Do you enjoy smartphone photography and find yourself taking more and more photos with your phone? Even when you have access to better cameras and dedicated gear? Then you are in good company.
The appearance of smartphones with increased photographic capabilities on the market, has given birth to a new kind of photographer: the ‘smartphone photographer’.
Smartphone photographic performances are so good that they are responsible for eating into the market of the classic compact cameras for three main reasons:
- It’s quick and easy to snap a photo with your phone as it is always in your hand or pocket.
- Editing and sharing photos is simple, thanks to editing apps, WiFi and 4G data networks.
- Great technical characteristics.
It is not surprising that the most popular cameras out there (at least in the vast Flickr community) are smartphones.
The most popular camera models in the Flickr community.
In this article, I would like to give you some smartphone photography tips. These will hopefully help you take some really awesome pics with your phone. After all, it’s the photographer, not the the gear, that makes the image.
Please note that I am not referring to the classic snapshot, for which any camera is a good camera.
Instead, I want to discuss the use of a smartphone as a tool for the photographer to do their job. I’ll talk a little about smartphone cameras in general as well as common smartphone photography accessories that you may want to use.
Are Compact Cameras Really Dead?
At the moment, smartphones do not come with interchangeable lenses (at least not like DSLR and mirrorless cameras do). This makes compact cameras the most natural comparison.
Personally, I think that smartphones will eventually stifle the market for entry-level point-and-shoot compact cameras. However, until that happens, accept your smartphone for what it is and use it accordingly to achieve great shots.
Despite the relatively low price tag of a smartphone, they contain many of the same features as the latest pro compact cameras such as the Sony RX100 M4 or the Canon G7 X:
- Sensor resolution up to 20 megapixels.
- Fast lens: most phones sport lenses with apertures around f/2.0.
- High ISO capabilities: Sony claims an impressive ISO 12800 sensitivity for its Xperia Z3.
- Optical stabilisation, e.g. iPhone 6 plus and more.
- Optical Zoom: the Samsung Galaxy K boasts a 10x optical zoom.
- With the release of the Android 5, mobile phones gained the ability to use DNG format, similar to the RAW format used by pro cameras.
However, we all know that better numbers on paper do not necessarily translate to better images.
Here are some features where pro compact cameras beat smartphones, hands down:
If you do not have an optical zoom (few smartphones do), your only option is to use your feet to move forwards or backwards.
Digital zoom can degrade the image quality. Additional lenses that are optically sound, such as the iPro kit lens, are very expensive ($230).
Though there is cheaper kit available, I have found that they will degrade the image quality.
Your lens will probably be equivalent to something like 30mm on a full frame camera, i.e. it will be on the wide side.
This is a good all-round focal length – however, without optical zoom, close ups of people may introduce some unflattering distortions to their faces (a bigger nose, to name one).
Depth of Field (DOF)
Because of the small sensor size and short focal length, you cannot create that kind of narrow DOF that allows you to blur backgrounds and separate the different planes. Being able to use a narrow DOF is most definitely important for portraiture.
This is most important in low light conditions. The lower the density of the pixels, the higher the image quality.
This rule of thumb still holds true today, despite improvements in technology. Having a smaller pixel density means you have larger pixels that respond better to light and introduce less noise to the image.
For comparison, the 20.7 megapixel (MP) sensor of the Sony Xperia Z3 has almost double the pixel density of the 20.1 1-inch sensor of the Sony RX100 M4 (1.3 MP/mm^2 and 0.7 M/mm^2, respectively).
Below, is a typical night photograph, taken with my Apple iPhone 5S.
Brussels by Night (Apple iPhone 5S).
It seems fine, but look at what I can capture during night photography with my old Sony RX100 Mk2. Pro compact cameras are the clear winner, here.
Some phones do not have a memory expansion slot, meaning the amount of storage on the device is shared between the OS, apps, music, video, user data and photos.
Focus and Metering
You can select and lock the focus on your phone to create some exposure compensation. However, it is nothing like what you can do with a real camera – no manual focus, different metering modes or AF lock, which are only accessible after purchasing a third party camera app.
As for autofocus speed and accuracy, pro compact cameras prove to be on top.
Night photography with my Sony RX100 Mk2 compact camera.
In-Camera LED Flash
Weak and almost always useless.
Battery and Ergonomics
Your battery life can be an issue. Ergonomics are also poor, particularly if you are taking photos in landscape orientation.
As far as I know, you cannot place filters in front of your smartphone camera, but they can be mounted on compact cameras via adapters.
Polarisers, neutral density and infrared filters, can be invaluable tools to create great images.
Do not be fooled: most images will look good on your small, bright and contrasted smartphone screen, much like they do when displayed on the LCD of any digital camera.
