Smartphone Art 1: Getting a Good Photograph with your Smartphone

[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.

Smartphone Art Vanishing Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

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.

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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.

Smartphone Art ProCamera 7 Screen Shot Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

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.

Smartphone Art Singapore Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

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.

Smartphone Art Print Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

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.

Composition Tips:

  • 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.
    Pulau Ubin Singapore Kat Sloma Mobile Photoraphy
  • 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.
    Kat Sloma Mobile Photography
  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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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.

Photo-Heart Connection: June 2014

Unexpected. That’s the word I woke up with today, my Photo-Heart Connection already formed in my head. The last couple of months have brought much that is unexpected my way: A new job I wasn’t looking for; a whirlwind trip to Ohio and my deep emotional response; a kitchen disaster that has left my house in a state of disrepair. I couldn’t have predicted the events that have come my way. I couldn’t have prepared.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that my Photo-Heart Connection comes unexpected this month, too. I didn’t even have to choose this month’s photograph. I knew, last night, as I prepared my photographs for review. I knew, this morning, as I woke up with a word in my head.

Amish Farm Boy Holmes County Ohio Kat Sloma Photography

I love this photograph. I think, quite frankly, it might be the best one I’ve ever created. There is something about the composition, the light, the moment, the processing, which all work together beautifully to tell a story. For some reason, it brings to mind the Vermeer painting, The Milkmaid. I remember seeing this painting in person and being utterly amazed by it. Vermeer masterfully worked with the subject, the light and shadow, and the moment to tell a story that spoke to me centuries later.

So, similarly, this image speaks to me. But of what? An unexpected moment. A story to be told. A story of life, unfolding before us. A story of people, individuals, that cross our path and change things. A story of events that happen outside of our control. The question is, are we there to live it? Are we ready to capture it, no matter how unexpected, and hang on for the ride? Are we ready to be jostled and tossed about as we are pulled along?

I am getting better at being ready. This photograph proves it. The time, the place, the moment – all unexpected. But I was there, and responded.

And I’ll be ready and open for whatever comes next, however unexpected.


These last couple of months have been a bumpy ride, it seems. I’m one month into the new job and still figuring it out. Our kitchen is now marginally usable and we are still getting quotes to decide what we are going to do next. My first art fair is barely two weeks away and I’m spending much of my time to get everything ready. I haven’t had a lot of time or energy for my blog, or anything online really. But my photographs, working with the images from my trip to Ohio early this month, have been an unexpected creative bright spot. I have gained so much personally from working with them, seeing the stories within them. Stories of my father, my family, me. I am amazed and humbled by this art form, which is constantly revealing layers of my heart and soul.

What have you discovered this month? What is your Photo-Heart Connection? Share it with us here. I want to thank you all for your continued participation. I love how, regardless of how engaged I am at the moment, you continue to do this practice for yourself and share it with this community. This is not about me, it’s about each and every one of you. Such an amazing and humbling thing to realize.

PS – You can now link in with Instagram photos! Learn more here.

Telling Stories

I believe all photographers are storytellers. Whether we are telling the story of an event, of who someone is, or of beauty in the moment, every photograph is a story. As we put these individual stories together, they become the story of ourselves, the photographer. Where we come from, who we are interested in, what we see, how we choose to portray the world. Whether we realize it or not, we are in every photograph we create.

Returning from my family visit to Ohio, I realized that there is a story to tell in photographs that I haven’t told before. A story I was able to photograph for the first time since becoming an artist. In my few days there, I barely scratched the surface. I didn’t even really try to capture and tell this story fully, but I see it there, in the images I returned home with.

It’s the story of my family heritage on my father’s side: Amish.

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But it’s not just the story of “the Amish.” I’m not an anthropologist or historian, to chronicle the timeline or study the culture. I’m not a reporter, looking to get the inside scoop. It’s the story of my father, my family, me. I want to understand how it all fits together; how it influenced who I am.

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My father grew up Amish on a farm in Holmes County, Ohio. He was one of nine children: Eight are still living, seven are living in or near Holmes County, five remained Amish.

My Uncle Aden now owns the family farm, 155 acres in total, which includes 50 acres of woods, two farm houses, outbuildings, and a barn of which no one quite knows the age. My Uncle David estimates at least 150 years old.

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Growing up in Colorado, we visited every year or two. We were suburban kids getting the taste of a farm life for a quick week. My dad pitched in with the chores and we could tag along in the barn, as long as we stayed out of the way or helped our cousins. We might get to feed the horses, the giant draft horses that worked the field or the buggy horses, almost dainty in comparison.

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We might try milking a cow (by hand, at that time) or try to catch the wild barn cats who kept the rodent population in check. There were always adventures waiting in the barn, if you weren’t afraid to get dirty.

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Those memories are just echoes in my head now. There are no cows left on the family farm where my father grew up. The milking stalls are empty.

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The milk house is quiet. Left as if someone might come back, any moment, and start the operation up again. Maybe someday, one of my cousins or my cousins kids, will start farming here again.

