With all the incredible advances in smart phone technology over the past few years, there are two in particular that have caught my eye. The first is the GPS capabilities that have been standard for a while now and which I'm currently experimenting with and have blogged about as well. The second thing I became interested in after acquiring a new iPhone recently, is the photography and video capabilities of the modern cellphone.
NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn't add a warning up front that there is some good evidence that cell phones interfere with avalanche transceivers - obviously something you should be aware of during winter when you take an electronic device with you, including your phone. There are solutions such as keeping the two devices separated by at least 20 inches.
The first thing you might ask, is "why bother?" - can a smart phone really be counted on to take trusted photographs of memorable situations? The answer is that it depends. I personally know of someone who has been using a smart phone (similar to this one from Samsung) for years to take photographs of hundreds of his summits and climbing expeditions (I only wish he'd upload higher resolution images to his web site! :)). Here are just some of the questions you should be asking yourself to determine how much or little you will use your phone's camera to document the adventure of your life;
- Am I going to print or blog most my photos?
- How many photos am I going to take and how willing am I to pay for extra storage?
- What kind of post processing (PP) am I going to do to my photos after taking them? Realistically.
- How do I want to back up my photos to make sure I don't lose them?
[The iPhone 6s with a Moment Case and 60mm lens]
Removable Lenses for your Phone
I've recently acquired some Moment removable lenses for my iPhone 6s. Why? Well, the answer is rather obvious. I can put them all in one pocket and I get the following focal lengths out of the set;
- 18mm (Moment lens) - perfect for sweeping landscapes and large panoramas. Also great for unique perspectives and group shots indoors.
- 25mm 10x Macro (Moment lens) - this is the least useful lens, but it's fun and can be used with nice effects.
- 29mm (default iPhone 6s lens) - one of the best all-around focal lengths. Works for almost any situation except portraits or flower shots.
- 60mm (Moment lens) - great for portraits. You don't have to shove your phone right in someone's face to take a nice portrait. I also like this lens for flower shots and to generate some foreground / background separation, which is tough to do with a phone's camera.
The built-in focal length on the iPhone 6s is around my favorite focal length of 25-28mm. This focal length allows pretty much any type of photo from close ups to sweeping panoramas (vertical stitching) to portraits. My second favorite focal length is anywhere in the 18-21mm range. This focal length allows lots of creativity in both landscape and urban photography. I am very happy with the 18mm Moment lens. My next favorite focal length range is 135mm. I'm hoping that this is the next lens from Moment ;). Of course, 50-75mm is a very standard focal length and allows compressed landscape stitching and flower / portraiture, so I'm very happy with this option on the iPhone. Macro is always fun, but I always use it much less than anticipated for some reason.
[Macro lens from Moment]
All-in-all, I am delighted with this first set of interchangeable lenses and can only imagine that there will be more options soon, including a fisheye and a telephoto lens.
As for why I choose Moment lenses over Olloclip's solution, the answer is simply that I wanted the best I could afford. Moment lenses are designed by professional cine lens artisans and use ED glass and special coatings to enhance the final image. I figured that my phone lenses are already suffering the disadvantages inherent to their size / design so why make it worse with my attachment lenses? So far the Moment lenses have been worth it, but I can highly recommend the Olloclip lenses too - whatever suits your fancy and your wallet.
[The 18mm Moment lens is truly very tiny and has excellent glass - all for $99 USD.]
[The 18mm Moment lens allows a much wider angle of view (AOV) than the default 29mm iPhone 6s lens. I'm impressed with this jpeg's color and tonal range too. I had to open up the shadows a lot in LR as I exposed for the sky.]
Disadvantages of using a Phone Camera
I might as well get this out of the way up front even though it's obvious. Your camera is *not* a DSLR or even a high end P&S like the recently announced Canon G5x or Sony RX100 IV. At least not yet. I believe that it's getting closer with products like the Sony QX1 and Sony QX30. (You should be aware that camera modules like the QX30 don't actually use the camera in your phone, they only use the phone's screen as an interface / shutter button.) The point of this article is not to convince you to dump your 'real' camera in order to exclusively take photos with your phone, but I am opening the door to perhaps using your phone camera more than you currently do. I consider it more of a backup option and an option to supplement your real camera, not replace it every time, unless the modules I mentioned above are good enough for you!