The real test is to see them larger, on a computer screen. You do not need to pixel peep to see a noticeable difference in sharpness and general quality.
If an image does not look good when viewed on your phone, then you may as well delete it and save the space for a better one.
Fortunately, some of the limits of smartphone cameras can be overcome by using dedicated apps.
Despite similarities on paper, smartphones are limited when used for photography or artwork, compared to pro compact cameras.
No accessories, regardless of price, will turn your phone into a pro camera.
Your phones performance depends on good light conditions and a suitable genre of photography.
Types of Smartphone Photography Your Phone is Good At
Despite their flaws, I do believe that smartphones are quite capable devices. A suitable set up allows them to perform nicely.
You can take pretty good still life images with your smartphone – particularly when you are working with natural light, or a light tent for small product photography (e.g. jewellery).
Why not try out some low key photos, you may be surprised.
Low key of my Olympus OM-D EM-10 (Apple iPhone 5S). This photo was popular on Flickr.
Food photography is also something you can enjoy.
Sushi (Apple iPhone 5S).
The reason why your smartphone performs well for tabletop photography is that you have plenty of time to choose composition, angles, focus, adjust the exposition, place reflectors and so on.
Since you are controlling every aspect of your image, take advantage and create a scene that allows your camera phone to perform at its best.
The wide DOF typical of camera phones may sometimes be a problem, but if the subject is small and you can get close to it, then it may not be a big issue.
Tips to improve your tabletop photography:
- Focus on angles and composition.
- Focus on colours and textures.
- Reduce shadows using reflectors: this will reduce the dynamic range needed to capture all the details in the scene and will result in more pleasant images.
- Use a tripod.
- Use your earplugs to take the photo to avoid camera shake.
For more information on tabletop photography, check out my previous post here.
Smartphones can be used to take amazing portraits as long as you don’t get too close. Keeping a distance will minimise the distortions that are typical with wide angle lenses.
As I will not be covering portraiture photography here, check out these talented photographers to learn more:
Travelling. Railway bridge reflected on the train window (Apple iPhone 5s).
While your phone may not be as flexible as a compact camera sporting a great zoom, smartphones will still perform well for travel photography.
Again, the most important thing to remember is that if you do not have an optical zoom, you have to avoid using the zoom at all. Zoom in and out with your feet, or crop the image later, for a tighter composition.
Try to focus on capturing the atmosphere of the place: markets, street scenes, local attractions, characteristic locations, landscapes and architecture and candid portraits of interesting people.
Tips that may improve your travel photography:
- Be safe. Avoid unsafe areas, unsafe times and don’t push your luck.
- Try to photograph in easy light conditions and favour daytime photography.
- Carry a small tripod, such as the great Joby Gorillapod (requires an accessory to mount the phone on to it).
- A wi-fi portable hard drive is useful for downloading the images from your phone. Free up some room for your new photos.
- Install an HDR app to extend the dynamic range of your phone (e.g. vividHDR for iOS).
- Remember to use your panorama mode to capture larger views and vertoramas, allowing tall subjects in to the frame.
This vertorama allowed me to get all of the sequoia and a great deal of interesting foreground in the same shot (Apple iPhone 5S).
Landscape photography is compatible with your smartphone, thanks to its short focal length. This actually allows you to capture fairly wide scenes.
Of course, there are some challenges to shooting landscapes with a smartphone. The wide dynamic range, difficulty photographing in low light conditions, capturing movement during long exposure and the impossibility of using filters are some of the issues you may face.
You may also have some chromatic aberration and purple fringes on the borders between high contrasted areas (e.g. buildings and sky, or trees and sky).
Still, you can bring home some very fine images.
The Storm (Apple iPhone 5s). This photo was popular on Flickr. The Pro HDR app was used to deal with the ample dynamic range in the scene.
I enjoy photographing interesting trees, also.
Winter (somewhere in Belgium) (Apple iPhone 5).
Dreamy Sequoia. Silhouette and intentional focus blur. (Apple iPhone 5s).
Your smartphone panorama mode is your best friend if you want to capture even larger views.
The Grand Large (Mons, Belgium) at dawn. Panorama mode. (Apple iPhone 5s).
Tips that may improve your smartphone photography when shooting landscapes:
- Carry a small tripod (e.g. Gorillapod).
- Install a dedicated HDR app to increase the dynamic range of your phone.
- Use a dedicated camera app that allows you a better control on exposure and focus (eg. Pureshot for iOS).
- To simulate long exposures, with your phone mounted on a tripod, with locked focus and exposition, take a large number of photos of the scene to combine and average them later in Photoshop.
- Install a dedicated app for long exposure, such as the Slow Shutter Cam for iOS. For this, you must use a tripod or something to keep the phone steady.
