One question I get asked the most often from organising beginner photography workshops is this: ‘Should I buy a camera? Which camera is the best one for 2021?’ As someone who owns quite a few Canon, Fujifilm, Minolta DSLR cameras, my answer is surprisingly simple.
'No, just bring your phone.’
You can take amazing photos simply with your phone. This statement may be odd to a lot of people, but I guarantee you that this is the most genuine suggestion I can give to any person who wishes to start exploring photography as a hobby. I aim to use this short article to give you some easy tips on how to start taking photos using only your phone— nothing too technical or complex, and no parameters are involved.
1. Wider? Why not? Wait a minute.
Whenever you see a phone advertisement nowadays, they always tend to include phrases such as ‘super-wide angle’ or ‘ultra-wide angle.’ People sometimes get carried away with this— they start to shoot everything with their ‘ultra-super-duper-wide angle’ lenses on their phones, and the results do not always turn out to be satisfactory. The reason for this is, whenever you use a wide-angle lens, the space and distance in front of the lens tends to get distorted. This means that the space that is closer to the edge of your frame will be enlarged while the space that is far from the edge of the frame will get narrower. The direct consequence of this is that it creates a sense of disproportionality across your frame that amplifies what your eyes see. When you use this feature correctly, it helps you achieve great results by adding scale into your frame; however, when you use this feature incorrectly, it will simply generate a photo that makes every single component in the frame out of scale.
Tips for beginners:
Use wide-angle lens in scenarios 1-3 listed below.
1. Group photos with a large amount of people in one frame
2. Architecture photos for that require a sense of scale and rhythm
3. Landscape photos with numerous elements and layers in the frame (i.e., a foreground, a midground and a background)
4. Do not stand too close or too far from your subject, unless it is for artistic purposes.
2. Open your mind; change your perspective
‘Change your perspective.’ This is something you might hear in a philosophy lecture that is also an important concept in photography, especially when you are technically constrained by only using your phone.
What does this mean? This means that you should change the way you perceive the world while practicing photography. Whether it’s kneeling down and shooting from a low angle, or using tools like water ponds to generate reflections, these techniques will always add that extra bit of creativity that many photographers aspire to have. This is akin to painters using a variety of painting material or composers using a variety of music instruments.
Tips for beginners:
Think outside the box! Treat the world around you as if it is world in a game like Minecraft. How would you arrange things differently if you could shape the world? Once you have an idea, don’t hesitate— use your phone camera to put it into action! Don’t regard the rules (and by this I mean the conventions of photography, not the law)!
3. Be there; be present.
The main reason why phone photography is becoming more popular is because it is convenient and simple. Phones are the camera that everyone has in their pocket nowadays. However, I do think that 80% of people who have a phone camera do not use it to their full potential. People are often so distracted by the virtual world on their phone that they don’t even bother looking up. They just tap the camera icon, adjust their arm at an angle, and capture what is going on in reality through their screen instead.
Once I was able to capture something a scene that was very unique only because I paid attention. It was a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I was scrolling past Gower Street with my friends. While they were all browsing through TikTok and Instagram, I saw a harsh, sudden projection of light across the street that threw the shadows of the bikes and the fences onto the wall near the UCL main entrance. I immediately took out my phone and captured this image. It’s titled, ‘Let’s all cycle to Notre-Dame when it is repaired’.
Tip for beginners:
Think carefully about this: when you commute, would you rather spend thirty years of your life scrolling through TikTok videos that you probably won’t remember, or spend that time paying more attention to your surroundings, using phone photography to capture images that can really leave a lasting image in your mind? The decision is up to you.
4. Get closer and avoid low light
Get closer to your subject. Try not to use the zooming function on your phone camera, because phone cameras often do not zoom optically, but rather digitally. Besides, getting closer to your subject gives you more context and can help you understand your subject better. Avoid using your phone camera in low light, because there is something called a sensor which captures light coming into your camera. Unfortunately, most phone camera sensors nowadays simply do not have the capacity for good exposure at night without having to use other adjustments, such as longer exposure or external flash. They are physically too small.
Tip for beginners:
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" -Robert Capa
You will begin to understand this quote as you start to take more photos.
5. Edit carefully, find your style, and deliver your message
Editing is often the last step before people produce a finished piece of photography. My best advice for a novice on this is to use a proper edit app and try some filters on. See which one you like best, and then check the parameter changes. Then, remove the filter, and try to reach the effects of the filter from scratch on your own. There are a massive number of great editing resources and tutorials out there on YouTube and Udemy— it’s best not to rely too much on AI.
After you repeat the process of understanding your surroundings, taking photos, and editing a hundred times, you may start to develop your own style. I use black and white because I always feel a sense of timeliness and calmness from this tone. For others, it could be purple and yellow, red and green, rock and roll, rhythm and blues or even no fixed style. Not having a fixed style is fine as well; do not restrict yourself to a particular style if you wish to explore.
The message is more important than editing or style. Make sure you let you audience know that you are not just a bored individual wandering on the street and taking random pictures. Communicate to your audience that you have a feeling, a mood, a purpose, a theme, a subject that you find interesting and would like to preserve, share, and spread with the help of your phone camera.
Every scene has a message; you just need to interpret it and deliver it through photography.
Tip for beginners:
Think and explore. Listen before you look. Once you look, look further until there’s nowhere to look. Turn back, think again, listen again, and look again.
This concludes the five phone photography tips I would like to share. I still consider myself a beginner in the photography field; therefore, I only hope to encourage more discussion on photography and phone photography through an exchange of ideas.
I would like to recommend a book titled ‘The Art of Photography’ by Bruce Barnbaum. This book covers a lot of photography topics you may wish to understand while practicing photography, including composition, exposure, tone, film vs digital and many more.
Last but not least, I would like to remind people that the best camera is the one you have with you. Most times, that’s your phone.
Jason's work can be found on Instagram @jasnpix.