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Most of us have our mobile phone with us when we’re out and about, and, as they say, the best camera is the camera you have on you. But can a smartphone camera really compare to a DSLR for landscape photography, and is that even a fair comparison? In this tutorial, I’ll look at how to make the most of your smartphone’s camera for shooting landscapes.
For this tutorial, Sony loaned us an Xperia XZ2 Compact, the smallest model of their latest smartphone, which has a very advanced camera. Besides making phones, Sony is also a leading digital photography company; they've put high-quality components in every part of the imaging pipeline, including a 19 megapixel sensor and wide-angle (equivalent to 25mm on a full-frame camera), f/2.0 lens. They also have some really neat video and motion-capture features, which we won't cover here.
Understanding and Effectively Using Your Phone for Landscape Photography
Size and Weight: Consider a Tripod
The trouble with some smart phones is that they’re so thin and light that holding them for a longer exposures (as is desirable for photographing landscapes) can be tricky. They catch the wind very easily and, if you’re somewhere high, wet, or rocky, for example, you might spend more time worrying that you might drop or damage it than you do actually taking pictures.
The Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact is surprisingly weighty for a 5.3" phone. That would normally go against what we’d look for in a smartphone, but if you’re using it mostly for the camera then a bit of heft is actually desirable. It feels solid, not like a gust of wind is going to take it away at any moment.
Compactness is also helpful. The trend generally is towards larger phones and tablets—the larger XZ2 included (it's 6"). While a large phone, tablet, or phablet offers a larger screen, which is great for looking at photos, they are cumbersome, and a bit conspicuous for photography. After all, one of the main reasons to bring a smartphone for photography is so you don't have to lug a big camera around.
Whatever camera you're using for landscape photography, it’s sensible to think about mounting it on a small tripod for stability and peace of mind. They’re easy to pop in your pocket or bag, so it’s not a huge burden to carry one around. I’m using ‘Iggy’ by 3 Legged Thing.
Auto Versus Manual Exposure Modes
I think the most important aspect of getting the best out of your smartphone’s camera is actually knowing what it’s capable of and how to use it. While you won’t have the same flexibility as with your DSLR, knowing your device means being able to make better decisions in variable conditions than your phone might.
Having said that, the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact, boasts a Superior
Auto Mode. I was sceptical, but when I compared images I took on Manual and
Superior Auto, they were very similar.
However, in some situations the Sony does what I’ve found most smartphone cameras (and plenty of other digital cameras) do, and that’s to bump up the exposure—and potentially blow out your highlights. Usually you can just have it meter from a darker part of the image to remedy this, but depending on the scene, that can be fiddly.
In Manual mode you can usually still choose to keep some aspects in auto, if that’s more comfortable for you. So, like the A and S modes on a DSLR, for example, you can choose to set your own aperture and let the camera work out the white balance and ISO.
While I’m not a pixel peeper, I do see the merit in being able to get more out of your photographs in post-production, and more pixels certainly helps with that. You should be able to choose your camera’s picture ratio or crop, and that will affect the available pixels.
For example, the XZ2 Compact boasts 19MP, but that’s at a 4:3 ratio. At its standard setting, it’s configured to 16:9, but that only equates to 17MP. In this case, it’s not a huge difference but the 16:9 ratio feels more fitting for landscapes, so I’m willing to take the 2MP loss rather than have to crop later or make allowances for composition.
If you’re a regular user and all you’re doing is sharing images straight out of the camera, online, or making prints for home use, then you won’t care too much about megapixels—most cameras and smartphones have you covered. If you’re a photographer and you want to potentially edit and crop your image later, then it’s worth paying attention not only to the megapixel number but also the sensor size.
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Making Landscape Photographs by Smartphone
Whether you’re taking landscapes with your smartphone or with a DSLR, the principles are the same. Where we need to think differently is in the lack of flexibility when it comes to a smartphone: how can we turn that around and make it work for us?
A smartphone camera generally has a wide lens; the XZ2 Compact has a 25mm-equivalent lens. The wide lens lets you take advantage of that to get photographs of open spaces and big skies.
A mobile phone isn’t heavy like a DSLR can be, so it’s easier to get pictures from higher and lower perspectives—particularly if you have that tripod to keep it steady!
A wide lens means great panoramic views, but sometimes that can leave your viewers' eye with nowhere to land, and so, no interest in your photograph. Try to think about how you can include inviting foreground while still getting the whole landscape in. Look for things like interesting rocks, layers in the hills, or plants and flowers.
Looking for lines to guide the eye through the image is another way to create images with a fixed wide lens while still being able to get in lots of lovely background.
If you have a high-spec phone then you might have a dual camera, in which case you can zoom, hurrah! However, zoom with a static lens what you’re actually doing is just cropping the image in and losing quality, so avoid it! If you must crop, do it in post-production where you at least have the original to fall back on.
