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The Camera in your Pocket

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Today’s smartphones house powerful camera options and can be used for more than just ‘selfies’ Today’s smartphones house powerful camera options and can be used for more than just ‘selfies’ Nito/Shutterstock
17 Apr
Today, the camera is regarded as an essential smartphone feature. But it was only in the previous decade that the developments we now take for granted were first conceived

Barely 15 years ago, a built-in camera was heralded as the latest innovation in mobile phone technology. By today’s standards, the images of the Sharp J-SH04 were poor – image resolution was a paltry 0.11 megapixels (MP) – and many people felt this novel addition to the handset merely reminded them of the need to bring a ‘proper’ camera when going out to take pictures. Today, it is hard to imagine a more ubiquitous possession of modern life, but back in November 2000, when the J-SH04 was launched – solely for the Japanese market – no-one could say with absolute confidence how popular the camera phone concept would become.


Birth of the iPhone

There was one landmark launch, just ten years ago, which ensured that camera phones would fundamentally change the way we take pictures, as well as the way we use them. By 2007, the big three brands of the time – Sony, Samsung, and Nokia – had each brought out headline-grabbing 5MP camera phones, but it was the launch of the first Apple iPhone that was a real game-changer.

Although the original iPhone did not have a great camera – just 2MP of resolution – the touch-screen and easy interface with the internet opened another dimension in the potential of mobile communications, including the use of photographic images.

In July 2008, Apple produced another game-changer, one that would have a profound influence on the way we use pictures taken on our phones: the dual launch of the online App Store and the iPhone 3G. From this point all smartphone makers, not just Apple, realised that it was software apps that would add excitement to people’s pictures, resulting in more people becoming interested in photography. The success of the iPhone 3G and the hundreds of photo apps available to download also questioned the need for a separate camera. Increasingly, people began to look at the phone in their pocket as their ‘go anywhere’ camera as well.

From 2008, the public began to see their smartphone images as a fundamental means of communication. Such has been the speed of the evolution since, many would now say the camera is the most important feature of a smartphone. It has certainly changed our behaviour as the corresponding rise in camera phone images posted online would prove.


Apps for photographers

So what apps should the photographer add to their latest smartphone today? Many experts recommend overriding the camera app function built into the phone by downloading third-party software such as Camera+ or ProCamera+, to give a greater range of creative options, such as slower shutter speeds in low-light conditions, or more manual control.

There are plenty of photo editing apps available, many of which are free, such as Adobe Photoshop Fix, designed to lighten, retouch and smooth shots of people (essential before posting selfies online), and Photo Editor, which provides basic tools for cropping images, boosting contrast and adding stylish filter effects.

Other apps can provide specific effects such as 360 Panorama. As its name suggests, this is designed to make a full 360-degree view around the photographer from their standing point. Another similar app, PanoPerfect, includes access to a dedicated social network for sharing panoramic images.

As for selfies, there can be no doubt that the biggest change camera phones have made to photography is the way we see ourselves. The self-portrait is as old as art itself, but the arrival of the internet combined with mobile digital photography and social media sites has quickly made the selfie the most common image in modern-day photography. Today, crowds of tourists can be seen clashing selfie-sticks in their attempts to get the best position for taking a self-portrait with an iconic landmark in the background.



Unsurprisingly, two of the most popular smartphone apps are for the social media sites Facebook and Instagram, each of which hosts millions of new smartphone images taken every day. With nearly two billion active users, Facebook helps drive the public’s habit to take and share numerous pictures with their phone on a daily basis. With more than 600 million active users, Instagram is fast catching up. It was launched only six years ago, specifically as a free app for mobile phone photography, first for Apple’s iOS platform, then two years later for Android phones. Along with the older photo sharing sites, Flickr, 500px and Pinterest, Instagram has gained credence among photographers seeking comment and critique, or just to find out which images are most popular.

As smartphones and photo apps have become more sophisticated and versatile, DSLR users, including pros, are taking a more positive view about camera phone photography. Many choose to add the phone to the usual cameras and lenses they take on a shoot. One only has to look at the specification of the current Samsung Galaxy S7 and Apple iPhone 7 to see that in some fast occurring situations, a phone’s touch-screen interface is the only choice for getting the picture. Furthermore, image quality now is good enough for publishing in most print media – although always check with your editor first!


cityEven some of the biggest names in photography are now using smartphones for their latest projects (Image: GaudiLab)

Manual control

One of the greatest advantages of a touch-screen for camera phone photography is the degree of manual control it gives to the user, particularly for observing the changes in exposure and focusing across the screen. By seeing how the scene brightens or darkens as you touch different parts of the screen, the user is able to understand the relationship between exposure time and the amount of detail captured, especially in shaded areas.

