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Use Your Smartphone as a Visual Sketching Tool for Photo and Video

This post is part of a series called How To Use Your iPhone Like a Pro.
The Complete Mobile Imaging Workflow for iPhone Photographers
How to Get the Most Dynamic Range from Your iPhone Camera

Visual sketching is working through an idea for a photo or video with simple methods before committing to the full shoot. This can be as basic as scouting a location and taking some test frames or as involved as blocking out a five minute steadicam one-shot video by walking around with a viewfinder.

Smartphones have changed photography and videography, and the freedom to do all kinds of visual sketching is a great change. Remember Polaroids? In this tutorial I’ll look at how to use your smartphone as a tool for visual sketching.

What is Visual Sketching?

Artists working with traditional mediums normally spend time before each work of art, often an awful lot of time, sketching out what they’re going to do. For a large painting, they’ll go through several rough sketches—a small pencil sketch, a more detailed pencil sketch, a small rough painting, a quarter-size rough painting and possibly more—before starting work on the main artwork. By the time they put paint to the final canvas, they know exactly what they’re going to do.

a sketch
In the background of this shot you can see two framed artworks. The painting on the left is the finished work, the smaller piece to the right is an early sketch. Ali, the model, is wearing the dress worn in the painting.

Visual sketching with your smartphone is the same iterative process applied to photography or videography. It’s gradually developing an idea using simpler tools so that when it comes to creating the final work you’ve already made many significant choices. For photographers, the simpler tool used to be instant film. They’d set up all their lights and fine tune everything while taking pictures with a Polaroid camera and then, for the final shot, switch to a 35mm, medium format, or large format camera. For filmmakers, sketching is running through a scene using a viewfinder or without film in the camera; carefully blocking and rehearsing each camera movement.

Why to Use Visual Sketching

The ease and abundance of digital media has removed the pressure on artists to do dedicated sketching. There’s no real cost to space on flash cards so it’s simple just to develop ideas as you work. There are, however, other reasons to use visual sketching even if you don’t have to.

First, visual sketching requires intentional thinking and looking. By separating the act of idea development from creation you are forced to imagine how things might look. Working with only your main camera, on the other hand, you don’t have to imagine how things will look: you just look through the viewfinder. That may sound like an advantage, but it actually decreases your ability to actively consider what will look best and why.

Results of the sketching process
And here are some of the photographs that came from the sketching process that started with Ali in front of the painting, above.

When sketching with a device that can’t create the final product you have to make deliberate creative decisions and consider your desires for the final image. When you do pick up your main camera, you already have a clear vision for what the end result should look like. Sketching helps you work with intention; one true hallmark of a good photographer.

Second, especially for filmmakers, camera gear can be very heavy and large. A smartphone can stand in for a camera setup that weighs a hundred times as much. As you’re working through ideas, it’s far easier to move around and try things with a tiny phone than a full rig. Even photographers can benefit. If you’re location scouting on foot, carrying a few kilos worth of bulky camera gear just to take test shots is at best overkill and at worst hazardous to your health.

Using Your Smartphone as a Viewfinder

Modern smartphones have great—although limited—cameras. For the most part, they have a lens that approximates a focal length of 35mm on a full frame camera. They also have fixed apertures. These limits, while great for pushing yourself creatively, hinder things somewhat for visual sketching. When you’re deliberating creating with your smartphone they are part of the process, but for visual sketching they need to be overcome.

The simplest way is to understand the effects different lenses and setups will have on what you’re seeing through the smartphone and to mentally adjust accordingly. However, this situation is only a marginal step up from just using your fingers as a viewfinder.

artemis viewfinder
Artemis Director's Viewfinder is able to emulate many camera and lens combinations.

Instead, an app like Artemis Director’s Viewfinder (which is available for iOS and Android) makes the whole process much easier. Artemis Director’s Viewfinder has a database of different camera and lens combinations. You can emulate countless different setups. If you’re trying to work out whether you want to use an 85mm or 135mm lens for a shot, it can show you roughly what each setup will look like.

Depending on when you’re doing your visual sketching, you may or may not want to save the results to your phone and transfer them elsewhere. Artemis Director’s Viewfinder can capture images, along with the settings you used, so you can make notes while you work. Unfortunately it doesn’t record video. For that, you can just use the default camera app on your phone (without the lens emulation, sadly).

To get footage and images from your phone, my favourite solution is to use Dropbox and a decent WiFi connection. The other great alternative is to connect your phone over USB to your computer and import your media into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

When to Use Your Smartphone for Visual Sketching

There are some situations where visual sketching is incredibly useful. This behind the scenes clip from the music video shoot for Sia’s Electric Heart shows the director, Erik Anders Lang, using his iPhone to sketch the camera moves while the dancers block out their performance. This is a perfect example of when to use your smartphone as a visual sketching tool. For Lang, the iPhone let him work through camera movements while the dancers rehearsed. He could have done that with the full rig but it would have been a lot heavier and much harder work.

Erik Anders Lang sketching
A screenshot of Erik Anders Lang using his phone as a visual sketching tool from this behind the scenes video for Sia's Electric Heart.

There are plenty of other similar situations to this in filmmaking and videography. Any lengthy, single shots that need a lot of rehearsing to get right, can be practiced and worked through with a smartphone before committing to the full shot.

While cinematographers stand to gain the most from the small size of smartphones relative to their main equipment, there are plenty of opportunities for photographers—especially landscape and architecture photographers—to use their phones for visual sketches. If you are scouting locations with the intention of shooting there later, you can use your phone to sketch potential images. What looks great in real life may not transfer well to a 2D image and vice versa. A smartphone gives you the ability to see test images as images rather than just imagining them in your head.

Obviously, there are some times using your smartphones for visual sketching will not be necessary. Portrait photographers shooting in a studio gain little by taking sketch images with an iPhone when they have a DSLR sitting five feet away. However, they may still find it very useful for taking location tests as they wander around a new city.

A Few Last Thoughts

Digital developments have made it easier for photographers and directors to sketch. Your smartphone can be a great tool for getting you to visualise and think with intention when you’re planning photoshoots.

Visual sketching is about note-taking, thinking out loud, and trying ideas. Smartphone cameras have a limited set of features, but those limits are a handy way to reduce complexity and let you think creatively. The addition of a dedicated app, however, is useful to help you pre-visualise results on your main setup more accurately.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, sketching helps you be intentional about your creative process. Yes, you can take as many frames as you want with a larger camera, but really, should you? Film has a built in economy. Each frame costs money to process. The real value of doing sketching, though, has never been cost-savings. Even with limitless digital takes, sketching unlocks a deliberate, contemplative, intentional way of picture making. The good news is that, with your smartphone, that's easier to do than ever!

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