A Guide to Smartphone Photography

The first smartphone was invented in (1992-1994) by a team of engineers at IBM. However, it wasn’t until (1999-2000) that the smartphone camera (Kyocera VP-210) made its debut.

Though incredibly basic, the Kyocera VP-210 had a 0.11-megapixel CMOS sensor and could take up to 20 pictures before its onboard storage was full. It even had an integrated stand so users could take photos of themselves. The price for the phone in Japan was 40,000 yen (~$325 in 1999, or about $521-£439 today).

Credit: AP Archive

Phone technology and software have rapidly improved over the last 40 years, resulting in the camera smartphone taking the world by storm, of which a staggering 375 million smartphones were sold annually (2017-2018). In 2021, smartphone vendors sold around 1.43 billion smartphones worldwide. In the fourth quarter of 2021, about 24 per cent of all smartphones sold to end users were Apple smartphones.

Since 2010, smartphones have changed the digital camera industry by dropping their sales by 87%. Smartphones brought in a new generation of photography for daily picture-taking for most people. Everyday life was made more accessible – to have everything, even a professional camera, in one place. 

Despite these rather alarming statistics, most smartphone photographers have no experience; over 80% of smartphone photographers have never even used a DSLR or Mirrorless. And while these common facts come as no surprise, they raise questions about ethics, accountability and privacy.

For example, most DSLR and Mirrorless photographers enrol in a photography organisation or online institute. They’re taught the ethics of wildlife and nature photography, accountability, responsible photography tourism, copyright and privacy laws.

Most smartphone photographers I chatted with from 2021-2022 didn’t feel the need to enrol in an organisation or group because they didn’t think they had what it takes to become a photographer, i.e., lenses, off-camera flashes, tripods, lights, knowledge and experience etc. In addition, many photographers feel they’re not taken seriously by mainstream photographers because they don’t own a DSLR or Mirrorless.

Fortunately, the smartphone camera market and its technology have significantly advanced since the late nineties, and smartphone users can now add additional photography equipment to their phones. In addition, you do not need to own a DSLR or Mirrorless to enrol in a photography organisation. All you need is a picture-taking device and ambition.

With every new smartphone comes improved features ranging from larger sensors, more megapixels, options to shoot in RAW instead of Jpeg, dual camera setup, wider apertures, improved wide and primary lenses, options to fit filters, lens-style cameras and off-camera flashes and much more.

While smartphones and DSLR/Mirrorless cameras are worlds apart, photographers can still shoot stunning photography with any decent smartphone. All you need is a tripod, flash, lights, a few fancy apps, experience and knowledge.

Depending on your photography knowledge which is a critical competency to become a successful photographer, you should be able to shoot most genres of photography with an iPhone or Android.

The Samsung Galaxy S22, iPhone 13 Max Pro or the Xiaomi 12S Ultra are more than suitable for shooting portraiture, landscapes, low light, flora macro, street/city and astrophotography.

You must research the manufactures specifications of any mobile device you’re considering purchasing because mobile salespeople are trained to sell you the highest-priced phone for extra commission instead of a phone that fits your needs.

20 of the top specifications you should look for in a decent camera phone are:

