Taking better photos with a camera phone

Posted on 01/03/2012


This festive season I did myself a great favour by finally having the guts to pull out a gorgeous camera, the Olympus OM PC  inherited from my father in-law via my brother. Mostly it’s because I need a hobby and I have come to learn that playing the guitar is just not it. I lack the patience or the dexterity required to master my favourite instrument. However just browsing through my photo library on my PC, there are 2800 photos stretching back to February 2009, and this is the curated collection. Over 2200 of those photos were capture in 2011, coinciding with me  buying the Nokia N8, the champion in mobile, at least when it comes to image capture. So that got me thinking that photography is the way to go to keep my idle mind busy and hence me finally giving life to the classic Olympus camera.

My 'new' kit - going old school

From doing some research, the OM PC was released in 1985, so it’s only a year younger than me, and it’s till in mint condition! It’s a 35 mm full frame film SLR, with three shooting modes, automatic, aperture priority and fully manual operation. I’ve got two prime lenses, a 40 mm and an 85 mm lens. I’ve seen photos taken with the camera, though none of mine as I’ve only just finished my first roll, and they are stunning…as expected.

So while playing around the camera, I’ve been brushing up on my theory, talking to people, reading but most importantly shooting, shooting, shooting.

The key behind any great photo is nailing the exposure  by controlling how much light gets to the sensor. If you have too much light coming in, your images come out overexposed, with the symptoms being washed out images and blown out highlights. If too little light comes your images will be underexposed. Three factors act in concert to get the correct exposure, namely shutter speed, aperture and ISO, with the former two being the most important.

ISO generally refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor and comes in pretty handy in low light where you can set the sensitivity higher and still be able to shoot with reasonable shutter speeds. At any given ISO setting the actual amount of light hitting the sensor will be determined by both the aperture setting and the shutter speed.

The shutter speed is simply how long the shutter remains open when you depress the shutter key. This is given as fractions of a second, so 1/1000 is extremely fast, one thousandth of a second and depending on the situation you can get down to even longer than a second. Choice of shutter speed will be useful depending on what you want to do. If you are looking for arty blurred shots, like for example when photographing traffic and you want to get streaky lines, one would want to use a longer shutter speed. When looking to freeze motion, in my case with a very active two and a half year old as my primary subject, faster shutter speeds would come in handy.

The aperture is the actual opening on the lens and can be wide open or constricted via a diaphragm to let in more or less light. The size of this opening is given as an f-stop value, where the smaller number refers to a wide open setting and conversely he higher the number the more constricted it is. So in the case of the Olympus, both my lenses can be set anywhere from f /2.0 to f/16. It’s an odd convention but makes sense when you look at the maths behind it, and the are some great explanations around the web. Essentially the f-stop gives the diameter of the less opening, by taking the focal length divided by the stop, hence why the higher the stop the narrow the lens opening becomes.

Essentially then at  any given ISO setting you will be adjusting both the aperture and the shutter speeds to get the correct exposure. A wide open aperture will call for faster shutter speeds and vice versa. The combination choice will be determined entirely by the kind of shot you are looking for, as there are many possible combination of aperture and shutter speeds at a given ISO to give a correct exposure but these can result in very different images.

As mentioned due to the ability to control motion, either by freezing it or by accentuating it, the shutter speed is critical. The aperture setting for me though is the one I find more interesting. When I first started taking an interest photography, the nuances of the aperture were lost on me as I thought it simply as a means to get light onto the sensor but your aperture setting does a whole lot more allowing a great deal of artistic freedom. At low f stops, like f/2.8 you get a much shallower depth of field than say at f/22. Depth of field tells you how much of the scene behind and in front of your subject remains in focus. So at aperture settings like f/22 a heck of a lot more of your scene remains in focus once you pick a focus point. This comes into play say when you are shooting close-ups of flowers etc or portraits, or when shooting landscapes. In the latter case a shallower depth of field might produce a more desirable effect, while when shooting a landscape you would most likely want a greater depth of field. Until I read an excellent book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, I never understood exactly how aperture settings affect depth of field. His simple analogy was that you imagine the camera lens as a bucket, with the base being the image sensor and the top the aperture opening. As you pour water into the bucket (analogous to light) through the wide opening you get a scattering effect with the water splattered across the based with very little water ‘focussed’ onto the bottom.  If you introduce a funnel however and as this funnel gets finer and finer, that water gets focussed perfectly onto the bottom of the bucket with very little scattering. And so it is with the aperture.

Having this much control over your camera settings provides you with the tools to take better images. Of course there is a lot more to it, mostly the eye of the photographer, and the ability to gauge a scene, how much light you have, where to take your exposure reading. Also important is understanding the nature of the light, whether it’s natural light or artificial light, where it’s coming from and how it affects exposure and white balance  (something that can also get tweaked but is only really critical when shooting indoors). All of this, as I’m finding, with a lot of error in my trials I might add, comes with experience, something that I guess will come with time.

