Mar 4, 2009
I love camphones. I love “real” cameras, too – I own and regularly use a number of digital and analogue cameras including a Nikon D80, a Canon IXUS, a Holga 120N and a Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim. But the camera in my phone is always with me, and as a result, over the years I’ve found myself using it a lot to capture odd and interesting things spotted during my daily commute and everyday life.
Because some of the most interesting things which we come across in our daily lives aren’t pre-planned or anticipated, the camera in our phones is sometimes the only way of capturing an image, even though it can be very frustrating in terms of quality and available functionality. That makes it even more important to know how to get the best out of the tool which happens to be at your disposal.
I don’t claim to be an expert in mobile photography, but I do take a lot of pictures, and some of my mobile photos are among the most viewed in my Flickr photostream, precisely because I was able to capture something fleeting and interesting, but didn’t have the “proper” equipment.
The photo below, for example, wasn’t taken with an iPhone, but with my rather pedestrian Nokia 6230i, on the tube from Heathrow one afternoon. It now regularly appears (without attribution, I should point out – *seethe*) in those emailed/blog collections of “trick photography” or “neat optical illusions” or whatever, alongside others posed intentionally and taken using decent kit.
The thing about this photo is that if I’d used a “proper” camera, it would have undoubtedly have caused too much attention, and would have spoilt the composition. As it was, I was only able to get this picture by holding the camphone at a most strange angle by my face (perhaps the other passengers thought I was very short sighted, and just reading a text message?) but the crucial thing is that this photo simply couldn’t have been captured in such a spontaneous way without a piece of photographic capturing kit which enabled spontaneity: A cameraphone.
Anyway, with that in mind, I thought I’d share my tips for squeezing decent photos out of your iPhone, with examples where I have them – please add your own tips in the comments if you think I’ve missed something!
A quick note on brand/make/model: Although I had Nokia phones for a long time, I’ve now got an Apple iPhone 3G, which comes with a rather feeble 2megapixel camera. It’s worth noting that even though these tips mostly apply to taking photos with an iPhone, the majority of the tips could also apply to camphones from other manufacturers. YMMV.
- Embrace constraints.
The iPhone camera is limited. Really limited. That being said, it can do some things well, so recognise and accept that you’re never going to squeeze incredible shots with vibrant colours and awesome depth of field in low light out of it. Take loads of photos until you figure out what it does well, and then play with the strengths you know it has. For example:
- The iPhone is good at contrast, so you can use that to your advantage
- The focal point is a minimum of 12″ away, so don’t bother trying to take closeups (unless you have a macro adaptor, and even then YMMV.)
- The way a shot is exposed sometimes takes a couple of seconds to settle down, so let the image catch up before you click the shutter. Plus, poor exposure can sometimes be “reset” by pointing the lens at something dark and then moving it gradually to the subject you want to capture.
Of course, you can also exploit this weakness to take photos where the foreground is deliberately underexposed.
- Compose creatively.
Like any camphone, the iPhone copes poorly with strong, direct light, and bright, grey skies (like the ones we have in the UK most of the year) will often bleed into the image or cause the rest of the shot to be underexposed. You can counteract this by cutting the sky out of the frame entirely, and composing to fill the frame with something else of interest. Patterns are good. Strong lines are good.
Cutting light sources out of the composition also forces you to use interesting angles, which can be a good way of capturing patterns or objects isolated from their surroundings. Work the angles. Look up. Look down. Get down low and shoot upwards, or hold the phone up high or at a strange angles to get shots from interesting perspectives.
Camphone photos can also look very flat and/or cluttered because of their deep focal range – everything is in focus – so sometimes it’s worth looking around to see if you can find something to put in the foreground of the image, or lead the eye into the scene, or isolate the subject by choosing a plain or non-cluttered background.
- Be prepared.
I would dearly love to have the option to use one of the volume rocker buttons – actual buttons which give physical feedback – as a shutter button for the iPhone camera, because the placement and behaviour of the shutter release is, frankly, rubbish.
However, some of the worst of it can be compensated by a very simple modification in how you take the photo. In fact, probably the most useful thing to know about the iPhone camera is that the capture doesn’t happen when you press the button, but when you take your finger off it. By composing the shot while you have your finger on the shutter button, and then taking it off to capture, you’re more likely to reduce camerashake when you take the photo, and more likely to capture the moment you want (bearing in mind there’s a slight lag).
It’s also worth noting that the camera is much more stable when you hold it horizontally: so rather than holding it the way most things on the phone are oriented, like this:
(please excuse shit photoshop skillz and terrible GCSE drawing style – that’s a hand, not a claw)
…which means you’re holding the phone in a very unstable way, with no support for most of it, contributing to camerawobble when you press the shutter.
Try instead getting into the habit of holding it more like a game controller, like this:
…which is much more stable, and means your right thumb can comfortably grip the shutter button until release.
- Colour is your friend.
One thing the iPhone camera does do well, despite its shortcomings, is colour. It is absolutely horrible in low light – grainy and dull and pretty underwhelming – but it can rock hard in the right light. If it’s too sunny, colours can bleach out and contrast is lost. If it’s too dull or too late in the afternoon, it gets very grainy. The best conditions seem to be bright, rainy days – and thankfully we get loads of those in the UK.
Finding compositions which make the most of juicy, bright saturated colours and strong contrast, together with interesting patterns or focal points, can make for a really good shot (for an iPhone, anyway).
There are some great apps for the iPhone which are extremely valuable in helping to turn OK shots into really interesting ones, or helping you to capture images you wouldn’t otherwise be able to manage.
My top three are:
- Camerabag. This app enables you to either take or convert photos as if using a range of toy cameras. There are various filters, which do quite a good job of holga-ification and lomofication, among other mimicry (there’s also one which makes your pictures look like they were taken in 1963, and an Ansel Adams BW-ification filter). The results can’t be played around with at all, but they when they work, they can be extremely effective.
- Quadcamera. This app works a bit like a Lomo action sampler, taking a series of shots in quick (user-set) succession, applying a stylistic filter and then stitching them together as a single image. Great for shots which tell a story, or benefit from a sequence to reveal action, or Hockneyesque panoramas.
- Pano. Because sometimes you just want to be able to take panoramic images, don’t you?
Of course, the other way of cheating is to use photo-processing software to tweak your images. Let’s face it: even the most incredible software isn’t going to rescue a dire low resolution camphone shot, but it’s worth trying the following things to see if you can give your image a little boost:
- Increase saturation slightly
- Boost blacks or adjust levels to enhance shadows slightly
- Add a touch of fill-light or brightness to compensate for the overall darkening of the image
- If you can, adjust contrast/clarity to bring out edge detail
- Try making the image black and white – sometimes removing the colour can help an image to feel less cluttered and you can play more with tones and shadows.
Basically, my theory is: if it works for toy cameras, then it probably works for camphones. They are, after all, much the same in many ways: fixed focus, limited functionality, prone to odd quirks and benefit from familiarity and experimentation.
Some more of my favourite iPhone shots, using the techniques described above: