Small devices can produce big results. I remember my first phone that had a camera feature. The images were small, grainy, poor in color…in short: pathetic. Until recently, I had never considered a smartphone camera as a “real” camera. I thought of them as a handy little device for documenting things not for any serious use. However, with the purchase of my Samsung Galaxy S8+ and the iPhone 7, I am slowly starting to have some respect for these teeny tiny little sensors and accompanying processors. There have also been great strides in noise reduction technology and display quality making any image taken by one of these marvels of technology at least ten times better than any mobile device I have ever used previously.
On a trip I took this past spring to Glacier National Park in Montana I decided to put my Samsung camera to the test and see what it could do against my Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. The first big smartphone advantage was definitely the eight-pound weight reduction off the back of my neck. Other advantages included a much larger display, the ability to see and show my images with that larger screen, being able to have HDR in one take without processing and the ability to shoot 4K video. There were some obvious drawbacks and these were drastic enough to keep my larger camera for the foreseeable future. The biggest drawback was that I was limited to one fixed lens unless I wanted to degrade the quality of the image by digitally zooming in. Then there was the smaller image size, the lack of aperture adjustment (and thus the loss of depth of field control) and the lack of RAW imaging capability. Still, I was impressed that an image from a sensor the size of a grain of rice could even begin to compete with my DSLR. After running my image through Adobe Lightroom, Google Filters (formerly NIK Filters) and resizing/cropping it in Photoshop CC I had an image worthy of competing against one taken with a professional camera system.
I believe that as cell phone technology improves we will see a progressive shift toward these smaller, lightweight alternatives to our tried and true DSLRs. Don’t get me wrong, we are not there yet but it was only thirteen years ago when I switched from film to digital. I have never looked back. With the advent of mirrorless cameras and the continual honing of smartphone technologies, I wonder how long it will be until we will see our impressive yet heavy cameras turn into digital dinosaurs. In the meantime, I have a few tips for those wishing to experiment with their smartphone cameras.
Steady as she goes: As in any existing camera system, the less the camera or you move the better the resulting image will be. If possible, brace your camera against a solid object before taking an image. I have used fence rails, trees, stone walls and even a tombstone to steady my phone before taking a shot. There are also smaller tripods available. It is good to note as well that as you push on the screen or button to focus be sure to do it gently so as not to nudge your phone and introduce movement into your image.
Focus on what you’re doing: Touching the screen on the subject of your image will indicate where you wish your camera to focus, but it does take a moment to do so. As you steady your smartphone, focus and then allow a second for it to lock on before taking your image.
Maximize your image: With the reduced size of the sensor in a smartphone camera it is more important than ever to go into your settings and increase the size of your images to the maximum possible pixel or image size. This way you will be assured of getting the best chance of obtaining an image you will be proud to show off. Remember that you will probably want to crop that image and that you will want to sharpen and do color adjustments as well. Because RAW files are not yet widely available for smartphone cameras all images will be reduced in size and saved as Jpegs even before you process them. Therefore, give your self the advantage of having all the data you can to work with by setting your image size to maximum.
Use HDR: HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and basically uses multiple images taken at the same time which are identical except for exposure. These images are then compressed into one composite image with detail in all the tonal ranges from light to dark. What this all means is that you will have the best possible exposure on your image. There are times, however, when using HDR is not the best option. Night time photography, tracking a moving target, taking multiple images while panning or taking images of something that does not have a consistent light level (such as fireworks) do not work well with HDR. In those circumstances, select another mode appropriate to your situation.
Set your white balance to automatic: As with your larger cameras, white balance is an important part of obtaining that perfect image. Think of the difference in the way light looks between a moody sunset image and an image of a bright winter snowscape. The color of the light in an image takes the viewer from seeing just a flat photo to feeling the mood you are trying to convey. I have experimented with using the Pro mode (the settings adjustment for manual controls) and it does make a noticeable difference in the color of the light in the image, however, I prefer to balance my color in Lightroom or Photoshop during post processing. I lose a slight amount of image quality because I am processing a Jpeg image but the results definitely outweigh the slight degradation of the image. I tend to get better results when I can see my image on a larger screen. For that reason, I choose to leave my white balance set to automatic.
Don’t throw out what you have learned: The rules for getting a great image for DSLRs or smartphone cameras are basically the same. Use the rule of thirds (some models even have the option to turn on a grid), watch out for distracting items on your edges and corners, leave room for your subject to walk through the image, etc. Though I will say that several of the newest Samsung and iPhone models have taken on a slightly different aspect ratio than on previous smartphone models. This will change some of your image balancing techniques unless you are wanting to crop the image in post processing and plan for this while taking your image.
No flashing: Unless you are taking images of someone close up with a bright background behind them, don’t even consider using your flash. Aside from using the LED on your smartphone as an emergency flashlight the light from your smartphone is at best minimal for photographic purposes and will not help most images. In fact, it can actually make them look worse. Using the flash throws off the exposure of your image in a negative way for most images.
To zoom or not to zoom: Smartphone cameras utilize a fixed lens or even a couple of fixed lenses. Because of this, the only way to get closer to a subject is move toward your subject or digitally zoom. Moving toward your subject on the screen is only possible with a fixed sensor if fewer pixels are utilized. In essence, the camera fools you into thinking you are zooming in on your image when actually you are focusing on a smaller area of the sensor panel. As your image gets smaller more noise is being introduced. In other words, it will be a poorer quality image. For a better result, crop your image during post processing.
Keep things clean: Just like your DSLR, your attention to keeping your lens clean will keep your images looking as sharp as possible. For reviewing your image afterwards, you should also keep a lens wipe for your screen. It is amazing the amount of lint that can gather the number of fingerprint smears that can accumulate on your camera and screen carrying the phone around with you.
Just read it: Being a man myself, I realize how difficult it is to admit I cannot just pick up a new device and immediately know how everything works. I have found out though that there actually is some benefit to listening to instructions, so long as they are not directions from my wife. Read it and don’t weep…
No light at the end of the photo: Be watchful of having a bright light, such as the sun, in your image. The camera will not know what to do with the range of contrast and will more than likely ruin your image. Also, you might even damage that teeny, tiny grain of rice they call a sensor.
No rear photos: The front camera on your smartphone always has the largest sensor and therefore the highest resolution. Use the best camera for the best chance of getting your image and leave the rear facing camera for selfies of you and your favorite super hero.
Take it all in: I have been impressed with how well my smartphone can take a panoramic image. There are times when I am out and about and carrying my DSLR is not an option. I still take my smartphone with me and I have had a blast trying out new settings. One of these is the panorama setting. I have taken some fantastic panoramas with my Samsung and I did it all without having to stich any images together in post processing. True, they are smaller in size but very nice images. Give it a try!
Move your pictures: Don’t forget that your smartphone is not only a still camera but also a video camera. I mention this feature because it has a distinct advantage to documenting habitats, vocalizations and behavior of wildlife to help with identification and further understanding your subject.
If nothing else, I hope you have been inspired to try something new with your smartphone. You are carrying it around anyway so why not play with it a bit. Have fun with your settings, try getting closer to your subject, get a fresh perspective you may not have been able to get with a larger camera and just have fun! See you in the field!