Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Taking Better Photos with Your Cell Phone

I'm back from that trip, which this time took me to the Dominican Republic. Being in a tropical "paradise" (the DR is far from it, but that's the stereotype) creates an implicit pressure to take the photos of a lifetime. If it's the trip of a lifetime, you've got to take the photos of a lifetime too, right?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. First of all, if you haven't done so already, take a look at this article (which has proved to be quite controversial, judging by some comments I've received). Traveling on a (family) vacation and creating photographic masterpieces are almost assuredly mutually exclusive. The reason? Let me quote from that article to show you:
Here is Amateur Nikon's traveling photography formula:
Vp= 1/Ve
Where Vp is the Value of the Photos you are likely to take and Ve is the Value of Experience you are having. In other words, you either gonna have a good time or take good photos (none is assured of course, but they are disproportionally related; the more time you spend on taking photos, the better they will likely be and the worse your traveling experience will likely be)
Therefore, that leaves you with two options, essentially: a) have a good experience with your family or friends, enjoying your surroundings, taking only casual pics just for the memories; b) forget about your friends, family, and yourself, and try to take artistic pictures.

If you opt for the latter, take a look at this article.

Taken with a 2009 cell phone in panorama mode. Works fine.

If instead you want to learn how to take the best possible photos using nothing but your cell phone, then read on.

I traveled to the Dominican Republic planning to have a good time, not to make art. Therefore, I knew I only needed my cell phone camera, just to have some nice memories from the trip.
Twist in the plot: I got 2 cell phones with me, my primary one (the one I use daily) and an old 2009 model. You'll see why in a while.

Benefits of taking photos with a cell phone:
  1. It's always with you
  2. No need to worry about size and weight
  3. No need to worry about which lens to carry
  4. No need to worry about anything technical - there's only one technical thing you need to master, and if your phone allows you to adjust it, you're good to go.
  5. No need to worry about settings; just point and shoot

This last phrase might have made you squirm. "Point & shoot, that's so amateur, eeew".
Well, not exactly.
When you don't have time to setup and think things through (as in: where you're on a vacation and you're simply trying to have a good time), you only need to worry yourself about one thing: find something nice to photograph, then press the shutter button. If you have one or two extra seconds, you can adjust the exposure compensation, but that's about it.

Technically, this photo wouldn't have been much different if it'd been taken with a DSLR.
If I had a DSLR it wouldn't have been taken at all, because I wouldn't bother lugging it.

There is also another reason cell phone cameras can be better than a DSLR: they can be more expendable. Of course, if you're using a $800 cell phone, then you're an idiot then this doesn't apply. But if a $150 phone suffers damage, it's not a big deal. I went a step further: As I told you, I got a second cell with me, a Samsung from 2009 with a decent camera. Things I did with it: a) went into the waves with it (I wouldn't dare to do that with my main phone); b) left it alone on the beach while going for a swim (ditto); c) took it with me while kayaking (yep, ditto). At the end of each day, I would transfer all the photos to the main phone (and then via Internet to the cloud) and once again, for the next day, I had a completely expendable camera to take all sorts of photos with.

Taking photos passing with a kayak under a bridge is easy with a cell phone;
virtually impossible with a DSLR.

So, ultimately, it all boils down (like with so many other things in life) to choices:
a) Do you want to have a good time, enjoy your vacation, relax, spend time with the people you traveled with?
b) Do you want to try to make some good photos?

I say "try" because it's relatively easier to have a good time by... doing nothing than it is to make good photos - that, takes effort.

I was on a romantic walk when I took this photo. It took 2 seconds.

Although the title of this article implies there is a checklist of things you need to do in order to improve your cell phone photography, in actual fact there is no real need for checklist. You simply need to choose to use your phone instead of something more complex (DSLR or mirrorless). The rest fall into place, at least if your aims are clear to you.

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