Professional Photography with your Phone…Is It Possible?
Chances are that if you’re reading this post, you’ve also read articles which start out with headlines like “Throw out your DSLR! New Smartphone Cameras are Waayyyy Better!” or “Famous Landscape Photographer Earns Living using Just an iPhone 6″. It’s true that modern smartphone cameras are revolutionizing the way people think of taking pictures. There are lots of sensational claims out there, and a lot of crazy numbers being thrown around (such as Noxia’s 41 megapixel camera on the Lumia 1020).
I’m not here to tell you that making a living as an artist with only a cell phone is possible. However, I have seen some very nice images in print, including some in a prominent automobile collectors magazine, that were taken with phone cameras. Kirsten has sold a picture that she took with her Galaxy S4. So, it would seem that these tiny, inexpensive integrated cameras are at least up to the task, on occasion, of producing a great image.
I have been able to get good images out of both point-and-shoot cameras and phone cameras. In fact, some of my favorite shots were taken on my old Canon Powershot A510 (3 megapixels) and my HTC Vivid Smartphone (8 megapixels). For the purpose of this post, I’m going to stick with the smartphone camera as my main point, but suffice it to say that you can coax a beautiful image out of almost any camera. You just have to know the limitations…and specialties, of the tool you have.
Kirsten has sold this print, which she took with her Galaxy S4 (it actually worked better than her DSLR for this specific shot)
My new phone has tons of megapixels! Of course it will take a beautiful picture!
For some time now, the point and shoot / smartphone camera industry has been trying to convince consumers that more megapixels = better camera. This is simply not true (or else all the wedding photographers would ditch their 24 MP Full-Frame DSLRs for Nokia Phones!). Resolution is probably the least important (yet most advertised) spec. For viewing on the web, all you need is about a half MP to 1 MP for an image to appear clear on a webpage. Any more resolution is wasted. Additionally, even for large prints, an 8 MP camera (circa 2004) can produce spectacular results. The number of dots (pixels) only becomes important if you are printing really, really big (think sidewalk billboards for close viewing), or if you are going to do a lot of cropping.
Since this topic has been covered in detail by many, I’m not going to say any more about it here. My point is that modern cell phone cameras are not magically amazing because they have as many (or more) megapixels as DSLR cameras. The pixel count on your modern smartphone isn’t what is going to let you take an awesome picture.
If you’re interested, check out these write-ups on the subject of megapixels:
The Limitations of Smartphone Cameras
Smartphone cameras these days have plenty of megapixels. However, cramming in all these photo receptors on a sensor that’s smaller than a pencil eraser means that the signal to noise ratio of each receptor is low. Simply put, the tiny photon receptors are not very good at doing their primary job. The light-catching buckets are too small! Because of this, the dynamic range of a smartphone camera pales in comparison to that of larger cameras.
Phone cameras suffer from poor low-light performance, and they aren’t very good at capturing the range of light in a highly contrast scene. Action is an additional problem. Have you ever noticed that pictures taken with your smartphone or low-end point and shoot camera tend to be blurry? It’s because in order to catch enough light, the camera has to keep the shutter open for a long time, which is a recipe for motion blur. By comparison everything about a DSLR (from the sensor to the lens) is larger, allowing much more light and much faster shutter speeds.
So Megapixels Don’t Help, and the Sensor is Too Small. So, How Do I Take A Great Shot with a Smartphone?
The key to using any camera properly is to consider the device’s strengths and work around its weaknesses. The following is a step-by-step guide for how to take a beautiful shot with a smartphone camera. The camera I used in this example is my 2nd Generation Moto X (2014), which has a 13 MP fixed-optic camera that has marginal to poor reviews (see reviews at the link below).
Chris’s Step By Step Guide to Awesome Smartphone Photography
Step Zero – The Photographer!
Learn Photography Basics!
I’m not going to cover these in detail here, because they don’t apply to the camera (the least important item). They apply to the photographer! You are the most important part to getting a good picture. Read about lighting, composition (framing), and perspective, then go out and practice.
Here’s some good reading on composition:
Step 1 – Find a Beautiful Landscape Scene!
Before starting, realize that your phone is not going to take a good picture of anything moving. Even in brilliant daylight, most smart phone cameras and many point and shoots don’t let in enough light to support a fast shutter speed. Hence, limit yourself to still subjects. For the purpose of this article, lets assume you are going after a beautiful sunrise landscape.
Step 2 – Landscape Orientation
Phone cameras typically have a very wide aspect ratio. Unless you are taking a picture of an ancient tree or shiny skyscraper, you will likely capture the most pleasing image by using your phone in landscape mode (holding it so the long dimension points left-to-right). This aspect naturally looks the best for most landscapes, as well as for viewing on most computer displays. If you are intent on taking a vertical picture, at least try a few landscape shots as well.
Step 3 – Adjust Exposure to Preserve Highlights (or Shadows)
If you are taking a picture of a relatively flat scene (narrow range between light and dark), then you can probably skip this step. However, chances are there is at least some variation between light and dark in your scene. If you are trying to catch a sunrise or sunset, then you’re going to be fighting a war with your camera’s tiny sensor to catch the range of light and color. So, think about what it is that you want to capture and adjust the exposure to one side or the other. For a sunrise or a sunset, catching the glory of the highlights (the pretty sky) is a good idea.
Example: Default Exposure Setting with Moto X
In the picture below, I used the default exposure on my Moto X to try and capture this high contrast scene (focus / exposure at center of image). Notice that the highlights (the bright part of the image) are slightly washed out, and the shadows (the dark background and the colored filters) are difficult to see. The smartphone camera just doesn’t have enough dynamic range to capture it all, even though my eye could see the details in both the highlights and shadows just fine.
