6 Things to Consider when Composing Images on a Small Screen


For many photographers, image making regularly involves a small screen as the initial (if not the only) platform for framing and viewing pictures, and often as the primary distribution outlet. This brings with it the rather weighty challenge of composing for a quick and easy read.

Added to this is the fact that many capture devices now contain not just a camera, but apps with image-processing software, a means of immediately viewing the images on your own small screen, as well as a direct distribution method via sharing sites with millions of other users.

This begs the question of whether the reduced scale and compressed workflow of composing on a small screen makes the process easier, or is it more challenging?

Image quality on small screens—don’t trust your JPEGs


Illuminated signage and “magic hour” lighting can make for an appealing picture opportunity, but that doesn’t mean you should blindly trust the exposure displayed on the screen of your camera, as indicated by the histogram values at right.Jill Waterman



Small screens are ubiquitous in photography, and they run the gamut from the LCD on a high-end DSLR to the ever-present screen of your trusty camera phone. While picture-taking novices might assume that the image rendered on the back of an expensive DSLR is to be trusted as an accurate representation of the capture, seasoned shooters know this can be a dangerous practice. The image displayed on the camera’s LCD is in fact a low-resolution JPEG preview of the full-resolution file, which can provide a misleading representation of exposure and contrast levels.

Therefore, to ensure a well-exposed image and a satisfactory composition from edge to edge of the frame, it’s particularly valuable to consult the image histogram for a more detailed visual representation of your image data whenever technology allows. After adopting this practice, you might find yourself regularly tweaking your camera’s exposure values to improve the integrity of the final image. For more on this topic, check out the Explora article How to Read Your Camera’s Histogram, by Todd Vorenkamp.

Composing images as a window or a mirror


When framing the sunrise over Vancouver, British Columbia, on a small screen, adjusting for lens flare was a much more tenuous process than when isolating the field of view by looking through a viewfinder.


On the most basic level, the act of composing an image via the screen of a digital camera or mobile device is decidedly different than framing a shot with one eye pressed to a traditional viewfinder. To borrow a simile from the legendary MOMA exhibition, “Mirrors and Windows,” an eye-level viewfinder offers the photographer a discrete window into the framing of an image, while an LCD screen is more akin to working a composition by gazing into a mirror. While a viewfinder effectively isolates and concentrates a photographer’s field of view, reading images on a small screen provides a diffused platform for composing and picture making. This becomes particularly apparent—and problematic—when ambient light creates glare or otherwise overpowers the screen, washing out details of the composition you are trying to discern.

Avoiding glare and stray light on small screens


While it’s nearly impossible to read the image on an iPhone screen when shooting into the sun (left), blown-out sky and harsh shadows can be tempered using the HDR function (center). Note a slight movement of flowers, due to the breeze. While not as dramatic, composing at a 45-degree angle to the sun (right), is easier to see and offers much better color and contrast.


When framing or viewing an image using a small screen, problematic lighting conditions can limit a clear view of your composition in many different circumstances. Positioning yourself or your subject in a spot (or at an angle) to avoid glare from hitting the screen is your most basic consideration. If this isn’t possible, try shading the screen with a towel, a piece of clothing, or even a basic accessory like an umbrella or a hat. 

Alternatively, easy-to-install accessories, such as a transparent film anti-glare screen protector or glass LCD protector can serve double duty to minimize the effects of problematic light, as well as protect your screen from scratches and dirt. Going a step further, LCD hoods or pop-up shades are available in a variety of designs to shield your screen from detrimental effects of sun and glare. And for iPhone users, the collapsible Big Balance silicone shade enhances privacy and offers protection from sun and glare.

Adapting to limited camera controls on mobile devices

The low vantage point of this iPhone shot highlights the tulips, while minimizing details of the background architecture. Then, using the Snapseed app on the version at right, I adjusted image blur to draw even more attention to the tulips.


In contrast to a DSLR, today’s mobile devices generally lack manual controls for adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture unless you download an app that allows limited camera controls. Given sufficient light, everything in your frame will be in focus. Because you can't always adjust your aperture for shallow depth of field, it can be advantageous to arrange the elements in your frame to offer a graphic, uncluttered composition to effectively communicate your message.

Also, since technical limitations make it a challenge to compose and capture situations with fast action or in low light, being attentive to the different effects of movement and lighting becomes ever more important when shooting with a mobile device. Balance areas of motion in a scene within a framework of solid, unmoving elements or seek out lighting that supports your primary visual message. If you don't like the effect of a particular light source, change it up—turn off an overhead light and shoot only with window light (or change the bulb to a more appealing color temperature), reposition yourself (or your subject) until the light falls where you want it to, or revisit the scene at a different time of day. 

Image orientation and legibility on small screens

The overview of the coastline with a ship and lighthouse lacks a strong focal point, making it hard to read on a small screen. For a stronger, more legible composition that better supports cropping options, I moved in close and waited until the ship and the lighthouse were directly aligned.


Maintaining legibility at a reduced size is central to viewing images on a small screen. The aforementioned attention to lighting and movement can also extend to editing the image for a more graphic look, with heightened contrast, allowing the primary subject to stand out from the background or supporting elements.

Image orientation and cropping are other important considerations. A horizontal format is more readily accessible than vertical orientation, especially in presentations that incorporate video content. Additionally, many social media applications favor square templates, so it is beneficial to compose images that allow for the option of a square crop.

Final thoughts—electronic workflow is more accessible than print


Wispy clouds and the golden light of sunrise, captured full frame with my iPhone 6s and with no post processing or image adjustment.

While shooting on a small screen can be visually challenging, and can limit compositional options that were rarely questioned in a slower, more analog world, one advantage to the small screen (aka digital) workflow is that the resulting content is more likely to be presented electronically than reproduced in print. Indeed, the light-modulating properties of an LCD or other type of display device offers a more accessible visual experience than that of images reproduced via a four-color, mechanical printing process.

But while the means for viewing and disseminating digital images is more fluid than ever, issues such as color calibration of varied devices—from camera to monitor to projection device, and so on—adds yet another step to the process of composing a photograph so that it looks just right and achieves the desired effect.

To that end, although Steven Gladstone’s Explora article, An Introduction to Color Calibration, is directed primarily at filmmakers, it offers a very thorough discussion about the importance of calibration and its implications for image quality.



After zooming in for a close up of a plane traversing the wing-shaped cloud formation, I enhanced the image contrast and adjusted color balance for added drama when viewing on screen.


At the end of the day, while the uninitiated or inattentive image maker might find shooting with a small screen invites a laissez-faire attitude or a relaxed compositional style, the combined factors of electronic capture/display and rapid image generation/consumption makes the act of composing an image more challenging than ever to photographers who care about their work.