There are some obvious disadvantages of your phone's camera, here's just some of them;
- Sensor Limitations - phone camera sensors are small, with all the disadvantages that brings including, too much depth-of-field (DOF), crappy high ISO, limited large print options. Try taking a photo of the Milky Way or a sharp portrait with blurred background with your phone if you don't know what I mean... :)
- This being said - there are a TON of apps on the Apple App Store that contain some ingenious solutions to *some* of the limitations of the sensor in your phone.
- Limited storage - my phone is only 64gb and most of that is for apps and music. If I'm in the back country with no WIFI, I am severely limited by memory space.
- No easy manual control - most phone cameras have limited or no easy-to-use manual control. Trying to use manual ISO, speed or EV can be difficult and clunky. Note: I am trying the Manual app out and it seems pretty intuitive to use but manual focus is a bit clunky, especially in the field.
- No aperture control - iPhone cameras have a fixed aperture.
- Battery limited - taking a few hundred shots is fine, but what if you're also using the GPS and texting and updating your status? Your battery will be toast, very quickly.
- Handling - try taking photos with winter gloves on, or worse, while balancing on skis with gloves tucked under one arm and the phone in another! I also seem to get my huge glove in almost every wide angle shot unless I'm very careful about how I hold the phone while taking a photo.
- No viewfinder - this is related to handling and isn't a huge deal for most people, but not having a viewfinder, especially in bright outdoor conditions can be a real PITA. How do you know what exposure you're using when you don't even have a preview of the shot to look at, thanks to a brilliant sun?
- No zoom options - the only zoom available on most phones is digital zoom. Don't bother. Your phone camera is primes only unless you have a funky detachable module like these ones which doesn't really use the camera in your phone.
- No telephoto lenses - as of right now, the longest quality tele lens (from Moment) is the 60mm. This isn't going to get that distant peak or animal. (There are options for telephoto lenses but I'm not convinced they're any good. I'm going to try one or two and update this article at a later point.) Again - if you have something like the Sony QX1 you can attach any Sony E-Mount lens, but this is defeating the point of the phone camera - i.e. small and with you all the time and using the built-in camera in the phone itself.
There are certainly even more disadvantages of phone cameras over 'regular' cameras, but this article is about using your phone, not throwing it in a large vat of acid because it "can't do everything a DSLR does" - so I'll move on. ;)
[The shutter button on the Moment camera case even allows a half-press focus / exposure lock - just like a normal camera.]
Print or Blog
The most important question to ask yourself with regards to using your phone as a camera, is whether or not you are going to print your photos or simply post them on the web (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, blogs etc). If you're pretty much never going to print your photos larger than a 'normal' sized photo book (i.e. 8x11" at the largest), you have nothing to worry about with a modern smart phone camera's resolution and ability to print. You will be fine using your phone - especially for casual snaps and trips that are spontaneous or excursions that you don't want to lug an extra camera around for.
As I detailed in my article on printing and mounting photographs, the main consideration when printing photographs is resolution (i.e. megapixels) and the trick of stitching photos to get even more resolution. The camera in the iPhone 6S is a 12 megapixel unit, which is fairly standard nowadays. The issue I have with the default iPhone camera application is that it generates pretty small (compressed, 8-bit) jpeg files that don't always take well to manipulation (i.e. resizing, sharpening in Lightroom or Photoshop). The Moment app lets you save photos as TIFF files, which are much larger but also more malleable than the default jpegs. Be aware that your phone will fill up quickly with TIFF's - I would only use them when presented with a killer shot. Obviously, being an iPhone, there are many other options for camera apps and most have similar options.
[The 18mm lens and Moment Case]
Editing and Storing Photos from your Phone
After taking the photos (either JPG or RAW / TIFF), what is the best way to process and store them? There is no *best* way, but there are various options you should consider. I do the following;
- For casual photos of family, friends, unplanned stuff I simply turn on the iCloud storage options for my photographs. Yes, this means I will eventually have to start paying for storage but the huge advantage is that I never have to worry about losing important memories either. I also don't have to store my photos on my phone, which is 'only' 64gb. Just make sure you tweak the settings so that you only upload on WIFI or you might get some big phone bills!
