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How to Embrace the Creative Limitations of Smartphone Photography

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Read Time: 6 min

Most of my photographer friends have serious resistance to using their smartphone camera for anything other than snapshots. Make no mistake: your smartphone's camera can't compete with your full frame DSLR in low light situations, and the detail is impossible to match.

However, smartphone photography has its own strengths and advantages. Unlike your DSLR, you can capture, edit, and upload your images directly from your smartphone. 

It wasn't that long ago that I didn't think of my iPhone's camera as a capable camera. In this article, I want to share some ideas on how to use your smartphone camera effectively and embrace it as part of your camera kit.

Find Your Mobile Workflow

One reason that I resisted jumping into mobile photography: it didn't fit into my existing workflow. I have a robust Lightroom catalog with ten years of images from my SLR's, but my smartphone pictures just didn't seem to fit in.

Thus, my resistance to using my smartphone was born. I would take only casual snapshots with my iPhone, and rarely transfer them when I upgraded phones.

Allagash Brewing Co ImageAllagash Brewing Co ImageAllagash Brewing Co Image
Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine by Andrew Childress (iPhone 6s).

I started using my iPhone's camera daily when I decided how the images would fit into my workflow. Maybe you're in the same situation, and you feel like you don't know how to manage your mobile images. Here are several strengths of the mobile-first workflow and how you can implement them.

Less Friction for Storage

Images captured with my DSLR go through a structured workflow: I capture images, import them to two locations for safety, process in Lightroom, export finished copies, and mirror my library to Amazon Cloud Drive.

On my iPhone, things are much simpler. I capture an image, and the next time I connect to Wi-Fi, it's saved to my iCloud Photo Library. My images are available whether I pick up my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook.

Apple Photos ExampleApple Photos ExampleApple Photos Example
Apple Photos can show images from your iCloud Photo Library. I like this approach because the images I capture with my iPhone show up on my Mac almost instantly.

Android and iOS offer seamless methods to sync images to the cloud, meaning with both iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos you don't have to store all images locally on the device. On my iPhone, I can access all 1,500 images in my account, but only about 200 megabytes of storage are currently used. Recent images are stored directly on the device, but I can browse the entire library and download full images as needed. Android has an equally strong cloud platform in Google Photos. If you prefer to be more platform agnostic, you can use something like Dropbox with auto upload turned on to send your images to your Dropbox account.

Here's my perspective: before I take an image with a DSLR, I determine if it's going to be worth the trouble of going through my workflow. On my iPhone, I don't hesitate to take an image because the workflow is so easy.

Excellent Editing Apps

Android and iOS both have excellent editing apps. The built-in photo editors are good enough for basic corrections and cropping and built into the standard photo libraries.

Outside of that, don't miss out on these popular photo editing apps:

  • VSCO Cam - Probably the most popular mobile editor, it's great for film style edits on mobile.
  • Phonto - this is a slick app to add text on top of an image for a creative look.
  • Polarr - a creative photo editor for more advanced adjustments.
  • Lightroom for Mobile - The mobile app is free, and if you're a Creative Cloud user you can upload images to your Lightroom Catalog.
Andrew Childress - Knoxville TNAndrew Childress - Knoxville TNAndrew Childress - Knoxville TN
Covered walking area, Knoxville, TN by Andrew Childress (iPhone 6s).

Easier to Share

I'm going to go out on a limb here: if you have a smartphone, you probably use at least one social network. Most social networks have excellent mobile apps, so it makes sense that the easiest way to post your images is directly from your smartphone.

Forrest Lane Grid CaptureForrest Lane Grid CaptureForrest Lane Grid Capture
Multiple cameras captured by Forrest Lane (iPhone 5s).

When I started using my smartphone camera, I started sharing images more frequently. The mobile workflow is all about removing the barriers to capture, share, and store your images.

Revisit Your Smartphone as a Camera

I've got a feeling that many Tuts+ readers are early adopters. You might have tried the camera on your smartphone several years ago and dismissed it as an image making tool. No matter how easy the workflow is, the camera has to be solid to make this worth your time.

Here's the problem: if you've not tried using your smartphone as a serious camera lately, you might be underestimating its capabilities.  Both iOS and Android devices can even capture images now in DNG (a universal RAW format) for more latitude in the editing process.

Color Wall - Houston - Jay InmanColor Wall - Houston - Jay InmanColor Wall - Houston - Jay Inman
Jay Inman's image of Houston's Color Wall shot with an iPhone 6 is a great example of the sensor capabilities of a modern smartphone  (iPhone 6). 

It might be time to give your mobile phone another shot. The camera on the smartphone you tried three years ago is markedly improved in the latest smartphones.

Embrace The Weaknesses of Your Smartphone

If there's one thing I know about photography, it's this: limitations encourage creativity. Some of my favorite photos came from the time that I walked out the door with one prime lens, or had to shoot an image under a dim lamp's light.

You might be avoiding your smartphone because it doesn't have an optical zoom, or can't shoot clean images at ISO 6400. I posit that this is exactly the reason that smartphone photography is powerful.

Andrew Childress Boston HarborAndrew Childress Boston HarborAndrew Childress Boston Harbor
Boston Harbor, Boston, MA (iPhone 6s).

When you use your smartphone's camera, you know exactly what's possible. You aren't able to zoom in without loss of quality, or convey the shallow depth of field (on most smartphones, anyway). When you acknowledge those shortcomings, you start thinking about what is possible. For me, this problem solving is where the real creativity starts to happen.

Mobile Photography Grants Access

Most stadiums have strict camera policies. Good luck getting through the gate of an arena or concert venue with a sizable DSLR and telephoto lens. Even a fast prime can trigger security to turn you away at the door.

It's hard to imagine a venue banning smartphones, however. It's the perfect reason to favor your mobile device over your main camera.

Jay Inman Concert PhotographyJay Inman Concert PhotographyJay Inman Concert Photography
Jay Inman captured this image of a Maroon 5 concert in Knoxville, TN (iPhone 6). 

With a smartphone, you might not be able to zoom in for a detailed image of a lead guitarist or point guard. But, you can grab a wide shot of the venue and capture a memory of the event that takes you back instantly.

Remember: the best camera is the one that you can actually take with you. There are certain situations that a smartphone is your only hope of capturing images. 

Recap & Keep Learning

Not only are smartphone sensors and lenses better than ever, there are legitimate advantages to the workflow. Here are more tutorials to help maximize yours:

  • If you're on iOS, learning more about Apple Photos will help you think of your iPhone as a capable camera. Check out my course Apple Photos for Photographers for a quick guide to getting started.
  • Daniel Korpai has a great tutorial on a smartphone imagery workflow if you want to manage your mobile images from capture to edit to share.
  • Don't want to use your smartphone as a camera? You can still use it to Edit DSLR RAW Photos.
  • If you're a desktop Adobe Lightroom user, check out this recent piece on 3 Changes to Lightroom Mobile to find out more about the mobile app.

How do you use your smartphone? Is it a serious camera for you, or just for simple snapshots?

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