  1. Quality cameras: Nearly all mobile phones are fitted with standard fixed cameras, but that doesn’t mean they’re all identical. Landscape, macro and wildlife photography requires a suitable wide-angle and telephoto camera. At the same time, a suitable camera for portraiture between f/1.2-f7.0.
  2. Adjustable aperture: A camera’s aperture setting is essential. Wide apertures let in more light (less depth of field); small apertures let in less light (more depth of field). Therefore, aim for a smartphone with an adjustable aperture between f/1.2-f/1.8 and f/22+.
  3. Electronic shutter speed: A fast shutter speed is required for fast-moving subjects such as wildlife and sports photography. At the same time, a slow shutter speed or (bulb mode) is needed for long exposures, especially in astrophotography.
  4. Shuter release: This is a rare feature, but it can be found on some smartphones, such as the Sony Xperia and the Kodak Ektra. As a photographer, you might prefer a physical button over virtual on-screen buttons on most devices. The volume buttons also work as a shutter button, but it’s still not the same as a shutter button. 
  5. ISO: A good camera phone must have a manual and automatic ISO setting of between 50/80/100 (the lowest ISO settings) and, at the same time, a high ISO for dim indoor photography, sports, wildlife and astrophotography of at least 5,808 to 7,616 (or above).
  6. Exposure compensation: Exposure compensation is used to alter the exposure from the value selected by the camera, making photographs brighter or darker. Exposure compensation is crucial in low light and high sun photography but cannot be adjusted in auto-mode.
  7. Exposure modes: Exposure modes are essential because some manufacturers’ modes, i.e., portrait, square, and Pano, aren’t always suitable for hobbyist or professional photography. I prefer manual mode because I prefer complete control over my Mirrorless, and I like Auto ISO mode when shooting fast-moving subjects. However, several smartphone brands require premium apps to gain full control over the smartphone camera. Therefore, aim for a smartphone brand that offers plenty of exposure modes; this will reduce the amount you pay for exposure mode apps.
  8. DNG/RAW: If you’re considering editing your photos, you will need a mobile device that can handle either RAW or DNG files. In smartphone photography, DNG is the most commonly used RAW format. Why shoot RAW instead of JPEG? Higher image quality translates into more available data when it comes to photo editing, giving RAWs/DNGs a definitive edge over JPEGs. Editing programs like Adobe Camera RAW, Bridge, or Lightroom are built for fine-tuning RAWs into polished final photos. Most smartphones on the market now offer RAW or DNG. However, cheaper brands may not.
  9. More megapixels: More megapixels do not improve image quality on their own however they can improve print quality, among other things. Therefore, aim for a smartphone with a high megapixel count and the largest sensor available.
  10. Optical Image Stabilisation: Optical built-in image stabilisation (OIS) is a must-have if, for example, you’ve no tripod or you’re shooting freehand. Image stabilisation reduces shake and image blur.
  11. Camera control options: Some smartphone cameras have minimal camera control options. You may need to subscribe to an app to get the best out of your camera.
  12. Flash: Most smartphones are fitted with an internal fixed front and back flash suitable for selfies, macro and some closeup photography. However, an off-camera flash is probably the better option if you’re considering using your smartphone for portraiture, macro, flora, etc. The Filipino electronics company Innovatronix has announced the CPFlash 550W: the most powerful off-camera flash ever made for smartphone photographers and videographers. While pricy, you won’t regret buying it.
  13. Screen size: Smartphones do not have a traditional DSLR/Mirrorless viewfinder; therefore, you will need a large screen. The larger the screen, the more you see. Furthermore, the higher the screen’s resolution, the clearer the image.
  14. Focus: Most smartphones come with auto and manual focus, though cheaper smartphones have lousy focus settings. Therefore, it’s best to try before you buy. Knowing how many frames per second (fps) the camera can capture images at is also helpful to know as a quick fps can increase your chances of capturing a good photo or video in situations where your subject is moving. 
  15. Battery: Most smartphone cameras can quickly zap the battery. Therefore, it’s wise to pick a phone with a suitable battery capable of giving you plenty of photography time.
  16. Storage: If you’re shooting RAW files or dozens of images at a time, you will need plenty of storage; anything from 100-200Gb is a good starting point. Most Android phones have a MicroSD slot, but iPhones don’t. Apple does offer iCloud instead of a MicroSD, but you may need to subscribe if you want more.
  17. RAM: The more RAM (memory) your phone has, the quicker its performance is when switching between apps. If you want to use apps that consume a lot of memory, such as camera control and photo editors, your phone may not have enough memory to run without hitching and stuttering. Therefore, choosing a smartphone with a good amount of RAM is essential.
  18. Sensor size: Sensor size matters, especially on a smartphone. Large sensors capture images with more light, less noise and more detail to name a few things.
  19. Optical zoom: Optical zoom is better than digital zoom for smartphone photography. Optical zoom offers true magnification and is the best type of zoom you should look for in a smartphone.
  20. Weather protection: Bad weather can make good photos, but it can also damage your smartphone if it’s not weather protected. Most smartphones are fitted with weather and waterproof protection; therefore, choose wisely, especially if you’re considering shooting in colder environments.

It’s essential to note down what you want from your camera phone and research and compare smartphones online before you buy, especially if you’re considering signing up for a 2–3-year contract.

