Mobile Photography: Take Better Phone Photos

 

“The best camera is the one that’s with you.”Chase Jarvis

Flickr’s most popular camera is a smartphone, and it has been for years. Why? Because it’s the camera people always have with them. Mobile photography—using a smartphone to take photos—is now the most popular genre of photography.

It doesn’t matter what “the best” camera if it’s not with you when you need to take a photograph, or you don’t know how to operate it to its full potential.

Mobile phones are extremely capable these days. While I won’t say they can yet replace a DSLR or mirrorless camera, they can do a lot. In fact, Time magazine recently ran a series of covers that was shot with an iPhone!

I’ll be honest with you. Writing this post is kind of the pot calling the kettle black. I don’t really think about photos I take with my phone. I just use it for snapshots. So I’m going to try to take some better phone photos while I go through the process of writing this post.

Know the Limitations of Mobile Photography

Photography, at least the technical aspects of it, is all about compromises. That is even more true with mobile photography. The phone designers made compromises in order to fit a digital camera sensor inside such a small form factor. I’ll discuss two such compromises.

 

A digital camera sensor like found in a smartphone

 

The Sensor: Size Matters

First, it is important to understand as to the imaging sensors in digital cameras, including phone cameras, it’s not the megapixels, but the physical size of the sensor that matters.

A larger sensor has more space for photoreceptors (For this post, assume each photoreceptor is one pixel, although that may be different in reality). Without getting too technical, just know that for a given camera lens, a larger sensor will “collect” more light. In everyday terms, this means a larger lens is more light-sensitive than a smaller lens.

This assumes the same number of photoreceptors on both the larger sensor and the smaller sensor. Let me show you what I mean.

 

an illustration of pixel density

 

In the above illustration, the big, multi-colored square marked A represents a camera sensor. Let’s say A is one-inch square. The smaller, red, blue, green, or yellow squares within A each represents a pixel. B is a sensor that is ½-inch square. Again, the smaller red, blue, green, or yellow squares represent pixels.

If you assumed a uniform distribution of light rays hitting both A and B, then B would collect less light because each one of its photoreceptors is ¼ the area of A‘s photoreceptors.

There are ways around the light-sensitivity problem. The most common workaround is to boost the signal. By doing so, however, you create “noise.” This is why a phone camera photo looks so bad in low-light situations—the signal is boosted so much that a significant amount of noise is added to the photo.

Camera Phone Flash is Horrible

The second compromise I’ll discuss is the size and position of the camera flash. To be fair, this is a compromise made on many cameras, not just cameras on phones.

Hard Shadows

Light can be described many ways. One such way is whether the light is hard or soft. Hard light causes hard shadows. These are shadows with a dark distinctive edge.

Soft light produces soft shadows, which are generally more preferred in a photograph. With soft shadows, there is a gradual transition from light to dark, and the shadows may never get very dark at all.

The larger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the light appears. The opposite is also true. The smaller the light source, relative to the size of the subject, the harder the light (or shadows) appear.

Hopefully, you can see where I’m going with this. The flash on a camera phone is extremely small when compared to say, a person’s face. This will make any shadows caused by it to be hard shadows.

Flat Light

The phone designers placed the flash close to the lens. This causes light to hit your subject almost straight on. Photographers call this flat lighting. Like hard shadows, flat lighting generally is undesirable.

Flat lighting is perhaps the most unattractive way to light a person. Think of a mugshot. That’s flat lighting.

Red Eyes

When the flash is too close to the camera lens,  the person in the photo will have “red eyes.” The closer the light source is to the camera lens, the more likely you will get the dreaded “red eyes.” Look at any photo of a person taken by a mobile phone using a flash, and the person will likely have red eyes.

Avoid Using Flash Unless Needed

The compromises made to put a flash on a phone camera render it almost useless in my opinion. Unless it is absolutely needed, you should avoid using your mobile phone’s flash when taking pictures.

 

 

Third Party Camera Apps
Pro Camera and Lightroom Mobile are the apps I recommend for mobile photography on the iPhone

 

Third-Party Apps

The camera apps that come with your phone are good. Third-party camera apps are usually better.

These apps usually contain more features than the built-in camera apps. For example, both of the apps I mention here allow you to take manual control over the phone’s camera. You can adjust shutter speed, focus, white balance, exposure compensation, etc. These apps also more powerful editing than the default apps.

Both Android phones and iPhones are capable of storing photos in the dng format. DNG is a form of a raw file. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know about raw files and the fact they possess more information for processing. Despite this capability, it is not possible in the default camera app, at least on iOS, to store photos as dng files. you need a third-party app for that.

A review of third-party apps is beyond the scope of this post. However, I will mention my two favorite third-party camera apps on iOS. If you are not using Adobe Lightroom on your computer, I would recommend ProCamera. If you are using Lightroom, then I recommend using Lightroom Mobile for its ability to sync with Creative Cloud apps on your computer.

