Friday, April 25, 2014

How To: Landscape Photos with your Smartphone

So I've had several requests to write an article about smart phone photography. In fact, I have an article here about taking photos of your pet with a phone, but I realize that there's more to be said on the subject.

So, what are some of the keys to great smartphone photography?

Well, the most important thing is to choose your subject wisely. With a phone, you are limited by a fixed (short) focal length, lower resolution, and mediocre exposure metering software. Thus, you want to select a subject that is large, easy to get close to, and evenly lit. In other words, landscapes are excellent subjects for the smartphone photographer.

Anastasia State Park - read more here.
What are the basics of landscape photography?

Well, lucky you! If you are using a smartphone, a lot of the basics of photography are out of your hands - so I won't talk about them here. Normally landscape photography requires a discussion on aperture and depth of field, but you can't control those things with a smartphone. This means that your photographs won't always turn out exactly how you like, but you can still create beautiful images with these simple cameras.

Okay, so what are some of the things that apply to me?

Pick an evenly lit scene. As discussed above, most smartphones do not have advanced exposure metering modes like DSLRs will, and thus they cannot compensate well for scenes with large dynamic ranges. The dynamic range is a description of how much variation there is between the lightest and the darkest part of the image.

This is an example of a scene with a large dynamic range. Notice that in the middle-right section of the image, the subject is almost entirely black. Conversely, in the top left, the sky has been bleached white. This results in loss of detail in both areas of the image, and is considered poor photographic technique.

The dark areas of the frame are termed "underexposed" - that is, they did not get enough light during the exposure. 
The bleached areas of the frame are referred to as "overexposed" - they received way too much light.

Overall, I do still find this photograph pleasing, but it's not a technically great image.

Well, fine, but my phone has HDR, which I know expands the dynamic range.

That's true. Many phones (and DSLRs) now come equipped with HDR (high dynamic range) technology. There are several ways to create an HDR image, but the most commonly employed method is to take several photos in quick succession using different exposure ratings. For example, the camera may take a globally underexposed photo, a globally "normal" photo, and a globally overexposed photo. Computer software then combines these images into one. (Yes, the iPhone HDR feature works like this - I believe it takes 3 images). This does result in an increased dynamic range.

However, this does not solve the dynamic range problem for smartphones, which allow for little user control of exposure. The above image is an example of a nightmare scene for a smarphone camera - dappled light, creating areas of dark and bright scattered randomly across the image. This photo was in fact taken with the HDR setting, and while it is improved against photos of that scene without HDR, it is not great. In short, it's best practice to avoid shooting these types of scenes with smartphones.
(They are no cakewalk with a DSLR either).

What are some other things I can do to improve my smartphone photography?

Well, like I've said before, the basics of all types of photography are the same. Photographs are composed of three main elements: subject, composition, and lighting. Lighting can be broken down into four components: Ambient light, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO rating. With DSLR/SLR photography, we have greater control over the latter 3 items. However, with smartphones, we are largely at the mercy of whatever creative decisions the software makes for us (the amount of control you have of course varies from phone to phone). As a result, it's important to capitalize on the things we CAN control.

Ambient Lighting

Seek out dramatic lighting to illuminate your images - it can transform even the most drab frog into a princess. (Note here that this is one of the few situations a high dynamic range photograph is successful).


Presumably we do photography because we want to show the world what we see. Bring your photography to life with images that are descriptive, poetic, and unusual. Think carefully about your composition before you click that button - you've got plenty of time; that gazebo's not moving. I find it helpful to do composition "exercises". Challenge yourself to take at least 5 different images of each of your subjects. Then, if you can do 5 easily, stretch to 10. Force yourself to think outside the canonical box to produce artistic images.

You can click here to read my article on pet photography with a smartphone.

Okay, I've talked enough - now it's your turn. What do you think about smartphone photography?

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