Once you’ve purchased your new smartphone, you will need additional equipment such as an off-camera flash, lights, tripod, Bluetooth or infrared shutter release and a few apps. I’ll cover the apps shortly.

The best off-camera flash on the market is the CPFlash 550W, which retails for approximately £170 and can be used with most smartphones, including Apple iPhones, Mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Read more here and here.

Credit: Lavikka Photography

Professional lighting is necessary for indoor and outdoor portraiture, macro, and low-light photography. I prefer using LED, speed lights (off-camera flashes), reflectors, fill lights, and strobe (short bursts of light) when shooting with a DSLR or Mirrorless. However, you may want to start with a cheap and straightforward three-point light set-up. Read more here and here.

The image below was shot using two continuous 50-watt lights and a reflector which I purchased for under £100. They’re practical, did the job, and are great for beginners wanting to learn more about artificial light. This image was shot using a full frame Mirrorless, but the same image can be replicated using a smartphone too.

The reflector was added as a third source of light; all I did was bounce the light from the one continuous diffused light up towards the petal, which added a slight soft pop. The second diffused light was positioned to the left of the tulip from a distance of around 2-3 meters, which separated the blacks and shadows on the leaf from the MDF blackboard.

I think the image turned out quite lovely once printed; however, had I not spent a year experimenting with light reflectors, I think the image would have looked like your typical flora image with staged lighting and saturated soft colours.

Reflectors are a great way to learn about interior and exterior photography lighting. Reflectors help you understand more about light and where it falls; they also slow you down, allowing you to see more of the subject at a slower pace. It’s all too easy to move lights. However, it’s fun to move light with a reflector. Reflectors add an artsy appeal to an otherwise dull image.

Credit: The Photography Acadamy

If you’re considering shooting landscapes, astrophotography, portraiture etc., you will need a reasonably robust tripod and locking mechanism. The VEO 3GO 235AB 23mm aluminium travel tripod is more than suitable for landscape and Astrophotography. In contrast, the Joby GripTight ONE GP Stand and the Vesta mini table tripod are great all-rounders for macro and product.

Remote shutter releases can come in handy if you’re shooting slow shutter or long exposure, i.e., astrophotography. The Bluetooth Remote Shutter connects via Bluetooth to your IOS and Android devices enabling you to control your device’s shutter release and capture pictures up to 30 feet away. I recently purchased the Bluetooth Remote Shutter for my iPhone 12, which works perfectly.

As mentioned, you may need several apps to gain complete control over your smartphone camera. The majority of smartphones on the market host a basic native camera app. And while some are okay, others aren’t fit for purpose.

A few apps are free: however, some app developers charge a one-off payment while others charge a monthly or annual subscription. Please view the best apps currently available for Android and iPhone users below.

iPhone Camera Apps

  1. Halide Mk2 Pro Camera: Halide is probably the best app in the app store for photographers that want to shoot manual or automatic. Halide provides the operator with pretty much every control a DSLR camera has. A one-time purchase is £49.99, monthly £2.49 and yearly is £10.49. Tutorial video.
  2. Pro Camera by Moment: ProCam Moment provides the operator with manual controls, long exposure, and quick access to settings. The app has all the DSLR features and is easy to use. You can shoot in RAW, even burst mode, split focus etc., and have complete control over shutter speed, white balance, ISO etc. The Pro bundle is £4.49; however, you will need to pay more to unlock features such as timelapse, long exposure, etc. Tutorial video.
  3. Camera+2: Camera+2 is probably the best app in the Apple store for portraiture. This iPhone camera app offers editing options as well, so in a way, it’s similar to Adobe Lightroom CC. But this app is a camera first and editing software second. Manual mode allows you to change ISO, white balance, or even shutter speed, which is a great feature. The app lets you shoot in RAW and edit these photos to get the best possible results. It also allows you to take timed photos, giving you time to hit the shutter and get in front of the camera. For low-light situations, the stabiliser function will allow the image to be taken when the camera is the most stable handheld. Monthly plans start at £2.79. However, it’s probably best to purchase the app at £21.99 to reduce reoccurring monthly bills. Tutorial video.
  4. NightCap Camera: NightCap Camera has been designed for super-long exposure and astrophotography. NightCap is an excellent app for low light and night-time photos; AI camera control makes it easy by automatically setting optimum focus and exposure for a brighter, clearer shot. The long exposure mode is excellent and used by thousands of amateur Astrophotographers. I use NightCap on my iPhone12 and cannot fault it. Onetime payment of £2.49. Tutorial video.

