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Purist phone photography

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Bit Depth
Last week, Nokia introduced the Lumia 1020, a Windows Phone with a 41 megapixel camera. Before you get excited, the new phone has a sensor that’s only slightly larger than the one in the 920 model. You won’t get Hasselblad or D800 quality from the new Lumia, but it’s a definite gamechanger in the cameraphone space. Photograph courtesy Nokia

I’ll confess to not being an active Instagram user and here’s why.


When I began taking photographs in 1978, photography was just beginning to enjoy a popular resurgence. There were many magazines available to explain the simplicity of modern cameras and even an enlarger that didn’t need a darkroom.


Part of the craze was the star filter. A circle of glass with either engraved grooves or fine filaments crisscrossing it; the filter turned any bright light source into a sparkling multi-pointed star. There were articles debating the difference between four star filters and six star filters. Half the photographs taken at night looked like they were announcing a new Bethlehem.


This continued for almost a year and then just as suddenly, it died out. You couldn’t give away a star filter with a hot meal and every photo from that time suddenly looked dated and out of style.


I learned then that good photographs live forever, but gimmicks always have an expiry date. While much of today’s mobile phone photography is designed around the marginal quality of the sensors in these devices, those sensors have also been getting much better, making it possible to do more impressive unfiltered photography on this year’s mobile phones.


That fact hasn’t been missed by Adobe who now offer a version of Photoshop for iOS and Android mobile devices. While there are funky filters available in PS Touch, this is the first software for Android that makes it possible to work on a cameraphone capture as if it were on the computer desktop.


Until PS Touch came along, the best software for doing that was Snapseed, but that software was more focused on filters than straight image editing.


Instagram and its rivals do a great job of hiding the problems that arise from small sensors, iffy lenses and a device that’s not meant to be a camera, but how do you improve your images from a modern mobile phone?


Shoot a lot. Pros call it Hail Mary photography, capturing a blizzard of photos in the hope that one will work out. It shouldn’t be a replacement for considered, contemplative image making, but where there’s a lot of movement or low light, keep tapping away until the moment’s gone. Cameraphones visibly lag between viewing and capture and most have poor low light performance.


Get in close. Think of your mobile phone as a 1940’s Leica and you’re Henri Cartier-Bresson, seeking the decisive moment of the situation. You don’t have much quality image data to start with, so use your feet. Never use the digital zoom.


Use the device’s maximum resolution. Most do this by default, but some will allow you to capture at lower resolution to save space. Don’t.


Edit on the computer, not on the phone. PS Touch is a dramatic improvement in mobile phone image editing software, and it sensibly leaves your original images untouched. I still only use it to prepare images for quick sharing to social media services.


Keep the phone steady. This is monstrously difficult to do with a mobile phone which isn’t designed to be held like a camera, but I’ve had luck bracing one edge or another against a solid object like a post or table.


Practice. The first few times I used the camera on my phone it was an embarrassingly clumsy experience. Nothing was where I expected to find it on the screen, I couldn’t figure out where to put my hands and several photos had a bit of my finger in them. 


Read an expanded version of this column here ( 


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