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8 Tips from Mobile Photography Experts, plus their Favorite Apps

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By some (but not all) accounts, it’s been nearly twenty years since the cell-phone camera was invented on the fly—while technologist Phillippe Kahn awaited the arrival of a daughter—so to transmit a photo of the newborn to the world. Since that time, mobile photography has evolved into an omnipresent way of life and a multifaceted world view, with the proliferation of latest-generation mobile devices offering users more options and better quality than ever before.

Given the ease of use and simplified workflow afforded by the mobile environment, casual users can make pictures with hardly a thought to the process or the circumstances. But since mindfulness is a good thing, we asked a number of mobile photography experts to share some helpful tips and to recommend their favorite apps.

Above photograph © Richard Koci Hernandez

Get the Latest Technology and the Most Storage

An early adopter of the iPhone for fine art photography, Burkholder is known for stitching together large numbers of captures and moving the image file in and out of a series of apps at the time of capture, as illustrated in this panoramic scene of the Hudson River Valley. Photograph © Dan Burkholder

Digital imaging pioneer Dan Burkholder has been shooting with a mobile device since he started using a Palm Treo in 2003. He currently works with the iPhone 6s Plus, and is a big fan of the real estate available with the larger screen. A self-described digital packrat, Burkholder recommends opting for the largest storage capacity available in a phone. “Our images are going to get larger and the resolution is going to continue to go up, now that we’re going to be working with raw files and editing different iterations of an image,” he says.

Multimedia journalist Richard Koci Hernandez shares this opinion, saying, “When a new phone comes out, the price of the lower-end model can seem more attractive, but storage is an issue if you buy at the low end. I’ve always felt the need for more space on my phone, because by the time I download all my apps, it eats up all the app space, and depending on how you use your music, there’s almost no room for photography.”

Form Follows Function, but One Size Does not Fit All

A close-up from Bucharest, Romania offers a good example of Hernandez’s covert shooting style. “Depending on what I’m shooting, sometimes I’ll get a particular feeling for the Hipstamatic square (shown above) or black-and-white,” he explains. One of his current favorite apps is called Blackie. Photograph © Richard Koci Hernandez

A career in newspaper journalism put Hernandez at the forefront of professional image making, using a mobile device. “I’ve been fortunate to try so many mobile phones,” he says. “But I always fall back to the iPhone as the best one for my workflow.”

Contrary to Burkholder, Hernandez prefers the compact form factor of an iPhone SE. “For the most part, I’m trying to be quick and unobtrusive,” he explains. “The move toward the bigger phones, they’re certainly more visible, and a little cumbersome in the hand. There’s a lot less fumbling around with the SE, and my thumb reaches every point on the screen when I need to do things.”

Since the iPhone SE is newer than the 6s, Hernandez also benefits from certain technological perks—just in a smaller package.

About Responsiveness and Camera Lag

Although Hernandez has tried shooting with high-megapixel mobile devices, so far he has found them totally unusable. “I like to take picture after picture, but the lag and processing time to take one image was terrible,” he says. Above, his Atlanta, Georgia, street scene required split-second timing to capture. Photograph © Richard Koci Hernandez

Another key factor in Hernandez’s choice of an iPhone over Android is its responsiveness. While this is less of an issue now than in the past, he says, “The iPhone used to be the only camera that really didn’t have a lag. A lot of other cameras I tried made me miss a lot of moments, which was really frustrating.”

Other causes for camera lag can range from basic concerns of device overload or extensive use—which means that it’s time to offload data and/or reboot the device—or the use of specific capture modes, such as HDR or the newly implemented raw file format.

“In raw capture mode on a phone, you tap the shutter and there’s a slight hesitation while it’s processing, so it’s a little limiting if you want to want to work fast,” Hernandez notes.

Learn the Software

Carlson’s image of a lighting fixture offers rich detail, from the lit filaments to background shadows. “Cameras in mobile devices are designed for the best capture in most common situations,” he explains. “Spontaneous shots that are well-lit can yield good results. But you won't be birding or capturing wildlife successfully, because those subjects require different hardware, such as fast zoom lenses.” Photograph © Jeff Carlson

As Burkholder explains, photography has always been all about change. “If you don’t like change, you’ve picked the wrong medium,” he says. “The way we make images, the kind of images we make, and the approach has always been linked to the hardware, and now the software, and optics of the time.”

