Sure, your phone is capable of taking pretty good photos, but are you always happy with them, or do they leave you wanting more? The fact that manufacturers have made great leaps during last years means that there is so much more potential to be extracted from phone photography now than ever before. In order to extract your smartphone’s full potential though, you have to go beyond pointing and shooting. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your phone.
Light can make or break an image. Photography is not the art of pushing a shutter button, it’s the art of using light and shadow to your advantage. When shooting portraits for example, make your subject turn to face the light in the most flattering angle. Then move around your subject to find the best possible angle and composition in relation to that person.
When you travel, arrange to visit the most photogenic places early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The light will be much softer and your phone will cope better with the low contrast compared to the mid-day sunlight which is just too harsh. Also, when the sun is lower, it gives images a nicer texture because the shadows are richer. Sometimes clouds can also be your friend by diffusing the light and making it softer.
Keep it simple
Photography is a two-dimensional medium. Things on photos don’t look exactly like your stereoscopic vision sees them in real life. We’ve all been to a place that made our jaw drop, but when we saw the pictures, they just didn’t do justice. It can be frustrating, so here’s what to do.
It’s always better to concentrate on leaving the “clutter” out than try to squeeze the whole scene in. If it’s a building that you are trying to shoot, move around and try to keep your object in the frame while leaving as many distractions as possible, out. Negative spaces (cloudless sky, empty wall) can work wonders in keeping your image minimal and making your subject distinguishable.
Minimal, is a big chapter in photography. Try to find balance and geometry in your composition. Things don’t always work out when you’re trying to put everything in the middle. Try the rule of thirds (place your subject(s) closer to one edge or the other, but leave them some space to “breath” at the same time). Another thing that works great in images is leading lines. These lines can be formed by any element (a road, a fence, rail tracks) and draw your eye somewhere in the picture. Sometimes they are not instantly visible and in order to find them you have to use both your observation and imagination.
Learn the basics of photography
Yes, it seems complicated and yes, you might wonder why would you go to the trouble, since your phone takes care of everything automatically? But, trust me, it won’t take you more than an hour and will really boost your understanding of how a camera works, upping your phone photography game immensely at the same time.
Shutter speed, aperture (constantly set to maximum on phones except Samsung’s new S10 but more about this in the future) and sensitivity (ISO). These three parameters are the alpha and the omega of photography. They may sound complex but they really aren’t.
Your camera sensor needs to absorb enough light in order to expose an image properly. Too little and the image will be dark, too much and the brighter parts (usually the sky) will lose their color and detail, looking entirely white and washed out.
Since aperture (the size of the opening at the back of the lens, through which the light passes) has a fixed diameter on phones, the amount of light passing through can only be controlled by setting the shutter speed and sensitivity of the camera.
Shutter Speed & Sensor Sensitivity
The shutter is a small device in front of the sensor (think window shutters) which by opening and closing for a certain amount of time measured in fractions of a second (milliseconds), allows for a certain amount of light (reflected by the elements in your frame like the sky, people, landscape etc.) to reach the surface of the sensor.
Phones don’t have a mechanical shutter but an electric one, which is actually just the action of switching on and off the sensor for a specific amount of time, essentially doing the same job.
When the reflection reaches the sensor, it gets scanned and converted into a digital signal which, in turn, is stored to a file (jpeg or raw). If the ambient light is adequate, then the sensor can properly expose the image by working on idle (lowest ISO setting available, usually 50 or 100), absorbing enough light in the limited time that the shutter is open. If the light is not enough (night, sunset, sunrise) then, it will have to work on higher power which will make it more sensitive to light (higher sensitivity is usually ISO 200-800 for phones) but with the side effect of adding “noise” (grain/blur) to the signal and eventually the image.
So, you don’t want the sensitivity to be too high. What can you do? You can make the shutter stay open for longer, right? Well, unfortunately this can have a negative effect too. Raise the shutter speed above 1/30 of a second (meaning 1/25, 1/10 etc. since it’s a fraction) and the sensor will also register your hand shake or/and the movement of your subject (as blurring) because your composition will have moved between the time when the sensor switches on till the time it goes off. As you probably have figured out by now, there is a sweet spot between sensitivity and shutter speed depending on what you’re shooting.
