Smartphone photography: trading resolution for emotion

It’s exciting to go back to the same places to recreate with a smartphone shots made before with a SLR, and discover it’s possible to make similar or even better photographs.

Since I moved on from a DSLR to a smartphone as my main camera, I’ve visited some of the places I’ve photographed for decades, rebuilding my library of images with new vistas taken with smartphones. Although limited by the specifications of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro I am using now (I am still trying to find a smartphone with a long telephoto that suits my needs) I’ve discovered smartphones give you another type of freedom, which may be crucial for some people.

First, I am travelling light, which is something that feels great. I’ve a belt pack with everything I need — even a tripod — and while I am fully aware that I can not photograph some subjects — like birds — with my limited set of lenses, I can capture most of the subjects I would photograph with a normal camera. I am still exploring how to get some shots and on a recent visit to Azenhas do Mar, which is a most visited spot on my Atlantic Realm tour, I was able to put to test the smartphone’s ability to capture a variety of angles, from those I would normally do with any other camera, to perspectives that, believe me, are easier to do with a smartphone.

A proper way to hold a smartphone is, I believe, crucial to do better photographs, if you’re serious about your smartphone photography. It’s not just about getting some snapshots, holding between your fingers a brick that is not the most ergonomic when used as a camera, you really need a support that allows not just an easier control of adjustable parameters but a steadier base to define the framing and take the shot.

Extreme flexibility with a small tripod

I’ve now an assortment of supports, some of which I mention in my equipment page, which I use for specific needs and occasions. At Azenhas do Mar I used a tripod, a small Ulanzi tripod that extends to little over one meter. Although it’s not a stable platform for windy days, specially when fully extended, the Ulanzi MT-44 is ideal if you want to travel light and will solve most of your needs. Although the tripod has its own built-in foldable grip to hold the smartphone, I use the top part from my Shoulderpod S2, which offers a more versatile and secure clip system. In fact, I use the Shoulderpod S2 many times, even with a regular tripod, as it has a thread at the bottom that fits a quick release plate.

Shooting with a smartphone at Azenhas do Mar, I opted to keep the device mounted on the Ulanzi MT-44 all the time, because it gives the best support for quickly moving from high to low perspectives, as the tripod extends from 32.5cm to 109cm. The ball head on the tripod’s head allows me to rapidly move from vertical to horizontal and rotate 360 degrees to better frame my subjects. The complete set is lighter to hold than any camera/tripod combination I’ve used before, and setting the exact height I need is a cinch.

This combo allows me to rapidly use the wall on the stairs going down to the Azenhas do Mar beach to capture photographs, and the 24mm wide-angle and 14mm ultra wide-angle are accessible directly from the screen. It’s true the ultra wide-angle does not have AF, but for those wide perspectives where you capture the Atlantic Ocean and the houses hanging from the cliff it works simply fine, giving me some wide vistas, although limited by an 8MP sensor.

Less resolution, more emotion

The advantages of working with a smartphone and a small tripod become clear as I shoot: I can place the combo almost everywhere, making shots that would otherwise — with a larger camera — take some more time. This gives you more creative space, as you rapidly explore the perspectives that are possible to achieve. For the shot with the flowers in the foreground I used the 24mm (which is the main camera on the Redmi Note 10 Pro), making sure I had the first group of flowers in focus. This image would not been created at such a low-level with a normal tripod and camera, but here it was just a mater to lower the Ulanzi MT-44 center column to its minimum height, frame the image vertically, define focus, exposure, and shoot. That’s what I mean when I write that “It’s exciting to go back to the same places to recreate with a smartphone shots made before with a SLR, and discover it’s possible to make similar or even better photographs.”

It’s not about resolution, it’s more about emotions, when you’re shooting with a smartphone. A second example of this Azenhas do Mar photo shoot is the triptych of the lizards, which may not seem as much interesting for someone using a regular camera and zoom but if a challenging image for a photographer armed only with a 24mm lens. The images published here are a crop from a section of the original framing, and they represent a first essay exploring what can be done with a limited focal length.

Small lizards are elusive and while they love basking in the sun, they vanish as soon as you try to get close to them. I sat on a bench near the line of rocks emerging from the vegetation where these lizards where, and watched them for a while. I then decided to place the smartphone and tripod as close as I could, while still covering a large area, just to guarantee I would at least pick one of the lizards.

Photo experiences for smartphone users

I waited until there was only one of them there and moved in to set my equipment. The single lizard rapidly moved to hide, as I expected. Once I placed the camera, with my remote control activated — yes, I always use a remote control with smartphones on tripods — I returned to the bench and waited. I’ve a series of photos of these and other lizards, from which I picked this series, which is a good illustration of the possibilities.

Once I had enough photos, and, again, at a moment when the lizards were gone, to keep disturbance to them to a minimum, I picked my smartphone and tripod to check the results. The experience has shown me that it’s possible to do even better, as I could move my equipment closer, something I will have to try on another occasion. It also indicates that a smartphone with a telephoto this type of photography may be more accessible, something I want to check once I’ve a chance.

For now, though, my first shots of lizards with a 24mm… on a smartphone, demonstrate that this is viable, if you’re willing to take the time and explore the gear you’ve to get the best photographs you can. It’s not yet at a level that I can use the photos on their own, more as additional illustrations for a collage like the one shown here, but getting closer and/or using a smartphone with a telephoto will allow you to create more detailed photographs.

Yes, it’s only a 12MP photograph, but as I said earlier, its more about emotions than resolution. If you feel that’s something that makes sense for you, and want to try your hand at photography with a smartphone, I’ve the exact gear that helps to make it happen, and expands what a smartphone can do. Want to try it? Just get in touch and book a session with me. I am planning some of these events for this Spring. It’s a two-hour adventure of discovery, at one of the various places I visit, where you can experience distinct types of photography, from macro to long-exposures, and discover the best tips and perspectives for smartphone photography.

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Jose Antunes

Jose Antunes

I am a writer and photographer based on the West coast of continental Europe, a place to see the Sun die on the Sea, every day.