IntroSensorLensFocusExposureRecordingExamplesCompare • Phones

Votives,
San Juan Capistrano, CA, 2017.
iPhone 6s
Apple 4.15mm f/2.2 (FF=29mm)
f/2.2, 1/30 sec., ISO 200

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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. (See "Selfies," below; the "face time" camera actually has a wider field of view than the main one.)

  • Top left: Huntington Beach, CA. There were at least two other people taking meaningless phone shots exactly like this. What were they thinking?
  • Top right: 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.
  • Bottom left: 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.
  • Bottom right: just a few steps away, the wide-angle view can use the street sign as a top "frame"; cars remind us that this is a busy intersection; foreground shrubbery keeps our eyes from "falling off" the bottom of the image.

Huntington Beach, staticHuntington Beach, active

PCH and Main, uninterestingPCH and Main, interesting

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.

  • Left: 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?
  • Right: 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.

Wayne in shadowWayne in light

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. Okay in bright light, but 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.

Holding the phone

Selfies

Yeah, ya gotta do'em occasionally. Have fun…

  • …and "Fight On." (Sorry if you're from Oregon or Utah; you'd need an extra arm.)

Selfie

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. The even worse news is that many of the "improvements" have more to do with marketing than they do with photographic utility.

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.

Panoramas

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 panorama 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.

Shopping mall panorama

Editing images

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.

Serra chapel

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.

  • Left: the "middle" exposure, showing what you would have gotten without the HDR function turned on.
  • Right: 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.

Patio HDR middlePatio HDR final

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