Cell phones are incredibly powerful image making devices these days, if you only know how to use them. Steve Thomas exposes the magic of mastering the humble smartphone.
It never ceases to amaze me how much snobbery there still is when it comes to cell phone photography. In reality, the majority of people would struggle to tell the difference between a photo taken with the latest iPhone and a photo taken with a good mirrorless camera, especially when it comes to viewing them on the small screens of the iPhone. devices that now seem to rule our lives.
Yes, I’m a professional photographer and have been filling the pages of this and countless other magazines around the world for 30 years, and I use “big” cameras for most of my professional work.
That said, I also use a cell phone camera almost every day, and the images I shoot with it are more than good enough to fill the same space in magazines, even if there are certain situations where a more serious rig is required.
The beauty of a mobile device is a bit cliché: we always have them with us, they are usually in our pockets every time we drive away. Of course, that means we can capture any improvised image we come across along the way, be it from the side of the road.
This is not the case with larger camera systems; unless you’re really serious, they’re just too much of a hassle, and you could have gotten the shot of that kangaroo chasing your partner before you even had the time to get a special camera out of the pouch.
Add to that the amazing all-in-one processing and placement power of a mobile device and in a minute you can have that great ride photo edited and posted online, which is hard to match with a bigger camera and computer.
There are caveats, though: it’s really not just a matter of point and snap, or at least not if you want to get good results. As with regular photography, or anything else in life, you need to take the time and effort to learn the skills and operation of these devices.
The best camera
My advice here is not to worry about the camera – use what you have and work with it. Pretty much all mobile devices of the recent model have very good cameras, and in most cases it’s actually the processing power of the phone that adds that extra bit of wizardry.
In general, the newer the phone is, the better the camera is, plus the more lens options and the more processing power it will all take to get better images.
But in the end, it’s still largely up to the photographer, and even older models like the iPhone 4 still take award-winning photos rather than newer ones.
There was a big jump in capabilities with the iPhone 7, and it’s gotten better in low-light situations since then (but no phone will take great low-light photos, and let’s face it, we mostly use them in daylight for bike shots ).
Personally, I use an iPhone 12 Mini because I like to keep things as small and as small as possible. The camera has 2 main cameras, which have been invaluable, and if you can afford a 2-3 camera model, all the better. Still, I certainly wouldn’t pay a crazy price for that; I prefer to work with what I have. Fewer choices keep it simple.
I’ve stuck with iPhones because I’ve long invested in the iOS system, although there are some great Android devices around, some with better cameras for certain situations. But. after all, they all have small sensors (some a little bigger than others) and so the extra megapixels they tout are often crammed into that tiny sensor and aren’t really relevant to most of us, and by the time you’ve paid for it, there will be a newer model anyway.
The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is a great but expensive camera phone (with 5 cameras and a large number of megapixels), as is the Google Pixel 6 Pro (with a main camera of 50 megapixels), and the latest iPhone 13 is potentially the best of the lot , even with its low 12 megapixel cameras.
The bottom line is that the whole package fits your needs, and chasing the latest and greatest cell phones is a surefire way to melt your credit card, when taking the time to learn and practice the skills is free.
Use it as you mean it
The first step in taking better phone photos is to see it as a real camera and not just a phone. Slow down and catch your breath, clean your lens and hold the phone still with both hands and shoot like you would if it were a bigger camera.
Compose the image and then grab your focus by touching the screen. Expose to preserve highlight detail (usually keeping the sky and detail in it). This is usually accomplished by touching a gray or midtone area of the screen until the exposure is more or less even and then holding to lock it.
On most phones, the exposure also changes by sliding your finger left or right on the screen (manual control apps are also available). The HDR mode on newer phones is good at dealing with these contrasting lighting situations. If possible, try to avoid extreme lighting such as large white skies and very shady areas.
Lighting is very important, so try to keep the sun behind you, or better yet, get to the subject. Of course, morning and evening light is best for any photography, so use it if you can.
Avoid using the digital zoom option – it just cuts into the scene and reduces the image resolution (aside from a few more expensive new phones).
Many phones now come with multiple cameras and focal lengths, which are really worth the extra cost. Their wide-angle cameras are great for large landscapes with a rider in them, as well as shooting POVs from the saddle.
When taking pictures, don’t just take one picture; try a few compositions and different exposures just like you should with a regular camera
Mobile composition should be approached in the same way as with any other camera, although you do have to keep in mind that you don’t have an aperture control for depth of field to blur backgrounds.
Good composition (and light) is what really sets a great image apart from a snapshot, and thinking about the scene and taking the time to find the best composition is essential.
There’s the old photographic “rule of thirds” that is more or less based on dividing your images into third parties. When it comes to a bike image it generally means the rider is off center and trying to split your screen so you have something along the lines of the rider on 1/3 of the screen, preferably the sky and the ground to keep proportions even.
It’s always good to try and show the rider when coming in or out of a “lead lines” scene rather than going straight on or from behind. If you can show a path or road leading to a scene and the rider coming in or out, that’s ideal. It draws you into the picture and gives you the feeling of being there.
It’s also always worth putting your phone upright, as vertical images have a completely different feel. Vertical is also more favorable for scenes where you want a better view of the rider. This format is also more popular on Instagram (although Instagram crops the image a bit to allow for a little more space).
For action shots, always use burst mode and remember that you don’t always need to see the entire rider or cyclist in the image – a close-up action shot can add a lot of drama and mystery to a photo.
Capture the action
Phones from more recent models usually have excellent autofocus and tracking, making them pretty good for action shots. Still, you should always try to touch and lock the pre-focus before shooting and then move with the subject (if they move across your scene rather than towards or away from you). Keep the motion smooth while panning and before shooting, make sure you see what’s on either side of your frame to avoid obstacles.
You will be amazed at what is possible with the right skills and a little extra input.
Manual Photography Apps
There are tons of dedicated camera apps out there that give you more manual control over your photography to make the exposure more accurate.
These apps usually also allow RAW/DNG recording (unprocessed by phone), leaving more room for post-processing – to be honest I don’t find that much wiggle room compared to a standard JPEG, so I personally shoot that format all the time a mobile phone.
My go to shooting app is Filmic Firstlight (Free for basic features / $12.99 for)
the pro version for both iOS and Android), but that’s mainly for the filters.
Any serious photographer out there will process their photos. Snapseed is a free app for iOS & Android and is arguably the best and easiest to use.
Play around and learn the features. It will make a huge difference to your final photos, but make sure you don’t go OTT with the processing.
There are several other apps that do the same job like Lightroom Mobile, Photoshop Express, but Snapseed is free and easy to use, which is hard to beat.
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