Understanding the camera phone

But for most us, carrying around an SLR, whether film in my case or digital for most these days is not practical. And for me, having invested in mobile devices, spending R2500 plus on a decent point and shoot or even more for an ultra zoom right now is not an option. So when I’m not going to be using the Olympus I will happily stick to my phones, the N8 and the Samsung Galaxy SII (a superb camera phone in its own right) for my casual photography. Despite the fact that modern camera phones can finally rival P&S camera and in the case of the N8 even surpass a fair number of them, you will not be surprised by the fact that the flexibility you get with ‘better camera’ is simply not possible with a phone. Much of this is to do with the physical constraints imposed on phones by the fact that first they are do it all gadgets with other bits of technology inside and second, thin is most definitely in. The N8 is in itself unique in that it eschews many of the compromises that befall current phones by incorporating a sensor that is even larger than most P&S camera. To give you an idea, current 8 megapixel phones like the iPhone 4S, the SGSII and the Nokia twins, the N9 and Lumia 800 have 1/3.2″ sensors. This corresponds to a surface are of 12 mm² while the N8 is a behemoth with three times the surface area, ~38mm².  To further put this into perspective 35 mm full frame sensors have a surface are of ~860 mm².

Over and above the small sensor size that camera phones come with, physically there are certain things that are impossible or rather impractical because of the added bulk that extra moving parts would impose. The first is zoom. When buying a phone, all will have some kind of zoom factor written into the specs but this is something that one should ignore as it is digital zoom, which is unsightly, and crazily enough some of these phones are equipped with 10X ‘zoom’. Digital Zoom is not even Optical’s poor cousin it’s that bad. Essentially it involves taking a crop of an image, then blowing it back it up to the full camera resolution. At 10X digital zoom, with the ‘quality’ of some sensors and optics around, the result will be horrid. Sadly, again due to the need to keep devices slim and to accommodate all the other standard elements of technology expected, adding in optical zoom would result in a device that is even bulkier than the N8. While I would have jumped at a device like that, something tells me it would be a commercial flop!

Second is zero control of the all important aperture. Basically every camera phone bar one has a fixed aperture, off the top of my head the N8 is at f/2.8, the SGSII at f/2.6, the iPhone 4S at f/2.4, and the twins as well as HTCs new generation phones like the Titan are at f/2.2. The wider apertures on these newer phones are to compensate for the smaller sensor, though from what I’ve seen these can lead to unwanted overexposure if the camera is left in automatic mode. The one device I know off that did not have a fixed aperture is the Nokia N86, which featured a variable aperture with f-stops at f/2.4, f/3.2 and f/4.8 . Sadly this was not in the hands of the user  being an automatic system, taking the creativity out of the process.

Beyond that camera phones offer limited control of ISO, in the N8s case just low, medium, high. In addition, unless I’m missing something, there is zero control of shutter speeds which I suppose with fixed aperture it is not necessary. Essentially there closest you can get to some control is  by shooting in what would imitate ‘aperture priority’ by fixing ISO and having the camera only determined the appropriate shutter speed. Elsewhere you get some control of white balance, colour tone, exposure compensation, contrast, sharpness, timer, face detection. The extent of these settings will vary from device to device with some the iPhone range, in keeping with the minimalism imposed by Apple, offering limited customization. Other phones will also have predefined ‘scene modes’. How useful these settings are, especially on a device that is designed to be even more ‘point and shoot’ than P&S cameras is debatable.

Put all this together, and certainly I’ve been told this many a time by purists, camera phones are a step down from ‘real’ cameras. Having said that sometimes when I show people photos that I’ve taken with the N8, there is genuine surprise at the quality of the photos that I have taken. I also did a comparison with a dedicated P&S camera the Sony Cybershot T=100 and the N8 ultimately proved to be superior. The N8 is of course supreme amongst camera phones due to the superlative optics and the uncompromised sensor which is why it is essentially a P&S with phone functionality albeit with one or two caveats.  It is this fact that gets lost when people see the level of detail I get with the N8. It’s always about the megapixels when in reality it’s all about that sensor. “Twelve  megapixels” does sound a lot sexier than “1/1.83″ sensor”. This should not dissuade anyone from trying to take nice photos with a camera phone because even for a relative novice like myself, it has been possible.