Composition

Practicing good composition is a good practice for any kind of photography, not just mobile photography. Good composition leads the viewer’s eye through the photograph instead of letting it simply wander on its own. Entire books have been written on composition, so it’s definitely too much to cover in this post. However, here are three basics:

 

A photo of a country road overlaid with a rule-of-thirds grid

Rule of Thirds

Some photographers prefer calling this the (pardon the language) “rule of turds” because treat it like it was a real rule and never deviate from it. I won’t go that far, but I wish this “rule” was called the guideline of thirds instead of the rule of thirds. Calling it a rule even causes me to adhere to it more than I should.

The essence of the rule of thirds is to keep the subject out of the center of the photograph. (Another notable “rule”—fill the frame—contradicts the rule of thirds).

Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid divides the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. According to the rule of thirds, the focal point of your photo should line up along one of the lines, and, ideally, at one of the intersections of the lines.

Leading Lines

Another principle of composition is “leading lines.” These are pretty much what they sound like, lines (or curves) that lead from out of the frame to the focal point of the photo. Although not intentional, the same photo used above to illustrate the rule of thirds can also illustrate leading lines. The road leads the eye from the edge of the frame to the photo’s focal point.

 

 

 

Always leave room for your subject to move into the photo
The player with the ball has “room to run” into the photo

 

The final rule of composition I’ll discuss is what I call “leave room to run.” You want an object that is moving to be moving into the frame, not out of the frame. In the illustration able, the Seminary  High School football player in the left-hand photo still has room to run into the frame. The Gulfport player in the right-hand photo is running out of the frame. The left-hand photo is better composed than the one on the right because the subject of the photo has room to run.

As always, this is a guideline rather than a true rule. Done properly while panning, a subject in motion leaving the frame can give a sense of speed to a photo.

Zoom is a no-no (and an opposing view)

A digital camera can zoom in two different way. The first, optical zoom, uses lenses to magnify the image placed on the sensor. The second way to zoom in a digital camera is digital zoom. Digital zoom is essentially cropping a portion of the original image and then magnifying it.

Most phone cameras use only digital zoom. Even newer phones with two lenses, one of which is a dedicated zoom lens, tend to use digital zoom most of the time.

Digital zoom reduces the quality of the finished photo. Say you have a 12-megapixel sensor in your phone. If you zoom in so the image is twice as big, you cut your resolution in half, resulting in a 6-megapixel image. The conventional wisdom is you should never use digital zoom. I’m not sure that’s really good advice anymore.

Here are two photos. The photo on the left is the original, the photo on the right is the “digital zoom.” (I cropped an area equal to one-sixth of the original and then enlarged it until it was the same size as the original.

 

This is the original photo from which the digital zoom was taken.
The original image
A photo that has been "digitally zoomed."
The “digital zoom”

 

I’m not going to tell you the image that has been “zoomed” is great. It’s certainly usable for most purposes, though.

The truth is the algorithms image processing software uses today is so good that it can take care of most quality problems that would arise when using digital zoom.

Experiment with Filters

It pains me to say this because I think filters are far overused. They do have their place, though. If you can achieve the look you want by simply using a filter rather than manually adjusting tone, temperature, vibrance, and other settings, I say go for it.

I think the key is not overusing filters. There is no reason to apply a filter to every photograph you take.

Use Volume Buttons

A lot of people don’t realize you can use the volume button (usually the up volume button) on your phone to take a photo with the default camera app. To many people, myself included, this feels much more natural than pressing a button on the screen.

Note some third-party camera apps inherit this ability from the operating system and others require you to activate that option in their settings.

You can use headphones as a cable release. I don’t know about wireless headphones, but if your headphones attach to the phone via a cable, you can press the up volume button on the headphones to take a photo.

Clean the Lens

We stuff our phones inside pockets and purses. We sweat upon while working out. They get placed onto tables while eating. And let’s be honest, we’ve all taken them into the bathroom with us.

In short, we take our phones everywhere and we expose them to a lot of things, including dirt and grime. Some of that is going to get on the camera lens.

Obviously, dirt on a camera lens can cause some problems with your photos. The dirt or smudge could blur or obscure part of the image.

So clean your lens every now and then. If you’re like me, you clean your screen every now and then when the fingerprints get to be too much. Just turn the phone over and quickly wipe down the lens.

For low perspective, turn the phone upside down

One quick way to improve your photography, no matter what you are using for a camera, is to change your perspective.

Conventional cameras usually have no problem with a low perspective. However, if you use a phone camera, you may have difficulty, given that the camera lens is usually in one corner of the phone’s body, especially if you are taking a photo with a portrait (vertical) orientation.

The answer is very simple: Just turn the phone upside down where the lens is on the bottom.

I never thought about this simple solution until I saw it in a video. It’s one of those things that seems common-sense and you wonder why you didn’t think of it.

Invest in a tripod

Depending on the lighting and the shutter speed of your camera, you may need a tripod to hold your phone steady while making the photo.

You can buy a tripod specially made for smartphones, or if you already have a tripod, you can buy just an adapter so you can mount your phone on your tripod.

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