What Mobile’s Smartphone photography guide

Allan Swann
March 12, 2013

We all know that smartphones have developed to pretty impressive little photo snappers over the last five years. While pros will never give up their D-SLRs, the development of smartphone-ography as its own art form is rapidly gathering pace.

First rule: smartphones are more versatile than cameras

Apple iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is a winner when it comes to smartphone photography (c) Allan Swann

Why? Because of the very nature of the smartphones they are attached to ‘ smartphone photography means photos can be shared online instantly (via Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc), edited instantly (Photoshop, Snapseed etc) and turned into everything from birthday cards, movies and slideshows in seconds.

Lugging around a traditional ‘dumb’ camera (such as an SLR or compact) usually means you have to take your photos, pull out the memory card, put it into a laptop, edit with software, resize, save and then add to social media or email.

Smartphones skip almost all of these steps ‘ they also make photography fun again, and available to the masses. Don’t be afraid ‘ anyone can become a shutter bug these days.

We took to the artsy streets of Shoreditch in London for a 101 class on street photography with so-called iPhoneographer, Richard Gray.

Gray runs smartphone photography classes that have proven popular in the last year. Despite Richard describing his new profession as ‘iPhoneography’, his classes are available to all users.

A professional photographer by trade, Gray was a convert to the possibilities of mobile photography after experiencing Instagram for the first time several years ago.

“The ability to edit on the fly and post images instantly is key. It’s changed the way everyone thinks about photography.”

Richard Gray: iPhoneographer

Richard Gray, 'iPhoneographer'

Richard Gray, ‘iPhoneographer’

Richard Gray is the UK’s leader in the exciting new genre of mobile photography. His work has appeared in exhibitions around the world, most notably the Mobile Masters at Macworld in San Francisco last January, where he also presented. He writes a blog ( and was the author of the mobile section in The Guardian’s recent photography supplement. In February 2012, he launched the world’s first introductory course in mobile photography at Kensington and Chelsea College, which he later gave at The Photographers’ Gallery. Richard is a professional music and event photographer ( syndicated to Press Association. He is @rugfoot on Twitter and Flickr.

An instant web  focus

The explosion of Instagram clones and an obsession with preset retro filters may have had its day – a fad that is gradually passing. But the manner in which Instagram operates, namely instant posting and instant editing ‘ means there is a whole new artistic angle to smartphone photography you can’t get elsewhere without taking a Photoshop course and sitting in front of a PC for hours.

The boost in mobile bandwidth also means that images no longer need to be shrunk, degraded and compressed to send ‘ which shows Instagram’s age (it doesn’t store images in their native resolution). This has held smartphone photography back ‘ if you’re doing lots of cropping and editing, the more data, the better. 4G should see this expanded further.

For this reason, one of Gray’s favourite new apps is Flickr (it was one of What Mobile’s Apps of the Month earlier in the year), which performs many of the same tasks (filters, cropping, editing) ‘ but also saves the images in full res, and in Flickr’s online gallery. Despite years of neglect by owners Yahoo!, Flickr remains the only serious online repository of photography. No other photography website can match its scale and history, although Instagram and other new kids on the block such as 500px have grown exponentially. Obviously social networks such as Facebook and Twitter will continue to be a force.

As a sign of the times, Flickr’s most popular cameras are now dominated by smartphones. A year ago the Nikon D90, Canon 550D and Canon 5D Mk II (all SLRs) were on the list alongside the iPhone 4. Now the latest three iPhones dominate.

Smartphone camera accessories are booming

While iPhoneographers can now buy all sorts of accessories, such as zoom lenses, polarisers and filters to attach to their smartphones, Gray feels it does go a bit against the ethos of this new ‘minimalist’ approach.

“The bags full of filters, tripods and lenses we use with SLRs is the thing we’re trying to get away from ‘ iPhone photography is about instant photography. Otherwise you’re erasing its key advantages.”

He does use a Joby Gorillapod, which is a portable mini tripod that can grip horizontal and vertical surfaces, yet fold away easily. A tripod is especially important for long exposure photography.

Street photography

One of the key advantages to ‘iPhoneography’ is the ability to take candid photos ‘ traditionally one of the toughest forms of photography, even for photojournalists. Lugging around giant Nikon D4 SLRs with foot-long lenses not only makes a photographer a target for thieves, it also makes the subject matter nervous, and provokes the wrong kind of reaction. Smartphones are ideal because in most situations your subjects will assume you’re texting or reading Google maps.

Using shadows and reflected light from buildings can also create surreal photoscapes that will stand out ‘ you can also set up shots with an eye to editing them later with apps such as Snapseed.

It has become one of the core parts of his workshop, and Gray says it’s also one of his favourite past times. Several of his biggest iPhoneography pay days have come from photographing newspaper readers on the tube, or in other public places. You also have to beware the legal privacy issues when shooting on private property ‘ such as using images for commercial purposes without permission.

Top apps for image editing

Where smartphone photography really takes off is with the onboard editing ‘ and it’s something you don’t need to be an expert to deal with. Did someone stick their head into shot at the last minute? Crop it out. Are the colours and saturation a bit off? Simply adjust the image’s colour levels.

Instagram and Hipstermatic have deservedly made their name from applying basic filters to images to give them a retro vibe ‘ to make them look like old toy cameras, polaroids and even World War 2 photos.

If you want to get a bit more artsy, there is much more to it. You can overlay images for artistic effect, use motion blur via slow shutter speeds, and use HDR to balance your images better.

Ever taken an image where the sky is bright white or detail is lost in the dark? HDR takes two to three images (one too bright, one too dark and one in the middle) and mashes them together ‘ so you get balanced detail throughout the image. Experimentation and practise are key.

High Dynamic Range, or HDR, is starting to be incorporated into smartphone cameras directly (rather than via apps), so this has become less of an issue.

The best apps for iPhoneography

This great little app allows you to apply filters and other textures and effects to your pictures, simply by swiping up and down (to choose effect) and left to right (strength of effect). Brilliant work in seconds.

Touch Retouch (for blemish removal and cloning)
This simple tool allows you to quickly remove blemishes and clone areas of an image. Useful for quick tidy ups of images

Take images, crop, apply filters and do minor edits. All while posting it straight to Flickr, and sharing it on social networks. As easy as it gets. (Full review here)

Instagram applies retro filters to images after they’ve been taken. Hipstamatic makes you choose your lenses and filters BEFORE you take the picture, which helps you get your eye in for the right shot.

Slow Shutter Cam
This allows you to take slow shutter pics, great for motion blur pictures and other nifty effects, such as creating ghosts.

A bit insane, this app will completely rearrange the pixels in your image to create some sort of chaotic meta-art.

Photo Wizard
A more of an advanced app, this allows you to apply masks and filters to edit your images.

Filter Storm
Another more hardcore app for advanced users, this is pretty much a mini-photoshop for your tablet or smartphone.

As mentioned, an excellent tool (with filters and auto modes) for using HDR to fix your images.

Image Blender
This app allows you to automatically merge two images into one, simply drop the images together and move them around to create a new composition.

Richard Gray’s iPhoneography tips

1) First things first… find something you want to take a photo of.   This might sound simple but first time photographers can spend hours walking around trying to find it. Just start taking photos of what is closest to you, the most simple and everyday objects can make the best images.

2) Then think about the set-up or composition of the image. A professional will always think about what’s happening in the foreground, the background and the mid-ground. For a great photo you need something interesting happening at each point – this might mean moving around and trying different angles.

3) All great photos need good lighting so you can see exactly what it is you’re capturing, however this can be tricky when using an iPhone. It’s more important to choose a really well-lit location for your shot.

4) At the same time, be careful that bright objects like traffic and street lights aren’t too bright and cause glare across the image. The iPhone can resolve this ‘ tap and hold your finger on your screen on the brightest part of the image or light spot. The result is that the bright light won’t wash the colour and detail away.

5) Some great shots can be taken when the sun is bright and you play with light and shade, this works best if there’s rich contrast between light and shade.   The iPhone has a feature to improve this richness ‘ High Dynamic Range (HDR), you can activate this through the options menu in the camera app by switching ‘HDR’ on.

6) iPhones have to be absolutely still to avoid blurring. Unlike most cameras, there’s no anti-blur function on an iPhone, so slight movements will be picked up. A lot of this is caused by you moving the phone when you’re taking a shot. A good tip is using the volume control buttons instead.  This gives you better grip of the phone and helps you keep a steady hand.

7) As every photographer knows, timing is everything. Many of the photos I take are opportunistic ‘ you have to be ready for anything. But remember, the picture is taken when you release your finger from the button not when you touch it. Those vital seconds can make all the difference.

8) Once you’ve taken a photo, edit and share it. There’s a host of apps that you can download to help with this. The new Flickr app lets you correct, retouch and add filters; then you can share photos with the entire Flickr community or just your family and friends. Upload them,organise them into albums and see how many others like your pictures.

9) Keep your phone fully charged! It might sound obvious, but there is nothing more frustrating than finding the perfect shot and your battery running out. Using your iPhone means that you can capture something amazing when you’re least expecting it. I always carry around a portable battery charger so I’m prepared.

10) Finally… have fun! Don’t worry too much about the photos you’re taking and getting the perfect shot every time. The beauty about iPhoneography is that you can snap away to your heart’s content and choose what you’ll be deleting, keeping and sharing afterwards.

Some classic photography rules

Yes, all the photography rules that the pros use apply to smartphone photography too. Learn them thoroughly and your skill set will increase – so will your photos.

The rule of thirds

Divide your line of sight into a 3×3 grid (most smartphones have a grid built in), position the most important features of your scene along these lines to produce a pleasing image.

Leading lines

Use lines within the scenery (such as winding roads or rivers) to draw the eye to points of interest, or divide the image up symmetrically.

Symmetry and patterns

Look for patterns and shapes in your scene that produce symmetry, or reproduce in a pattern.


Shooting subjects from low or high angles can change the atmosphere or character of the subject matter.

Depth of Field

How objects are positioned in your image by depth ‘ to produce visual interest.

Note: This is a shortened version of a feature appearing in April’s issue of What Mobile. To read the full text, including images, diagrams and examples, the magazine will be on sale Thursday.

Some examples of smartphone photography

Some examples of smartphone photography


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