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Mobile Photography: Get Better Images with Your Smartphone Camera
We’ve moved on from the days where cellphone cameras could only take grainy, low-resolution images and you had no control over the results. Current-generation smartphones are equipped with cameras with 8-megapixel sensors (and sometimes even larger ones), quality lenses and powerful image processing algorithms.
Many people are now beginning to find that smartphones can help them start a hobby in photography, and thus use the camera regularly: from capturing selfies to documenting rare events and occasions. Some professional photographers and creative artists are also seeing the smartphone as a new creative medium. iPhone 6 recently launched a series of advertisements showing professional-looking shots taken on an iPhone 6, showing just how powerful the iPhone’s camera can be in the right hands.
So what can you do to get better images out of your smartphone’s camera? While there will always be limitations in the phone’s image-capturing capabilities, you can maximize the potential it has by taking more control of your shots. There are no specific rules, but you can definitely follow the same basic photography ‘rules’ and tricks you use when taking images with ‘proper’ cameras. Here are some pointers to help you get started. They are general tips that can help you improve your photography in general, but I’ve written them to be more specific to smartphone photography.
Be In Control
While smartphones today come with more powerful cameras and image processing, the phone itself may not come with the options necessary to take full control of the camera’s capabilities. Phone features are designed mainly for ease of use, and this goes for the cameras as well. In order to not confuse the everyday user, the default camera app that comes with your phone may not have options to control shutter speed, focus or ISO – it’s almost always in full auto. Your phone can control those features, but the user can’t. (Of course, some newer phones and software updates come with these features, but sometimes they are locked away before you enable them.)
Fortunately, alternatives to your phone’s default camera app exist, and these let you adjust shutter speed, focus and ISO, just as you would on a ‘proper’ camera on manual exposure mode. For example, the Lumia Camera app for Lumia phones (formerly Nokia Lumia) lets you control the camera just as you would a DSLR, and even comes with exposure compensation options, exposure bracketing and HDR. For iOS and Android devices, VSCO Cam is one of the most popular apps for taking and editing pictures, with shutter speed and focus controls, as well as white balance and exposure compensation. Camera360 is another popular alternative that is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices. These apps come with their own limitations, of course. Choose the ones that work best for you, and consider paid options as well.
Obviously, more control does not automatically mean better images. What you get, however, is the ability to capture images that are exactly as how you would want it to look (or close to it) instead of letting the phone’s light meter dictate the settings for a ‘properly-exposed’ image.
What camera app do you use?
Post-process, but don't overdo it
When it comes to post-processing your phone camera shots, the most obvious answer would be Instagram. The app comes with ‘filters’, which are essentially a set of post-processing actions (much like the ‘Actions’ in Adobe Photoshop) that give your images a certain look. There are a range of filters available, from the purely creative and experimental ones to those giving a ‘vintage’, classic look to your decidedly 21st-century images. Some of these filters can really improve the images by bringing out the colors and contrasts to more closely mirror what your eye is actually seeing.
Just like camera apps, alternatives to Instagram’s post-processing solution exist. On iOS and Android devices, VSCO Cam is one of the most popular alternatives, used by casual users and professional photographers alike. The app comes with many filters and looks for your images, although VSCO is best known for their film-like filters. There is also Adobe Photoshop Express, which offers capabilities similar to its desktop equivalent: you can edit brightness, saturation, sharpness and other basic, but important, aspects of your image, with some preset filters loaded as well. The best part about this one is that the edits are non-destructive before you save it: you can revert the edits and readjust the sliders as long as you’re still in the session. Adobe Photoshop Express is available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone, and if you’re using it on a tablet with an SD card slot, you could probably use it to make minor edits on images shot on your DSLR as well.
Like any good photographer, you should avoid over-processing your images. More often than not, an overdose of filters and post-processing effects will only ruin your images: at best, it would just appear cheesy, at worst, no one will take it seriously (unless that’s your point). The best way to make good pictures is to properly take the shot itself with you in full control of the settings, and make minor adjustment only when necessary.
Share and learn
As with any field, to improve your photography you have to learn from others. With mobile photography and social media sites on the rise, learning from other people’s works becomes much easier. Instagram and VSCO host many good mobile photographers whose works you can freely see and learn from. Taking photos with a square format for Instagram is very different from taking photos with a 3:2, 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. You should see how the best mobile photographers compose or crop their shots for the square format.
Within Instagram, the most popular pictures include street photography and food photography, both of which are practiced by casual photographers and professionals alike. Regardless of whether you’re just taking pictures casually or for a living (or somewhere in between), Instagram can be a prime spot to look for these images and learn from them. Many organizations such as National Geographic operate their own Instagram accounts, from which you can find good shots for study and critique. In the case of NatGeo, some of their photographers occasionally post pictures made using smartphone cameras, and the quality of their shots rival those that they took with their own professional-grade cameras!
You should also try posting your images on the aforementioned sites and see whether it can get any sort of reaction from other users. For professional photographers, it’s important to take images that can be popular in order to satisfy clients, especially corporate clients. Keep your account public if possible, or make separate accounts for public and private consumption. Take criticism seriously but don't let it influence your emotions. Other people may be able to see what you couldn't see due to personal pride or other influences.
In the end, the various resources available to you do not mean much if you only use a small percentage of it. Smartphone photography offers you a new sense of freedom: more angles, more perspectives, more ways of shooting, and the ability to post-process your images immediately after shooting. There are also some limitations, ranging from the different image aspect ratio (if you’re posting on Instagram, you’ll be shooting in a square format), image quality and degree of control over settings. Both the restrictions and the lack of them is what makes smartphone photography truly unique, and it can provide you with fresh ideas and approaches.
If you want to really shine in smartphone photography, you’d have to be aware of all these aspects and use them to your advantage. No one needs a hundred more of cookie-cutter Instagram images; what you need is a few unique shots that really show off your skills.