Want better cell phone pictures? Use ISO settings!

I guess you know the story: you like spending a good deal of time playing around with settings of your „real“ camera. Yet when you face the adventure of taking photos with you cell phone, you just ignore it completely. Maybe, you even did not notice that you smartphone camera have some functions that can be set. But, believe or not, they can you help to do much better cell phone pictures.

(If you are an iPhone user, please check out my detailed text: IPhone 6 photography: Apps, tips and tricks.)

Cell phone cameras are really getting smarter - and the pictures better.
Cell phone cameras are really getting smarter – and the pictures better.

Let me to take you to a lovely forest bike ride – it´s a great chance to show you some well hidden feature your Android smartphone – ISO setting.

No, no, please do not stop reading, do not leave the page saying „I do not have time to study theory of photography and will not be bothered to fiddle with my mobile phone settings.“

Just believe me that the mysterious abbreviation ISO is basically a miraculous thing able to cure instantly you cell phone picture problems. Actually, your smartphone can be a good evidence of one the great rules of photography: there is no life without knowing (and actively using) ISO setting.

Your cell phone just cannot know you are moving fast - in its Auto ISO mode it used ISO 100 and shutter speed 1/40 (too long). Result: blurred picture.
Your cell phone just cannot know you are moving fast – in its Auto ISO mode it used ISO 100 and shutter speed 1/40 (too long). Result: blurred picture.

Let´s just make one point clear: Frankly, quite often it doesn´t make much sense to fiddle with your cell phone settings –  but there are at least two notable exceptions. 1. You should have command of the flash and be able to use it even during day-light (to compensate shadows in a very sunny day, for instance). The second exception: yes, you have guessed it: ISO.

By setting ISO (sensitivity), we give our camera (or a cell phone camera) a command how „sensible“ it should behave. In a sunny day, we mostly do not have to care much. But once light becomes less intense, we might have problem: and face the simple most common problem of photography of all times: your pictures are blurry.

The great think about the „mystery of blurry pictures“ is the fact there is no mystery. Your pictures are not sharp, because you either did not focus, or are using too long exposure time. Let me explain it to you from the saddle of my bike – which, I admit, is not the greatest position for taking cell phone pictures.  In fact, there is simply no way of taking a picture of my wife and kids from it. Really, no way at all…

cell phone photography
How easy! If you switch off the Auto ISO and “force” the camere for higher ISO (400 in this case), everything is fixed. The camera can use a shorter exposure time.

Why? Because your cell phone „just cannot know“ you are moving (quite fast, in fact).  The camera in my smartphone was set to default Auto ISO. We let the cell phone decide everything – but the camera in it is not that smart as you might think: in my case, it just decided to use ISO 100 and shutter speed 1/40 (which is long enough to make everything blurred).

And now let us try the magic: just try to find ISO setting, switch off the Auto mode and make the camera to use a higher ISO (400 in my case.). And here we go: the camera is now able (well, it is actually forced to) use much shorter exposure time (around 1/200). And the photos get sharp.

Amazing, isn´t it? I am sure that 99 % smartphone owners do not know about this litter trick. So the world is bit blurred around them…

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14 responses to “Want better cell phone pictures? Use ISO settings!”

  1. munsif ali Avatar

    well, wether the micro camera lense in the mobile is adjustable. My chinese mobile phone is giving blurred picture, i want to rotate it clock-wise or anti-clock-wise, is there possibility that it will start taking clear pictures,

    1. Photobohemian Avatar

      Hi, generally, mobile phone pictures are not that good as you would get from a “normal” phone – but still they should work allright, so I am afraid that might be a problem with you mobile…
      Jan

  2. Krist Avatar

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve had my cell phone for awhile now and got so frustrated taking pictures with it because they were blurry. I used this little trick and it’s helped a ton. Just like you said the ISO setting was on auto and I changed it to 400. Awesome tip. 🙂

    1. PB Avatar

      Hi Krist, good to hear that! Thanks for letting me know! Jan

  3. Stephanie Preston Avatar

    Im trying to get a picture of my son where his face is in focus but the background is blurred, I had him take pictures of himself spinning around but dizzy is all we got. Would ISO adjustment give me a better effect?

    1. PB Avatar

      Stephanie,
      hi! Well, frank answer is that it is nearly (or completely) impossible to get this lovely effect (blurry bacground) with a mobile phone (for this type of portraits, you need a diffent type of lenses plus there are some more limits). So playing with ISO will not help much in that type of shot… Best Jan

    2. sam Avatar

      in order to take a pixture with blurred background, you actually need to maintain the camera at the same speed as u r spinning. such way ur camera n face will be in the same motion making the background blurred. use medium ISO and lowest shutter speed to get a quick n sharp Selfie. best of luck

    3. Atif bilal Avatar

      Try hdr mode n after taking the pic atleast wait for 2 sec. Focusing on the object it might help u alot in that case.
      N for blurry background with clear focus object. I recommend u to go with selective focus.

  4. Silva Avatar

    This is true in the situation described, but not all. High ISO values introduce a lot of grain, especially noticeable in low light conditions. If your taking a picture with a tripod of a scene with no movement, then, lowest ISO values are better, since the picture will have no grain at all, improving the quality of the image.

    It all depends on what you want.

  5. TONI K Avatar

    THANK YOU!!!
    SAVED BY “ISO” AND YOU!!

  6. Susan Brown Avatar

    If I wanted to take pics of sunrise and vapor smoke from a lake, would I keep ISO on auto or change it to a higher number? Also, should I always use manual setting and no flash?

    Thanks,
    Susan

  7. Asmat Ali Avatar

    If I decrease the ISO to the minimum (50) and use a tripod to avoid blur, will it significantly decrease the shutter speed to get the water fall effect? And is this a good idea to use an ND filter add-on (ND8 for example) to further decrease the shutter speed? Thanks for your reply in advance.

    1. admin-pb Avatar

      Well, yes in theory – but I am afraid that using an ND filter in the front of a mobile phone would cause many troubles (it would be hard to focus, I believe…)… So you can try, but generally, this sort of effect should really be done on “proper” cameras… JR

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