Surely your phone is capable of taking pretty good photos, but are you always happy with them, or do they leave you wanting something more? The fact that manufacturers have made great leaps during last years in the photography department, means that there is so much more potential to be extracted from phone photography now, than ever before. In order to use the maximum capabilities of a state of the art phone camera though, you have to do a little more than just point and shoot. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your phone.
The light can make or break an image. Photography is not the art of pushing a shutter button, it’s the art of using light to your advantage. When you’re shooting portraits, make your subjects turn until they’re facing the light in the most flattering angle. Then move around your subject in order to find the best possible 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 nice 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 our pictures, they just didn’t do much 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 space (cloudless sky, empty wall) can work great around your subject.
Minimal, works wonders 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). Leading lines also work great when you can place them in your frame. These are lines formed by any element (a road, a fence, rail tracks) that draw your eye somewhere in the picture.
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, believe me, it won’t take you more than an hour and will really boost your understanding of how a camera works, upping your photography game immensely at the same time.
Shutter speed, aperture (constantly maximum on phones except Samsung’s new S10 but more about this in the future) and sensitivity (ISO). These three terms 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 can only be controlled by setting the shutter speed and sensitivity of the camera sensor.
Shutter Speed & Sensor Sensitivity
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, allows for a certain amount of light (reflected by the elements in your frame like 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 procedure of switching on and off the sensor for a specific amount of time and doing essentially the same job.
When the reflection hits the sensor, it gets scanned and converted into a digital signal which will eventually be stored to a file (jpeg or raw). If the light is adequate, then the sensor can properly expose the image by working on idle (lowest ISO setting available, usually 50 or 100) and absorb 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 rise too much. What can you do? You can make the shutter stay open for longer right? Well, unfortunately this can have side effects 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 move 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.
When capturing landscapes, you may be able to get away with shutter speeds as low 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. Which means 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 thing is that your phone doesn’t always “understand” the situation you are shooting and that’s when you have to take matters into your own hands by shooting manually or semi-manually (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 pics against sunset), go to manual mode and raise your shutter speed to expose properly the background and leave your subject underexposed. It is a bit 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 cost as low 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. Even though it is shot with a little camera, my essay “A Night in Cork” would be impossible without the mini tripod which I always carry in my bag.
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 the ones on Instagram, know that they will never get close to custom post processing plus that they are useless unless you have already color corrected your photo (process of correcting the colors so that they are realistically 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 to 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 ways that will 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 from an outside source. Your computer screen won’t do it much 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. 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 thought. On the other hand if it’s not as impressive but it 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.
Eventually what separates photographers from casual shooters is intention. 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 the stories of other people and foreign places. But if you want to hone your photography and make your images “talk”, you have to master the tools.
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