Most people, when minded to take a picture, whip out a phone, turn towards the subject, centre it in the frame, and press the button once. The results are predictably drab. Some might think that a better camera will help, but they then repeat the same procedure. There’s a reason that photographers talk about “making” rather than “taking” a picture. Whether with a phone or a separate device, what really makes better pictures is a tiny bit of thought.
First, composition. Your frame should have exactly what you want in it, not more and not less. The most common problem is having too much clutter in the frame, especially with phone cameras (which have a wide angle). Fill the frame with your subject. You can zoom with your camera, but better is to zoom with your feet, moving towards your main subject until it can’t get much bigger on your screen. Then move your camera so that the subject is off-centre: usually about a third of the way from either edge. Finally, check your background, and make sure that it complements the subject, or at least doesn’t distract. If the background doesn’t work, move yourself or your subject, and recompose.
Next, always be looking for attractive lighting. In good light, a dull subject will shine, and in bad lighting, a good subject will fade. When outside, the sun should be behind you, not behind the subject. Outdoor light is most beautiful when low, so shoot in the morning and evening, especially for landscapes and city shots. For portraits, bright noon light is the worst. If outside, wait for some cloud or find some shade. If inside, a portrait lit by a window is a cheap and lovely effect. Indoors at night, use whatever light you have. At a bar? Use the jukebox. At dinner? Gather all the candles to make a light source. Never use the garbage flash on your camera-phone. It’s too weak to illuminate anything but what’s immediately in front of you, meaning a washed-out foreground and a jet-black background. Better to have a friend turn on the flashlight on their phone and stand to one side of you and a few steps back, illuminating your subject.
Cameras are clever at exposure, but not perfect. If shooting a person with a phone, tap on the subject’s face once for the right exposure. If using a separate camera, find its exposure controls (sometimes a knob with little -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 markings). Turn this up or down (usually up) and preview the effect (or take a few test pictures) until your subject is bright enough.
Post-process your pictures. Rather than picking an off-the-shelf filter from Instagram, figure out and create exactly the look you like. Most phones (and Instagram) allow editing. Alternatively, try Apple’s Photos, the free GIMP, or for much more control, Adobe’s Lightroom. If your framing wasn’t perfect the first time, crop so that only the important bits stay in and distractions go out. Brighten the shot if your camera has underexposed it. Then add some contrast; nearly all pictures need a boost. As a last step, fix any colour casts. The processing software in digital cameras looks at the balance of red, green and blue in the picture and makes its best guess as to how the light should be corrected so the colours are true. But such software isn’t perfect: there’s too much variety in real-world lighting and scenery for its guess to be right every time, so digital pictures are often too cold (blueish) and sometimes too warm (yellowish). Look for whites and greys in your picture; if they aren’t truly neutral, fiddle with the colour or “warmth” controls in your software until they are.
Finally, never just take one shot. Experiment with the rules: get the sun behind your subject for a dramatic silhouette or cut your subject’s face in half with the frame-edge for a jarring effect. In photography as in all art, rules are made to be broken. But they are generally best broken by people who have mastered them first.