An introduction to smartphone photography

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    Smartphone cameras have taken the market by storm. So much so that many photography communities and websites are saturated almost exclusively by cell phone photographs. Instagram, for example, only allows posts from a mobile device. With this growing trend in mind, we hope to shed some light on the functions and viability of a smart phone camera. Along with that, we’ll share some basic tips for how to shoot excellent photographs with your own smartphone.

    The photos in this article are taken with a Samsung Galaxy S7, to the dismay of every iPhone user that I know.

    Accessibility

    In today’s market, a camera may cost $600 and only serve that primary function. Yet we now carry phones with cameras everywhere. Anybody with a smartphone (which comprises about 77% of the population, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center) can be a photographer. With the rise of mobile cameras and recording equipment, citizen journalism is also on the rise. Photographer Michael Christopher Brown covered the Libyan Revolution with just an iPhone, capturing a myriad of important photos that were featured in Time Magazine.

    This stands in stark contrast to some of the recent past. In the 1950s, a camera could cost approximately $70, or about $700 in today’s money. While that is still a price that still holds up, our cameras are mobile, durable, and eons ahead, technologically.

    Today, smartphones allow anybody to be a photographer. Whether on an adventure, family trip, at a concert, or even at home, you can take great pictures without dropping an extra $700 for a new camera.

    Anybody can be a photographer, and many people agree that the gear is not as important as the photograph itself. This is a great chance to find your voice as a photographer and really delve into it without making a significant investment.

    A train on a bridge over a small waterfall
    Sioux Falls, SD, is named for the winding river of falls and rapids it was built over.

    How mobiles cameras work

    Smartphone cameras work identically to DSLRs. Though the quality doesn’t quite size up, don’t let that discourage you. Smartphone cameras are consistently improving. Smartphone manufacturers contend with many limitations that come with mobility, most notably size. Unfortunately, many smartphone manufacturers are not very forthcoming with information about the sensor sizes in their phones. Different sizing conventions are used between brands, for example. To put it simply, image sensors in a smartphone are significantly smaller than on a DSLR camera. These limitations lead to some obstacles.

    What does it matter, anyways? Well, a larger sensor size enables more light to enter the camera. This allows for a wider range of colors, less noise, and significantly improved low-light performance. Since smartphones struggle to capture this light, they use backside illumination. BSI increases the amount of light captured and improves low-light performance.

    Differences between digital and optimal zoom

    Another difference is the zooming function. Digital zoom (which is on your smartphone) works the same way as cropping a photo, enlarging it from the center of the frame and cutting off the edges. Small jumps in digital zoom will have major consequences for photo quality. Optical zoom, on the other hand, works similarly to a telescope or binoculars. The focal length is increased by moving the lens further from the image sensor. This projects a smaller (but further away) view onto the sensor without sacrificing image quality. Generally speaking, don’t use your digital zoom, as you’re better off cropping the photo after the fact.

    Shooting a quality mobile picture

    Aside from some basics of composition, which includes framing, rule of thirds, compositional lines, and others, a handful of helpful tips are specific to smartphone photography.

    Selective Focus

    A grey cat named Smokey
    Selective focus is a type of framing that we discuss in an article from November.

    Using Selective Focus is great for photos of nearby objects, portraits of people, or portraits of your pets. Here is Smokey, looking dapper as ever, with a direct focus on him rather than the messy apartment behind him.

    Lighting

    A plaza of a community college at twilight, downtown Minneapolis
    Minneapolis Community and Technical College sits adjacent to Loring Park in the heart of Downtown Minneapolis.

    Smartphone cameras perform poorly in poor lighting conditions. Finding great lighting is absolutely necessary for a clear shot with dynamic colors. Here is an example of a photo in poor lighting conditions that is hard to redeem in post-processing.

    This photo, shot at twilight in downtown Minneapolis, looks fine on the screen of a mobile device. When enlarged to full size on a computer monitor, noise is visible and clarity suffers. Using any amount of digital zoom adds grain in exponential amounts, so zoom with your feet instead and move closer!

    A plaza of a community college, downtown Minneapolis
    Students typically fill this plaza during the semester.

    This similar photo, taken in the early afternoon on an overcast day, is significantly clearer. In dim situations, seek out environmental lighting whenever possible.

    Using Pro Mode on an Android phone also allows for some added options in low-light conditions. Your best choice for improving a dim photo is to slow down the shutter speed (shown on the bottom of the graphic to the right), maybe to 1/4 if the smartphone is steady enough. You may need a tripod or a sturdy place to lean when lowering the shutter speed.

    Nailing the correct White Balance also sets a smartphone photographer up for an excellent shot. Play around with these settings and see what works given the specific conditions.

    Smartphones have tons of features, use them!

    A river cuts through rock in Northern Minnesota
    The Baptism River cuts through Tettegouche State Park in Northern Minnesota.

    There are many features on today’s smartphones – use them! Panoramic shots open up to a wide scenery or can allow for some fun tricks when executed successfully.

    Share your opinions on citizen journalism, the rise of smartphone photography, or what you think of the photos shared here in our comments. You can also post your own smartphone photos onto our Facebook page.

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