- For more formal shots, say a series of landscapes or some creative project, I will use the default iCloud option for the originals, but I will also download them from the Apple Photo application on my MacBook and incorporate them into my normal photography workflow (i.e. store them on an external drive, import them to Lightroom and post process them as usual). This is also where I'll process the TIFF files and manually perform any panoramic stitches.
There are some considerations when editing photos taken on your smart phone;
- You should always consider if editing is really necessary or if the phone camera captured the memory good enough. I have some nifty apps on my phone that I use for on-the-spot edits that are usually good enough for snapshots and uploading to social media. I use Photoshop Express or the built-in Apple photo editor most of the time.
- When doing panoramas, should you use the phone's built-in panoramic stitching or manually do it with individual photos? For quick 'n easy, use the phone's capabilities but for that unique panorama from the top of some mountain or near some back country lake, I would use the manual method every time - especially if it could become a large print on your wall some day.
- HDR could be necessary for that REALLY special shot of a sunrise near an alpine lake or any static scene with a wide dynamic range. I can adjust the EV (exposure value) on my iPhone with the built-in camera or expose one shot for the shadows and another for the highlights. Combine into an HDR using your favorite photo editing tool at home. A tripod would be extremely handy in this scenario.
[For casual snaps that are instantly shared to social media, I often do in-phone editing with Adobe's Photoshop Express app. In this case I used the preset for "fall" and added a border before saving and sharing.]
Workarounds for Smart Phone Camera Limitations
Earlier, I mentioned some disadvantages of the phone camera. There are workarounds for some of these limitations;
- Apps and more apps!! There are a TON of apps out there that take the limitations of your phone and execute some pretty facinating workarounds. For example there are HDR apps that do a pretty amazing job of getting around the sensor limitations in the iPhone by combining multiple exposures into a single shot.
- You can set up and use Photoshop actions to generate out-of-focus (OOF) background blur (i.e. bokeh) for nice flower or portrait shots. This isn't the easiest thing in the world to learn, but I've used it with some success.
- You should buy an external charger for your phone, to get around the battery limitations. It's one more thing to carry, but you can get pretty small ones that will charge your phone 4 or 5 times, which should be plenty for any trip less than around a week long.
- A small tripod is a good idea, especially for HDR's.
- A wrist or full camera strap is a good idea.
- Considering how small / light / slippery some of these phones are, a good waterproof camera case is probably not a dumb idea. ;) Beware that removable lens solutions like the Olloclip and Moment won't work with these types of cases.
[An in-camera processed and stitched panorama from this past fall on a lunch time walk in downtown Calgary. I'm pretty impressed with this sooc jpeg. It's not technically perfect but by doing in-camera stitching, cropping and post processing, I only spent 3 or 4 minutes capturing a nice memory that will even print pretty large. Not too shabby!]
Real World Use - Winter Ski Tour
I recently took my iPhone 6s on a ski tour up Healy Creek to Simpson Pass and out via Sunshine Meadows and the Sunshine ski resort. I took the Moment lens case and the 18mm and 60mm lenses along. I only shot JPEG to keep things easier.
I recorded and followed a GPS track using the ViewRanger app, as well as taking photos. Even in winter temperatures (around -10 to -5 degrees Celsius) the phone still had over 75% battery after 5 hours and roughly 100 photos, including some live photos and some panoramas. To be honest, this performed MUCH better than I was expecting.
[The iPhone 6s handled this difficult lighting situation pretty well, I thought. Deep shadows at the bottom and bright sunshine above. This is a JPEG straight out of camera (sooc) and there isn't too much clipping of highlights or shadows. Of course the blue color cast is thanks to early morning light and all the snow.]
Reality did sink in a few times though. Even on this low-key and very easy ski tour, the phone proved tricky to use as a trip camera, especially in winter conditions. Here's some things that I found annoying or didn't work as well as I wanted them to;
- The Moment Lens case is connected to the iPhone via Bluetooth and kept losing it's connection. I'm not sure why - possibly the cold? It has never done this before. This wouldn't bother me, except with gloves on the whole exercise of getting enough buttons pushed to reengage the Bluetooth was annoying. I quickly took the case off completely, which of course meant I couldn't use the lenses and the phone was now completely unprotected.
