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Learning to get Better Photographs from your Smartphone

October 22, 2013

It seems that these days, thanks to the Smartphone, everyone’s a photographer. Smartphone cameras are becoming more prolific than conventional point and shoot cameras and their quality is improving all the time. The latest versions offer 41 megapixel sensors, unheard of even 2 years ago. Smartphone pictures are used to keep in touch with family and friends both locally and overseas. In business, they can show potential purchases such as houses,cars or products and pass visual ideas on to customers. Nightly news bulletins often feature reports shot on Smartphones and reporters use them to transmit recordings and videos. They are truly pocket miracles.

PansiesTheir availability is undisputed. I maintain the best camera is the one you have with you when a photo opportunity appears. Most people have their phones with them when they’re out and about. It is stating the obvious, but the Smartphone’s attraction relies on a few more factors. I’ve mentioned ready availability, but equally important is compact size, portability, simplicity, speed and ease of use. Most important is connectivity; the ability to share instantly. Provided you have a 3G, 4G or wireless connection, your images are available to send worldwide instantly. This can be done via email, instant messaging or via a photo sharing site such as Instagram, Flickr, SmugMug, Dropbox etc. For multiple sharing, pictures can be uploaded via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Linkedin to name just a few.Eyes Have iIt

As a teacher, the simplicity of a Smartphone can also be its major weakness. You are dealing with a fixed focal length, wide-angle lens with a single aperture, a small sensor and an LED that serves as a flash. The Smartphone is today’s equivalent of a Box Brownie camera. If these features were only offered in a camera, even a simple, inexpensive one, it wouldn’t sell, but because it is integrated into a versatile package with many other functions, they sell like hotcakes, in the billions.Hosier Lane

Let’s look at how you can overcome many of the Smartphone’s limitations.

Fixed Focal Length Lens The way you get good photos from any single focal length wide-angle lens is to use the ‘two foot zoom.’ Take two steps forward to fill the frame. I can’t stress it often enough. Regardless of the camera, but particularly with Smartphones, you must fill the frame. You are dealing with a limited number of tiny pixels, so crop in the camera while shooting, not afterwards.Converted Jeans

Wide-angle Lens By definition, a wide-angle lens gives you more picture area than a normal or telephoto lens when you’re standing at the same distance from the subject. In Smartphones they distort, but give a wide field of view and are more resistant to motion blur than a telephoto lens.Station Pier

Single Aperture Conventional digital cameras use a variable aperture to cope with changing light. It can be opened or closed manually or automatically. A big aperture for low light and a small one for brighter light. Aperture is a relative measurement which takes into account focal length and sensor size. Without getting too technical, there is a secondary effect of aperture; depth of field. This is defined as the amount of sharpness in front of and behind the focus area. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field i.e. with smaller apertures, there is greater front to back sharpness.

However because small apertures let in less light, the shutter has to remain open longer to get sufficient exposure i.e. slow shutter speed. This slow shutter speed can give rise to blur either from camera shake or subject movement.

Smartphone designers have to design the single aperture to work in bright sunlight as well as indoors with low light. Their decisions are always a compromise. They compensate for low light by making the cameras sensor, more light-sensitive. This in turn generates digital noise, seen as loss of detail and grain in photos.

Most Smartphone apertures are around ƒ2.4 which although wide in camera terms, in combination with the small sensor, effectively gives a smaller aperture, thus allowing good depth of field and reasonable indoor low light performance. However, once light levels drop below a certain level, there is always a digital flash which can help brighten the picture.Trouble in Mind

Small Sensor As I previously mentioned, the sensor which Smartphones use to record the image, is quite small. Sensors use photosensitive pixels. These are packed tightly together in the millions, hence the sensor measurement; megapixel. Smartphone manufacturers use high megapixel values to sell phones, but when they’re clustered too tightly, you get sharpness in good light but at the cost of more noise in lower light. The current sensors are extremely good, but to get the best out of them, you need to work within their limitations.

LED Flash Current Smartphones feature white LEDs to serve as flashes to help counteract low light levels. They are adequate, but only if you really need the shot and have no option. It is far better to seek brighter light if possible. The latest iPhone 5S features two LEDs one a different colour to compensate for the yellow effects of indoor lighting.

Tech Talk is Boring. How do I get better shots?
All this technical explanation serves to do is try to explain how great a job the Smartphone designers and manufacturers do when they produce their products. As with computers, you don’t have to know how they are designed, or work to use one. However with Smartphones, you need to understand their limitations to get the results you want.Dandelion (1 of 1)-pola

This involves a lot of testing, but not when the shot of a lifetime presents itself, only when the results don’t matter.

  1. Being aware of low light. You can test your Smartphone camera by simply taking shots at varying light levels and examining the results. You will see that in low light the images can be blurry, noisy or both. The amount you can accept is the low light limitation.
  2. Fill the Frame. Here it comes again. Move closer! You are using a small sensor with limited detail. If you want a close-up of a flower or a portrait, don’t stand back hoping to be able to crop the photo later. People’s expectations have been built up unrealistically to believe ‘Photoshop will fix it.’ Even professionals take bad shots and need to use Photoshop, but if you avoid problems in the first place, your results will be far better and instantly available.
  3. Hold Steady. The Smartphone shutter is generally triggered via the touchscreen. If you jab at it, the camera moves and your pictures will be blurry. You can use one of the volume buttons as the shutter release, but few people do. Practice.
  4. Process your Pictures Processing involves adding a tiny bit of finesse to your shots. I am old enough to have been forced to sit through interminable slide shows of relatives holidays. Endless numbers of boring overexposed, out of focus shots with a droning commentary from the offending relative. Statements such as “See Auntie Jean behind that tree in the background?” “That was such a lovely sunset, the shot’s blue, but you should have been there.” Fortunately processing was expensive, film had 36 exposures and that served to limit the torture.
    No longer! After the initial investment, you can shoot as much rubbish as you want and display it on a big screen TV accompanied by music. You can show hours of endless and boring photos. The point I am making is CULL YOUR IMAGES. Shoot lots, but edit them and only save the best. I like to process mine which at the minimum, involves exposure and colour correction, sharpening and cropping. It makes a dramatic difference and helps maintains your friendships.

Training
People aren’t naturally good at photography. The Smartphone camera is easy to use badly. There is no substitute for training. You can buy numerous books and magazines on digital photography. Many can be downloaded into your phone or tablet for convenient reference. A Smartphone is really only a communication device with an integrated camera so the rules of composition and lighting all apply equally.

You can also do various workshops sponsored by adult education or local councils. I am running a day workshop in conjunction with Manningham Arts in Melbourne on November 17th. It will be an hands-on, interactive class and we will be covering all aspects of Smartphone photography. It will be suitable for beginners, or more experienced photographers and should be a fun day. There will be plenty of time for questions and plenty of demonstrations on how to tackle various subjects plus processing using apps and sharing images.Smartphone-Photography-WShop

Smartphone Photography WShop Sml

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