Some advanced smartphones and photo apps provide a breadth of creativity and possibility that is comparable to many DSLR cameras. For example, face detection autofocus is now common, as is High Dynamic Range (HDR), creative filter effects, and even an optical stabiliser to counteract movements while taking a picture. Of course, flash is standard on most models, as is a continuous burst of images and a choice of format ratios.

But one distinct operational advantage of a camera phone over a DSLR camera is the size of the screen. With a trend towards bigger smartphones, users can now review images on larger and brighter screens than on most cameras, as well as compose more precisely when taking the picture. And just like DSLRs, both screen resolution and image resolution are improving with every new model released.


Camera phone masters

Intriguingly, some of the biggest names in photography are now using smartphones for their latest projects and making regular posts on Instagram. One such person is legendary wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, who is renowned for producing epic coffee table books and performance pieces combining still images with commissioned orchestral music. ‘Being on Instagram is a whole new way of communicating in a way that is much more spontaneous than putting together a book or a symphony,’ he says. Lanting is clearly confident in the quality of images now attainable with smartphones as he is also working on another performance piece, but this time combining music with ‘images made with my phone.’

The American portrait and documentary photographer Stephen Shore is another devotee of smartphone photography and photo sharing websites. Late last year he revealed that most of his photography is now taken on an iPhone: ‘All I am doing is Instagram. Everything I post on Instagram is taken with the iPhone, except Throw Back Thursday pictures.’

Shore used an 8x10in plate camera for his social documentary work for more than 30 years. The size and bulk of this camera and the time-consuming method behind its use meant he limited himself to one sheet of film, one picture, for many of his subjects. However, this is a discipline that he continues with the iPhone. He says: ‘You know, if you use an 8x10 for 30 years, you take one picture. That’s how I use the iPhone. Basically I’m treating it like a view camera and it’s similar. Instead of looking at the ground glass I’m looking at the screen, but it’s not looking through the camera. When I see people photographing with their iPads, I can relate to that.’

So, maybe what most of us think as a new way of seeing pictures through the screen of a mobile phone or other device, is not so new after all.



Use the touch-screen to check exposure variations across the frame. This will show you where is the best point to get an average reading to ensure an even exposure across the frame.

Select the phone’s High Dynamic Range mode in situations of high contrast lighting. In HDR, the camera automatically takes two images of the scene, one exposed for the highlights, the other for the shadows and then blends the two together into one picture.

Experiment with various filter effects. These are simple ways to make creative changes such as sepia or mono conversions, layering textured effects, or adding Polaroid-style borders.



Just use your smartphone for selfies! The image resolutions of today’s camera phones are good enough for taking photos as detailed as many digital cameras.

Immediately point and shoot, easy as it may be. It’s important to find out about the strengths and limitations of the lens on your phone. Most are wide-angle, which means they have a close focusing distance but tend to distort and soften at the edge, so move round and get in close for the best quality results.

Take a burst of images unless necessary. Few situations warrant a continuous burst of images and the time taken looking at them all to choose one can be tedious. Then what do you do with the rest? Try to avoid clogging up your camera roll or cloud storage with unwanted pictures.


Recommended reading

The Smart Phone Photography Guide by Peter Cope; Carlton Books; £9.99

iPhone Artistry by Dan Burkholder; Lark; £14.99

Social Photography: Make All Your Smartphone Photos One in a Billion by Daniela Bowker; Ilex; £9.99


equipment selections

Accessory: Tripod

Tripods are essential for DSLRs, so it makes sense that your phone be given the same support. The Joby GripTight Mount PRO (£50) includes an optional flexible Gorilla tripod for limitless set-ups. Moulded stainless steel plates fit any smartphone and the rubber footgrips and flexible legs enable the phone to be tilted at virtually any angle to help avoid glare.


Accessory: Light

Built-in flashes are largely ineffective. Fortunately, light units are available and the Pocket Spotlight (£25) is one of the most versatile. It provides continuous LED light that can be either handheld or plugged into the headphone jack. It charges via USB and lasts about an hour. There are three modes: full, half power and strobe, and can be used for stills and video.


Lens: Phone tele lens

Camera phone lenses are typically wide-angle which means they’re great for close focusing and mid-distance subjects, but not if you want distortion-free shots of people. The American-made Moment Tele Lens ($100) is a 60mm focal length, which gets you twice as close to the subject with less distortion, so ideal for portraits. Made of cinema-grade optical glass, the Moment Tele Lens is supplied with a dedicated mounting plate and clean adhesive.


This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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