How Did I Become a Smartphone Photographer?

History Lesson

witness history new pope

So lets see a show of hands, how many of your own one or more smartphones? Yep.. you.. and you.. and the whole crowd behind you. The fact is since 2007 when I got my first iPhone with the measly 2 megapixel camera, I loved the potential of having a computer in my pocket with a camera built in. This was better than the Treo by far, smarter than the crackberry I had at the time and worlds better than any other PDA out in the market. And it had a REAL camera, not just a poor excuse of pinhole camera slapped on with crazy stupid menus just to use it. I loved my Razor but I despised the menus. However, to prove a point to someone, I did make a pano using images I took with my Razor just to prove the point that you COULD do it if you wanted to.

I created this with four images taken with my Motorola Razor and processed in Photoshop. It took some work but I got it done 🙂 This was taken about the summer of 2007, right before I got my iPhone.

Tustin Airbase pano taken with a Razor phone

When I Got Serious About Smartphone Photography

It was about 2011 when I was on a trip to Chicago that I saw something that really struck a cord with me about photography and the direction it was going. I took my iPhone but I also took my “real” camera which was a Nikon D700 DLSR and about 10lbs of lenses. As I was wandering around I saw thousands of tourists with their iPhones wildly snapping images with abandon. Now, I knew the images were going to suck compared to my DSLR images and not because the iPhone could not take good pictures, it can take good pictures with some work. But what I saw were people who had a device in the pocket all the time ( iPhone) with a camera and virtually free film. So they were taking many pictures and quite happy with them since they were “good enough” and provided the memory they wanted.  That prompted me to experiment with my own iPhone at a much more serious level and to provide the motivation to write my first iPhone photography book to help teach people how better use their iPhone /Smartphone camera. Now it is 2016 and we have even better apps, better smartphones and various clouds like Instagram to play with. The pictures today from a good smartphone can rival and in some cases, exceed what kind of picture we can get out of the DSLR.

The image below was taken when I was in the middle of a half marathon in Anaheim and going past their water treatment plant on a very foggy morning. There is no way I could do that kind of run and carry a DSLR with me but I could carry my iPhone.

Moody Misty Treeline iPhone

Tricks of the Trade

  1. Running out of battery sucks so pay attention and bring a brick or stick charger. They are cheap now
  2. Think smarter, not harder. Put the phone into airplane mode and stop wasting power on unusable features like wifi and bluetooth while you shoot
  3. Dim the display. In bright light it is almost impossible to see the screen anyways so why fight it? Save the brightness for editing
  4. Find a case that is comfortable to use. I use the Mophie case which also doubles as a battery charger
  5. I have a love/hate relationship with aftermarket lenses. I use the Moment lens set but I cannot use them when the phone is in the case. So I have to pick and choose which is a pain
  6. One the real weaknesses of any smartphone is the so called “flash” which is really just an LED that is turned on like a video light. It’s NOT a real flash and wont stop action like the flash on a DSLR
  7. Pay attention to how hot the phone gets. Heat is not your phone’s friend and heavy processing or just a very hot day and push it to the limits. Sometimes in the peak of summer, I turn the phone off till I plan on using it.

 Three Take Aways

  1. Shooting pictures with a smartphone is not any different than any other camera. The normal rules and expectations still apply to smartphone images.

  2. To get professional results, use professional apps BUT THE GAP IS GETTING VERY NARROW. Apps like Lightroom and Photoshop can extract the very best out of a smartphone picture but some of the apps are so good now, I find myself not bothering with the heavy lifting apps unless I absolutely need something special.

  3. be prepared to experiment, a lot! Some apps are good, some are garbage and some take some work to learn how to best use them. Learn the limits of what your smartphone can and cannot do. Learn how to work around the limits 🙂


There is no doubt that the smartphone has limitations. But, it’s these limitations that drive the art of the smartphone. Embrace the limits and make them opportunities to further your creativity. Instead of fighting the phone, work with it and find ways to get the result you want. It may require new apps, new work flow or just a new approach in how you shoot. Stay on top of new apps and pay attention to updates. New apps come out at an incredible rate and while many are junk, there are some real gems to be found. With many app going for a buck or two, you can afford to buy and try without feeling like you will lose your shirt if you do not like it. It’s less than a cup of coffee nowadays.

Orson Wells is credited with a quote that can easily applied to the art of the Smartphone

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”

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