Get More From Your iPhone’s Camera

It’s a clumsy word, but it’s catching on. iPhoneography or mobilography is taking photographs on your iPhone. Not just simple snaps or selfies; pictures that go beyond the basics and use your iPhone like you would an expensive camera. It goes by many names including: mobilography, iphoneography and smartphone photography and it cannot be ignored. The mobile phone has now become more than a mere telecommunication device. It has transformed into a smartphone, or as more people refer to it, a camera phone. The boom in sales of smartphones, such as the iPhone, has been huge. At first, it was just a mobile telephone, but as the technology advanced, it became a gaming device, social media hub and a camera too. You only have to take a look at a busy high street, or any large gathering of people at an event and you see a forest of hands holding up their phones to record the moment.

The Rise and Rise of iPhoneography

Sales of iPhones have increased and this has had a knock-on effect in the world of the digital camera. The compact digital is feeling the effects of the rise of mobile tech and in recent years, demand for an entry-level digital camera has waned. Casual photographers have turned to their camera phone, a device that is now so ingrained in our culture, it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist.

Whilst images taken on a camera phone cannot yet rival the quality of DSLRs, the leaps in technology being made have closed the gap considerably. In reality, the quality is not even close just yet, but that’s not the idea behind mobilography. The quality of the shot is secondary to the concept of just going out, having a little fun and getting creative with a device that should be intended for making phone calls and which now has an avid following in mobile photography circles.

So Many Choices

So prevalent is cameraphone culture, that many people serious about wanting to use their device for mobile photography, now base their purchasing decision on the quality of the camera and little else. After all, when you buy a new phone you’re usually locked into an 18- or 24-month contract, so getting the most up-to-date tech with as many bang-for-the-buck features is a priority. You’ve a decent number of iPhone models to choose from too, all with their own advantages and disadvantages. Thankfully, most apps for phone photography are released on both the iOS and Android platforms and if an app is Android-exclusive, there are always a number of similar apps out there you can use instead.

Access all Areas

The iPhone’s pre-installed Camera app is great, but it’s not the only iOS photography option. Many apps can be purchased that offer DSLR-like control, allowing you to adjust shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, white balance, focusing, exposure compensation, metering and more and even in the Camera app, there are various shooting modes over and above the standard shot functions.

HDR mode allows you to shoot a sequence of images at different exposures and combine them into a final image with increased dynamic range. You can set your iPhone to use HDR automatically or manually; go to Settings > Camera and use the Auto HDR switch.

Panorama mode is also available (PANO on the Camera app’s mode selection wheel), as is the ability to shoot a burst of images to capture a fast action sequence, just tap and hold the on-screen shutter button.

The Lens

By their very nature, phones are designed to be slim and easy to carry in your pocket or handbag, so their cameras have to be similarly low profile too. A sleek new phone with a hefty lump of a lens attached to one end is not the most ergonomic design choice. That means the lens is small, has no physical optical zoom function and is usually a fixed focal length that is roughly equivalent to a 25mm DSLR full-frame lens.

As mentioned above, the lenses have a fixed aperture that falls between f/1.7 and f/2.3. This fixed focal length issue has given rise to many third party manufacturers such as Olloclip and CamKix supplying clip-on lenses that can change the apparent focal length of the camera’s lens. They vary in size and include 10x macro, 0.67 wide angle, 180° fisheye and 12x zoom lenses.

The Flash

The flash on a phone is great if you’re shooting a selfie or a group of friends in a bar in low light conditions. For photography that is more serious: the best thing you can do is turn it off. The flash, which is a small LED light, can emit a single flash or continuous light, but it is not flattering to a subject, nor is it particularly powerful. Since it is a very small point light, the shadows it casts are sharp and hard. Even as a fill light, it is not recommended. If you are shooting in a place that requires additional light, put the phone on a sturdy tripod and do a longer exposure.

A World of Apps

Whether you are just uploading selfies to social media sites, getting involved in one of the many online mobile photography communities, or using one to unlock the full photographic potential of your iPhone, there are so many apps to choose from it can be overwhelming. However, there are a number of apps that rise above the general background noise of hundreds of others.