- Especially while moving (i.e. hiking, skiing, climbing), switching prime lenses is a PITA. I've discovered this before. On many mountain excursions, I've used prime lenses to keep my camera kit small and light. For example, on Mount Alexandra I only took an 18mm, 24mm and 135mm prime lens (and not even auto focus) for use with my Sony A7s. I got some amazing photos, but switching lenses was a bit of a PITA. I basically only used the 24mm except when I really wanted to switch for a particular scene. Not a huge issue, but something to be aware of with primes. It's easy to imagine that you won't mind switching lenses while you're sitting in a dry room but it's quite another matter when it's getting dark, it's snowing, cold and windy! The 29mm lens on the iPhone is good for about 88.8% of my landscape shots. The Moment lenses will only be used very sparingly. Good thing they're tiny and light and not that expensive compared to DSLR glass.
- The phone, without a case is very slippery, especially with gloves on! I dropped my brand new, $800+ phone into the snow and it quickly vanished from sight!! I was not at all happy as I plunged my bare hands into the deep snow after it. YIKES. Amazingly, it was fine and I even kept using it after this incident, but I need to find a way to attach a wrist strap to it. This is an advantage of the Moment case - it attaches a strap.
- Big, warm mitts and gloves don't work with the touch screen. Obviously I had to take at least one glove off for each photo.
- Touch ID doesn't work with sweaty fingers or in the cold very well. The phone got a bit damp from me sweating and the cool air. I had to use my PIN half the time, which wasted a lot of time and meant my exposed hand got colder!
- The iPhone is small and light. This means it's easy to drop but it's also very easy to get your gloved hand (the one holding the phone) in the photo. I had at least 20 shots out of 100 that had a darkened edge from my stupid glove in the right hand top corner. Ooops.
I know the list of negatives looks long, but there were positives too. The main positive was that I could use a tiny, light device to do two important functions. Take photos and follow / record a GPS track. The other positive? Great photo IQ IMHO. Definitely good enough for the type of day it was - namely a short ski tour of an area which I've taken hundreds of RAW photos already. I only needed photos for my blog and for recording memories from this trip.
[A manually stitched (using Lightroom) panorama of the Sunshine Meadows with the iPhone 6s. Yes, some highlights are blown but this is pointing directly at the sun! ++]
[Another great thing I discovered about the iPhone 6s SOOC (straight out of camera) jpeg files is that they convert very nicely to B&W shots.]
I think the iPhone 6s with the Moment case / lenses is better for the following scenarios than winter ski trips;
- Warm temperatures (no gloves, no moisture isses, can wear the case like a camera around my neck). Also easier to switch lenses without worrying about dropping them in snow, or falling too far behind your ski buddies while fiddling with Bluetooth issues!
- Around town - conditions where the phone can be in your pocket and easily accessed and used without worrying about dropping off a cliff or into a snow bank.
- Casual, spur-of-the-moment shots because it's all you have with you!
- Family / friends photos - mostly because it's always there. Practice using indoors and don't forget to USE it. You really don't have much to lose so snap away!
- Travel photography - obviously you might want a more 'formal' camera for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but your smart phone is a pretty darn good backup camera. With a small tripod and some good lenses you could take 90% of your travel photos easily with your phone. And you're probably less likely to get mugged or challenged in the street while using your phone camera than a large DSLR.
I still have a few things to try with my iPhone;
- Tripod shooting
- Telephoto lens
I have tried enough on my iPhone 6s to conclude that it can perform amazingly well as a camera, especially in the form of a small / light, carry-anywhere tool that also happens to give me GPS, phone calls, texting and many other useful functions. The auto-backup functionality of iCloud works well for me and I have already captured many family moments that are special for reasons beyond technical photograph perfection.
I will continue to use my phone as my main GPS unit when not measuring mountain heights (I have a dedicated GPS with a barometer for such things) and will continue to use it as a backup camera on my various trips. I will try to use it more and more to document everyday memories in my life adventure - after all, why NOT?