Photographer and technology writer Jeff Carlson specifically targets the mobile realm with his insights. “What is becoming more important, for all devices, is not necessarily the hardware (although that has its importance), but the software running behind it, which is key,” he says. “The calculations being made on the fly are amazing when broken down. For example, Apple developed their own photo co-processor just to drive the camera, so it isn’t reliant entirely on the device’s main processor.”

Technology writer, blogger, and podcaster David Sparks goes even further, offering this essential piece of advice to mobile photographers seeking to improve their image making, “Learn the software. Apple’s secret weapon is not the lens, but instead the processor and software. Learn to use it.”

Image Processing Quality

In this Oakland, California, street scene, Hernandez used shadow and color to great advantage when shooting with his iPhone’s native camera app. “I feel that the native app is going to perform the best it can, because Apple’s engineers know all of the innards and secrets,” he says. “I assume I’m getting as clean an image as I can.” Photograph © Richard Koci Hernandez

The software and processing power of any given device has a direct effect on what untouched images look like. While this may not be a big concern for the casual user, for a professional photographer, these differences can be significant.

As a working photojournalist, Hernandez prefers Apple’s image processing quality. “With other mobile cameras, the initial image, plug-and-play, seems a little over-processed, it feels a little digitally,” he explains. “For me and my aesthetic, the iPhone’s initial images still seem as close to neutral, and to analog, as I remember.”

Take Advantage of Auto Exposure, Focus Lock, Remote Trigger Features

Hernandez used the focus lock feature to capture two soldiers contemplating a dreamlike vista across a small lake in Hanoi, Vietnam. “The technology available in the iPhone has freed me up to think less about all the technical things, so I can focus more on subject matter,” he says. “It allows me to focus more on the story.” Photograph © Richard Koci Hernandez

Yet, whatever your device, Hernandez stresses the importance of learning to use your mobile camera’s auto exposure and focus lock. “Every camera has one” he says. “Once you’ve selected your subject, or at least the lighting you want, just tap and hold on the screen, and it allows you to lock on that exposure. Then, if you slide your thumb up and down, you can actually manipulate the exposure from light to dark.”

Another prevalent concern is stability. According to Hernandez, most people don’t pay enough attention to this when using mobile devices. “The shutter speeds for most of these cameras default around 1/125 or 1/60 of a second,” he explains. “In photography-speak that’s actually pretty low, which can introduce vibrations.”

For phones that include a headphone jack, he recommends triggering the phone using the headphone’s volume control. “This removes the little tap on the screen, and can help introduce some stability,” he says.

Shooting Dos and Don’ts: Avoid Digital Zoom

Calabrese shoots mobile photos on a near daily basis, capturing human stories and revealing moments, such as this daredevil stunt of riding beneath a parked tractor-trailer. “I use a Mophie case to give me an extra charge, particularly when I'm shooting with my iPhone all day,” she says. Photograph © Stephanie Calabrese

When it comes to composing a shot, there is widespread agreement that the most important thing to avoid in mobile photography is the camera’s native zoom capabilities (unless you’re lucky enough to own the newest iPhone 7, with its optical zoom feature).

“Yes, you can pinch and zoom with your phone, but as soon as you do that you’re creating the most unusable image ever,” says Hernandez. “I never, ever zoom with my iPhone. It’s not optically zooming; it’s digitally zooming, and cropping the image, resulting in a loss of quality.”

Stephanie Calabrese, author of The Art of iPhoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity, also avoids using her phone’s digital zoom feature, suggesting, “Don’t be afraid to move in close. Enjoy the rhythm of the scene before you, and focus on the moment and your composition of it,” instead. “You can do all sorts of adjustments with image processing in apps to fine-tune the look and feel, but your source image—the moment and its composition—is the real magic.” 

