The basics of smartphone photography

byGlen MulcahySep 1, 2017 in Mobile Journalism

When IJNet asked me to contribute to their multimedia journalism toolkit, I was both honored and a little bewildered. I’ve been involved in mobile journalism training now for about six years. I, of course, cover mobile photography as a major module in my #mojo masterclass — however, I have met so many incredibly talented and naturally gifted mobile photographers over the years I shudder to think I am anywhere near their league, let alone in it! Nonetheless, I will share what I know and what I think.

Can I begin by saying “smartphone photography is too easy”?

What I mean by that is it is too easy to take a photograph with a smartphone. My two-year-old son can unlock his mom's iPad and launch the camera app and take numerous selfies. If you think that’s impressive, his big sister, now 5, was doing it when she was just 9 months old! Before she could even walk!

But is this really “photography”? I’ve had a few heated arguments about this over the years. Even when I ran my own photography studio and did photography courses, I would start by trying to explain the difference between a “photograph” and a “snapshot.” In my opinion, “it is not the device that defines the difference between a ‘photograph’ and a ‘snapshot,’ it is the image itself and the skillful intent of the photographer who captured it.” Ansel Adams is famously quoted as saying “The single most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it,” and I guess that’s what I’m getting at. There is a genuine skill in being able to see and capture a beautiful, aesthetically interesting and technically good photograph. That is not the same as a point-and-shoot snap, though skilled photographers can, once they have mastered their skill and camera, take beautiful photos quickly!

When I’m training mobile journalists, I have a four-step process I follow...

Step 1 is to explain the camera app in detail with specific attention to manual controls.* I am constantly amazed by how many people, who are seasoned iPhone users, have no idea you can set and lock manual focus and manually control exposure in the camera app.

Step 2 is to show examples of beautiful images which follow the rules of composition. I have to give credit to the team in The Cooph, who have a fantastic video on YouTube that explores nine rules of composition based on the work of Steve McCurry, a famous and award-winning photographer.

Step 3: Practical exercise, which tasks the trainees with seeking specific types of images which explore those composition tips. If you want to take better photos: practice, practice, PRACTICE.

Step 4: Review session where we collaboratively go through and discuss one-by-one the strengths and weaknesses of each image and how they can be made better/corrected in post.

Note: If I have a masterclass (which is usually 8-10 days), I will devote an entire day to a Photowalk on location to allow plenty of time for experimentation and practice. We would typically also include Timelapse, Hyperlapse, Panorama, Slowmotion, Slow Shutter and Afterfocus.

So how can I share this knowledge with you in this article? To begin, I’m going to shoot and share a short video to go through the camera app on iOS. I’ve focused specifically on iOS for my entire mojo training for a number of reasons — mainly because it's easier and most of my clients use iOS. However, some high-end Android cameras have higher resolution cameras than the iPhone — so the good news is, if you are an Android user the tips in this article apply to you also; you will just have to find the correct settings/buttons on your respective Android device camera.

Getting to know your camera

The iPhone’s native camera is actually very powerful straight out of the box. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other camera apps on the App Store which offer more features, but for beginners, the native camera has more than enough features and controls.

To begin with, it is worth noting you can access your native camera without unlocking your phone. Just swipe right to left on the lock screen to reveal the camera app. This is really useful if you need to capture a moment quickly.

Note: When you use the camera like this, you can only see the photos taken while the camera is active (you cannot see the entire contents of the Camera Roll). Once the camera app is open, you should familiarize yourself with all the functions. To access these functions, just tap on the icon in the left column of the camera app menu.

Filters became popular with Instagram back in the days of the iPhone 4. Many photographers have told me the reason was the camera was pretty poor back then, but with filters, you could make a low-quality image “look funky.” I try to avoid using them to be honest. TIMER allows you to delay the shutter by either three or 10 seconds to give you time to run around and get into the the image. Note: If you are using the timer with the back camera selected, the flash will blink on and off to alert you of the countdown. If you are using the front (selfie) camera you get an on-screen countdown clock. Live Photos is turned ON/OFF by tapping the circular icon.

Live photos is a feature that was launched with the iPhone 6S/6 Plus and iOS 9. Live Photos captures three seconds of video and sound (1.5 seconds before you press the shutter and 1.5 seconds after) and also a “still” photo once you press the shutter button.

HDR High Dynamic Range is a feature which allows you to capture detail in the highlights, midtones and shadows of your photo. The iPhone does this by taking three images in rapid succession.* The images are 1. Slightly overexposed (to capture details in the shadows) 2. Average exposure (to capture mid-tones) and 3. Slightly underexposed (to capture details in the highlights). The iPhone then combines the three detail areas into one image. The image will have more detail than normal in the sky for instance and in the shadows. The menu option lets you set it to AUTO / ON / OFF Note: In the settings menu (Settings > Photos & Camera) you can choose to save the “normal” photo as well as the HDR photo.

Flash: Newer iPhone models have a dual-tone flash (one amber/one blue) to allow it to try to balance the color of the flash with the ambient color of the image it's being used with. What I mean by that is the flash can alter its color to be slightly blue or slightly yellow, depending on the situation. The flash has an effective operating range of about three meters maxi