It seems to me that being able to take, edit and post images on one device is increasingly appealing to very many people. For myself I begrudge time spent on a desktop or laptop computer and over the past eighteen months have gravitated more and more towards using Snapseed on my tablet or even my smartphone for processing the digital copies of my film negatives. However, when I decided on a smartphone challenge I wasn’t really expecting to find the mature and diverse ecosystem dedicated to smartphone photography that I did find and I’ve a sense that I’m only just scratching the surface.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning and talk about the tools I started the challenge with. For this project I have access to both an iPhone 11, which is the smartphone I’ve used for many of my “365” images in the past, and a more modern iPhone 13 Pro which apparently has a much-improved camera module. During my pre-project research I discovered that much of the more serious smartphone photography I found online was taken with the phone supported in some way. In some cases the way the phone was held, with one hand wrapped around the phone and the other supporting everything, was sufficient but in many cases a tripod or even a gimbal of some sort was used. This led me to a couple of pre-project purchases in the form of a basic (cheap) phone holder and a very small tripod. Very small, basically just three short legs with a tripod screw on top. The phone holder fits directly to the mini tripod and can also be used with a full-sized tripod if required. This set up is shown below and it was with this simple configuration that I sallied forth on my quest.
The holder and tiny tripod combination worked well but with one major caveat; it was impossible to level up the composition on rough or sloping ground and in addition the phone could not be tilted to tweak the composition. The answer is of course a mini tripod with a ball head and my manfrotto pixi mini-tripod, which towers over the tiny legs, fitted the bill admirably. I still carried this tiny set of tripod legs however as they are very small and very light and I quickly found that I made good use of them both. On the day I tried long exposures I discovered that the cheap phone holder wasn’t the most stable as it flexed in the wind when extended to hold the iPhone 13 Pro. At the time of writing this I am researching a replacement and no doubt by the time I publish this I’ll have a new holder on order.
Using the phone on a full-sized tripod, or even my travel version, looked ridiculous but was very usable nonetheless and as with using a full-sized camera the act of using the tripod slowed things down and encouraged a more considered use of the phone. I also found a very useful accessory in the form of the, until now, neglected ear buds supplied with the phone. The volume control on the cable replicates the dedicated buttons on the phone so could be used to “release” the shutter without touching the phone. I also found at the back of a drawer, presumably discarded by one of the grandsons, a dedicated wireless shutter release that connected via Bluetooth. I’ve not used it but would imagine that this could be very useful if you wanted to include yourself in a composition.
Basically however, my set up for the past week or more has been as minimal as I’ve been able to make it. To me this is in keeping with the whole philosophy of smartphone photography. Everything I’ve used, including the phone, has fitted into a small bag the size of my grandson’s pencil case. Indeed, the phone, phone holder and tiny tripod also fit easily in my coat pocket without the need for the small carrying case.
By keeping the gear to a minimum and also taking a little time before heading out to acquaint myself with the relevant app I quickly found I could concentrate on making images. Initially, especially when hand holding, I did find that I was having to think a little more about steadying the phone to help with image sharpness. Unlike a dedicated camera a phone isn’t the most ergonomically designed instrument from a photographer’s perspective. The act of touching the virtual shutter button on the screen is also potential for introducing camera movement. However, this all very quickly became second nature and I found the process of working with the phone actually quite liberating.
As someone whose close-up eyesight is not the best I did also struggle at times to see the controls clearly – and yes, I was wearing my reading glasses! It wasn’t too bad on a tripod at anything from waist height and above but at ground level it was very problematic especially on the tiny tripod legs which hold the phone no more than a few centimetres off the ground.
It seems that there is no magic about the use of a smartphone for photography. Keeping everything steady is still a fundamental for the most part, there are exceptions of course, and here the camera craft you’ve built up over the years is readily transferable. Apart from a phone holder (£5 to £55) you’ve probably already got all the kit you actually need in your bag already.
So, despite the ergonomically-challenged form factor of the phone, I found using this very minimalist kit very enjoyable. I will no doubt share some more behind the scenes images in a future post. Next time however, I will talk about some of the apps that I have used and that make smartphone photography not only flexible but such a satisfying activity.