Optimal Shutter Speed
When capturing landscapes, you may be able to get away with shutter speeds as slow as 1/30s and keep your ISO to minimum, but try to shoot your kids running around with anything slower than 1/250 and you will be disappointed. Meaning that you will have to raise your ISO, sacrificing a bit of image quality but still getting something way better than a messy blur. The problem with smartphones is that don’t always “comprehend” the situation you are shooting, and that’s when you have to take matters into your own hands by switching to manual or semi-manual (set the shutter but leave the phone take care of the sensitivity and vice versa).
So, next time that you want to capture your subject as a dark silhouette against a bright background (classic pic against sunset), go to manual mode and raise your shutter speed to expose properly the background and leave your subject underexposed. It is more complicated than fully auto but, believe me, it’s much more rewarding. It’s also one of the things that sets apart shooters from photographers.
Get a Mini Tripod
Buy a phone tripod and a remote (so you don’t move your phone while hitting the shutter button). It’s the number one accessory to improve your image quality and it costs peanuts. I always keep one with me, they come as cheap as $20 on Amazon and they are small enough to fit in a bag or a satchel. They are priceless in low light situations when holding your phone entirely steady is crucial. They will even make shooting in the night and long exposure photography possible, opening an entirely new world for you.
Shoot RAW files instead of JPEG and post process.
If your phone can shoot RAW files (uncompressed images) and you really want to take the next step, then download an application like LightRoom CC (free) and learn how to use it in order to take your photos to the next level. If you’re using generic filters, like those on Instagram, know that they will never get close to custom post processing plus they are useless, unless you have already color corrected your photo (process of correcting the colors so that they are accurate). It’s not that hard and it can yield great results in a couple of minutes, as long as you’re willing to put some work in it.
Click the image above to witness the obvious superiority of Samsung S10 RAW file against JPEG (it’s the same photo saved as RAW and JPEG). Look especially for the loss of detail in the shadows and the “burned” sky of the JPEG
Edit your own work effectively
There are two things that can make you a better photographer, guaranteed. The first is to cultivate your taste by looking at good photographers’ work and by that, I mean photo books and not the internet. Photography is at its best printed and illuminated by an outside source. Your computer screen will never do it justice. Small mobile screens are even worst plus we never relax and take our time while on a phone, but we surely do when we are on our favorite armchair shuffling through a nice book. Some are costly, some are not, and there is always the choice of the public library.
The secret here is not only to find pictures that you like but more importantly to understand what you like about them and what makes them great. You must be in the position to “deconstruct” the image and examine all its aspects. Light, composition and technical excellence (perfect focus, suitable focal depth, and correct colors) are crucial but I’m also looking for another thing which I consider the true mark of a good photograph—longevity. You may be impressed by a photo but if the effect wears off after an hour, then it’s probably not as good as you had thought. On the other hand, if it’s not as impressive but keeps growing on you, then you know that there is something there. If you have trouble judging your own work, there are groups offering critique, like this one on Flickr.
If you judge your shots objectively and ask yourself what you could had done better, then you will improve no matter what. Just keep taking photos.
Some Photo Books To Consider
This book is worth its weight in gold. Though not exactly related to travel, it’s full of iconic images and above all it shows you the whole roll with the frames shot before and after, where you can see the corrections, choices and procedures of Magnum’s famous photographers.
Well traveled and a master of color and framing—Adam Webb will take you through some dark alleys with pitch dark shadows looming above people as well as bright squares with children joyfully playing. For me, it’s one of the best books about street photography.
The undisputable lord of the landscapes. Devoted to his art from the moment of visualization to execution, film development and printing, he was a true pioneer and a visionary. This collection contain most of his finest pieces.
Regulate your creative flow.
This goes for many arts besides photography. Shoot a lot, practice a lot but don’t overdo it. Shooting a 1000 pictures per day is not good unless you have the time to carefully go through each one and see what you did wrong and what you did right. Besides, you need to give your eye a rest and digest your recent experiences. Take a break and work on your post processing a bit instead.
Intention is what separates photographers from casual shooters. You are really making photos instead of shooting them, when you do things on purpose rather than sheer luck. You will see a desirable pattern easier if you are actively looking for it. Next time before taking a photo, before even looking at your screen, make a small pause. Look the light around you, look at your surroundings and consider how to make everything work in your favor.
Photography is an art and a craft at the same time. You can stick to selfies or you can take it few steps further and tell your story. But, if you want to hone your phone photography and make your images “talk”, you have to master the tools.
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