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Are Smartphones A Serious Photographic Tool? Photographer John Duder Has Mixed Opinions...

Rather than taking photos with his smartphone, John Duder has always believed that he should take a 'real camera' with him but after a recent holiday, does he still think this way? Let's find out.

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A panoramic view of Symi. Initially impressive (especially the ‘phone’s tendency to want to cover a full 360 degrees, but look closely, and the pixels are obvious.

A panoramic view of Symi. Initially impressive (especially the smartphone's tendency to want to cover a full 360-degrees, but look closely, and the pixels are obvious.)

 

Shoot on the move

One of the current hot topics in the Critique Gallery (and wherever photographers gather) is whether mobile phones are a serious photographic tool.

Up until now, the articles I’ve written here have been from the knowledge I already have, for the most part - a couple have required looking a reference up, or checking a quotation.

This article is a new departure because I began it having a very strong view that I would always rather carry a 'real camera' with me than use my mobile.

The interwebs credit Chase Jarvis with saying that ‘the best camera, is the one you have with you’, though I’m sure that someone must have said something similar well before he was born in 1971. Maybe even William Henry Fox Talbot… And yes, both I and the Microsoft Word spellchecker reckon that quote shouldn’t have a comma in it!

So I’ve set about challenging my own preconceptions, finding out how to work around the drawbacks I perceive – and taking some pictures with my mobile, the camera I have with me even more of the time than my Alpha 7.

And, as my wife consistently took the Mickey out of me on Rhodes, because of my past attitude to smartphone photography, I realised that the first time I saw someone adopting a mobile as a camera was on our first trip there; a young couple in the same party were travelling light, shooting their snaps on their iPhones, and probably posting to Facebook weeks before we clobbered our family and friends with hundreds of prints. The world is changing…

1	The end of a meal at a Greek fish restaurant. Processed in Snapseed, and giving a look that’s very similar to my favourite Photoshop plugin, Nik Efex.

The end of a meal at a Greek fish restaurant. Processed in Snapseed, and giving a look that’s very similar to my favourite Photoshop plugin, Nik Efex.

 

Pros and cons

Apart from the fact that you will have it in your pocket or bag, a mobile offers at least a couple of advantages as you can post the picture on social media and other websites immediately, and the very short focal length gives an impressive depth of field. Plus, you can take a quick snap and text or email it to a friend/relative for an instant opinion on new clothes or furniture.

But… The list of problems in my head is far longer: the lack of a viewfinder and the associated lack of stability, the difficulty of adjusting settings, the way that you are stuck with a single lens (unless you pay a great deal for the device) and that same impressive depth of field (which prevents selective focus). Ultimately, all of these mean that you won’t get as much quality as you would from even the most basic DSLR or CSC.


Blinded by the light

The biggest problem with using a smartphone, if you are used to a traditional camera, is seeing the screen well enough to compose carefully, and adjusting the framing. For me, it’s instinctive with a camera at my eye, and really rather hard work peering at a screen 18 inches away, possibly in bright light. A camera at eye level blocks out extraneous light, and with your second eye closed, your sight can adjust to see a good image through the viewfinder in almost any conditions. I miss that when I shoot with my phone.

2	Shooting with the mobile in shade helps see the screen at least reasonably.

Shooting with the mobile in shade helps see the screen at least reasonably.

 

In some circumstances, it can work to change the brightness of your display (the default will probably be for the mobile to adjust brightness automatically). At other times, careful shading of the screen, or adjustment of where you stand to shoot can make the image brighter relative to the background.

I’m starting from the premise that this is about what you can do with what you’ve got, so all I’ll say about mobiles is that I have a Vodafone V8, and I didn’t consider what the camera in it is like before buying. I wanted a cheapish, serviceable mobile for calls, texts, diary and a bit of internet use. Everything else is a bonus, and I won’t be changing for the sake of more megapixels or lenses.