Native Camera App versus Third-Party Apps

Direct access to the native camera app from the lock screen helped Carlson capture this unscripted gesture between two friends. His best advice for improving your mobile photos is this: “Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. Take lots of photos. And be comfortable that a whole lot of them will be clunkers. That’s okay. Digital is forgiving that way.” Photograph © Jeff Carlson

When it comes to apps, Calabrese notes, “Most of my professional and personal photography work has been created for digital and mobile display, where size and speed matter. I use an iPhone 6 and the native camera app for the sake of speed and simplicity, and the certainty that I'm saving the highest-quality image source possible. I almost always process images using a variety of apps.”

Carlson, too, uses the iPhone’s built-in app for 99 percent of his mobile photos. “It's easier to swipe from the lock screen and be right into the Camera app than to first navigate to a separate app,” he says.

Favorite App List

As shown in this rural farm scene from Tuscany, Burkholder adds textures, vignettes, and other image effects to his mobile images with multiple apps. One of his favorites is Photo Toaster. “One tool, the Lighting Brush, almost reads your mind,” he says. “You pinch to zoom in and as you do, the area you’re working on gets more precise.” Photograph © Dan Burkholder

The topic of mobile photography apps could easily comprise an informative article on its own. While we don’t have room for detailed descriptions of each photographer’s favorites here, the hotlinks should give you a place to start.

Richard Koci Hernandez: Afterlight, Blackie, Filterloop, Filterstorm, Hipstamatic, Layout, Mextures, oggl, Prisma, Pro Camera, Slow Shutter Cam, Snapseed, Squareready, Viewfind, VSCO

Stephanie Calabrese: Blender, Faded, Photoshop, Snapseed, SKRWT

Jeff Carlson: Camera +, Instagram, Manual

David Sparks: DxO software, Camera +, Pixelmator (for editing), Prisma, Snapseed

Dan Burkholder: A true app aficionado who currently maintains close to 750 apps on his phone, Burkholder breaks his workflow into three areas: Shooting, Editing, and Styling

Shooting Apps: Reddot, Vivid HDR, Night Cap

Editing Apps: Snapseed, Photo Wizard, Photo Manager Pro, Enlight, Handy Photo

Stylizing Apps: Distressed FX, Photo Toaster, Vintage Scene

Hernandez processed these two San Francisco street scenes through different apps for subtle variations of mood. “I see these apps as very much like cooking,” he says. For me it’s about finding the right aesthetic that works.” (Left) Hipstamatic Oggl, (right) VSCOcam with m5 preset. Photographs © Richard Koci Hernandez

Do you have a helpful tip about mobile photography, or a favorite app to share? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.

To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names below.

Dan Burkholder

Stephanie Calabrese

Jeff Carlson

Richard Koci Hernandez

David Sparks

Share your best photo from a mobile device on Twitter or Instagram with the tags & #BHPhoto 

To read more articles in our Mobile Photography Week series, click here.

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Nice article Jill. Very helpful.  

Thanks for the compliment on my article Chelsea, glad to hear you found it helpful. Happy shooting and thanks for reading Explora!

Great article, but a correction, iPhone SE does not have image stabilization, only iPhone 6s Plus or greater have it.

Hi Charandeep, thanks very much for writing in and alerting us to the inaccuracy, which we've just fixed. Glad to hear that you enjoyed the article never the less, and hope that you also enjoyed the other stories in our Mobile Photography Week campaign. Thanks very much for reading Explora!

Is there a difference between using digital zoom and cropping later? It seems like the phones have a focal length that is quite a bit shorter than "normal". Supose you want to flatten the image and you don't care so much about the loss of resolution, which approach is better? Or do you need a real camera at that point?

Thanks for your question Larry, you bring up an interesting point. While digital zoom is essentially the same as cropping into the image after the fact, cropping in post using software will give you slightly more control of image quality. Alternatively, you might consider one of the many add on lenses for your phone that includes a telephoto option. You can learn more about this in some of our other Mobile Photography Week articles, such as Todd Vorenkamp's hands-on review of the Schenider iPro lens system: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/mobile/hands-review/schneider-ipro-lenses-iphone. Happy shooting, and thanks again for reading Explora!

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