you choose on arrival. And none of these things require the latest camera hardware to capture beautifully.
Use the light to your advantage
Though today's top phones can take great nighttime images, older models likely won't have night modes. As a result, darkness won't be your friend when you're trying to get great images. If you're heading to a viewpoint overlooking the city, try to get there during the day, perhaps when there's a lovely blue sky sprinkled with fluffy clouds.
Middle-of-the-day photography is often avoided by landscape photographers because of its harsh quality, but if you're exploring city streets, it can offer some great opportunities to look for contrast caused by shadows, which could make for dramatic images.
No multi-camera iPhone? Use clip-on lenses
Older iPhones might lack the multiple lenses found on the most recent models, but you don't just have to make do. Companies like Moment and Olloclip make lenses that attach to your phone, providing wide-angle, telephoto and even macro views.
Sure, you have to carry an extra little item in your bag or pocket as you explore, but adding a clip-on lens is a great way to get a superwide view for those sweeping cityscapes without having to splash the cash in upgrading your phone.
Shoot in DNG raw, even on old phones
Apple's ProRaw image format, introduced on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, uses computational imaging techniques like HDR but still provides you with a DNG raw file that's much easier to edit in apps like Adobe Lightroom. It isn't a function found on older iPhones, but those of you on older phones can still shoot in regular raw if you're keen to do your own edits.
You can't shoot in DNG raw in the standard camera mode, so you'll need to use a third-party camera app that offers raw shooting. I usually use Lightroom itself, as its camera shoots in raw and automatically imports the images into your library. But I've also had good results with the Moment app.
Shooting in raw allows you more flexibility to adjust white balance and color tones while generally making it easier to tone down bright highlights or lighten up shadowy areas. Those of you looking to squeeze every ounce of quality from your phone camera should consider using raw -- as long as you're willing to spend the time editing.
Keep in mind, though, that raw files are larger than their JPEG counterparts, so you'll quickly fill up your phone's storage if you shoot everything you see in raw.
Get creative with editing apps
Taking your photo is only part of the process, and a keen eye in the editing stage can make all the difference in creating beautiful photographic art. If you want to maintain a more natural looking photograph, look toward apps like Lightroom or Google's Snapseed. These raw image editors give you control over colors, exposure and contrast and let you fine-tune your images to suit your taste.
Or you can take your creativity to a whole other level with apps like Prisma, which transforms your shots into often psychedelic-looking scenes, or Bazaart, which lets you easily create wild photo collages that can look really cool. You can check out my roundup of my favorite image editing apps for more inspiration.
The great thing with editing is that there's no right or wrong way to do things, and you can always go back to your original image if you don't like the changes you made. But using some of these techniques can turn an otherwise forgettable shot into something that really stands out. My advice is to make a cup of tea, settle into a comfy chair and play around with the sliders in your app of choice and see what you can come up with.