Android Camera Apps

  1. Open Camera: Open Camera is one of the most popular camera apps for serious photographers. Open camera provides the operator with manual controls, a timer, HDR, exposure bracketing etc. The app is entirely free, with no in-app purchases or advertising. It’s also completely open source. That’s always a plus. There is an optional (and separate) donation app if you want to support the developer. Tutorial video.
  2. Adobe Lightroom: Adobe Lightroom is compatible with Android and Apple devices. Adobe Lightroom is technically a photo editor and not a camera app. However, it also comes with a built-in camera app. The camera is reasonably decent and includes big keyword features like HDR, RAW support, and various modes and pre-sets. Plus, it has the usual array of manual camera controls if you need that as well. The good news is that Adobe Lightroom is one of the best mobile photo editor apps, so you can use the camera app and immediately bounce it right into editing. Adobe Lightroom is a monthly subscription app for £46.56 per month. Alternatively, users can try the app for free. Tutorial video.
  3. Pro-Shot: ProShot is a camera app packed with numerous features, modes, and shooting options, including support for RAW. Besides a traditional photo mode, the app also supports video, slo-mo, light painting, and timelapse. Priced at £4.49, Pro-Shot is an excellent all-rounder for portrait photography. Tutorial video.
  4. Camera Zoom FX Premium: Camera Zoom FX is one of the best apps in the Google Play store for photographers wanting manual control to shoot RAW files. The camera interface is not cluttered (meaning it’s suitable for phones with small screens). Each feature and mode are easy to find. And switching between them is no problem at all. Manual focus is said to be reliable and responsive, and burst mode can capture up to 50 fps (frames per second). The camera software includes settings for ISO, shutter speed, aperture, HDR and white balance etc. Price: £4.47. Tutorial video.

All the apps highlighted above will take up a considerable amount of space on your smartphone; therefore, it’s essential to have plenty of available storage and RAM. If you do not have enough memory and storage, apps will freeze, lag, and crash.

iPhone camera and photo editing apps seem more advanced and meticulously designed. In contrast, several Android camera and photo editing software apps aren’t fit for purpose and are aimed more at selfie enthusiasts. That said, the apps mentioned above are regularly updated and are favoured by millions of hobbyists and professional photographers.

Once you’ve acquired all your equipment and apps, you’re ready to begin your first journey to becoming a successful photographer. I highly recommend enrolling with a photography club or organisation to learn more about photography.

Photography clubs and organisations are a great starting point to learn more about the exposure triangle, such as ISO, aperture, exposure compensation and shutter speeds.

Understanding the exposure triangle is critically important because it enables you to balance aperture, shutter speed and ISO and, as a result, control how long and how much light enters the camera sensor.

Once you’ve mastered the exposure triangle and feel more confident, you’ll be able to shoot impressive smartphone photography, such as the image below snapped by Roberto Pavic on the Huawei P30 Pro.

Roberto Pavic, who is also an Ambassador for Huawei, had this to say about the Huawei P30 Pro:

“The P30 Pro appealed to me with its optically stabilised lens with a 27mm-equivalent focal length and f/1.6 aperture.

There is also a 20MP 16mm-equivalent wide-angle option, which is excellent for landscape photography.

However, the real highlight was the stabilised 5x (125mm-equivalent) periscope-style tele-camera with folded optics, the 10x lossless Hybrid Zoom and the 50x digital zoom.

This type of technology means that if I’m scouting an area for photography, I can use this smartphone to figure out which lenses and focal lengths will be perfect for taking with my DSLR to shoot in that location.

It’s also helpful when an opportunity suddenly presents itself, as I can shoot at any length from ultra-wide to super tele zoom. This means I’ll still have a usable shot even if I’m unprepared.”

Roberto Pavic, Iceland Photo Tours.

Understanding the exposure triangle is one of many subjects you will need to learn to become a successful photographer; next on the list is composition. Composition plays a pivotal role in storytelling.

