Here is a Trick to Take Great Photos With Your ‘Cheap’ Android Phone

smartphone photography

smartphone photography

When manufacturers are on the planning stage to create a new smartphone, there are compromises to make at a given pricepoint. They play with delicate balances that balance competent features to making money from their venture and leveraging on their large economies of scale to turn a profit.

Budget smartphones are perfect for the Kenyan market due to the lower levels of disposable income that Kenyans have. Budget smartphones in this case means smartphones that are below Kshs 15,000. At this price bracket, we have seen extreme competition between various players and we have covered them to detail the past few years.

At this price bracket, manufacturers are forced to make some trade-offs to arrive at that price. An area that they usually cut costs is in the camera department. Phones at this price usually have small sensors, not the best lenses, and worst of all, the processing is not great.

Photo processing can make or break a photo. This is why Google is at the top of their game. The Google Pixel 3 for example shares the same sensor as the Galaxy S10 and the iPhone XS but it generates way better photos than them due to its superior processing.

One thing I’m not a fan of with most Android phones is how they process photos. They are either too bright, oversharpened, too saturated or they get skin tones wrong (like dark skin appears greyish or white skin appears reddish).  I’m particularly not a fan of this and that is why I always result in shooting RAW on phones.

The problem is that you can’t shoot RAW natively on budget smartphone camera apps. That privilege is usually reserved for flagship smartphones.

Shooting in RAW gives you certain benefits. It allows you to customize an image to your liking. You can change values to great lengths like how bright the photo is (exposure), shadows (darkest parts of the image), contrast, sharpness, noise reduction (smoothing out grain in photos), white balance and more.

However, there is a neat way of shooting RAW on smartphones and it greatly improves the quality of photos taken with these smartphones. This is all done with the Adobe Lightroom app for Android.

The app

If you are unaware of Lightroom, it is one of the popular apps that are used to open RAW photos taken with cameras. I use it on desktop to open RAW photos taken by different types of cameras.

On the phone, Lightroom allows you to take RAW photos. The photos are shot in their own ‘DNG’ format and you can easily edit them on the app. The RAW files are what we use to create the photo which is in the common jpeg format.

Lightroom for Android app interface

The camera interface is pretty simple. You can choose between an automatic mode and a professional mode. In the professional mode, you can tweak the ISO/shutter speed/white balance values at will.

Once you take a photo, navigate to the “All Photos” section and locate your photo. When you tap on it, it loads the various edit options you use to process the RAW photo. There are four main tabs: LIGHT which has the options necessary to make a photo darker or lighter, COLOUR which has options like white balance, saturation and vibrance, EFFECTS that make your photo more dramatic and DETAL where you can add sharpness or add noise reduction to your photo.

When you finish tweaking the photo to your liking, export the JPEG by tapping on the vertical three dot menu on the top right and click “save to device”. This will export the resulting JPEG to your storage.

RAW simulation vs final edited JPEG

In my experience, photos taken this way always look much better than I take with the stock camera app. In this case, I used the Huawei Y7 Prime’s main camera, a budget phone that you can get for roughly Kshs 15,000. The main camera is a 13MP unit with a bright f/1.8 aperture.

However, expect a few things if you are using a budget phone to shoot RAW photos.

  • Those RAW files are still inferior to what you get with top end phones. You can’t push them as far as you’d want. For example I get a weird green tint when I push the shadow scale too much when using the Y7 Prime 2019 to shoot. I don’t get this with the Galaxy S10, which is a way more expensive phone.
  • RAW files are bigger than normal JPEGs so make sure to delete them when you are done exporting.

There are also some tricks you can use to take even better photos:

  • Take well exposed photos. If it is too dark, you will see more noise than usual when you raise the exposure in Lightroom. If it is too bright, you won’t be able to recover some information in the brightest part of the image (highlights) like clouds because they will be ‘blown out’.
  • Make sure to minimize shake as much as possible. Budget smartphones usually do not have OIS (optical image stabilization) which smoothes out hand shake. This means your shutter speed will have to be higher than you normally would if you were using a phone with OIS.