- If your phone is on a tripod, use your earplugs to take the photos, to avoid camera shake.
Urban and Street Photography
Similar to travel photography, the city gives you plenty of opportunities to capture great photos with your phone.
The accessibility and speed of capturing photographs with a smartphone, make it a great tool for street photography and candid portraiture.
Children playing in the rain (Apple iPhone 5s).
Frozen (Brussels Midi Station). I used the Slow Shutter Cam app to introduce motion blur in to the image. (Apple iPhone 5s).
Interesting urban subjects to capture include graffiti, buildings and monuments, patterns, reflections, textures, juxtapositions, etc.
Me while commuting by train (Apple iPhone 5s).
City in a puddle (Apple iPhone 5s).
Graffiti viewed from the train (Apple iPhone 5s).
Tips that may improve your urban photography:
- Be safe. Avoid unsafe areas, unsafe times and don’t push your luck.
- Make use of the best light.
- Have a small tripod with you (e.g. Gorillapod).
- Install a dedicated HDR app to increase the dynamic range of your phone.
- Shoot in black and white for more contrasted and interesting street sceneries and candid portraits.
- Install a dedicated app for long exposures that capture movements.
- Make use of the panorama mode to take vertorama and capture tall buildings and monuments.
Types of Smartphone Photography your Phone is probably Bad At
Not all genres of photography are suitable for camera phones, yet.
Low Light Photography
Good low light photography is tricky to master with pro gear and state of the art compact cameras. You may struggle to nail it with a smartphone.
Even if you manage to keep your phone steady by mounting it on a tripod, capturing a good quality long exposure will force you to face the issue of digital noise and loss of image quality thanks to the high pixel density.
Yes, you can boost the ISO sensitivity, but this will increase the digital noise even more. A photo that looks good on your phone screen, may suffer from noise and smudged details when enlarged – possibly a side effect of the strong noise filter applied to the jpeg image.
Brussels (Belgium) at night. The squared images are 100% crops of dark and bright areas selected from the photo. (Apple iPhone 5s)
Tips that may improve your low light photography:
- Use a tripod or place your phone on a steady surface.
- Leave the dark areas black: adjust your exposure for the bright parts of the scene.
- Do not try to recover the shadows in editing: you will bring up too much noise.
- Use an HDR app to extend the dynamic range of your phone.
- If nothing moves in the scene, shoot 10 photos and average them later with Photoshop: this is the essence of the multi frame noise reduction technique.
- Use the earplugs to take photos, to avoid camera shake.
Your smartphone LED flash is good for snapping quick photos at parties, but not much else:
- The flash is not powerful enough to light subjects that are more than a few feet away from you.
- You cannot use the flash off camera, nor can you use bouncer cards to diffuse its light. This results in hard shadows and the appearance of the infamous red (sometimes green) evil-eyes in people and animals.
I have no realistic tips to fix this and would recommend a proper camera.
Wildlife and Sport Photography
Wildlife and sport photography are still in the realms of DSLR: you need long telephoto lenses, fast and accurate autofocus, continuous focus and high speed shooting mode.
Indoor sports may be even worse thanks to the difficulty capturing fast moving actions, heightened by the challenges of low light photography.
Tips that may improve your wildlife/sport photography:
- Do not to zoom in if you do not have optical zoom: keep the wide scene and crop later.
- Try to introduce some creative motion blur.
- If you are into wildlife – go to a zoo, animal park or the countryside, where animals can be seen up close.
- If you really want to use your phone for your photographic work and money is no issue, take a look at the iPro Lens kit for about $230. Apparently, these additional lenses perform quite decently.
Horse Pride. Horses in the Belgian countryside (Apple iPhone 5s).
Accessories for Smartphone Photography
First of all, please do not get carried away: there are a million accessories out there, claiming to turn your phone into a professional photo camera. Some of them are just rubbish, while others defeat the purpose of using a small, light and non-intrusive device to quickly snap photos.
For me, the only accessories really needed to capture great photos are:
- A small tripod, such as the Gorillapod or other compact travel tripods.
- A tripod mount.
- A good case, like the Lifeproof cases, should you drop your phone.
- A few good apps to shoot and edit your photos on the go.
Anything else can (and in most cases, should) be left out.
Often, in photography, we say that less is more: don’t get hung up on accessories and settings. The same thing absolutely applies to smartphone photography, if not more so—don’t fall into the trap of trying to turn your phone into something it is not.
You have the perfect tool to forget about technicalities and focus on composition, angles, colours, contrasts and emotions.
Finally, if you are serious about improving your smartphone photography, I suggest that you bookmark the website iPhone Photography School (IPS). It focuses on Apple devices, but you can learn a lot—regardless of what brand your phone is.
For inspiration, have a look at the iPhone Photography Award Website.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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