Composition creates more appealing photos; it directs the viewer’s eyes into and around an image. Composition can deliver a more convincing story; it looks more professional, has balance, shows personality, adds life, awes the viewers, adds essence and makes an image stand out.

The image below was snapped on the iPhone13 Pro by Austin Mann. The picture tells a story; the frame has been filled, and the foreground (the bakkie) to the right adds balance and directs the viewer’s eyes around and through the image into the sunset.

Austin Man has composed this image well, using the Bakki as a sharp eye-pleasing foreground. The dirt track directs the viewer’s eyes into the centre of the image while the Bakki leads the viewer’s eyes around. You can view more of Austin’s work here.

Credit: Austin Mann

The rules of composition can be broken; for example, you may not want to place your subject along the third line of your camera’s grid point; you may also want to go off-grid with a slightly uneven horizon. If you’re shooting portraiture, you may want to cut off your subjects’ arms and focus more on the subject’s face, or you may wish to place your subject dead centre.

Mastering composition takes time; therefore, practising and keeping it simple for the first year is essential. It took me years to master composition; however, once you’re familiar with the rules of composition, such as the rules of thirds, leading lines, the golden ratio, storytelling, etc., you’ll soon find that everything else, i.e., the exposure triangle falls neatly into place.

Credit: Yuri Beletsky | f/1.7, ISO3200, 32 sec x 8 (tracked) + ground (untracked)

The image above was shot by Astronomer and nightscape photographer Yuri Beletsky. The image depicts the Milky Way rising above a road in Chile. Yuri shot this image with the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 phone.

Leading lines come into play here, which is part and parcel of composition. Leading lines are a compositional technique where human-made or natural lines lead the viewer’s eyes through a photograph to the subject or the heart of the image.

Yuri has used key elements (the road, centre line and hilly terrain) on the lower end of the frame to create visual interest while the remainder of the frame is filled with the Milky Way. Yuri used a tripod for this image (required) for long and super-long exposures. Read here for more information.

Long exposure photography is a technique that takes advantage of slow shutter speeds to create creative and unique-looking imagery; however, as mentioned, you will need a tripod. Alternatively, you can improvise with a few books, a rock, a beanbag or a mini tripod.

The image below was shot on the £250 Realme 2 by Amit Patil. This is a straightforward photography trick for beginners and requires no special tools other than a piece of rope, steel wool, and a friend or family member to help.

All you need to do is set your smartphone up on your tripod at a safe distance in manual focus mode and adjust your shutter speed to a two or 5-second exposure setting. From there, your friend will need to light the steel wool and spin it at a reasonable speed. Once you’re ready to click the shutter, the camera will do the rest. For more formation, read here and here.

Credit: Amit Patil

Landscape photography is probably the most common of all the genres photographers practice, and it’s a great starting point. Landscape photography will increase your understanding of light and exposure very quickly. That will benefit your photography as a whole. It gets you thinking about sunrises, sunsets, golden hours, contrast, shadows, highlights, mid-tones, backlighting and front lighting.

The wintery landscape image above was shot by Huapeng Zhao on the iPhone XS Max tilted: Hiking in Norway. Huapeng’s image came 4th in the New Atlas Annual Mobile Photography Awards.

Landscape photography is probably the most challenging of all the photography genres. Still, it pays off, and it’s a genre I encourage all smartphone photographers to engage in first before moving on to other genres.

Landscape photographers must be up before dawn to capture colourful, moody and dramatic scenes, not forgetting to work late to capture incredible moody sunsets. Landscape photographers must climb, hike, and sometimes kayak to remote locations to find the correct composition. Landscape photography is challenging, but it pays off, especially when you come to edit, post and tell the world about your story.

Landscape photography can take years to master. Technical aspects must be learned, like composition rules, camera settings and the exposure triangle. Some of the best landscape photographers are also experts in portrait photography.

Unlike landscape photographers, portrait photographers have complete control over artificial light and interior layouts, of which they routinely use patterned or painted backdrops. Portrait photographers often use gels, coloured lights and scrim and light modifiers to enhance their subject’s colours and studio setup.

On the other hand, landscape photographers have very little control over outdoor light, i.e., the sun, clouds (that act like filters) or environmental and agricultural factors, i.e., weather patterns and atmospheric pollution.

