[This week I am updating and reposting a series of articles originally written for another site, because they are no longer available there. Enjoy! –Kat]
If you have a smartphone, you have an amazing creative tool available! Not only do you always have a camera with you, but you have a vast array of apps to create works of art by modifying photographs.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to show you how to use your smartphone to go beyond snapshots of your family and friends at events, creating photographs and other pieces of art that can be worthy of artistic exhibition. The process of creating this type of art starts with getting a great photograph. Without a well-exposed and composed image, you don’t have the best start for creating app art.
With that in mind, today I am going to provide you with a few tips to “step up” the quality of the images you capture with your smartphone. Note: All images shared through the rest of this post are as-captured with an iPhone 5 using the ProCamera app, with no additional editing or filters.
1. Use a third party camera app to take the best photos
As amazing as smartphone cameras are, they are still a very limited camera in photography terms. No zoom, no depth of field control, no shutter control, limited low light response… you get the idea. You need the apps to help you get the most out this little camera. Your smartphone probably came with a camera app preloaded, but it’s not necessarily the best camera app available. Third party apps, those created for your smartphone by other developers, have more features to help you get the most out of your smartphone camera.
Some critical features to look for in a third party camera app:
– The ability to easily and separately set focus and exposure
– Anti-shake shutter options
– Image aspect ratio options (2:3, 3:4, 1:1, etc.)
– Full resolution support
I’ve found the most critical feature to be the ability to easily and separately set focus and exposure. This will probably have the greatest impact on your ability to get good photographs out of your smartphone camera. Typically, when you open a camera app, the focus point is set to the middle of the frame and the exposure (the overall brightness/darkness) is weighted for the whole scene. These settings often work ok, but they may not give you the best possible photograph, especially in high contrast situations where there is a dramatic difference in light and dark.
Here’s an example: In the first image, the camera set the exposure based on the overall scene, and in the second I set the app to expose for the sunset.
Do you see the difference? Because the camera app set the exposure for the overall scene in the first image, the sunset is brighter and looks washed out. In this situation with very bright and very dark areas an evenly lit scene is not possible, but the camera doesn’t know that — it only measures and computes based on its programming.
To get the tree in silhouette and the rich colors of the sunset, I have to tell the camera a little bit more about what I want it to do. I set the exposure point on the bright part of the sunset, telling the camera “here’s the part I really want you to expose for,” which shifts the entire scene darker. The colors become deeper and more vibrant.
After trying several different camera apps, I’ve settled on ProCamera 7. This app has all of the critical features I’ve listed above as well as an easy-to-use interface. Unfortunately, ProCamera 7 is only available for iOS, but for Android I recommend Camera FV-5, which has similar features. The ProCamera 7 screen shot below shows the key settings I use in the app.
The best part of the ProCamera 7 app is the ease of setting focus and exposure. With a quick motion, spreading two fingers on the screen, you separate the focus (blue square) and exposure (yellow circle) targets. From there, use your fingertip to move each target independently. Try it out – it’s amazing to see how much you can change the exposure of the scene by moving the target around.
If you know nothing about exposure and can’t figure out how where you should put the target to correct a problem if the photograph is too bright or too dark, remember this little tip:
- If the area you care about in the photograph is appears too bright and you want to darken the scene, put the exposure target in a brighter area of the screen.
Too bright = Target bright.
- If the photograph appears too dark and you want to brighten the scene, put the exposure target in a darker area of the screen.
Too dark = Target dark.
The camera will make the adjustment and if it’s not right, move the target to another area and try again. It really is that simple!
Another important aspect of a camera app to consider is the low light performance. Smartphone cameras are not as sensitive to low light as other digital cameras. The key issue for capturing a good photograph in low light, regardless of your camera, is stability. A smartphone camera is already inherently less stable than other types of cameras due to design, since you have to hold the camera out in front of you and you are often tapping the screen to take the picture. This makes the camera more prone to blur due to camera shake – the movement of the camera as you take the picture – and in low light it is even worse. Using the anti-shake shutter on your camera app will help, since the app won’t take the picture until it senses the camera is still. Propping the camera on a stable surface or using a tripod mount are other options to improve stability.
