Not such an easy to get photo, if you were using your SLR camera!
Many people who know me, will have heard my favourite pearl of wisdom …..”just because you have the best equipment, doesn’t make you the best photographer: – I have Jamie Oliver saucepans, but you won’t be rushing to my house for dinner!
Its a bit trite, I know, but I use it to demonstrate something that I feel quite strongly about. Whilst I agree that if you want to do anything well, then you need to have the best possible equipment that your budget affords, but equipment is only part of the equation, and having a good “eye” has equal value, when producing a great photo……. the fact is that a great fun photo is a great fun photo, regardless of what gear you used to take it. So many enthusiasts are happy to dismiss a photo out of hand, if they know it was taken with a smart phone. In comment boxes, in photography blogs and so on, we can often see undeserved, snippy little judgements like “get a proper camera”!. The great thing is, that your phone’s camera has some basic strengths and weaknesses, and by playing to it’s strengths, and minimising the weaknesses, you can silence the grumpy “purists” before they even get close to pressing the enter key! Here are some simple tips to bear in mind when firing up the photo app on your Smartphone.
Let’s get close and personal!
Smartphone photo showing detail of an embossed business card
In this iphone photo of my business card, (check out that beautiful embossing! isn’t it fab?! – or is that really geeky?!) my iphone camera was probably only a few centimetres above the table top. I could never get my SLR lens this close! It’s pin sharp too! All the detail is there and the embossing is picked out perfectly. Because so many mobile phone cameras, especially the iPhone, have a relatively small sensor, they really start to shine when you bring them in close to your subject. This small sensor provides a greater depth of field, so you can get entire objects in focus where cameras with larger sensors and longer lenses would struggle.
So, here’s a great example of images “straight out of the camera”. On the left is the iphone photo, which I just raised the camera to about chin height to include all the relevant information, whilst on the right, the image from my SLR camera, I literally had to stand on the table to achieve the same perspective! The difference in the colour of the table is noticeable too. The iphone image is probably more accurate, whilst my SLR camera has automatically “warmed” the image.
When getting close, you can also get more control over the lighting of your subject. For example, if there are bright patches in the background of your composition, (which can throw the camera’s meter off and make your subject look dark) then, get closer and block out that bright patch altogether. Again, I could probably not have got this close with my SLR. Small detail shots can be really effective if you do it right.
Smartphone photo showing closeup of mushrooms in the woods
Crop, Don’t Zoom
It has to be said, that there are many instances when you would never have been able to “get the shot” without your zoom lens, but I am a strong believer in letting your feet do the zooming and just getting closer to the subject. According to Robert Capa, the Magnum photo journalist, ……“If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough.”
Quite often a different perspective gained from walking round an object will bring a better result anyway! – but more of that later!
Most smartphone cameras offer a digital zoom function, but wherever possible, I would urge you to ignore it and just get closer! If you watch the ‘live view’ preview, you’ll be able to see how noticeably your images degrade as soon as you start to zoom. Technology is so clever at what it does, as it extrapolates what’s already there and basically guesses what the image looks like…..but in this instance, its not in a good way…. it gets ugly very quickly.
So the answer can often be to crop in post processing. This is because smartphones have a digital zoom, not an optical zoom. When you use a digital zoom, the camera is “extrapolating” what is really there. What this means, is that the firmware on the camera, is guessing the details of the image because the tiny smartphone lens can’t zoom in optically and actually see what is really there.
Digital zoom is nice in theory, but practically speaking, it doesn’t work very well. If you have used zoom on a smartphone you may have been frustrated with blurry pictures. So, to avoid this problem and for better zoomed in shots, just take the picture without zooming in and crop it later. When you’re cropping, you’re actually just sampling pixel info that was originally recorded. Most smartphones have 8-megapixels of resolution and sometimes more. This means you can crop substantially and still have plenty of resolution left for display on the web. Because of the way the lens is, zooming can lose a lot of the fine detail.
full image from smartphone photo
Smartphone photo showing cropped detail from larger image
Edit, Don’t Filter
Whilst I am not against Instagram (I have an account!) using the filters on there, makes your images just like everyone else’s. The latest figures show that roughly 40 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day!! If you want your images to be unique, the last thing you should do is paint them with the same filters that literally millions of other people are using. I think the sharing element is fantastic, but all the preset retro tints, stains and filters are overused and have gone passed their sell by date. I think it’s fair to say that this holds true for many of the other apps that offer this same concept.
