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Creative Phone Photography

As camera phones have increased in quality over the past few years, their utility as serious creative tools for photographers have increased as well. In the video below, Photo Masters pro team member Rick Sammon talks with Ian Plant about using your phone camera to capture spontaneous, artistic photos. You can learn more by reading the rest of this article, where Rick shares some of his favorite tips and techniques for taking stunning phone photos.

Photographers have major turning points in their lives, events that change their lives forever. I've had two: One, when I took an early digital SLR to Cuba in 2001 and sold all my film cameras upon returning home. Two, when I traveled to Tanzania with my wife Susan in November of 2022 and used my iPhone 13 for all my wide-angle and short telephoto lens shots.

In Tanzania, I had my 24-105mm lens always at the ready, and my 15-35mm lens within reach, but I never used them – because I knew my phone's camera would give me the professional quality photos (in the RAW mode) that I needed for my books, online classes, presentations, posts, and even prints up to 17x22 inches. So now, my iPhone is my camera of choice for basically all but my telephoto shots.

"Basically all your shots," you ask? Well yes, and to digress from Tanzania for a bit, I even use the iPhone for my close-up shots. Due to the sensor size and lens design, you can get impressive close-ups. The top left shot is the straight-out-of-the camera shot. The photo on the right, in which I changed the depth-of-field (simulating the effect you get with a true macro lens), was created in an app called Snapseed.

Continuing my digression for just a bit: I even use the iPhone for my slow shutter speed shots, which are easy to take using the Live > Long Exposure mode. The above iPhone shot of the spillway at the New Croton Dam is one of my favorites from this awesome location. By the way, if you want to get the very best image quality with your iPhone, shoot raw.

Okay, back to Tanzania.

There are other important reasons, other than great image quality, as to why I only used my iPhone for my wide-angle and medium telephoto shots: The iPhone offers: flexibility, spontaneity, versatility, portability, creativity.... and fun! Oh yeah, looking at photos on a large screen is also way cool!

What's more, the Portrait mode (Stage Lighting above left), adds a creative touch, in an instant, to a portrait. And the lens/sensor size combo offers tremendous depth-of-field (above right).

I'd like to stress the importance of the "spontaneity factor" of the iPhone. Before taking a photo, you only need to press a button, or maybe touch the screen, to set the focus and exposure. With a mirrorless camera, you need to think about setting the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and more. With my mirrorless camera, I might have missed capturing the above cheetah close encounter – the perfect shadow and expression – before it darted under our safari vehicle.

Is the iPhone good at capturing action? You bet! Check out this shot of a Maasai jumping contest. In the Burst mode, you take a series of images, so it's easy to capture the peak of action.

How about low light performance? Well, the photograph above was taken hand-held before sunrise. There was a little noise in the photograph, which I reduced in Topaz DeNoise AI. A year ago I would have mounted my camera on my tripod, used the camera's self-timer and set my camera on HDR to get a similar photo. Then I'd spend some time processing several bracketed exposures into the final HDR image.

And how about the ease of shooting a pano with an iPhone, as I did at the top of Ngorongoro Crater (above)! Look ma, no processing, which would be needed and time consuming when creating a pano with a digital camera.

As an aside, Ngorongoro crater is a "must-see" for anyone going to Tanzania. The shot above was taken at the bottom of the crater on a stormy morning. Check out the depth of field!

I'll end this post by talking about something very important in ALL photography: having fun! I had a ton of fun creating the above image in an app called Distressed FX.

Susan and I had a lot of fun recording our adventure, including our end-of-day Happy Hours, with our iPhones – made easy by passing a phone to a camp staff member with the instructions: just press the button.

True story: After taking one of our fun Happy Hour shots (above). there was a couple trying to take a similar photo of themselves by the campfire. They gave up after trying to set up a tripod in the dark, and because they could not get their camera to focus. They were very frustrated.

If you'd like to learn more about smartphone photography, check out the Explorers of Life Facebook group that I recently launched. It's a great place to learn and share. That's a Susan Sammon photo, taken on Bandon Beach, Oregon. Another awesome iPhone image. You'll find some of Susan's videos there, too!

P.S. I am returning to Tanzania later this year with Ian Plant. In addition to my iPhone, I am taking my Sony 200-600mm lens and Sony 70-200mm for my tele shots. :-)

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