‘Photography with your phone? You cannot mean it,’ some would say. And they would probably be right. We all know that photos taken with the phone do not have the same quality as photographs taken with ‘a big black camera’, as people call DSLRs.
The reason for the lower quality of the images lies in the limitations of the inbuilt camera of the phone. The sensor is smaller, which leads to more noise. The lens is short with an actual focal length of 4mm. This is associated with more distortions and greater depth of focus. In other words, you cannot blur the background. The autofocus is slow, if present at all. There is no optical zoom, etc.
Despite all these limitations, however, modern smart phones are much better both in terms of capabilities and image quality compared to the plastic cameras which were widely in use at the end of the last century. You can adjust the ISO, the white balance, you have optics with good stabilisation and light power, a choice between manual focus and autofocus. Automatic exposure adjustment. Exposure compensation.
In some respects they are even better than iconic models such as Olympus mju2 and Rollei 35.
Telephones have one great advantage over any other camera. They are always with us.
That is why I decided to test in practice what the limitations of phone cameras are and what type of photos they can be used for.
CHOOSING A PHONE
First and foremost, you have to choose the right phone. I was amazed by the wide variety of smart phone cameras on the market which have the same functions as some compact cameras or in some cases – even better capabilities. I will not mention brands and models, because this is not product advertisement. I selected a phone which has an option for RAW format in order to take the maximum of what the sensor sees and in order to have minimal loss of quality in terms of colour settings.
The other parameters of the phone are:
- 20 MP sensor
- 28mm equivalent lens with constant aperture 2.4
- optical stabilisation of the lens
- flash with three modes – on, off and auto. I keep it off almost all the time.
- ISO from 64 to 3200 plus auto
- shutter speeds from 1/1600 to 4 sec
- exposure compensation. +/- three stops
- four types of white balance, plus auto
- automatic and manual focus.
In some situations these manual settings are quite important and are an advantage which phones have over other cameras with only automatic modes.
And now, moving on to the first steps…
(The phone is a 2015 model, all the pictures in this article were taken with it. Phones today certainly have much greater capabilities.)
Shooting landscapes and static objects with your phone is in general the easy part. Especially when you have sufficient light. In this case all you have to do is compose the frame and press the button. A setback when it comes to landscape photography is in my opinion the inability to use ND filters and very slow speeds.
Let me say that if your lens limits your viewing angle and you cannot shoot the scene you want, you can shoot it in several takes which you can later stitch on your computer into a panorama, just like I did for these two photos.
ARCHITECTURE, INTERIOR AND URBAN LANDSCAPE
Maybe in this case under certain situations you will have to, because of the straight lines, correct some curves which would otherwise not be visible in a landscape photograph. With photo editing programmes today this is not a difficult task.
PORTRAITS WITH YOUR PHONE
Portrait photography with your phone is a little harder as a genre. The aim of any portrait is to focus on the face. It must be very well separated from the background. Because of the great DOF this is hard to achieve. We cannot isolate the face with defocus, which is why you will have to use other means. For example – light. Make sure that the face is well-lit while the background is in deep shadow. This will make the face stand out from the background of the picture.
If this is not an option, consider the background and its natural colours and lines. It should not be too colourful and it should not have too many objects distracting the attention of the viewer. In this way the accent of your photo will remain the human face.
Distance is also important. Shoot from close distances so that the face can fill up the greater part of the frame. In this way, because of its sheer size, it will automatically be the strongest accent in the photograph.
Shooting up close comes with certain risks from distortions and deformations which can be easily corrected with a software programme. Do not worry if on your screen the head of your model appears to be slightly elongated or shaped like a melon. You can fix things on your computer later. All that matters now is to compose the frame the way you would with a DSLR camera.
In a studio you can achieve better results more easily. You can adjust the light as you wish, you can move the lamps back and forth, up and down. Backgrounds are even, neutral and not too obtrusive. When I say ‘studio’, do not imagine a photography studio with professional equipment and many flashes. You cannot turn the flashes on with your phone. At least I have not found a way to do so. I tried to set a long shutter speed (1 second) during which time I started the flash manually. It worked, but I did not like the result well enough to share it publicly. That is why I only like to use the stand of the flash and the background. We can do this at home, too.