There are several full-on image editing apps, like SnapSeed, Photoshop Express, or iPhoton. They all let you make straight forward adjustments, like contrast, sharpness, and colour temperature, which are things you would probably do with your SLR or other camera. It’s also worth remembering that you can import your images into Lightroom or other photo editing software if you don’t feel the need to share them right away.
These kind of decisions are the ones that help you to grow and develop your own style and it’s more thoughtful and creative than simply using your favourite overused filter on each image.
Don’t fake it
Because of their wide angle lenses and small sensors, depth of field will always be one of the biggest challenges for a smartphone camera. We all want that fabulous soft, blurry background and or foreground that the magazines (food magazines and recipe books are quite a good place to find examples), so that we can focus specifically on the main object.
In these 2 images, the first one focusses on the picture on the wall at the back of the room, whilst the right hand image is focussed on the cruet set at the front. This effect is quite simply achieved on your SLR camera, but not so simple for the Smartphone.
Mostly, I think people try to achieve this effect by using an app they have downloaded. Trying to get that lovely soft blur to your background, by adding an overall “wash” of softness, across the frame, usually means adding a general blur, so that everything gets the effect. These apps make it almost impossible to target certain areas and leave the point of focus sharp. SLR camera lenses don’t work in that way, so the effect from this type of filter does not look the same at all.
The other thing is that it’s hard to be precise when selecting the object you want to be in focus, so you can end up with harsh transitions from sharp areas to blurry areas. It’s distracting and a dead give away that you’ve been messing with the image.
If you want your viewer to focus on one specific thing, make it the central object in the frame. Try keeping your backgrounds as simple as possible. If this means rearranging your products, moving to another point on the compass (assuming you’re photographing a small table-top still-life, for example) or if you’re photographing people, ask them to turn around or move a few steps back. It’s worth it.
Choose the best camera apps
This one applies more to iPhone users than Android users, but ultimately, the goal is to have more control of your final image. There are a few standard choices in this category, and any of them will be better than the stock camera app. I like Camera Awesome (made by SmugMug) because it allows you to shoot in bursts and separates the AF lock from the exposure lock. It’s also free! Yay! I have also just downloaded and am trialling a new app called VSCO, because SmugMug have said that they are not going to continue with Camera Awesome indefinitely. If you are really keen to find a more fun editing tool, then try PicsArt!( It has stickers and artistic text, which VSCO doesn’t.)
Whichever app you pick, it’s worth spending a little time really getting used to it. You might feel a bit foolish taking out your phone to practise taking pictures, but you’ll be glad you did, if it means you get a great shot while other people are still flipping through pages of apps or trying to turn off their flash.
Abandon The Flash
Why? I hear you cry, in horror! Yes, I know;- what happens when you’re in the coal hole photographing your black cat in the middle of the night? – (or other similar scenario!) there are times when it just can’t be avoided and you have to go with it, but the thing with smartphone ‘flashes’, is that they aren’t like the ‘flash’ that you get on other digital cameras! Smartphone ‘flashes’ are just glorified LED lights, which is a job they were not designed for. They are bright (blindingly so, in many cases) and the colour temperature can create an ugly colour ‘cast’, and most importantly, they miss one of the primary duties of a strobe: freezing the action. The actual ‘flash’ duration is much longer than what you get with a proper flashgun or similar strobe, so you end up with an image that’s both blurry and terribly lit. (see pub pic above!)
The other thing of course, is that it’s so close to the lens, that you are 90% guaranteed to get the dreaded demon-eye,
Smartphone photo showing demon eyes
which you then spend hours trying to correct either in post production, or using the service at the mini-lab!
Obviously there is the fabulous new Nokia technology (Pureview) but you can only go so far with this smartphone technology in low light. Often, your best bet is to find another light source. It may not be perfect or even flattering, but it can be interesting. In a dark bar? Look for a neon sign or a bright juke box. At a concert? Wait until one of the wacky swinging stage lights makes its way over to your area. Photography is about creativity after all and one of our best challenges is finding clever and creative ways to deal with difficult light situations.
