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Learning a Smartphone Camera: Exposure, Color, Sharpness

Learning Smartphone camera exposure, sharpness and color  is something you can actually do right now. Read on; it’s not as hard as you might think. Usually, all you need to do is point and shoot and the camera will take care of the exposure and color. If the camera is off in its assessment of a scene, you can easily and quickly override its assessment and make your image brighter or darker. Unlike all other cameras, your phone camera is a very stripped down tool for capturing light. All cameras, except a mobile phone camera, have adjustable settings for 3 variables: f-stop, shutter speed and ISO. Since the beginning days of photography, cameras have had settings you need to understand to adjust for the correct “exposure”. Smartphones have simplified this by using computer technology that works behind the scenes to help you get a good, well-exposed shot. Smartphones are a seachange in the world and in the world of photography.

Technically speaking: Exposure, Sharpness, Color

There are just three things to learn with your smartphone camera:
1 – Exposure: getting the right brightness
2 – Sharpness: details and clarity; freezing action
3 – Color: beautiful color is a tap away
FRAME-TAP-DRAG-SNAP: Getting the Right Exposure with Your Smartphone
Learning exposure on your smartphone is simple. In a nut shell, tap your screen on your subject. By tapping on the screen, you are telling the phone this is my subject, please assess my photo for this spot. The phone will do three important things when you tap. Firstly, it will adjust the brightness using that spot as the reference point. Secondly, it will focus on that spot. Thirdly, it will adjust the color for that spot. Screen tapping is the first step to get the right exposure on your smartphone.
If you have an iPhone, you will see a gold square appear at that spot. Drag up to lighten and drag down to darken. You now have a couple of seconds to snap a shot before the camera reverts back to the original brightness. Other phones might give an exposure slider that appears when you tap on the screen. So you’d tap and then drag that slider to brighten or darken. Older non-iPhones sometimes require you to go into a menu to find the exposure slider.
Exposure: The First Step to Taking a Great Shot
Learning smartphone camera exposure is crucial. You want your images bright, not too bright, not too dark. The phone has a light meter that will assess the brightness of what you have framed with your camera. You smartphone will attempt to guess at the right exposure. Usually it does a pretty good job. Stop, look, and decide if your subject is bright enough. It’s up to you; your phone is an artless, soulless machine. It’s amazing, but you are more amazing, so take a moment to think about your image. We are all able to see when a photo is too dark or too blown out, so take a moment before you snap. Make it a habit.
sun burst through bridge phone photography
Sharpness: Usually We Want our Subject Sharp.
Sharpness gives clarity and definition so you can see the fine details on your subject. The phone has a very large depth of field, i.e. things usually appear sharp from the foreground of your image all the way to the back. Street photographers love that, as they usually want everything in focus. Portrait photographers though, often want the face in focus and the background soft. This brings attention to the face and draws the eye to your subject. Things in the background can be a distraction and having them out of focus is one way to direct the viewer’s eye to where you want it to go. Most current phones now have something like “portrait” mode to help with this. The brain in the phone knows what a face is and uses software to blur around the face. This works pretty well most of the time, although you might get some funky edge transitions at times. Blurry pictures are not likely due to the camera missing the focus. Your biggest danger for soft images is low light. While the phones are getting better and better at shooting in low light, one needs to shoot with care when shooting at night or low light situations.
Here’s the rule of thumb: In low light, be extra careful to hold your phone steady. Brace it on something if you can. Yes, you can turn the flash on, but personally I do not like the look a flash gives you. The light is contrasty and harsh, and will make a face shiny and less attractive. Cameras have a stabilization feature that will try to counteract camera movement. This is very helpful and has made it a lot easier to shoot in low light scenarios. The camera will automatically sense that there’s low light. To compensate for this, the camera will have a longer shutter speed to allow  more light in. This is where the problems begin. A slower shutter speed makes your phone more vulnerable to movement when you are snapping a shot. You need to be very aware to hold the phone as steady as you can, and when you push the button, do it gently. Here’s the other problem: The slow shutter speed means if your subject is moving they will be blurred, despite your steady grip on the phone. So, let’s say you are shooting someone getting an award at an event. It’s likely to be low light. They are likely to be moving and you will be very challenged to frame it well, and capture that moment. For this, I’d turn the flash on. The flash will freeze the action and give you an acceptable quality for the subject. You won’t get any awards for your lighting, but the flash will help and allow for a clear and sharp image.
smartphone twilight landscape
Color: Brilliant, Popping, Eye Pleasing, Nuanced
Color is a wonderful amazing component of light. For centuries, visual artist have studied and utilized the power of color in their art. As photographers, we find color in the world, as opposed to creating color on a blank canvas. When you tap on a screen your smartphone will try to adjust the image to “correct” color. So, have you ever taken a picture that was all yellow? That’s called a color cast. If you take a picture of something that is white and it doesn’t appear white, you have a color cast. Where you tap on the screen, the camera will attempt to neutralize for color casts, rendering someone’s white shirt, white. It doesn’t always work. Perhaps at times, the camera just doesn’t do it well.
Another common cause of a color cast has to do with light sources having different colors. Mid-day direct sunlight is white light. Your camera is likely to to give you correct color with this light source. But go in the shade in the mid-day and the color of light goes very blue. A tungsten light, like a light bulb in your living room, emits an orange color light. If someone is lit by window light and there’s a tungsten light nearby, then you’ll have two different colors of light creating the color of your image. That’s not necessarily bad, artistically, it can be used to create interesting color in an image. But let’s say you are shooting a product for your website. Then, I’d just have one color light, so turn off the tungsten, or block the window light and just use the tungsten to light your subject. Your flash will emit neutral, daylight-colored light. It’s clean and color cast free. But beware, the flash often has a stark looking quality, and can feel sterile and flat. Learn some lighting techniques to take your images to the next level.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.

There are dexterity skills to using a phone. Holding the phone, lining up your subject perfectly, tapping and dragging for your exposure, snapping at the right moment, it’s all a skill that comes with practice. You want to get it all into muscle memory, and make it a new neural pathway so you are on auto-pilot with the process. It’s easy, but don’t let that fool you. Timing is everything with certain kinds of photography, like street photography or capturing moments. How elegantly you frame something is another big factor. What do you want in, and what do you want out? Should you zoom or move your position? There are a lot of things at play every time you snap the photo. It’s kind of like juggling, as you get better you can add more complexity to your thinking. It might be overwhelming at first. But like anything, you can learn it. Learning camera exposure on a smartphone is vital. You are taking pictures all the time anyway, so start to develop good photo habits and cultivate awareness.
Here’s my favorite phone photographer Eric Mencher:
Check out the Mobile Photo Awards  to see just how good these cameras havegotten:
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