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Smartphone as Camera: Embracing Photography's New Visual Vocabulary

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This post is part of a series called Social and Smartphone Photography.
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This post is part of a series called How To Use Your iPhone Like a Pro.
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Smartphone photography is popular, ubiquitous, and here for the long term. It’s estimated that about two-thirds of the world’s population use mobile phones, and of those, almost half use smartphones. It’s impossible to know how many of those smartphones are used for taking photographs, but it’s a good guess that it’s a lot. We put about 350 million photos on social media each day and the top three most popular cameras on Flickr are all iPhones. I’d say that means smartphone photography is pulling ahead as the most popular way to take a photograph.

As smartphone photography grows, questions about the nature of photography and its future are being asked. Are smartphones destroying photography as an art form? Is smartphone photography diluting image making? Are smartphones real cameras? 

The Grammar of Photography

The question I’ve been thinking about is this: do you need to know the basics of photography to take good pictures with a smartphone? Some photographers argue that making photography more accessible does not make it better, particularly when the camera does not offer a way to learn the mechanics of photography.  

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the noted photojournalist, was a master of candid photography. He maintained that good photography couldn’t happen until the photographer learned the grammar of photography. According to Cartier-Bresson, just as we learn, imbed, and unconsciously use the grammar of language to engage in conversation, so must a photographer learn and imbed the grammar of photography to take pictures. Instead of word order and punctuation, a photographer learns f-stops and focal lengths, frame rates and aspect-ratios.  The nature of our tools creates creative restraints: design and communication problems that we endure to find novel ways to solve. Our solutions are the basis of photography's visual vocabulary.

Cartier-Bresson’s Leica rangefinder allowed changes in aperture and shutter speed. Changing films changed the processing speed or ISO. With today’s smartphones, focal lengths are fixed and f-stops are automatic. The world is mediated by a tiny television screen instead of a lens. So how important is it that a smartphone user learn the grammar of photography?

I’ve been using an SLR and then DSLR camera for a very long time. My cameras are almost always set to Manual, meaning I need to think about the grammar of photography with each shot. But when I want to take a photograph while out walking with my dog or take a photo of friends at a party, I reach for my smartphone. I could use one of the manual apps for my smartphone and choose the camera settings myself, but I don’t. Instead, I allow my mind to go on autopilot and concentrate on getting a great composition, a perfect smile, or that split second action.

Experimenting

Knowing that I could abandon the grammar of photography, I set out with my smartphone over a period of a few weeks to see what I could capture. While it took me a few days to get into the mindset of using my smartphone creatively, it took me no time at all to abandon any concerns about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or focal length. I think my results are worthy.

Sunrise on the Ottawa River
My first photographs with my smartphone were pictures of pretty scenes.
After a few days of experimenting, I began to construct photographs.

After my two week experiment, I reached three conclusions.

1. Ultimately, success with photography is not as dependant on the tool being used as much as it is dependant on knowing how to use the tool you have

Ansel Adams needed to understand and work the relationship between lens axis and tilt and shift of the film holder in order to take his photographs with a view camera. Cartier-Bresson may have been aware of those principles, but he did not need to use them to take photographs with his rangefinder camera. Similarly, I need to understand how to use focal length, aperture, and shutter speed settings in order to use my DSLR effectively. But smartphones do not require that I know or use that information. 

Knowing how to use the tool you have does not necessarily mean knowing less but it usually does mean knowing something different. Moreover, understanding the particular characteristics of your tool and using those characteristics to your advantage transforms your picture-taking from simple snapshots to visually engaging photographs.

Ansel Adams did not need to consider the parallax effect that Cartier-Bresson had to learn with his rangefinder. And because Cartier-Bresson not only learned but mastered parallax, he was able to successfully use it to his advantage. By taking advantage of the distance between viewfinder and lens, Cartier-Bresson improved his ability to anticipate action, increasing his success at capturing the decisive moments.

In the same way, I need to come to terms with the characteristics of a smartphone if I want to use it to take good photographs. I may not need to master aperture and shutter speed, but I do need to understand the enhanced depth of field that smartphones contribute to photographs. By understanding it, I can use that characteristic to my advantage as I did in the following photograph to add depth to what would have otherwise been a flat image. 

View in the Sideview Mirror

2. Knowing and understanding the basic principles of image construction influences the quality of photographs taken with a smartphone

Whether sketching with a pencil, painting with a brush, designing with a computer, or taking photographs with a smartphone, the same set of visual principles will shape your end result.

Composition

All pictures are limited by the edges of the image. With a camera, the image could be square or rectangular, and if rectangular, could be tall or wide. Composition requires that you think about how you will organize your picture: what shape the picture will be, what will be included in the picture, and where those elements will be placed.

Graphic Elements

We build images by using lines, shapes, direction, size, texture, colour, and value (or tone). Understanding how these elements make a picture - good or bad - helps us to compose and take better photographs.

Design Basics

Through years of study, we’ve come to understand that there are objective principles of design that create the impressions we see in pictures. We can change the impact of a picture by manipulating graphic elements to change balance, perspective, repetition, contrast, harmony, dominance, and unity.

Light and Colour

Perhaps more than in any other visual art, understanding light and how it works is critical to producing good photographs. Light also affects the colours in pictures and the relationship between colours. 

Intent

Thinking about the purpose of your picture will influence how you use the other visual principles to construct your image. Deliberately using and adjusting the principles makes an identifiable difference to the style of a picture.

Rain
I worked with texture, repetition, and light to create this photograph.

3. The nature and quality of light in a scene remain the most important considerations when composing a photograph

I’ve already mentioned the importance of light and colour as a principle of design, but in photography, light is a constant that affects every photograph you take. Photography is ultimately and distinctly the craft of recording light. It’s light passing through a small hole (the lens) that creates the image to be recorded. Knowing, understanding, and applying the theories of light to your photography will impact your outcome more than any choice of camera.  

Quantity

Photographers refer to this quality as brightness. As light gets brighter, a camera can capture more information with improving quality.

Direction

We see the effect of light direction when we look at shadows, but in photography, even the most subtle changes in light direction will affect what and how we see the subject of photographs. Light direction changes shape, size, texture, and contrast.

Colour

Our eyes see light as colourless, but cameras see and record the way light varies in colour depending upon its source. Photographers learn to see and use colour variations in light, capitalizing, for example, on the violet tones of morning light or the warm golden glow of indoor lamps.

Light Tree
I took advantage of low light with a warm glow to create this photograph with my smartphone.

Conclusion

Some photographers and critics argue that good photography requires that photographers learn, understand, and apply the mechanics of photography. To learn those mechanics, they argue, photographers should learn to use traditional cameras and understand their techniques.

Kodak introduced the Brownie camera in 1900 as an inexpensive, simple camera that anyone could use. Many people did use them, producing outstanding photographs without any knowledge of the mechanics of photography. Today’s Brownie is the smartphone. As with the Brownie, I maintain that while knowing the mechanics of photography can be a good thing, it’s not necessary to produce quality photographs with a smartphone.

What will result in better photographs is learning the characteristics of the camera you are using, understanding and using the basic visual principles to compose photographs, and learning and applying the principles of light. In fact, smartphones are ideal for exploring visual principles and the nature of light because the other aspects of photography are automatic or fixed, or at best, only marginally adjustable. Also, because smartphones provide immediate feedback by composing photographs on the screen, the effects of manipulating visual principles and light are quickly apparent.

And here’s an added bonus: using a smartphone to explore visual principles and the nature of light will result in better photographs using any camera. So, onward with your smartphone and play!

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