If you read Black and White Photography, you’ll have met Tim Clinch’s wonderful writing on using mobiles. It could be a reason to go out and buy one of the quirkiest magazines around. It’s also one of the most interesting and thought-provoking. Tim is a highly experienced professional photographer, and he uses his iPhone because it’s not the Canon kit he carried for years and years; a rejection of big, complex and heavy. He shows, consistently, the relative value of experience and introspection as opposed to equipment. You can find him on Instagram (along with many other skilled mobile users) at @clinchpics.

 

Advice

I went looking for advice and didn’t find as much as I thought there might be. There’s either really basic advice (though most of it is worth repeating, and probably inscribing on the casing of every iPhone and Android in the world, because it’s good, and mostly ignored), or stuff devoted to the more rarefied areas where you will only want to go if you are a real Apple fanboy, and want to spend even more money on your mobile.

I wonder if it’s because those who know the technology assume everyone else does, too? It’s a common failing with most things related to computers and other electronics. Little things, like the way that if you use your finger to choose the focus point it will also change the bias of the exposure so that you don’t end up with a hopelessly overexposed (or underexposed) subject.

 

3	If you use a finger to select the focus point, most mobiles will bias the exposure reading so that the sharp area is well exposed. Useful where the background confuses more conventional approaches to metering – and it makes choosing the focus point worthwhile, even if it doesn’t defocus the background significantly! Left side focussed on the upper leaves, right side on the lower ones. Much quicker than using exposure compensation.

If you use a finger to select the focus point, most mobiles will bias the exposure reading so that the sharp area is well exposed. Useful where the background confuses more conventional approaches to metering - and it makes choosing the focus point worthwhile, even if it doesn’t defocus the background significantly! Left side focussed on the upper leaves, right side on the lower ones. Much quicker than using exposure compensation.

 

I decided that one way to add some rigour to what I’m writing would be to make myself post directly from my mobile phone on at least alternate days while I was on holiday on Rhodes. This means that I’ve posted ten of my own pictures straight from mobile, something I’ve never done before when I’ve had the option of using a 'proper camera'! You can see examples HERE, HERE, and HERE.

 

Strong and stable

As far as I’m aware, nobody has invented a clip-on device to provide an eye-level viewfinder, so every mobile picture is shot at arm's length. This is not a naturally stable arrangement compared with having the back of a camera pressed against your face, and holding it firmly with two hands. A three-point grip is stable while two points allow some wobble and holding a device with one hand is asking for trouble, as well as blur. If you can rest one edge of your mobile on a flat surface, that’s all to the good.

4	Keeping one edge of the mobile braced against a flat surface adds a lot of stability. You can use a vertical surface, of course, but beware pressing buttons on the side of your mobile!

Keeping one edge of the mobile braced against a flat surface adds a lot of stability. You can use a vertical surface, of course, but beware pressing buttons on the side of your mobile!  © Keith Rowley

 

Sense of perspective

Unless you have paid altogether too much for the technology or bought add-ons, your mobile is not innately suited to portraits, and certainly not full-face pictures. The selfie look of a big forehead and Mekon-like limbs is rather ugly and does nobody any favours (younger readers may need to research the Mekon). If you must have a picture of yourself, get someone else to take it from several feet away. It’s bad with a picture of me, and worse if you have any redeeming features as a subject.

As the lens on a smartphone is a wide-angle (mine seems to be in the region of a 24mm equivalent on full frame) it makes it easier to 'get it all in' and ought to be a great idea. In practice, however, maybe not (remember, I tend to use a short telephoto lens for around 80% of the pictures I take). It’s easy to lose the subject by not going close enough or to go close and louse up the perspective.

 

5	Selfie with typical distortion, processed with Snapseed.

Selfie with typical distortion, processed with Snapseed

 

Now, it’s possible to do wonderful things with the 'wrong' lens, but it’s fair to say that a wide lens is not innately suited to my own specialist areas - portraits and nudes. In both, there’s a real risk that you will end up with gross distortion.

That is not necessarily the end of things, and sometimes an extreme wide-angle view opens a new outlook on the subject. For example, Bill Brandt's nudes, shot with a police scene-of-crime plate camera sort of set the bar here. For environmental work, where the face (or figure) occupies only a small part of the frame, it can work really well, particularly in a confined space (such as a domestic sauna, or a small shop). The rest of the time, you will be faced with a bit of a workaround to cover up what the lens will try to do to your subject.

