When getting into photography, the biggest question people always have is what camera to buy. With thousands of camera options out there and even more for lenses, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, you probably already have a sort of camera, and as the adage goes: “the best camera is the one that you have with you.” While there’s not much you can change about the physical hardware inside your smartphone, there’s much you can do to improve the quality of your mobile shots.
The Benefits of Smartphone Photography
Although it’s easy to get wrapped up in the hype surrounding high-end DSLRs, there are often huge advantages to shooting on your phone.
For times when you’re on the move or navigating through tight spaces, having your expensive DSLR in hand might be more trouble than it's worth. For example, during our fall 2017 Joshua Tree retreat, many members chose to forgo their big camera set ups to shoot on mobile in order to make navigating the large rock faces easier.
Smartphone manufacturers have been getting increasingly creative in finding ways to improve their camera hardware, and the gap between DSLRs and smartphones is closing quickly.
For example, the blurry-background effect (bokeh) once exclusive to DSLRS has been replicated by almost every smartphone manufacturer in the last year, with the iPhone, Galaxy Note8, OnePlus 5T, Essential Phone, and Google Pixel all implementing some version of ‘Portrait Mode’.
With the obvious size limitations of a smartphone camera, smartphone makers are also looking to emerging technologies to continue pushing the envelope of photo quality. One recent development has been the ‘dual pixel’ sensors pioneered by Google and Samsung. These sensors give the phone an increased ability to detect depth and detail. While DSLRs might adapt this technology in the future, for now it is exclusive to smartphones.
This new hardware would not work without software there to put it all together, and huge strides have been made in developing advanced photo processing software. The software that drives Google’s Pixel’s portrait mode works to recognize and classify objects in each photo, then blur the area outside of those objects. This same technology later allows you to search your library for photos containing certain objects.
Other companies have focused on developing more artistic photo processing software such as Apple's panorama mode, portrait mode, or studio lighting mode, which feature effects that many DSLRs can’t match.
Getting the most out of your smartphone
Setting up your shot
Clean your lens - Your phone travels with you everywhere and gets covered with all kinds of fingerprints, dust, and dirt. Clean it before you use it!
Turn on HDR (if you have it) - High Dynamic Range (or HDR for short) takes shots at multiple exposures and compiles them into one image, decreasing over-exposure of bright elements in your photos
Use your feet - Your best zoom lens will be your feet and walking around can actually help you find a better angle that you might not have found before. Remember, they’re called mobile phones for a reason, and there are many positions you can get into with a smartphone that you can’t with a big camera.
Consider adding your own light - Every high-end smartphone on the market probably comes with its own built-in flash, but borrowing a smartphone and adding light from a different angle can create a dramatic effect not possible with built-in flash.
Taking the photo
While native camera apps often have intuitive and clean interfaces, they usually lack the manual controls that third party camera apps can provide.
For the Apple App Store, the ProCam app offers an incredibly broad suite of adjustments, including ISO, shutter speed, focal length, and white balance. It then allows you to save the file in a RAW format and includes its own HDR feature. While pricey for a phone app, its $5.99 price tag is reasonable compared to what you would spend on a DSLR.
For those on Android, the Camera FV-5 app seems to have similar functionality.
There are hundreds of apps for editing mobile photos in post, but here are my favorites:
Snapseed - This is the most popular photo editing app for iPhone and there’s a good reason why. Snapseed is a completely free app and is packed with tons of great features including selective adjustment (adjust levels of just part of a photo), dodge/burn/exposure/etc. brushes, and a really smart HDR filter. If you’re going to get just one editing app, get this one!
VSCO - A staple among entry-level editors, VSCO has loads of great color adjustment filters that can help you fine-tune your ‘aesthetic’ for your photos.
Hujifilm - This app is more of an ‘emulator’ than a real editor, but Hujifilm has gained a cult-like following for creating images that look like they’re straight out of an old disposable camera (even complete with the timestamp!).
The lens limitations of smartphone cameras have created an industry of aftermarket lens attachments, with zoom, macro, and fisheye being the most popular types sold. These lenses tend to work okay for these specific applications, but to me the idea of carrying around a set of lenses to put on your smartphone negates the very advantage of mobile photography: that of a light, portable, and simple way of taking photos. If you're not interested in carrying around the extra weight, don't fear! As you can see, mobile photography can be just as Instagram-worthy as an actual DSLR.