Landscape photographers must practice harder and use their imagination and patience to transform a scene from boring to evocative, giving a location atmosphere and mood. It’s too easy to move and adjust lights in a studio; however, the rules change outdoors.

Landscape photographers often have to wait hours or even days for a colourful sunset and sunrise, which is not guaranteed depending on weather and agricultural harvest seasons. Farm harvests and activity add more dust and pollutants into the air, transforming a sunrise and sunset into a blaze of colours.

Furthermore, landscape photographers only have 1-2 hours to shoot the golden hour images, and the scenes cannot consistently be replicated as they can in a studio. In addition, landscape photographers must use their imagination to illustrate a scene with depth and storytelling, whereas the entire scene can be made and moved in a studio.

Landscape photography keeps you active, aids relaxation, improves mental health and increases your knowledge about ethics, foreign cultures, geography and travel. However, portrait photography is just as exciting. Portrait photography can help improve your camera and lighting skills while also improving your composition and creative thinking skills.

For portrait photography, you will need a good light setup. While there is a range of unique smartphone lights on the market, it would probably be wise to invest in professional photography lights (with dimmer switches) and a smartphone off-camera flash.

A three-point lighting setup is best to start you off; it’s a simple yet effective setup for small or large rooms, and you’ll not need to upgrade this setup if you consider moving over to a DSLR or mirrorless unless, of course, you want to go big.

The Profoto D1 500W/s Monolight with OCF Octa Softbox (2′) and Softgrid as a key light; a Profoto B10 with OCF Softbox (1 x 3′) and Softgrid as fill light; and a Profoto B10 with OCF Softbox (1 x 3′) and Softgrid as a backlight are suffice for any small studio or home setup.

As mentioned above, you can start with a basic three-point light setup for under £100. I still use my ancient set-up at home with 50wt lights; they come in handy for lighting smaller subjects up, and the bank wasn’t broken. However, if you’re considering shooting portrait photography, you will need to pay a little extra. Alternatively, if you’re still working on a budget, several buy-and-sell forums online offer great second-hand kits and props at a reasonable price.

Photo X-Change is probably the better of the Facebook groups online that sell immaculate camera equipment “from trusted traders” for a reasonable price, but you may need to become a paying member of the Guild of Photographers to take advantage of this forum.

In addition to lights, you will also need paper, fabric or vinyl backdrops. Some photographers prefer vinyl or hand-painted backdrops over fabric because it’s easier to clean and hang and doesn’t crease. Unfortunately, vinyl and hand-painted backdrops can be expensive.

I wouldn’t say I like fabric backdrops; they’re a waste of money, and I would avoid them. Most come creased, creases are difficult to iron out, and they often fall apart in the washing machine too.

Which leaves paper or DIY. I prefer both. Paper is cheaper, easier to roll up and down, and less hassle when photographing human portraits; however, paper is not an environmentally friendly option and often rips when photographing pets.

There are DIY alternatives which I also use. I’ve made my backdrops from MDF board and painted them with matte black, grey, etc. Finally, if you’ve legal access to a nice clean wall, that’s just as good, if not better, because it adds texture once painted.

Queenie Cheen snapped the portrait above on the Vivo X50 Pro during the global Covid-19 pandemic. Queenie Cheen used a minimal lighting setup consisting of three lights and the Vivo X50 Pro flash. Queenie used a black and grey matte vinyl backdrop for this image suspended from two poles. Not only did Queenie Cheen’s image make local and national headlines, but she also came fifth place in the 2022 Annual Mobile Photography Awards.

If portrait photography isn’t your thing, or you’ve little room, why not try macro photography instead? Most smartphones come equipped with ‘macro mode’ or a dedicated macro camera that allows you to focus incredibly closely on tiny subjects, including insects and flowers.

The image below was shot by Abhik Mondal on the iPhone 13 and was picked by Apple to represent the best macro photos for the Shot on iPhone Macro Challenge on April 13th, 2022.

Credit: Abhik Mondal | Source: Apple.com

Smartphones are excellent beginner cameras for young budding photographers wishing to learn more about mainstream photography. Instead of photographing vulnerable people in the street for the likes, taking risky selfies, or if you’re one of these people that walks down the road with their head down glued to their phone, please stop and remember, you have the world at your fingertips, the question is of course, how are you going to use it?