It’s often a problem in small studios in any case; the novice photographer using a standard kit zoom ends up shooting at 18mm to get all of the model in. Plus, so many poses involve feet closer to the camera than the head, or vice versa. Either way, loads of distortion! If you must use a wide-angle (or your mobile), make sure that the length of the model’s body is parallel to the mobile, unless you actually want that Bill Brandt look. Incidentally, whatever you believe about a mobile being capable of taking good pictures, I can assure you that a model will find it hard to take you seriously if that’s all you’re shooting with. Honestly.

 

6	Learn to make use of the zap-zap compositional possibilities of a widenagle lens – Coralli Taverna, Pefkos.

Learn to make use of the zap-zap compositional possibilities of a wide-angle lens - Coralli Taverna, Pefkos.

 

Technical limit

When you use a markedly different piece of kit, there is often a trick, a wrinkle, to how it does things. If you want to be pretentious, call it a paradigm shift. In the case of mobile phones, it’s that they use very short focal length lenses, which have enormous depth of field and so they can operate at full aperture all the time while giving decent depth of field.

This saves having to build an aperture control mechanism, allows them to operate at low ISO settings much of the time, and generally gives high shutter speeds. In turn, the high shutter speed compensates for the lack of inherent stability of a camera that you operate at arm’s length, rather than held firmly against your face.

It all works – but you have to leave your usual approach behind, technically and artistically.

 

Ups and downs

The technical stuff isn’t all downside, though. There are just some very definite limitations, which, to my mind, it’s not generally worth working through. If you need to take that sort of picture (standard or long focal length, differential focus etc), use a camera. For everything else, there’s your mobile...

 

7	Default settings may include quite aggressive sharpening, leading to awful artefacts. My son took this at the Duxford air show last autumn: it’s not a good look! © Danny Duder

Default settings may include quite aggressive sharpening, leading to awful artefacts. My son took this at the Duxford air show last autumn and it’s not a good look! © Danny Duder

 

During my two-and-a-half weeks of intensive research (or ‘holiday on Rhodes’) with dodgy and occasional internet access, it seemed sensible to spend some time experimenting with shooting, processing and posting pictures with my mobile and as a result, I found that a smartphone has some quite sophisticated features built in. For instance, one friend suggested I try the panoramic facility that I’d missed, even though the word ‘PANO’ appears on the screen next to the release button. Now, the downside is that it's still working with that same wide-angle lens and my first use of it was from the deck of a ferry in Symi harbour (see the header image). It wasn't a spacious setting by any stretch of the imagination, but the resulting image needed a bit of cropping before use, and the quality is lower than other images from the smartphone.

I am sure that there are many more useful bits that I haven’t found – but my aim is only to see if I can use my mobile for taking serious pictures, not to provide a comprehensive guide. With luck, the effect for you will be to suggest that you might be able to do the same, despite sharing my prejudices or, just perhaps, to give you a way to explore your own interests in the knowledge that it’s OK to do so.

 

Good enough

My pictures with this article were mostly taken with a Vodafone V8, which cost somewhat under £200. Again, it seems pointless to me to spend a lot of money on something that I keep in my pocket, and use for communication when I have a really good camera (which I also carry with me 99% of the time). It takes perfectly decent images.

I seem to remember a saying from a management consultant thirty years back that the best drives out the good. That sounds odd, but let’s unpack it, specifically in this context. I think that it means that an obsession with the best can easily eclipse everything that is merely good (or even excellent). If a device gives you the results you want, there’s no need to hanker after something that is just a little bit better. If at some point, you get the chance to change to something a lot better, at minimal cost, that’s fine (for instance, when the screen’s cracked, the casing is coming apart, and the battery lasts less than a day).

 

8	The quality of this image is not technically stunning, but it’s adequate, certainly for internet use. And with many images, it’s the content that matters most, rather than absolute technical perfection.

