Photography

Your Old Phone Can Still Take Amazing Photos: Here's How


Apple’s latest iPhone 13 Pro packs a suite of cameras capable of taking stunning photos that will wow even the most hardened of Instagram audiences. But at $999, it’s an expensive bit of kit that’s out of budget for many of us. So what if you’re using a much older phone but still want to get beautiful photos to send to your friends, family and jealous colleagues? 

Well, even 2017’s iPhone X packs a camera that blew us away at the time, and while it might not have the features found on today’s models, it’s still able to take great shots. But the hardware will only go so far in taking your images — you’ll need to put in some effort yourself in order to elevate your shots from simple “ho hum” snaps to “oh wow!” pieces of art.

Here then are my top tips for how to get the best images from an older iPhone. Keep in mind though that most of these tips will be relevant if you’re using an iPhone or an Android phone. 

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Taken on the iPhone X, the road snaking its way into the frame here helps to add a leading line that guides the eye up towards the cloudy mountains.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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 best it will look in your shot. Taking a landscape? 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. 

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Taken on the Samsung Galaxy S10+, I used the curving rock face as foreground interest, shooting through the gap that points towards the reservoir in the distance.


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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. 

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With no wide-angle lens on the iPhone 11 Pro, I used the panorama mode to capture a much wider scene here.


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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 of 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. 

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This beautiful, shaggy Highland cow wasn’t the reason I visited Scotland, but it was such a great opportunity to capture an iconic animal that really adds to the story of my images from that trip. Taken on the iPhone 11 Pro.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

And it doesn’t have to be something you only do on a big family vacation. A weekend walk downtown to the street food market will have great story-telling opportunities from the street 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

While today’s top phones like the iPhone 13 Pro, Galaxy S22 Ultra or Pixel 6 Pro can take great night-time images, older models likely won’t have night modes for when the sun goes down. 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, rather than at night.

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While the middle of the day isn’t always a great time for landscape photos, you might capture moments of peace like this. Taken on the iPhone X.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Middle-of-the-day photography is often avoided by landscape photographers for 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

While older iPhones might lack the multiple lenses found on the most recent models, 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. 

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Using its standard lens (left) the iPhone X can only fit so much in frame. But with the Moment wide angle adapter (right) we get a much wider view.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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 super-wide 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’s not 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.

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By shooting in DNG raw I had even more flexibility in Adobe Lightroom to make this portrait of my sweet bundle of beautiful wonder look even more heart-achingly gorgeous. 


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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.

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Edited in Prisma, the abstract art style means it doesn’t matter if the original image isn’t amazing quality.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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.



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