Whatever subject you choose to snap with your smartphone camera, please do so ethically and responsibly. Smartphones allow you to learn basic photography skills like composition and lighting, and they’re excellent as beginner cameras. If you can master smartphone photography, you’ll be able to master photography on a DSLR or mirrorless.


To the surprise of no one, smartphones are still the most-used device for taking pictures over DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras. There are more smartphone photos online than DSLR and Mirrorless images.

Since 2010, smartphones have changed the digital camera industry by dropping their sales by 87%. Smartphones brought in a new generation of photography for daily picture-taking for most people. Everyday life was made more accessible – to have everything, even a professional camera, in one place. 

According to Statista, smartphones are causing a photography explosion, with 1.2 trillion photos taken in 2017. 85% of them were taken with mobile phones. Statistically, for every video recorded, people take 26 pictures, and iOS users tend to take more photos than Android users. iOS users take 65% more pictures than their Android fellows.

A report showed that 90% of people who have taken a photo have only done it with a phone, not a standard camera. It’s hard to believe that most people who have taken a photo did it with a phone. It means most of them have never held a compact or digital camera in their hands. 

Will mobile devices overtake DSLR and Mirrorless cameras in the future? Probably, but smartphones can only do so much in the here and now and will never compare to a DSLR or Mirrorless camera setup. Smartphones often need upgrading every 3-6 years; they’ve low-quality optics, and image resizing is questionable. For example, you may be able to resize images up to A5 or even A4, but pixels will be more viewable above these sizes.

Unlike prime DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, most smartphone cameras are prone to poor light sensitivity. In addition, the most significant limitation of a smartphone camera is zoom capability. Digital zoom or computational software-enhanced zoom can increase a smartphone camera zoom from 50x-200x on some smartphones. Digital zoom can even replicate the results of optical zooming.

However, in digital zoom, there’s no actual change in focal length. The camera takes the image in front of it, crops a section, and expands the cropped section to fill the available display frame. Digital zoom is less of actual zooming and more of intelligent cropping technology.

Credit: Dave Haynie | Source: Quora

Unfortunately, because digital zoom uses cropping, the resulting image has a noticeable loss in quality. Moreover, when you edit and crop the image more, the outcome will not look eye-pleasing in large print format.

Say you have a smartphone with a 20MP camera and want to do a 2x digital zoom. What happens is that your smartphone camera will grab the image at 20MP resolution, lock in on a 10MP portion of the image that contains the object you want to zoom in on, and then crop off the other 10MP. The 10MP portion containing the object of interest is stretched to cover the frame, which often results in pixelation and overall loss of quality.

Credit: Gyan Therapy

Often, smartphone manufacturers advertise their products with labels like 20x zoom or 60x zoom. Sometimes a catchy name is added. Samsung has 100x space zoom. Unfortunately, most of these labels are just marketing gimmicks.

Before getting excited about zooming power, you must ask yourself: “How much of it is optical zoom?” Smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy S series have admirable digital zoom power. This is possible thanks to large sensors and many megapixels, giving them more resolution.

However, digital zoom is still, well, cropping. Optical zoom offers actual magnification and is the best form of zoom you should look out for in a smartphone. Still, most phones on the market have a limitation of 5-10x optical zoom, forcing manufacturers to incorporate “hybrid zoom”. Hybrid zoom uses optical, digital, and software to improve results when zooming in further than the lens’s physical capabilities.

If you want sound advice, concentrate on true optical zoom only. Digital zoom can still come in handy, but it’s not going to give you the desired results you’re looking for in professional or hobbyist photography.

Several smartphone manufacturers now offer users an option to add lens-style cameras that change the angle of view, thus giving the impression image quality is being improved. In 2014, Sony introduced the lens-style camera that can be attached to any smartphone. Unfortunately, critics have reported significant lags in live view, connection problems and time delays with these lenses. The older the phone, the more problems users encounter.

Lens-style cameras are an ingenuous idea; they enhance your mobile photography experience by expanding on the visual capacity of a smartphone’s camera. This is done by changing the phone camera’s focal length and angle-of-view, or how much of the scene can fit in the frame of the shot.