The quality of this image is not technically stunning, but it’s adequate, certainly for internet use. Plus, as with many images, it’s the content that matters most, rather than absolute technical perfection.

 

Gilding the lily and processing

I know there is a wealth of accessories to allow you to do more stuff with your mobile. However, they don’t attract me, because they take away from the one thing that is really appealing about using a mobile for pictures – its portability and slimness – without actually making it better than a conventional camera in any other way. The size of the sensor sets the quality limit. If you want to use add-ons, additional lenses, hoods etc. so that you can see the screen in bright light and so on, that’s fine but, I feel that they are toys for those who are fanatical about gadgets and don’t mind spending hundreds of pounds on accessories which will still leave performance lagging behind the most basic entry-level DSLR.

Along with Tim Clinch’s love of mobile images, there’s his advice on processing: stick to one or two apps. I wasn’t particularly keen to try to get clever, so I followed his advice and installed Snapseed on my smartphone. It’s proved both surprisingly powerful and pretty easy to use, with a good range of adjustments. Brightness, contrast, white balance and ‘ambience’ are all useful, as is the rotation control, perspective correction, and even cropping. The limiting factor seems to me to be the size of my fingers relative to the screen I’m working on. Certainly, you have nowhere near the precision that a stylus offers on a touch-screen laptop or a mouse or stylus with a conventional desktop.

 

9	I found it much easier to process this image on my desktop computer than with Snapseed on my mobile – but that is maybe because of my far greater experience with Photoshop, as well as the precision of a mouse!

I found it much easier to process this image on my desktop computer than with Snapseed on my mobile, but that is maybe because of my far greater experience with Photoshop, as well as the precision of a mouse!

 

The only way to find out how it works for you is to try it… And there are other apps - you tell me if they’re any good because I haven’t tried them.

 

Ola Kala

The aim of this article was to explore what I can do with a mobile and thus, I hope, to inspire you to exploit your own to the utmost, when and if it suits you. 

I don’t ask that you embrace your inner gadgeteer - I know I’m heading firmly back to cameras that have all the controls in the right places. But, it’s nice to know that I can take a decent snap (and process it neatly) with my phone if I really need to. 

On a side note, Phil Taylor, who I interviewed a couple of months back, has had news pictures published that he shot on his mobile... Content trumps quality if there's a car on fire!

You may be wondering what the section heading means: I learnt this phrase from Terris, the hospitable owner of Terris Place in Paridisi, Rhodes. Apparently, it’s Greek for 'it’s fine, it’ll be OK'.

10	Terris, of Terris Place, Paridisi, Rhodes. A wideangle lens is ideal for capturing images of people in their environment.

Terris, of Terris Place, Paridisi, Rhodes. A wide-angle lens is ideal for capturing images of people in their environment.

 

I also processed images so that they were more than holiday snaps. Consequently, I suggest that we start having 'Mobile Mondays' on ePz, to go with 'Saturday Shadows' and 'Silly Sunday' (not to mention my existing crusade for 'Film Friday').  I’ll link this with a prize for my favourite mobile upload - a day's tuition in anything photographic that you want, and that I am competent to provide (darkroom, studio, camera settings and use, and so on but, unless you are a complete novice, you are unlikely to learn anything you want to know about Photoshop from me!)

 

Win A Day's Tuition With John

The rules are simple: upload a picture tagged 'Mobile Monday' in the ePz gallery on a Monday during June. I will scan everything with that tag at the start of July, and pick my favourite - utterly biased, no appeal. The coaching subject(s) and date to be agreed, and the tuition to take place in or around the West Midlands, where I live. It’s your responsibility to get there. If that is simply not a realistic possibility, geographically, we’ll see what we can do using Skype.

Have fun!

 

To finish

If you decide that your mobile is your camera – maybe just during the working week – there are a few things I implore you to do:

  • First, hold it steady! Two hands, as close to your body as you can. If you can rest one edge of the ‘phone on a table or wall, do so.
  • Be bold! Even the best camera phones aren’t wonderful on details, so make sure that your picture has an obvious structure to it. Keep the composition simple and strong.

