By Abhilash Pavuluri
Smartphone cameras have improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality. Gone are the days when 5MP was the de-facto standard. With the launch of the highly anticipated OnePlus 5, people are going to start judging their smartphone cameras again. But there’s no need to jump for the OnePlus 5 straight away, regardless of how good its camera is. With a few essentials mastered, you can have complete control over your smartphone camera (which does let you take better photos than you already are).
These “essentials” are not just related to smartphone cameras, but photography in general. However, we will attempt to find solutions for smartphone cameras as well. An important caveat to note is that one thing you can almost never change is image quality, since it’s a hardware related issue. But as seen in the first tip, there is a workaround for that too.
RAW image capture
If you ever want to gain absolute control over your image quality, RAW is the way to go. Just what is RAW? It’s a file format for lossless, uncompressed images. When you take a photo using any medium, the default image format is usually a JPEG. JPEG images are processed by the camera’s image processor, while RAW files are untouched and left to be processed by you. To give you an example, a standard JPEG image on a smartphone is usually about 2-3MB while a lossless RAW image is around 8-10MB(depending on the no of megapixels).
The downside of RAW capture is that you have to use a RAW editor like Photoshop that handles RAW files directly, and then export it to the image format of your choice. But that’s why it’s so useful; you have total control over the image.
So how do you get to using RAW on a smartphone camera? While most manufacturers are including RAW capture(it’s usually called CR2 or DNG quality), those who don’t have this feature can use an app like Manual Camera that has it. Warning: check for compatibility before you try RAW capture.
Shutter speed and ISO
Shutter speed, ISO and aperture together form what photographers call the exposure triangle, the three most fundamental aspects of any sort of photography. Alas, aperture control is simply not possible on smartphone cameras since the hardware is limited to a single fixed f/stop. But you can still control shutter speed and ISO.
Shutter speed is the duration for which the shutter opens and closes to let light in. It’s usually measured in 1/x of a second, where X is the value you set. The higher value X is, the faster your shutter operates and the less light comes in. Slower shutter speeds like 1/20,1/10 or even 1-10secs are used for when you need a longer exposure and also for effects like light trailing, and faster shutter speeds like 1/500, 1/2500 can be used to capture objects in motion.
ISO is the term used for the shutter’s sensitivity to light. It’s a great tool that can be used to lighten up any situation. However, a point to note that higher ISOs usually come along with something called “Digital noise”, grainy artifacts in the image. Use ISO with caution.
Of late, shutter speed and ISO are default options in most cameras these days. You can use an app like Camera NX if your phone doesn’t have them by default.
White balance is as the name suggests: it controls the color temperature of your photograph, and the overall color accuracy. While your smartphone usually does a good job of its own in the automatic settings, sometimes, colors get a bit too saturated in one spectrum like red or green, which is when you use white balance. It’s measured in terms of Kelvin and is usually a number like 5500K. In some cameras and smartphones, you have presets like Automatic, Tungsten, Sunny, etc. White balance is a default in almost all smartphones, but for finer control, you can use one of the aforementioned apps.
Composition and the grid
Along with the exposure triangle we spoke about, composition is king when it comes to photography. You can change the entire aspect of a photo simply by changing the angle you took it in. A good way of measuring composition is called the rule of thirds: one of the most famous rules in photography. Simply speaking, divide your frame into 9 equal parts and place your subject in 1/3rd of the frame. While you can imagine a grid in your mind, camera manufacturers have made it easier for people to do so by introducing a grid overlay for most devices and certainly almost all smartphones. You can usually select the grid option in the camera settings. Some manufacturers go crazy and divide the frame up even more, but 1/3rd is usually a safe option.
Often an overlooked essential, stability can make or break a good moment for you, especially if you’re snapping fast-paced events or taking long exposures. While some cameras attempt to overcome shake by means of Optical Image Stabilization, budget phones can be stabilised using a small tripod, such as a Gorillapod. There are usually variants for smartphones that are much smaller, more lightweight and cheaper than usual tripods. You can even carry them around in your pocket in case of any on-the-go action.
In conclusion, smartphones are definitely a long way away from becoming the perfect imaging devices, but these small elements that let you take control over them certainly gives you a much wider perspective of the kind of images you can make with these little devices. Who knows, it may even kickstart an interest in mainstream photography for you!