Photographic Image Quality:
Mobile phone photography
You can buy a $3,500 top-of-the-line camera and equip it with a $1,500 top-of-the-line 24mm lens. Set it to fully automatic operation, and you will have (for most practical purposes)—a 3½ pound, $5,000 phone camera that won't make phone calls.
▸ If you want to do wildlife or sports photography, portraiture, or other specialized tasks, you'll still need a separate camera with an appropriate selection of lenses (see earlier pages). But in today's busy world, you may increasingly rely on your mobile phone for much of your everyday shooting. You'll get the best results if you use it like you would the $5,000 rig—here are some tips.
Practice "seeing" in wide-angle perspective
Your phone camera has almost twice the field of vision that your eyes do, so close objects will appear much closer—and middle-to-distant objects will appear much farther away—than you see them "live." Close-up people may appear to have gained weight; very close shots will make for fat faces and big noses.
Static: Huntington Beach, CA. There were at least two other people taking meaningless phone shots exactly like this. What were they thinking?
Active: now we've got some interesting activity, with the pier in the background to provide context. If the volleyball players are your friends, you could move closer and improve the composition. These two shots were cropped with the Photos app; see "Editing images" below.
Boring: Pacific Coast Highway and Main St., the heart of downtown Huntington Beach. Static view, nothing to see in the bottom half of the image. Ugly post in the middle, background street shrinks to irrelevance.
Interesting: just a few steps away, the wide-angle view can use the street sign as a top "frame"; cars fill the middle distance; foreground light pole and shrubbery emphasize the depth of this image.
Tell a story with the image alone
That $5,000 (or $2,000) camera will give you almost unlimited versatility, but it will not give you "better" pictures. Most of your phone images will be about people (or pets); people and pets don't just stand around in a row staring at a camera.
Ho-hum. Sunday supper with my friends the Harrisons. I actually had to convince everyone to stop "posing" and get back to work serving the plates—but it still looks posed and uncomfortable.
Wow! Needs no caption. Thanks to my friends John Sweet and Christine Aiello, from Facebook; this will be a life-long treasure for them.
Lighting is important
Other than your phone's built-in flash (which I won't discuss here), you're "stuck" with whatever lighting is available. Sometimes it only takes a slight change of camera or subject position to improve the shot dramatically.
Shadow: my colleague Dr. Wayne Dick working on a display adapted for low-vision readers. Taken from where I was sitting; how many of these do you see every day on social media?
Light: all I had to do was get up and stand on the other side to get gorgeous soft light from the window. Notice that Wayne is just far enough away from the camera to reduce wide-angle distortion in this portrait.
Keep the camera steady
Interchangeable-lens cameras are generally held close to the eye, or—with a tilt-screen monitor—close to the body. In either case, your arms are "locked" into your sides. The ILC is heavier and more intrinsically stable, and will have image stabilization built into the body, the lens, or both. A modern phone camera will also have some degree of built-in IS, but it still requires more attention to prevent blurred images, especially in lower light conditions.
- Left: the most commonly seen—and least stable—way to hold the phone. Tough to see in bright light, and susceptible to finger-in-the-image shots.
- Center: try this, with upper arms held against the body. Your other hand might even provide some shade for the screen in bright sun.
- Right: rock solid in any light. There are dozens of clips, mini-tripods, and other pocketable gizmos that will do the same thing. Set on a ledge, hold against a pole, clamp to the car window. If you don't have a wireless release, use the self-timer.
Explore more of the camera's features
The good news is that mobile phone cameras are sophisticated beyond even the best "big" cameras of a few years ago. The bad news is that they are getting even more sophisticated so quickly that this year's phone is outdated by next year's model—or by the competitor's newer model next month.
▸ As of this writing, my (outdated) iPhone 6s offers regular video as well as time-lapse and slow-mo, plus a slightly goofy "live mode" 3-second video clip along with a standard photo. It will also shoot pre-cropped square pictures and allow you to pre-process any image in black-and-white or other "tones." I've picked three more features—which may be less well known— to discuss below.
Most recent phone cameras have this capability. The trick is to rotate the camera slowly and consistently from left to right, keeping it basically aimed in the same plane. Unlike the panoramas on our Examples page, this one doesn't require any post-processing or specialized software to "stitch" together a number of separate images.
- Below: shopping mall interior. The maximum width for this camera is 240°, although there are apps that will go full-circle. Camera movement can be an actual "pan" instead of on-axis rotation. This one was hand-held; image stabilization worked amazingly well.
Professional post-processing software can be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming—but newer phones have some of the same capabilities already built in. Look at your image and think about how it might be improved by a quick bit of editing—before you tap "post."
- Left: Serra chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano, as shot. It's slightly tilted, and the expanse of floor in front simply distracts from the main subject: the Spanish baroque retablo.
- Right: edited with built-in app. The minute I tapped the "crop" button, the vertical lines were automatically rectified; from there, cropping and a bit of extra contrast were the only changes.
High dynamic range (HDR)
The HDR concept is explained in more detail on our "Exposure" page. In brief: multiple exposures (above and below the "normal" one) are combined to provide more detail than would be possible in a single shot. The iPhone will let you keep the middle one in addition to the processed version. As with panoramas, no external software or processing is needed. This example purposely features a contrast range that is extremely difficult to represent adequately.
The "middle" exposure, showing what you would have gotten without the HDR function turned on.
The processed multi-exposure image. We can see a slight improvement in the shadows, and a slight "taming" of the highlights to the right of the lion's head. Verdict: traditional methods would work better here.