11	Bolder is better for compositions with a mobile.

Bolder is better for compositions with a mobile

 

  • Align carefully. Without a proper viewfinder, this can be a real pain in bright light, but it’s well worth doing. Stabilising with one edge against a hard surface can help with this, as well as improving stability.
  • Perfect your image in processing. Don’t just slap on a filter. Take the time to correct verticals, exposure and colour in your processing app (or even on your desktop, after downloading).
  • Clean the lens carefully every so often. Sweaty fingers have no place on any lens, but the lens in your pocket keeps on meeting them, not to mention pocket fluff.
  • Save the pictures to your computer, and back them up, just like you would any other picture.
  • Finally, get some prints done of the shots that you and your family might want to have around in 2050.

 

Here’s to having fun taking pictures – whether with a camera or a mobile. Cheers!

Here’s to having fun taking pictures - whether with a camera or a mobile. Cheers!

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last 18 months, he’s been writing the odd article for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He’s also been running occasional lighting workshops and providing one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film. Even slide film…

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Photographs taken using the Sony Alpha 7

Sunset at Les Landespxpik HAttitudeHell DBellaLukeFairground lightsReflections on the River TeesNatures treatUrban portraitPhantom FallsMegs & Autumn HuesTwistleton GoldSunrise at Tok Jembal BeachMokoro tripOgwen Valley

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Comments


30 May 2019 12:21PM
Fascinating article, John, there is one area where I think that you have not fully considered the potential though: portraits! I actually find my (admittedly expensive and highly-rated) Huawei P20 Pro an excellent portrait tool. When you don't want to ruin the "moment" by hauling out and fiddling with masses of kit, a mobile phone is a wonderful tool and seldom have I created the "Mekon" head and arms which you describe. I have attached a couple of images, which I hope illustrate my point (edited in Photoshop CC, although I have no doubt similar results are possible on Snapseed). 302711_1559215063.jpg

302711_1559215175.jpg

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dudler Plus
15 867 1490 England
30 May 2019 1:10PM
I think that makes the point that I don't know the area thoroughly, and I really welcome the images as well as the comments! I viewed the whole things as a voyage of exploration, and the comments that people add will extend the journey...

Definitely, there's scope for using a mobile for environmental portraits - and maybe if you have multiple lenses it's possible to do tight head shots as well.

For me, the mobile remains primarily a communication device - but then, I tend to be carrying an unholstered CSC all the time I'm out and about. Not everyone is so eccentric!
pablophotographer 7 1.2k 348
30 May 2019 2:49PM
Here's to mobile photography. H
Stealth and silent. Almost lethal.
These images would not be possible to be shot as incognito!













Yes the photograpber is still alive after not being spotted. Ola kala! (Urban myth says that "O.K." derived from shortening the above expression from Greek immigrants in the U.S.A.)

pablophotographer
dudler Plus
15 867 1490 England
30 May 2019 3:18PM
Thank you, Pablo - both for the stealthy pictures, and the explanation of ola kala.

That makes snese, and doesn't clash with the way Terris uses the phrase.
30 May 2019 5:00PM
A very interesting article John and thanks.

There is no doubt that the quality of images produced by phones has improved dramatically in recent years and, as a keen amateur, I have been astounded by what can be produced from such a small device. During a recent trip to Ireland my wife clicked away on her Samsung J3 and we uploaded the files into Lightroom upon our return. The shot attached was taken on the Ring of Kerry and I think you'll agree that the quality is pretty good from a relatively inexpensive and, by todays standards, an old mobile as technology is moving onwards and upwards at pace.

There are drawbacks in that seeing the screen in bright daylight is challenging, there are no manual controls for focus and aperture and there are clearly artefacts. However, that said, I consider the image quality perfectly acceptable to be printed at say 6X4 and placed in the holiday album.

I don't have a Smartphone myself and have done no research into the quality produced by more expensive and later models, but my gut tells me that the flexibility and quality produced by a DSLR with a pro lens would be difficult to match with a tiny phone lens and sensor. But for those who don't want to lug heavy and bulky equipment around, the phone provides an excellent alternative to capture images, the majority of which will be viewed on the same device70872_1559231991.jpg

.