The question is, of course, do lens-style cameras improve image quality? No, they do not. Smartphone lens-style cameras only change your camera’s angle of view and nothing else. They can allow you to capture more of a scene than you usually would be able to or get so close to your subject that you can pick up some fine detail in your image.

But just like new tyres on a car enhance its performance but don’t increase its maximum speed, attachable smartphone lenses enhance the camera’s angle-of-view but don’t change the quality of the photos it produces. 

Several photography critics claim that “smartphone cameras equipped with artificial intelligence apps and computational technology (a sub-branch of AI) are taking pictures that look as good as if you had shot in RAW with a prime DSLR or Mirrorless camera”. For instance, critics claim that AI apps help to improve resolution, colour, contrast, lighting, and many other elements of an image.

In contrast, critics claim that computational technology aids the photographer by creating stunning bokeh effects, reducing noise, creating cinematic blur, and improving night mode and portrait mode photography etc., on some smartphones.

This statement is somewhat true, but there’s much more to improving a picture than relying on AI and CT software. In addition, AI and CT software does most of the processing for you. And while this is a good thing for those wanting to shoot selfies or basic amateur photography, it does nothing for those wishing to learn more about processing in RAW from start to finish.

To shoot better photography, the smartphone photographer requires a fair amount of knowledge and experience to take better images, i.e., compositional rules, such as the rule of thirds, golden ratio and storytelling. In contrast, a photographer must be acquainted with perspective, symmetry, depth, correct focus, lighting, the exposure triangle, etc.

Furthermore, a professionally composed smartphone image frequently requires the photographer to use equipment such as tripods, specialist lights, off-camera flashes, and remote shutter release buttons, not forgetting premium apps to harness complete control over the camera phone, i.e., manual mode, aperture priority, RAW shooting and editing, etc.

There’s no denying that smartphone manufacturers are rolling out highly advanced camera phones with state-of-the-art technology that aids the user to shoot sharper images with or without a tripod, with improved low-light performance and more accessible RAW editing options. However, to imply that AI and CT software takes better pictures than a DSLR or Mirrorless is barmy.

Improved smartphone camera functions, intelligent apps and well-designed software don’t make for a better image, knowledge and experience; having the correct tools do that. All AI and CT software does is aid the photographer; at the most, AI and CT are primarily designed for the selfie snapper.

AI and CT technology developers have hit the headlines recently. Human Rights critics have accused software developers of being culturally offensive and racist, going too far with filters and software programmes that lighten the skin tones of black and brown people and creating filters and AI programmes that “morph” the facial features and skin colour of Southeast Asian folk.

While some app developers have addressed these issues and rebranded their apps, others continue to slip through the net. And I can tell you now that if you’re considering using your phone as a start-up for photography, it’s wise to create a good reputation rather than a bad one. A bad reputation in photography will stick for life, even if it wasn’t your fault.

When we compare the humble smartphone with a Mirrorless or DSLR, the latter will always win. A DSLR/Mirrorless has much superior image quality, speed and performance. In addition, a DSLR/Mirrorless user has hundreds of different interchangeable lenses to choose from and has complete control of camera settings (without needing a paid app), better video quality, battery life and complexity, to name a few.

That said, the best camera is the one that is always with you. For most of us, and when it comes to smartphone photography, that means our smartphone. It is small enough to fit in your pocket and lightweight enough not to break your back.

Mobile photography or iPhoneography is for snapping those precious moments. We use it to capture the world around us. From friends and family to travel landscapes. Not to mention all the food we eat. Nothing is safe from the quick snap of a smartphone camera.

Smartphone photography is a great way to capture anything that catches your photographer’s eye, but it’s also a great way to learn more about mainstream photography. And while the smartphone and DSLR/Mirrorless are worlds apart, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful photographer; all you need is your mobile device, knowledge, equipment and experience.

Thank you for reading.

Published by J. J. Williamson

Prints, frames, stock images and portrait services.

4 thoughts on “A Guide to Smartphone Photography

  1. Great blog. Like the website mate. I’ve got my son a cheap mobile for photography. He’s been following your site. I’ve downloaded and printed this post for him. Cheers. Keep the good work up fella.

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