Tuesday Photography Tip – Cell Phone Camera Tips #2

This is our second post on Cell Phone Camera Tips. The first post introduced camera settings and discussed the #1 villain responsible for blurry photos – camera shake. We covered the four most important camera settings – resolution, compression, scene mode and ISO and included tips and a link to techniques to eliminate blurry photos.

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In this post we will dive a bit deeper into our favorite scene mode – portraits – after we touch on camera phone zoom settings.

3) Zoom with your feet

We wrote an earlier post on how optical zoom impacts perspective, a very important consideration for portraits. Today we will focus our discussion on the pitfalls of camera phone (digital) zoom.

There are two types of zoom. Optical zoom is much preferred over digital zoom. With optical zoom the camera lens is moving to increase the effective focal length. If the lens doesn’t seem to be moving it’s because the lens elements inside are on the move.

Zooming in increases the focal length; zooming out reduces focal length. Consider a common zoom lens, described as 35-105 mm. The 105 mm focal length is 3x longer than the 35 mm. This is a 3x optical zoom – the standard optical zoom ratio for digital cameras.

The optics on  your camera phone have a fixed focal length. Your camera phone can’t magnify the image – there is no optical zoom button.  Camera phones only offer digital zoom. Our goal is to convince you to use digital zoom as sparingly as possible.

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A digital zoom enlarges the image by “cropping” it. The camera chooses a smaller area of the image, after it has been captured, and discards pixels (i.e. information) outside that smaller area. Only the pixels inside this smaller area of the frame are recorded.  Hence, the camera’s resolution is being degraded.

That’s a real problem because, as we mentioned in last week’s post, image quality degrades quickly. I used digital zoom on this 10-year old photo (of me) in downtown Chicago. The zoomed image is too “pixilated”. We’ve thrown away too many pixels in order to digitally zoom.

There is a healthy way to zoom in – zoom with your feet. Get closer to your subject. Fill the frame by moving closer. We have an earlier post on filling the frame – a key to improved composition. If you absolutely can’t get closer for safety reasons or protocol issues then go ahead and use your camera’s digital zoom. But, you’ll end up with much better photos if you zoom with your feet.

3) Use portrait scene mode for portraits

Portrait mode is one of several scene modes (landscape, sports, macro …) available from your camera phone. Your camera will select shutter speed and aperture values based on the picture mode you choose.

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In portrait scene mode your camera will use a wide-open aperture. If you chose landscape mode your camera will use a small aperture. Why do you care what aperture your camera chooses? Because for a portrait you want the background out of focus to highlight your portrait subject as shown in this wedding photograph. This use of “selective focus” in portraiture is discussed in this post which introduces the concept of depth of focus.

We don’t intend to repeat that discussion except to say that the shallow depth of focus that we are looking for in portraits is very difficult to achieve with the small sensor in your camera phone. The best antidote to this is – you’ve got it – get closer to  your subject. The closer you are to your portrait subject (which has the added benefit of filling the frame) the shallower the depth of focus. It helps if the background elements you want to blur are somewhat in the distance.

The message to take away is this – help the computer in your camera phone choose the right exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed) by telling it what kind of scene you are shooting. That’s as important for landscape or sports scenes as it is with portraits. We’re just partial to portraits which constitute the vast majority of cell phone images.

Stay tuned – more Tuesday Photo Tips are right around the corner. Better yet – be updated automatically by “friending” our Facebook site.

PS – This is one of dozens of photo tips in our continuing Tuesday Photo Tips series of posts. There  are other resource articles on our site you may enjoy covering basic and more advanced photography topics. There are also tips covering topics such as preparing for family or infant/child portrait sessions. If you would like a topic covered just jot it down in a comment or send us a note.


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