Nick

30 May 2019 5:31PM
One other comment, that occurs to me, reading both the article and comments here: there is a far greater degree of control in the latest models (again, particularly my Huawei P20 Pro). Depending on which mode I am in, it is possible to control aperture (up to F/0.95, which is spectacular), focus-point, zoom (optical and digital), shutter speed and ISO, as well as various other very-handy aspects of the camera.
pablophotographer 7 1.2k 348
30 May 2019 5:39PM
It looks pretty nice Nick.

I have been thinking John's comment about how cumbersome viewing the screen in bright day light gets.

I think there is a way around it especially if one is on holiday.
PUT YOUR SUNGLASSES ON!
Not a good idea to judge colours but great to get the framing right;
and if you are adventurous enough, try them in front of the phone's camera when you shoot.

Who said being playful doesn't help you in life?

pablophotographer
dudler Plus
15 867 1490 England
30 May 2019 6:58PM
My own experience was that I needed to take my sunglasses off to see the screen half-decently...

The idea of putting polarising glasses in front of the lens, though, is interesting. Though better no try it with prescription lenses.

I like the look of Nick's wife's shot: simply, a very competent holiday picture, and that's a good use for a mobile.

And in the same way that mobiles have moved on, so have full-frame cameras: I quite often see people with (for instance) a Canon 5D and 24-105 lens, with a 70-200 and maybe a 17-35 in the bag, weighing far more than my Sony outfit with an Alpha 7 and a variety of fixed focal length lenses...

But there are many, many ways to make an outfit manageable: I was amazed when I tried an older Nikon with a superzoom on it at how light and easy it was, and how good the results were.

And I'm quite sure that a playful approach is the answer to many problems!
31 May 2019 12:29PM
Great article...
mistere Plus
5 4 3 England
31 May 2019 1:50PM
Another fascinating and informative article John. I very much like the idea of
going away to Rhodes to do the research Smile excellent idea.
I very rarely remember that I have a camera on my phone. Consequently I very rarely use it.
I always carry a DSLR if i'm going 'anywhere' so if I want to take a picture that's what i use.
People who don't own a DSLR use their mobiles camera by default and do so instinctively.
My biggest issue with mobile phone cameras isn't the camera itself, it's the people who use them.
Specifically the selfie addicts, Why? It's difficult enough, trying to photograph 'popular' monuments, statues, buildings etc
without having someone else in the frame. Deliberately blocking the view with yourself is just bonkers.
People with cameras tend to stand at a reasonable distance from the subject being photographed. Selfie
takers get as close as they can, hundreds of them, a production line of self obsessed facebook addicts. Blocking
the view and, in most cases, not even looking at the object that forms the background to their distorted images.
Needless to say, they get very annoying.....
Anywho, thanks for an enjoyable read, John.

Dave, SmileSmile


dudler Plus
15 867 1490 England
31 May 2019 5:25PM
I agree!

That may constitute a hint for anyone entering the competition, in terms of whether a selfie will hack it...
Owdman Plus
3 1 2 United Kingdom
3 Jun 2019 10:20AM
Interesting stuff John. I have a friend who asked me why the photographs his daughter took on her phone were so much better than the photos he took on his small compact camera. I said your daughter paid nearly 1000 for her phone, you paid 150 for your camera. As a phone is a phone and all they seem to really improve is the camera, the new phones have really great optics. I'm always impressed with the shots my daughter takes on her Apple iPhone and they certainly make doing panoramas easy.
Norm
Owdman Plus
3 1 2 United Kingdom
3 Jun 2019 10:23AM



From an earlier post I made, taken with my iPhone7
dudler Plus
15 867 1490 England
3 Jun 2019 10:50AM
I think there's something else, Norm. People who use mobiles a lot are familiar with the ergonomics, while occasional compact users are usually not well versed in their use. Additionally, many compacts seem to make things too complicated, so that it's very easy to misuse them badly...

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