The next photo was taken with a single energy saving light bulb (I believe it was about 50 Watts, which is equal to a 300-400 Watt Tungsten light) bought from a regular lighting store. It was screwed in the socket of the pilot lighting so that I could use the flash stand in the studio. For all that matters, it could have been screwed in any socket in the house with the same result. The back is a paper background.
Next is a photo shot with three lamps, again continuous lighting. A key light on the left, back light on the right and a lamp in the background to bring out the object from the background.
Personally, I find that the results in a studio are interesting and satisfactory if for no other reason, then because the phone produces a different vision with its short optics. The faces are slightly deformed and cartoonish.
For the next shot, in addition to the two regular light bulbs and the paper background, I had also turned on a ventilator.
Shooting night photography with the phone is not any harder or any different compared to any other camera. Of course, you will need a tripod for this type of photography. The phone does not have a tripod mount but you can buy a holder with standard thread for mounting on a tripod which is really inexpensive. In this way the phone can be attached to any tripod. I chose a slightly more expensive telescopic one which I could set up at a height of about 1 meter and which folded could fit into the pocket of my jacket or my trousers. Carrying an actual big tripod because of your phone is simply pointless because you will lose any advantage you might have in terms of compactness.
I compensate for the lack of a remote control by using the timer function. Otherwise, any touch of the display with your finger would upset the balance of the holder and the tripod. I set the timer to 5 or 10 seconds, I select the lowest ISO setting and I shoot. If the wind is not strong, you will end up with photos like these.
Shooting reportage photography with your phone has its advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that you do not have a zoom lens. You must be close to the event. You must be literally inside the event.
In the words of Robert Capa: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’
An advantage is that when you shoot with your phone most people pay no attention. It is as if you were wearing an invisibility cloak. You save yourself the trouble of giving endless explanations, which you would inevitably have if you took out a big black camera with a grip and a lens the size of a jar.
ISO 250, S – 1/25 sec
ISO 64, S – 1/800 sec
Telephones, like most cameras with small sensors, perform relatively well when shooting macro photography because they have great DOF. Of course, they are not a substitute for a true macro lens. There are macro attachments for phones, but personally I have not yet used one.
Shooting moving objects is definitely the type of photography which is hardest to shoot with a phone. Not because it does not have fast shutter speeds. On the contrary, it has shutter speeds which are even faster than some DSLRs. However, the autofocus system is so slow that by the time the phone focuses on the object, the moment has gone. There is also an additional lag when pressing the shutter button. So, we have to take this into account and press a second or less before the ‘decisive moment;
For this type of photography I usually hold the shutter button until the buffer is full. The telephone takes two-three shots per second and fills the buffer with about 7-8 photos. I must admit that it is not the same as shooting in series with Canon EOS 5D Mark III, but it still works.
If you are standing more than 4-5 metres away from the object, you can set the manual focus to infinity. However, as we said before, you can take good photos when you are close. That is why you can either focus on some static element or you can estimate the distance visually and try to set the manual focus. It may sound hard, but let us not forget that this is how Bresson, Capa and an entire generation of photographers whose work we admire even today used to work. In fact, after the first failed attempts the results will only get better with time.
If you want to freeze your object when shooting motion, the most important thing is to manually set a fast shutter speed. And select the automatic ISO setting to compensate for any potential shortage of light. Provided that it is not too dark, of course.
Lens stabilisation gives you the opportunity to shoot without a tripod a combination of moving and static objects. The moving objects will appear blurred while the static objects will remain sharp and in focus. To achieve this effect, you must set slow shutter speeds. It should be about 1/10 or 1/15 sec. The short focal length and the stabilisation of the lens give you the chance to work without a tripod even at shutter speeds as low as 1/4 sec.
You can also use the so-called panning technique when shooting motion. In this case the speed must also be slow, around 1/20, 1/15 or 1/10 sec. Move your phone parallel to the object you are tracking and try to move the phone at the same speed as the object. Despite the movement of the phone, the object should appear in one and the same place on the screen (for example in the middle) and neither move forward, nor lag behind towards the edges of the frame.
In conclusion – with a little more attention to the specifics of the phone camera and the shooting conditions, I believe that it is possible to shoot photos which are not any worse than photos taken with the majority of cameras on the market. With the exception of some genres, like wildlife photography or sports photography, there is not a genre of photography you cannot delve into using your phone. The truth is that it requires a little more effort and a more accurate judgement of the shooting conditions than is required when you shoot with a camera.