But it’s not all doom and gloom 

the coming of the storm

the coming of the storm...as seen through the Nokia N8

 As I have said, the premise of using a camera phone is essentially that you will be able to pull it out, push a button whether physical or a touch screen control, and let the phones software take care of the rest. But it’s very easy to understand the phone will often times just get it wrong, primarily due to the limitations that I described above. But should we just presume then that when you view a scene you want to capture and it comes out wrong, that ‘that is simply that’. When I first got the N8 I was content, mostly due to my inexperience, to leave everything in automatic and let the phone just do its thing. What was also frustrating though was that almost as a means to dissuade the camera phone  user from try to tweak settings, getting to stuff is so convoluted and I have found this which pretty every camera interface I have played with. Since I got the SGSII, I started to notice some aberrations in the image processing of that device, which in turn made me look at the N8 and other devices even more critically, and I’ve started to now work through available settinngs and start to tweak and tweak and tweak.

Take a look this shot, taken ‘as is’ in auto mode with the SGSII:

Tea box with the SGSII

I have found that overexposure is chronic with the SGSII, but by fiddling around and setting the exposure compensation to -2, I got this instead:

Another view of the tea box with the SGSII

Interestingly here is the same scene as viewed with the N8 in auto mode:

Tea box as seen by the N8

The N8 nailed it for the mos part first time, getting pleasing and realistic colours, and getting details out of the backlit cloudy sky that the SGSII still couldn’t get, but that’s due to that big sensor. It just handles extremes better than any camera phone I’ve played with.

The next aspect you might want to look at is scene modes. Devices will come with different modes, the usual assortments being, portrait, landscape, night, close up and more or less depending on the device. The image at the top of this section of the looming storm is one that was taken in landscape mode on the N8. From a tip from Richard Dorman who shoots some of the amazing landscapes with his many Nokia devices, I have been using this mode even for cityscapes. Essentially the focussing here is set to infinity and I have found that this gives me sharper images than if I used the auto mode.

The other scene mode that I found to be useful is close up mode. It’s very useful when wanting to do extreme close up shots when you find that you can’t get focus in auto mode. I would be lying if I claimed to know entirely how this works but it just does!

A close up view through the N8

Peaking lizard captured with the N8

Something that I have found is that the SGSII, and it was the same with the HTC Desire S, can get closer than the N8 can and I have read that this is do with the sensor size of the N8 affecting the focussing mechanism.

Other scene modes have had little value to me. The key is to experiment to see what works but the two I’ve described above offer a tangible improvement to the standard auto mode.

Something else to consider might be white balance. Traditionally I left this set to auto, but after reading Peterson’s book, I am now leaving this set to Cloudy as it results in warmer images without messing with the contrast. I am also finding that images don’t have a tendency to be washed out, as sometimes happens with auto mode or when set to sunny. For indoor purposes I leave this on auto, though again the phone does struggle and here there is no harm in messing with the settings, looking at incandescent (tungsten) or fluorescent. This will only come into play in extreme situations though but it is something to be aware of.

Automatic white balance

White balance set to incandescent

As I said phones offer little control over ISO settings, and in fact most phones don’t have a setting to chance. Primarily I would guess this is because the sensor is so minuscule that bumping up the ISO would introduce far too much noise for the sensor to handle. The N8 has three settings, low, medium and high which correspond roughly to ISO200, ISO400 and ISO800. I have experimented with this in low light and generally got marginally better results. In good conditions, when set to auto the camera seems to favour ISO100 and this works well.

Medium or ISO400

High or ISO800

The key factor that ties everything together with photography is of course light and it’s important to always be aware of it. Camera phones in particular struggle with light, whether there’s too much of it or not enough of it. Moreover very few phones are equipped with a decent enough flash so once the sun sets, prepare to get awful photos. At other times though picking where to lock your exposure is useful and Bryan Peterson’s book has a wealth of knowledge. You can theoretically get a correct exposure for a scene but have you subject in extreme shadow or details lost. Knowing where to meter from could just be the difference and involves a willingness to step out of the zone of just letting the camera phone do it’s thing, and in some ways is even more critical as better dedicated cameras would offer a more consistent quality out of the box per se.

Putting it all together

As you can see there is actually a bit more that you can do with the diminutive phone camera. It’s not as flexible as a dedicated camera and the customization is nowhere near as extensive and there’s a good chance the images will not always be superlative. The advantage that the camera phone has over a dedicated camera is that by extension of the communication capabilities, there’s a good chance it will always be on you. And unless you’ve gone out specifically on a photo gathering mission or you know you will be called upon to snap away, there’s a good chance the fancy camera will be at home somewhere. But that doesn’t mean the moments have to pass by undocumented and as such why not the make the most of the Swiss army gadget in your pocket. Camera phones have been designed around capturing moments as quickly as possible and thus be used in the default factory settings so that you just let them do the brain work. WHat I have found though in the last couple of months is that with just a little bit of tweaking you can get a lot of joy and some better than expected results. This piece is by no means exhaustive and it’s merely how I have tried to enhance my photography experience with my most dedicated servants, but I’m sure as you have seen there’s a lot that can be done.

Happy snapping!