I have a confession to make. I am not a slave to my phone, and consequently, it is not the first thing I grab to make pictures.
And I’m missing out.
That camera inside your phone, like any image making device, has strengths and weaknesses just as the photographer holding it. My weakness is not using my camera phone to its full potential. My strength is knowing some folks who do and are kind enough to help with this post.
Know Your Phone
Photojournalist and instructor Walter P. Calahan encourages students to go beyond doing just what the phone says to do. Almost all camera phones let you adjust exposure (you may want the scene darker or lighter that average for mood) and select focus. Different models have different ways of doing it (too many to go into here) but with the touch screen “you can drive the picture through your fingertips,” Calahan says.
For composition most phones have a feature to display gridlines over the screen. This helps to keep lines straight and for using the rule of thirds to place subjects of interest at the lines’ intersections rather than the middle. Of course, you’re still welcome to put a subject in the middle, but it is more effective when you know the rule and have a reason for breaking it.
Knowing the controls and abilities of your camera phone allows you to play with different formats. Yes Junior, square existed before Instagram, and panoramas don’t have to be horizontal!
The Camera You Have
The greatest strength of the camera phone is availability. The classic answer to the question “what’s the best camera to have?” is “the camera you’re more likely to take with you.”
“I like using the phone as a camera because I ALWAYS have it with me,” Director of Photography and Video and Adjunct Instructor at Baylor University Robert Rogers says. “Like a good Scout, this helps me be prepared. If you THINK like a photographer, then an iPhone can be just as effective as a “regular” camera. Yet, this fits into my pocket.”
Travel photographer and Visiting Professor at Western Kentucky University Jonathan Adams adds “It is less intimidating to people as compared to pulling out a larger DSLR camera.”
“Getting a great shot is all about being in the right place at the right time and today you always have a camera ready to capture it,” Adams says.
The form of the camera phone is not only less intimidating but the physicality of it allows you to get close to the ground or nearer the subject which would be difficult with a bulkier piece of equipment.
Calahan describes an exercise he has students do where they cover the back of the phone with a sticky note. Estimating what the camera is seeing, the students compose and shoot a picture and then take a step forward and take another shot still not being able to see the screen. Often, the second shot will be superior. Think of it as a “Bird Box” photo challenge, but a lot safer than attempting to drive a car blindfolded!
“You have to train yourself to think like a camera,” Calahan says. “The way the eye-brain combination works is not how the camera sees things.”
Keep in mind a lot of those phone photos are going to be seen on other phones so making the most out of a few inches of screen is important. The shot of the whale breaching 200 yards away isn’t going to cut it. It may be cool, but no one is going to be able to see it.
Sharing is Caring
Being able to share imagery with others immediately is a huge plus though some traditional digital cameras are incorporating that ability too.
“Recently, I traveled through Vietnam and found myself using iPhone photos more often because of the ease and immediacy of showing family back home,” Adams said. “My ‘professional’ camera was my go-to camera when I wanted the best control and quality but so far, I’ve only shared three images from that camera as compared to 50 photos and videos from my phone.”
The other huge advantage for the camera phone is the many mobile apps available to adjust and play with the image such as Snapseed, Hipstamatic and loads of others.
It’s a Camera Phone, Not a Boy Scout Pocketknife
As great as these devices are, they can’t do everything. The sensor is small, so the resolution isn’t great. Sure, your phone may have ## number of pixels, but the secret is, it ain’t all about the pixel count!
Also, the lens is fixed in a wide angle of view. Some newer phones have two lenses and there are some clip-on lenses that lend versatility, but really the best zoom is moving your feet if possible.
I am frustrated with a shot of some egrets I took during an early morning dog walk. I used the camera I had with me-my iPhone. I couldn’t get closer to the scene because it would have disturbed the birds (and my dog!). I used the digital zoom option to compose as I wanted which is a LOUSY choice.
But I have the shot and seen small it’s kinda pretty.
“Often times I use my smartphone to ‘sketch’ an image to examine and see if anything is possible.” Adams says, “If it warrants higher quality, I pull out the professional camera.”
Have Fun, It’ll Do the Rest
When talking with Robert Rogers, we were musing how consumer photography has come full circle. The ingenuity in these camera phones is remarkable. Really, all one has to do is fire it up, point, shoot and presto! Magic!
The Eastman Kodak Company gave the world the first line of consumer cameras which came preloaded with film that the buyer would then send into the company for processing for all one price. Its slogan was “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”
So, in a way, we’ve all got a Kodak in our pocket. You can concentrate on getting the shot and it’ll do the rest. Or with a little interest, knowledge, awareness and maybe an app or two, you can take your photography a little (or a lot) further with the one camera you almost always have with you.
And besides, you’ll always be ready for unexpected company.