Mobile phone photography

Photography is (i) a creative expression of an individual or group, (ii) documentation of realities and (iii) interpretation of the reality.

As an individual interested in photography, your mind subconsciously applies the principles of photography (compositions, light, etc…) when you look and when you come across any compelling subject, you go for the tool to capture that moment.

2019, Google Pixel 2, Snapseed

When it comes to tools, as with any other profession, we have choices that falls under (i) the one at our disposal in that very moment or (ii) the one we purposely select to achieve our photography vision.

Mobile photography, a growing and disruptive phenomenon is making huge strides in the field of photography. It’s a phenomenon because we never knew we would need these many images and disruptive because it constantly shakes the photography field, breaking new barriers.

Majority of the non-serious photographers have switched to mobile phones to capture occasional photos. Some mobile photographers have created names for themselves by hacking mobile photography and creating a completely new tool-set to express their creativity.

2019, Google Pixel 2, Edited in Snapseed

Moving forward, the mobile phone photography space will evolve at a much rapid pace and deliver tools to capture images better than we have done until now and it may be sufficient for majority of our every day photography needs.

In this article, I have explored some of the use cases where mobile phone camera are either dominating and/or complimenting and thus, providing overall relevancy for mobile phone photography.

Street and/or journalism photography

Increasingly people are becoming anxious over someone photographing them on the streets. Sometimes shooting with a dedicated camera may not be entirely feasible (while many street photographers do interact with their subjects to ease their anxiety, it is not possible in all cases). This is where the stealth nature of mobile phone camera comes into play. Combined with it’s ability to actively be backed up to the cloud and provide software to quickly edit and share, mobile phones camera is definitely a tool to be used (or added to the existing dedicated camera).

Social photography

This is the use case for majority of smart phone owners. We document more than the previous (or the ones before that) generations. The documentation varies from family to friends, social gathering and political. While we do not need much pictures (we don’t really go back to all the images we have shot after a while), having access to it and means to store and share, makes us do it most of the time.

Software aided photography on the smartphones makes photographing active kids a breeze. I almost photograph my kids entirely on my Google Pixel 2 these days. I can match their speed in making good creative compositions.

Commercial photography

While it is not a general use case, mobile phone cameras are used in many commercial photo-shoots. It is true that in many such photography sessions, accessories are added to the mobile phone camera, similar to a DSLR/MILC. It is quite common for mobile phone manufacturers to release “shot with x phone” campaign to promote application of mobile phones in photography.

Mobile phone photography fits one genre more than the other in commercial photography. For instance, images taken on a mobile phone can be mixed with pictures of dedicated camera for a wedding. However, genre such as fashion, architectural, sports, stock and product photography require much more than the outputs generated by mobile phones for its intended applications.

Landscape photography

This is another genre where mobile phones with their excellent photography abilities shine. I often use my mobile phone camera to scout a new location or even make serious compositions to share. Many times photographs taken using my mobile have outdone the dedicated camera (I will partly blame my impatience with the dedicated camera and ability to quick-compose and quick-edit on my mobile phone).

Skills

Creative skills such as composition, understanding of the right light, working out right colors are important to smartphone photography as to dedicated camera photography. The skills you need to produce a compelling photo goes beyond the tool (hence it is often implied as ‘its not the camera but the person behind the camera that matters more‘) and hence one must spend some time honing those skills.

2017, Google Pixel 2, no editing

Having less distraction from the tool, and lack of accessories (compared to various accessories that could add more versatility to a dedicated camera) can be a motivation factor in finding creative compositions and produce stunning images. Despite the tool used, it is always a good idea to read some skill based photography books and develop them.

Tools

Smartphone camera come in all colors, make, build, sizes and flavors. Hence, finding a camera with acceptable capabilities is very important. It doesn’t have to be a multi-lens camera to provide zoom capabilities. More often, physically getting closer to the image provides you with better compositions.

2018, Google pixel 2, no editing

To me, a smart phone camera must be quite capable of capturing low light (hence aperture range), produce less noise, provides at least 8×10 printable output without losing the image quality, suitable for wide angle shot as well as portraits (avoiding lens distortion on portraits is important).

2017, Google pixel 2, no editing

Apart from that, the default camera app must provide good control (not full manual controls, but good enough simple tap based controls), speed (instead of taking 1/2 second to process an image, it must be near instantaneous) and decent post processing applications (to me they are Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop express) in its ecosystem.

2017, Google Pixel 2, no editing

Everything else is secondary and they can be added as needed (probably at that point, most of the smart phone shooters will keep a dedicated camera).

Shortfall

As much as mobile photography is excellent and growing, there are places where it just cannot compete with an DSLR/MILC. It is important to be aware of that in order to make the right tool choices:

Post processing – although some camera applications produce RAW images, post processing using a professional software (Desktop/Laptop installed software for example) is very limited due to the smaller sensor just not capable of providing the required wiggle room.

Printing – while pictures taken using mobile camera lets you print 8×10 images without losing clarity, it does so when you go beyond that. Due to the sensor size, it doesn’t have enough pixel to scale large despite the new 40mp phones.

Lens versatility – It is still limited in what you can do with smart phone camera. There are certain applications of photography where you need a specialty lens (such as wildlife photography, landscape photography where you need to zoom in on a mountain) which is not possible with smart phone camera yet. This applies to achieving certain field of view on a certain lens a well.

Ergonomics – for some individuals this plays a big role in not considering mobile phones as a serious photography tool.

Flash – most of the mobile phone cameras do away with the flash these days due to their limitation. Even the ones that does, are not effective as compared to the flash/strobes available for the DSLR/MILC cameras. Software innovation such as Nightsight eliminates this for landscapes and certain photography, but still not quite there.

Background separation (a.k.a Bokeh) – While software innovations have filled the gap for limited applications, smaller sensor means, the lens have to be stellar to produce natural bokeh straight out of camera. Maybe in the near future, continued software innovations would eliminate this completely, but it is not there yet.

Conclusion

Despite the drawbacks of mobile phone photography, we must acknowledge their impact in the society and the field of photography and embrace rather than dismissing it. Perhaps mobile photography is here to compliment photography using dedicated camera rather than eliminate it.

The future of mobile photography and photography in general is interesting. Embrace mobile photography and let your creativity grow even more.