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Better photos from your iPhone (part 1)

In the constant effort to improve my photography skills I decided to make a more conscious attempt to always have a camera with me when I'm out and about. My problem with this is that the camera I prefer for high quality images, a Nikon D200, is something of a brute to carry around all the time. I even bought an excellent small Domke bag expressly for carrying the D200, a second lens and a tiny flash, but this is still a big and heavy enough bag to think twice about when heading out the door. I do still grab the packed Domke on occasion, but I need to be in a 'serious shooter' frame of mind to take it with me.

I also have an excellent little Ricoh GX200, which can shoot RAW and offers terrific image quality for it's compact size, with the usual small-sensor caveat of requiring good available light to shoot in.

But I really want a camera I'll always have with me and so eventually I decided the only camera guaranteed to fit the bill for 'always' is the camera in my iPhone. I'm currently using an iPhone 3GS and the 'touch to focus' feature really does offer a significant improvement in getting better image quality from the otherwise basic camera. Additionally there are now a great many photography apps on the iTunes store that offer surprising editing and manipulation capabilities for iPhone captured images.

Since making the decision to use the iPhone camera I wanted to know a bit more about the properties and tech specs of the camera module itself. From information on various sites I found this on the iPhone 3GS camera:

  • Resolution = 3MP
  • Lens = 3.85mm focal length (equiv to about 37mm on regular camera)
  • Sensor = 1/4" CMOS
Autofocus = 2cm to infinity
Auto exposure & ISO = from 70 to 1600
  • Aperture = fixed at 2.8
  • Shutter speed = variable. (EXIF data on my iPhone images shows a range from 1/10Sec to almost 1/3,000! So automatically controlled shutter speeds and ISO determine the exposure, unfortunately neither are accessible to the user).

And here's a camera update from a review on Macworld of the new iPhone 4:

"As on many smartphones (including previous iPhones), the iPhone 4’s 3.85mm camera lens has a fixed aperture of f/2.8, and automatically adjusts the shutter speed and ISO to get the best exposure. In our tests, we managed to make the ISO go as low as 80, and as high as 1000. The longest exposure time was 1/15 of a second, and the shortest was 1/10000 of a second."

By today's standards that's a pretty low-end camera and I've often heard the complaint 'but that's not a real camera!'. Well I'm as big a sucker for camera gadgetry as any other photo-geek but years of lusting after better and better cameras has led me to understand that a better camera does not necessarily equal a better photo. It is not the camera that determines whether the photo is good, or not, it's the photographer - I know this is a cliché but, by and large, it's true. Bear in mind too that the photography marketplace is awash with a rising tide of sales BS, apparently with the express purpose of selling you a 'high-end' camera with more features than you have brain cells (and sometimes they even succeed!).

My philosophy is that any camera is as real or serious as you make it, and anything that captures an image is a camera, from a cardboard box pinhole camera to a Hasselblad.

A few short years ago 3mp sensors were top of the line for emerging Digital SLRs and some fantastic images have come from those cameras. I can go back through my Lightroom catalogue and find many images of superb quality taken with my first 'serious' DSLR, the Nikon D70 - and it only sported a 6mp sensor.

I find that the quality of iPhone camera is more than enough for casual shooting, reference shots and experimental imaging.

The constraints of the iPhone camera are far outweighed by its convenience, because, of course, 'The best camera you have is the one that's with You'. This makes the iPhone almost perfect for unplanned, or unexpected photo-ops, here's a few examples of photos that only exist at all because they were shot on an iPhone:

These photos may not be high-res captures, but they capture something else, something far more fundamental to photography for me; It's all about being there, catching a random moment of perfect light, seeing a familiar location in a new way, or a unique event unfolding before your eyes - and, most importantly, it's all about the image, not the image quality.

A great shot is still a great shot, even if it's only 800px wide on your browser screen.

Often the quality of the iPhone image needs some help to really shine, so I have no problem post-processing my iphone images extensively using some of the wonderful photo-editing apps now available. I know some purists frown upon such extensive processing of images, but, in my opinion, 'image processing' starts when you raise your camera to take a photo in the first place. Aiming your lens, choosing angles, framing, exposure control, shutter speed selection etc., etc., are all decisions you make in capturing an image.

Editing the final image with software to enhance, or change it, is part of the same image-making process - it's ALL selective. To me there is no such thing as photographing something 'as it was', only 'as you see it'.

After a few weeks I expected that the quality my iPhone images would improve, but I did not expect that using the iPhone camera would make me a better photographer in a fundamental sense, but that is what I believe has happened. I'm shooting a lot more images, I concentrate more on what I'm looking at when shooting (the whole screen of the iPhone is my viewfinder), there are no distracting controls, just a shutter button. Lessons learned from shooting with my iPhone have improving my 'eye' for when (or if) I bring out a 'real camera' later.

I find it's refreshing to pay less attention to the mechanics of how I'm getting the shot, It's faster, more direct and I feel closer to the images I'm shooting. In fact, thinking back on it, this is why I was bitten by the photography bug in the first place.
 An added bonus is that there's no auto-review on iPhone after releasing the shutter - so there is no time wasted 'chimping' images already shot.

I'm not sure this kind of rapid self-development (pardon the pun) is even possible with any other camera, once you bring controls, buttons, menus etc. into the situation your relationship to capturing the image totally changes.

This is part one of my 'Better Photos from your iPhone' series. This post is much longer than I intended, but I've learned a lot from using my iPhone camera and I'd like to share this with anyone else who'd like to 'up the ante' on the success of their iPhone photos.

In part two of this series I'll cover the physical aspects of how to get better shots with your iPhone.