Digital Focus: Better Photos From Your Camera Phone

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Feature: Better Photos From Your Camera Phone

Camera phones, it seems, are taking over the world. I replaced my cell phone a few months ago and discovered something that a lot of you probably already knew: Even some basic mobile phones have cameras built in, and high-end phones can capture 2-megapixel images and even record video. In Asia 5- and 6-megapixel camera phones are available, which means it's just a matter of time before they show up in the U.S.

Overall, most of the phones at the store I went to had cameras built in.

Will we soon take all of our pictures with a camera phone? Probably not. The image quality is still pretty low, which means that we tend to use camera phones for casual, candid, lifestyle scenes. We save the stuff we want to keep forever for our "real" camera. Even so, there are things you can do to improve the quality of your camera-phone photos.

1. Go Into the Light

Almost without exception, camera phones crave light--and lots of it. You will always get the best photos from a camera phone when you shoot outdoors at midday. If you are in the shade, indoors, or photographing at night, you'll get noisy, dark images. In those situations, you should switch your camera phone to its "low light" or "night" mode. Don't be put off by the name; even if it's called "night" mode, you should use it whenever you're indoors or in shadow.

Also, a few camera phones include a flash. Don't get your hopes up: Current camera-phone flash units are weak, and even in the best of situations they illuminate the scene unevenly. Future camera phones may use much more efficient LED flashes to dramatically improve results. But for now, you're better off sticking with the sun.

2. Get Close

Not only does your camera phone probably lack a zoom lens, but its focal length is likely a little on the wide side as well. That's a bad combination if you're trying to focus on one person, or you want to include small details in your photo. You can probably get to within about 2 feet of your subject before you're inside the minimum distance where the camera can capture a sharp image, and you'll get your best results if you stay fairly close to that limit.

3. Hold It Really, Really Steady

Many camera phones are somewhat susceptible to shake; you'll know yours is if your photos routinely look blurry. There are two possible reasons why this happens.

First, the camera phone probably has a somewhat slow shutter speed, which means any movement will be evident in the picture. The blur will be particularly severe if the phone is set to night mode.

Second, many camera phones have a sluggish shutter release--press the button, and the picture may not get taken for a second or so. That's an eternity in photography time, so you may reflexively start moving the phone, thinking that the picture has already been taken. The solution is to hold the phone as steady as possible, press the shutter release, and wait several seconds. That will ensure the picture is fully recorded before you start moving around.

4. Avoid Compressing Images

Compressing photos on your camera phone is even worse than compressing them in a regular digital camera. That's because the images are far smaller. With just a megapixel or so to work with, every bit of visual information is important. The bottom line: Compressed low-resolution images look much worse than compressed high-resolution photos. Instead of compressing your low-res images, e-mail or transfer them to a computer frequently to free up space on your phone. If the phone has a media card slot, store pictures on a memory card.

5. Fix the Photos Afterwards

If you can transfer your camera phone's photos to a PC, you can clean them up a bit. Camera phones are notorious for capturing images that lack color saturation and contrast, exhibit excessive digital noise, and even have dark corners. Programs like VicMan Software's Mobile Phone Enhancer ($30) are designed to address these issues and improve camera-phone pictures.

I reviewed Mobile Phone Enhancer in April; read "Dave's Favorites" in "Straighten Your Crooked Pictures" for more information.

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