Seán Duggan: Phone Photography: Strategies for Seeing
Aug 2013 21

What makes a good camera phone image? As with many things in life, this often depends on the eye of the beholder, the type of photographs you like, and how you define “good”. There’s no right answer to the question. A favorite image for one photographer might barely move the needle for you. But when working with a camera phone, there are some strategies that can help you capture better photos, no matter what type of imagery you like. In this article, we’ll take a look at some useful techniques for seeing the potential for images that would work well with a camera phone. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for your own explorations.

In general, the same qualities that make a good photo taken with any type of camera also contribute to the success of a camera phone image. Good composition, taking advantage of exceptional light, effective use of color and contrast, anticipating when a photo-worthy moment might occur, narrowing your visual focus to find abstracts and delicate detail views…all of these can help you capture much better images. The suggestions that follow are by no means a comprehensive list, but represent some useful ways to think about image making that can help transform an image from “just a camera phone shot” into something more. Rather than just taking a snapshot with your camera phone, think of yourself as an image designer!

Click on the images below to see a larger version. All photos created and edited on an iPhone 4 or 5.

Simplicity

Sometimes, clean and simple compositions can make very satisfying images. This approach works well for photographing a still life, as well as for focusing in on often overlooked details. Keep your eye open for possibilities where you can take advantage of simple, uncluttered backgrounds to show off the main subject.

Compose with Contrast

Contrast is an important element in any image. In this case, I am referring more to the contrast between objects or elements within the scene than to the quality of the lighting, although the latter can certainly contribute to the former. Good image contrast, whether through differences in color or tonal brightness, helps provide visual separation between different parts of the scene and can make for a more visually interesting photograph.

Compose with Color and Graphic Shapes

Look for strong arrangements of color or graphic shapes in a scene. This is really just an extension of composing with contrast in mind. And continue looking even after you see something that you feel has possibilities. Often, the first few photos of a scene or subject are just the warm-up shots. The more you work a scene, the more possibilities you’ll find.

Back Lighting, Silhouettes & Shadows

When the light source is behind the subject the potential exists for dramatic images created from strong silhouettes and shadows. Highlights often flare out to define the subject in tones of rich dark black. Don’t be timid about shooting directly into the light; working with back light is a wonderful way to compose with contrast. Depending on the angle and brightness of the light you may not have much detail in the foreground but what you gain from the back lighting will more than make up for that.

Night Photography

Photographing at night or in low light situations can be tricky with a camera phone, as they typically don’t do a good job in low light. Images can be noisy and the potential for blurring due to slower exposure times is often an issue. But in the right circumstances, you can still create very effective images at night. Taking advantage of the twilight before the full dark of night is often a good way to create night shots with a camera phone. And the presence of back lighting and silhouettes can often deliver very interesting results at night. Consider investing in a good tripod mount for your phone as this will help deliver a sharp image in those situations where using a tripod is possible. Of the two night photos below, the cable car was shot hand held and the St. John’s Bridge in Portland, Oregon was shot with a tripod.

Anticipating the Moment

If you see some interesting activity, or a cool location that people or animals pass through every now and then, take the time to get in position and wait for the right moment. You may end up with a lot of shots that don’t work out, but if you get just one that perfectly reveals a fleeting moment, the time spent waiting for that moment will have been worthwhile. The images below were made using this strategy.

These are just a few of many strategies for making creative images with your camera phone. Another part of the equation is the post processing that can be applied with photo apps. I’ll visit that topic in a future article. Please remember that color on iPhones and Android phones is uncalibrated. Checking your images in SpyderGALLERY before publishing is a good way to check focus, shadow detail, and final color.

For those who may be in Sacramento in September, I will be teaching a short class on this topic. See details here.

Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer and the co-author of Photoshop Masking & Compositing, Real World Digital Photography, and The Creative Digital Darkroom. He leads workshops on digital photography, Photoshop and Lightroom.