Depending on your smartphone and app combination, you may have an “ISO Boost” setting which can help you take photographs in lower light. ProCamera 7 on the iPhone 5/5S has this feature. If your favorite everyday camera app doesn’t have low light options, you can also look for camera apps specifically created for low light or night photography to extend your range.
2. Pay Attention to Resolution
There is a sneaky thing that happens in smartphone apps – they often default to a lower resolution setting than desired. The camera and app makers assume you will want to maximize your storage space and that you will only be sharing online, so they put default settings at lower resolutions to create small file sizes. If you are looking to create photographic or app art with your smartphone, these assumptions don’t hold true. If you create a great photograph or piece of app art, you want the highest resolution files possible so you have the option to print it later. Smartphone art can be amazing as prints! A few examples of prints from my smartphone art are below.
Check the resolution settings on the camera and post-processing apps you use. If there is an option to set the resolution, look for the “High” or “Best quality” setting and keep it set there. If there isn’t any mention of resolution in the app info or settings, consider that a red flag for resolution. When you can’t find a resolution setting, save an image out of the app and then check the resolution. On my iPhone, I use the PhotoSize app to verify the final resolution of the saved file. You may be surprised at how low the resolution is for some apps.
One other place where your resolution can be reduced without knowing it: Zooming with a camera app. Smartphone cameras don’t have zoom lenses, so using a zoom feature in a camera app means you are magnifying the image with software. In most cases, this means the image is cropped by the app which reduces the final resolution. For the best image possible, get used to zooming “with your feet.” Get closer to your subject by walking toward it and increase its size within the frame by physical proximity.
3. Pay attention to Composition
Now that we’ve gotten a couple of key technical elements for getting a good smartphone photograph out of the way, it’s time for the creative fun of my favorite part of photography: Composition. As with any 2D art, how you compose is critical to the effectiveness of the final image. In photography, you get to choose which elements remain in the frame and how they are arranged relative to each other. Even stationary objects can be shifted relative to other objects by changing your perspective, and moving closer or further away.
While composition can be a vast subject to learn, I’ll give you a few tips on composition below. To learn more about composition, download my free Digital Photography Basics eBook or review past Exploring with a Camera posts on my blog.
- Pick your subject. Be clear about what you are photographing as you take the picture. Use a process of elimination to exclude as much as you can that’s not related to what you want to capture.
- Play with aspect ratio and orientation. One of the best things about using a smartphone is you can easily switch between photo aspect ratios (2:3, 4:3, 1:1, etc.) as you are composing your image. Does the image you are composing work best as a square? Or maybe the subject is better suited to a rectangular frame? If you are using a rectangular aspect ratio, try both horizontal and vertical orientations for your image. Discover what works best for the lines you are working with and what you want to convey.
- Explore balance of elements. How do the lines, shapes, and colors interact with each other? What happens to the elements if you move your point of view? The interrelationships within the frame, and the balance, will change.
- Consider placing your subject off-center. A centered subject can work, but it’s very static and not as visually interesting in many cases. The “rule of thirds” helps you remember this tip, so use it as a guideline as you start to compose an image and go from there.
- Explore point of view. A more interesting photograph may be just a few feet higher or lower than eye level. Most of the photographs taken in the world are from human eye level, so looking from a different perspective can surprise and engage the viewer.
- Keep it simple. “Less is more” definitely applies to smartphone photography. Since you don’t have all of the standard camera controls available to isolate subject from background, the simpler you can make your composition, the more effective your final image will likely be.
Next time you are out and about and pull out your smartphone, consider seeing what you can do with this wonderful little camera! Whether you are sharing everyday events on Facebook and Twitter or you are using the photographs for app art, improving your smartphone images is not hard at all.