You can see from this image that zooming in is already
causing the same bothersome artefacting as compression: a loss of quality generally, but
particularly noticeable around hard edges like buildings. It's over-cropped.
Post-Production for Smartphone Landscape Photographs
Check that your phone is saving to the highest quality. Usually, it’s set to save as a large JPEG, which means you have a lot less options than if you usually shoot in RAW. However, I still prefer to open up JPEGs with the Adobe Camera RAW editor. To do this in Photoshop, go to File > Open As and select Camera RAW from the options.
Once you have the editor open, you should be able to find your make of phone in the Profile tab, which will then allow you to correct any lens distortion or chromatic aberration.
The day had a grey and drab start, so I was never going to get much out of those clouds with a phone, but the overall image is well exposed and quite balanced. Thank you Superior Auto Mode! We can still make some basic adjustments to improve the image without losing any of the definition.
Make Basic Adjustments
Here, I’ve toned down the highlights, raised the shadows, bumped the overall exposure, and then added some clarity and definition. I’ve also reduced the vibrance, as mobile phone cameras generally favour over-saturation of colours.
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Is comparing a phone camera to a DSLR unfair? Yes, of course it is, they’re completely different things. Am I going to do it anyway? You’re darn right I am.
We’re photographers, so if we’re not comparing it to our regular kit then what’s the point? It’s not about which is superior, it is about getting the very best out of your phone camera that you can. I think we can only do that if we try and hold it to our usual, high standard of image quality.
I took some identical images with my Nikon D800 DSLR and the Sony. Straight out of the camera (with the same basic edits as above) they’re pretty comparable:
I shot the above image using the manual exposure mode, so that I had complete control. I compensated for the sky and made the exposure darker overall—slightly under-exposed—as I knew I’d be able to protect the highlights in the clouds and bring back more of the sky definition that way.
Here’s the same image shot with my Nikon D800.
At this point, there isn’t much difference—great! The DSLR
image, though, could be cropped in much further without losing definition than
the phone camera could. But that’s okay, we don’t expect superior resolution
with phone cameras. 19 megapixels is plenty.
Pushing the Edit
I’m a big fan of high-contrast, dramatic black and white images, so I was keen to see whether the Sony could handle that kind of edit. First the Nikon, then the Sony:
The phone image stands up better than I thought. I really push the contrast with this style of image, and it did well. It does suffer from more grain than the DSLR image, but that could be a boon if you like a grainy film look. There's also a spot of haloing around the rock edges that isn't present in the DSLR image.
All in all though, not bad!
Tell Stories With Your Landscape Photos
Each individual picture doesn’t need to be perfect. Try combining images into a montage or creating diptychs and triptychs to tell a story of your trip. Choose complimentary images that your audience can see at a glance, relate to one another.
By applying similar processing or filters to your images, you can more easily make them look like they belong in a set. This is handy if the weather changes dramatically while you’re out shooting.
Try adding some text to give context to your montage.
Every phone has its own set of features and it’s up to you how you use them. Keep it simple. If you shoot cleanly then you always have the option to edit your original image later. If you use in-app features like ‘bokeh’ to create a faux depth of field, then you’re usually stuck with it. High dynamic range features usually work by upping the sharpness, contrast and saturation, and by artificially dampening the highlights and increasing the shadows. If you want the option of a higher dynamic range, then, if possible, it’s better to shoot like you would on a DSLR: manually change your settings between exposures and merge the images later.
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I’m constantly amazed at the speed camera phones are developed and improved. In just a few years we’ve come incredibly far and photography has become accessible, if not quite affordable, for everyone.
If you’re not a photographer, but you enjoy taking photographs, then a camera phone is perfect—you’ll get decent prints, you can share your pictures online with friends and family, and straight out of the camera you’ll get images that are sharp, clear and pleasantly saturated.
If you’re a photographer, your camera phone might frustrate you at times when it doesn’t have the flexibility of a DSLR. That’s okay, they’re different tools for different outcomes and I think as long as you keep that in mind, you’ll get good use out of both.
Here are some of the main points to remember when taking landscape photographs with your mobile phone:
- Having a small tripod will help keep your phone secure and combat hand shake.
- Learning to use your phone’s manual mode means you can make better decisions in changeable conditions.
- Make sure your image sizes are set to the maximum quality and while you shouldn’t be obsessed with megapixels, you should familiarise yourself with what a camera has, versus what you need.
- Avoid using zoom, you can always crop your image later if required.
- Don’t be afraid to pull your images up in your regular photo editing software and put them through their paces.
- Use your knowledge of composition and put as much thought into your mobile images as you would with a DSLR, they don’t have to just be ‘snaps.’
- Tell stories with your images by grouping them
together in a montage.