Camera+ 2, Halide, ProCam 5, Slow Shutter Cam and Manual are a few of the iOS apps that give you DSLR-like control over your camera phone. Combine that with solid HDR programs like Hydra and Pro HDR and you can elevate your photos to the next level. Of course, the somewhat overused filters that you see on Instagram are there too and they have their place. Some of them can be quite beautiful. It comes down to not being so heavy-handed that you lose the original detail you spent time trying to capture in the first place.

Testing iPhoneography

We put an iPhone to the test. We used the third-party app Camera+ to get the most from the smartphone’s camera, then tested it indoors and outdoors to see how it handled as a photographic device, compared to a traditional DSLR. There is a whole culture built up around using an iPhone as a camera and it’s not hard to see why. When combined with a couple of good apps, it’s actually a lot of fun once you get used to the controls. Camera+ is fairly intuitive and, if you already have a basic grounding in photographic technique, the manual control of shutter speed and ISO sensitivity, have you taking decent pictures straight away.

The screen gives you instant feedback on your settings choices, so you can press the shutter release with confidence. Although you can keep shutter speed and ISO high to eliminate camera shake, or use the built in stabilisation option, we chose to mount the iPhone on a tripod. As a DSLR photographer, old habits can die hard, but this is a good habit to retain.

It might seem like overkill to mount a small, lightweight phone on a large, heavy tripod, but it does help slow you down and take more care with the shots, as you have to line them up and choose your positioning and composition more carefully. It also means that on such a rock-solid base, the phone is not going anywhere.

Interesting Possibilities

The combination of the iPhone and the Camera+ app allowed us to get ISO sensitivity down to 0.01, which in turn allowed us to achieve shutter speeds of about four seconds in broad daylight. This suddenly opened up the possibilities of daytime long-exposure shots or control of light trails in low light and night time photography. Another nice feature, that was of great help, was the ability to set a focus point in a shot by tapping on the screen in the appropriate area and then adding a second point that could be used to meter the light. Moving the metering reticule around the display meant we could choose which area in the scene the camera was going to meter.

We tried this feature out at a local beach. Placing it just above the horizon gave us a good balanced exposure. Pressing the button started the four-second exposure and the sea was transformed into the familiar misty fog made popular in DSLR photography.

Processing and Filters

This aspect of mobile photography can divide a few people. Many are more than happy to take a picture on their phone, edit and filter it right there and then upload it to Facebook, Instagram or any number of social media and photo-sharing sites.

Snapseed is one of the many apps available where you can process your images and apply pre-set filters to change your images beyond all recognition and why not? Then there are the purists who prefer to process an image to get the most out of it, but not filter it. The rest of us probably sit in the middle of all this and use filters only now and again, or maybe we bring our shots into Photoshop Express and have a go at some post-process work, to see if we can bring out any more detail.

All of the above is down to the preference of the individual and all of the above is utterly fine. The great thing with this is, you can do what you like and enjoy it. If photography becomes a chore, where’s the fun in that? Snapseed has a lot of filtering options available. You should find a pre-set that you like without too much trouble. However, if you feel the need to make some intricate post-process adjustments to your images, it has that covered too. It has a wide range of image adjustment tools to keep you occupied for quite some time. With the iPhone and the Camera+ app, we could choose both the point of focus and the area to be metered, separately, by using the two on-screen reticules. Fine-tuning of the exposure could then be done using exposure compensation or altering either ISO, or shutter speed, to dial in a perfect exposure.

The macro clip-on lens was dug out again to try some handheld shots of the ingredients on the table. One thing we noticed was the 10x magnification factor of the macro lens was almost too much. The close ups were so close that you lost a sense of what you were shooting and it almost turned into an abstract. A few small coffee beans were just the right size to fill the frame of the shot and make for some impressive macro photos.

Parting Thoughts

The iPhone’s ability to take long exposures was a big plus and offered a huge range of creative possibilities. What this tells us is that even without up-to-date phones that have more pixels and available features, mobile photography is both fun and creative. When you take your phone out of auto mode and start to use the functions more like a DSLR, you can appreciate the technicalities of photography while still enjoying the freedom of using a device that, not so long ago, would have been languishing in your pocket waiting for a phone call.

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