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It’s a hard life, but an honest way of life. You think, looking in from the outside, that it is so different from our modern lives, but it’s not really. It doesn’t have to be. Living simply, working hard, enjoying family, creating community… We can all have these things whether we have electric lights or not. They are all choices.

My father chose not to remain in the Amish way of life, but he chose the things that mattered out of it. And each of us, me, my sister and brother, have that handed down to us as well. We get to carry that piece of the Amish heritage with us.

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This was the story that came out of my photographs. A tiny piece of who I am and where I came from. I didn’t know I was capturing this story, any story really, when I was there. I sometimes forget that my photographs are not of some random subject, but of me, no matter what thing is in them.

Looking at these images, I feel as if there are so many stories left, waiting to be captured. Waiting to be told. I feel a pull to go back, and explore these stories more.

Unexpected Opportunity

While I was visiting my family in Ohio, I got a text from my husband: Water leak in the wall behind the kitchen sink. Water is off and floor is soaked. I came home to find the water restored, but the kitchen floor was torn up and my husband was working with disaster recovery and insurance to sort things out.

At the moment, we have no usable kitchen and are subjected to the deafening roar of the drying fans.

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We aren’t sure what all exactly we are going to do to get things back in order… New flooring through much of the house, because it was all the same as the kitchen and that was ruined. New counters too, at a minimum.

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And then comes the questions… Well, if we are doing that, then we could change the sink and definitely a new faucet. And we’ve been looking at upgrading to a gas range, so this would be a good time. Oh, and if we are doing all of that don’t we seriously want to consider the cabinets? Are these the cabinets we want to live with for the next 20 years? It’s an unexpected opportunity to make some changes we would like to a house we plan to stay in a good long while.

Argh. I wasn’t looking to do a kitchen remodel this summer. I haven’t even been thinking of a kitchen remodel in the next few years. I haven’t been dreaming of a new kitchen, poring over magazines and websites. I don’t even like to cook. I don’t know exactly what I want.

But first, and foremost, I just want the NOISE of these fans gone. Then, maybe, I can think about what to do next.

My Father’s Woods

On my recent trip to Ohio, I was determined to go for a walk in the woods on the farm my father grew up on. Not an easy task, when you have a grandmother and seven aunts and uncles, not to mention the cousins, to coordinate visits with over four days. Especially when you are the last passenger in an SUV holding your Mom, sister and her son, brother, his wife and their ten-month-old baby.

We were staying close enough I could walk there, if I could fined the trail. The first time I tried, I couldn’t find it. I was so disappointed, I thought my childhood memory of the way had failed me, until a cousin told me that things had changed. You had to go down further and catch the track in a different place.

In our rush from place to place, by the last night there I still hadn’t made it to the woods. When I woke early the next morning, I knew it was the right time to go. Quietly getting up and heading out, I found a world filled with misty light. A heavy summer mist, born of the rain the previous days and the warmth of the air, the sun just beginning to break through.

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I walked along the road and found the right track, running along a farmer’s fallow field. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place until I found the pond at the outer edge do the woods, and the track continued into the woods.

Before I left, I asked myself, would these woods feel like home? Would there be some childhood memory, some genetic memory, that would make this forest familiar?

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I got my answer… It was no. These are not my woods. These are not my trees. There were no towering firs amongst the deciduous trees. No gnarled and mossy and twisty oaks. They were beautiful, but I had not spent enough time in these trees, as a child or otherwise, to make them familiar friends. Not like I have here in Oregon or where I grew up in Colorado. My time in Ohio has been too brief. Too infrequent.

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But I enjoyed my misty morning walk in the woods, nonetheless. I found myself at my grandmother’s house at the end, and had a quiet morning visit with her and my aunt. On the walk back, I found myself thinking of my father, passed away almost nineteen years ago, and his childhood in this place; these woods.

This forest may not be my forest, but it is a familiar landscape to my heart nonetheless. It is where my father spent time and developed his love of the outdoors. What he was looking for in those times, solace or solitude or something else, I’ll never know. I never talked to him about it. I didn’t realize we had this in common, that I also had this need for the forest in me, when he was still alive. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the insight to discuss it. I wish I had. So very much.

So instead of talking to my father about his life and experiences here and how they shaped him, I listened to the birds sing. I looked at the light in the trees. I enjoyed the quiet misty morning on my own, before heading back to my own forest. Home.

Back in Time

There is something about being with family that sends you back in time. Visiting my grandmother’s house in Ohio, along with my Mom, brother and sister, was one of those experiences.

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It made me remember who I am, where I come from, but also who I am not.

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It reminded me that I am my father’s daughter, and I have much in common with the family on his side. The homebody part of me. The introspective, thinking part of me. The part that wants solitude and time in the woods.

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It also reminded me how much I am my own person, how much I’ve changed since childhood, but how easy it is to slip into expected roles. It’s as if we all step into our scripted places, when together. We aren’t always our real selves. It’s too hard to be, with so little time with each other.

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But it was a reminder, of who I was, where I came from, and who I am now. A beautiful, poignant reminder.

All images are from my Grandmother’s house in Holmes County, Ohio, and processed using the Vintage Photo app.