At the end of the day, though, getting a bad flash picture can be better than getting no picture at all if you just want to remember a moment.
Keep Your Lens Clean
It’s a simple one and easily done, but one that people overlook all the time! If you tend to keep your phone in your coat pocket, or handbag, remember that the dirt that lives there will be attracted to the glass of your camera lens. I have doggy treats, empty chocolate bar wraps (these aren’t mine though!) dirty golf balls and a few other unsavoury items in my pockets! They can all contribute to hazy, flat photos, and that will never be good, no matter how many retro filters you slap on them.
Bearing in mind all the bad treatment our phones get, (in pockets, on counter tops and so on,) lenses are now remarkably tough, its worth giving them a nice regular clean. If you wear glasses, then get into the habit of cleaning your phone camera lens every time you clean your specs! Its a great habit to get into. Otherwise give the lens a quick wipe with a soft cloth – or your T-shirt will do at a pinch, but try not to make a habit of it! Once in a while, it’s worth the effort to get out the lens cleaning solution and really get into the corners. Your lens may not look dirty and you might not even notice it in your photos, but often a deep clean will make a huge difference.
Watch out for Lens Flare
Smartphone photo showing dramatic lighting effect
A popular camera effect that has been getting a lot of overuse, recently in mobile photography is adding lens flare. Whilst it has a really effective, mood enhancing quality, lens flare can cost you loss of detail and contrast, and will often totally change the colours of things. The thing is, however, that this one can actually work for you if you do it the natural way. The benefit, if you like, of tiny lenses, is that they are often more prone to wacky light effects than their full-sized counterparts, so you can really emphasise this if you want to. A silhouette with a bright, flaring background can actually look very effective. Landscapes can be made to look really cinematic and dramatic with streams of cascading light pouring out of a cloudy sky.
So, again, to get the best effect from lens flare, it’s worth moving around to get the sun in different quadrants of your lens and seeing how it alters. As the sun (or other bright light source) gets closer to the edge of the lens, you’ll often see the flare spread out and become more prominent. This is especially true with the iPhone 5, which is also prone to that purple fringing .
Smartphone photo showing purple fringing
A really simple tip to avoid the lens flare, is to cup your hand around the lens or block the light with your hand. This will make a DIY lens hood, which will cut down on the amount of light entering the lens, if the light source happens to be on one side of the frame. You may even be able to get rid of it altogether.
One of the saddest things about photography these days, is that people don’t make prints any more, in the way that our parents used to. Having a digital image can often lessen its value, because it’s intangible, whereas a print that you might display on your wall or bookshelf is perceived as valuable because you’ve taken the trouble to make it! The other thing is, that if your phone is stolen and wiped by an unscrupulous thief, or dropped down the loo, and your photos aren’t backed up on the cloud, then they are gone forever. So many times, I have heard people say their precious new baby photos are all lost because this has happened to them. Printing your photos makes them tangible and really valuable and takes away some of the assumptions people often make when looking at photos online.
I have done it myself where I have been amazed by a phone photo. Chances are, if the photo is good, you’ll get the whole “you took this with your phone?” reaction that you’re looking for. However, there are more and more online photo labs offering to make books and albums from your Instagram pics. (I have used Blurb and been really pleased with the results.) When you are looking at your Instagram feed, you might pause just a few seconds at any one picture, but when you look at a book or album, photos have more significance.
Don’t Forget The Rules Of Photography
So, back to my earlier point! The fact is, that having all the fantastic equipment in the world, won’t automatically make you the best photographer or make your image the best photo you’ve ever done. Having a good eye (which can be a learned skill, as well as one that you naturally have,) and observing the basic rules of photography is vital. The rules for taking a good picture don’t change when you switch between cameras. Just because your camera also makes calls, keeps your diary and plays your favourite tunes, doesn’t mean you should ignore everything you know about balanced composition and expressive lighting. If you need to keep the ‘rule of thirds’ or ‘golden ratio’ layover on your screen at all times to help remind you; then turn it on!
While the tips I’ve given here will help you optimise the strengths and play down the weaknesses of a smartphone camera, it’s ultimately your skill, knowledge, and eye that will give your photos that magical “wow” factor. Happy smartphone photo taking!
Please feel free to leave any additional tips or ideas in the comment box below. (Or if you have any burning questions!!) Thanks for reading!