Most smartphones let you point at the part of the picture you want to expose (and focus) for. Since you are taking a shot of a landscape, you probably don’t have to worry about the focus too much (one advantage of tiny smartphone sensors for certain situations is that they have a very deep depth of field. Everything tends to be in focus unless you have a subject right in front of the lens). So, try dragging the focus crosshairs to the sky to expose for the highlights. This will result in the darker areas of the photo being thrown into deep shadow (the sensor can’t capture this information). However, this is usually OK, because silhouettes can look very good!
Example: Expose for Highlights with the Moto X
Notice in the photo below that the illuminated reflective filters are less glaring, and the print is easier to read. This is because the exposure was adjusted to let in less light, and thus prevent the highlights from washing out. The shadows, however, are impossible to see.
Alternatively, if you are taking a picture of an object (say, an interesting boulder) and you want the background highlights to blow out (thus contrasting with your subject), feel free to expose for the dark areas (the shadows). This will bring out the detail in your subject. The real problem occurs when trying for a neutral exposure (asking the sensor to capture the full range of highlights and shadows). This will result in both blown out highlights and dark shadows…basically, no information on both ends of the spectrum.
Example: Expose for Shadows with the Moto X
In this picture, I dragged the focus / exposure point to line up with the dark part of the image. This time, the “shadow” part of the image doesn’t appear to be a shadow anymore (the colored filters and the background are easily visible). However, the highlights are completely blown out (the reflective filters).
In my case, I was using the twin cannons of Fort Trumbull in New London, CT as the subject of my landscape shot. Since these cannons were actually pretty close, they went out of focus if I tapped the sky in the background. To keep the cannons in focus, I ended up tapping my finger on the canons (causing the sky to blow out because the phone also metered for the cannons). Then, I adjusted the exposure settings (one option is the click-drag icon on the Moto X) to bring the exposure back down, casting the cannons back in shadow and saving the sky from being a white blob. Manual exposure adjustments are generally possible on most smartphones. The procedure will just be different on each one.
Example: Manual Exposure Adjustment on Moto X
In the below pictures, which includes the actual graphical user interface of the Moto X’s camera, you can see that I adjusted the little slider to the right of the focus bracket to change the exposure setting between the two images. This is another way of adjusting exposure on this particular phone (the first being to drag the focus crosshairs to different parts of the image, as described above)
Step 4- Be Ready – Get Steady
Before clicking the shutter button, remember that any motion of the phone will cause your image to blur. Take a deep breath, hold the phone steady, and get your finger as near to the shutter icon as possible. Practice doing this with a two-handed grip, with just your index finger from one hand hovering over the shutter button. (You get extra points if you have found a makeshift tripod, such as a rock or fence, to rest your hands and phone on. It will make a difference!) If you have a slippery phone, consider getting a nice rubberized case for it…extra grip for any camera is never a bad thing!
Step 5 – Gently Press the Shutter
This takes some practice. If you have a screen protector on your phone, you might want to consider removing it depending on how hard you have to tap the screen to get the camera to shoot. A gentle press, if possible, keeps the phone from moving and the image from blurring. You could also investigate the camera menu on your phone to see if it has a countdown timer. This is the best option, as you could trigger the timer and then hold the phone steady until it takes the picture.
Step 6 – Don’t Move!
Just because you pressed the shutter button doesn’t mean the job is done. Smartphones have slow shutter speeds. Don’t move the phone until the camera completes its job, and the image appears on your screen!
Step 7 – Take it three more times!
This is critical. I found that even with concentrated effort, I still have motion blur in my photos. You can really see it if you zoom in. So, take a few more shots (I recommend 3, you get better at holding the phone steady). The one that’s the least blurry is the one you want.
Step 8 – Review the Picture under Max Resolution
Just to be sure you have no blur, zoom in on your shots and check. There’s nothing worse than going home to find all your shots are fuzzy.
Here is the shot that I had at this point. Notice that I was able to catch the range of color in the sky, including the starburst of the sun. The trade-off is very little visible detail in the shadows, which is OK, because these cannons and the fortifications look pretty good as a silhouette. Click on the image to see the original, full-resolution image.
Step 9 (Optional) – Post Processing
One of the problems with getting the exposure just right with the Moto X (as well as my older HTC Vivid) was that if I stood too close to something, the phone would set the light meter for that object and would fight me tooth and nail as I tried to manually adjust for something else. In this shot, I stood a bit further away from the cannons to prevent this. Thus, I did some cropping in post processing to really bring out the subject.
Finally, I lightened the shadows a bit, tweaked the crop, and added a slight boost of color saturation. Here is the final image.
The processing in this case was done in Adobe Lightroom 6. However, you can actually do a lot of this on your phone if you download a photo editing or camera app. In a future article, I’ll take a look at overhauling the Moto X’s built in camera app with a full-fledged camera replacement suite to get even more performance out of the phone’s camera.
This photo will be up for sale soon on our store. If you’d like to make a print this one yourself, just copy it from this blog (Just click on the image for the full-resolution freebee)
What Really Matters
The best think you can do to take that great picture is to have an eye for the scene you want, and be in the right place at the right time with a camera. Any camera! If that camera is a smartphone, just keep its limitations in mind and adjust your way around them. Combine this with the basics of good photography (composition, exposure, etc.) and you can definitely take a great picture with a smartphone that will leave you smiling!