Mobile Photography

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. I’ve got a Nikon D90 and I for-sure don’t want to carry that old thing around in my day-to-day life, but I see a lot of great photo opportunities all around me during my travels and at home, and I never get to shoot them. Enter the cell phone.

Loathed by professional photographers across the globe, the cell phone camera has turned every aunt, uncle, and child into a serious snapper. Double tap the power button, hit the shutter, and let Google or Apple handle the rest. No settings, no WB, just (objectively nice) snapshots. Every time. Usually.

Having picked up a Pixel XL just after launch, I can confidently say that the mobile photography movement has reached DSLR quality, within reason. For pro work? Obviously not. For documenting and sharing moments, or street photography? It’s perfect.

The latitude, color space, and ease/speed of use is unbeatable. You’ve already got your phone, the camera part might as well be invisible. The Pixel series (and new iPhones) are renowned for their image quality but suffer from one major problem: Lens choice. I like to think of my photography as an extension of my cinematography in regards to the types of shots I take, so once I started to take mobile photography serious, my first thought was “I need my three lens kit.”

My holy trinity is a 27mm, 32mm, and 40mm. With those lenses, or their closest focal counterparts, I’m confident I can make most movies with the errant 15mm or 65mm thrown in for flavor. After some research into the mobile offerings, I set my sights on the Moment lens system. Knowing that my Pixel XL’s lens is a 28mm f2.0, I opted for their Tele (~60mm) and their Wide (~18mm). I believe the actual focal lengths come out closer to 56mm and 14mm respectively, as I think the way it works is the Tele is a 2x magnifier and the Wide is a 2x “reducer”, but I could be wrong. In any case, they’re right around where I’d like to be photographically. Once I got those locked in, I needed to figure out the nuances of this new camera system.

Photos/videos are comprised of focus, exposure, and framing. With the lenses taken care of, I had to turn my attention to exposure and processing as focus is essentially automatic and my lens choice lets me choose my frame more carefully.

At first I assumed shooting RAW would be the best option, as it is in the DSLR world, but was quickly proven wrong as Google Image Processing (HDR+ specifically) vastly outperforms any RAW-shooting apps I tested such as Open Camera. While apps like Snapseed are objectively powerful, and can process most RAW files with grace, the DNG files produced by Open Camera weren’t very robust and tended to come out exceptionally grainy as compared to the stock Pixel App’s processing.

One thing that Open Camera did afford me was independent focus and exposure controls, which the stock app does not. While you don’t always run into this problem, sometimes you want to expose your image in such a way that the bright thing isn’t your subject (say, the sky), but you don’t want to focus on that thing. The stock camera app on most every phone won’t let you do this. That’s annoying. You do this because digital images blow out in a gross-looking way, so you expose for the brightest thing in your image and bring up the darker parts in post. Sometimes this doesn’t work out and you have to split the difference, but editing apps these days can help you roll off your highlights in a pleasant way, and with HDR+ you’ve got some room to play there.

So we’re trusting the stock Pixel app with our imaging, that makes things pretty easy. With a flick of the wrist, a tap, and some VSCO magic, we’re producing some very compelling snapshots. Only having to carry two small lenses in my jacket and the phone in my pocket made my day-to-day life more interesting as I caught myself “looking” for pictures to take everywhere. They would, more or less, just pop up in front of me. I was practicing finding frames all the time instead of just when I had a camera in my hand, something I thought I was already doing but it’s easy to talk big and get lazy when you don’t have the ability to back it up, ya know?

So after 4 months of this, what have I to report? Well, first thing’s first: CLEAN YOUR LENS. The one on your phone, I mean. CLEAN IT. Once I started shooting a lot with my phone, I noticed people (when out with a group) would have me take their photo with my camera instead of theirs because “mine was better”. These are generally iPhone people who have the 8 or X model. What I quickly learned was that, while the Pixel XL is genuinely incredible, it’s not leaps and bounds better than the iPhone unless you’re being really analytical. No, what the problem was discovered to be, 90% of the time, was a smudgy lens. Think about it, if a little finger smudge ends up on your DSLR lens, you’re probably going to be fine. If you get a little smudge on your phone’s camera lens, that smudge takes up your ENTIRE LENS. It’s like the worst filter imaginable, unless you’re going for that super diffused, netted “Excalibur” look I suppose. So yeah, clean your lens. I personally got this cheap little kit from Amazon (which gave me some larger pens for my Cinema Camera’s lenses/filters), but Moment sells a little lens pen as well if you want to keep on-brand.

Second thing’s second: Shoot more. The whole point of having a camera on you at all times is that you can capture life as it happens. We’re not doing portraiture or selling shampoo here (although the Tele’s weird fudgy vignetting and aberrations make it a really awesome, interesting portrait lens come to find out), so just shoot! I’ve got a 128GB Pixel and have yet to get close to filling it up but even so, you’re allowed to backup all your images on Google Drive for free so go nuts. You’re not shooting film, snap a handful and see which one comes out the best. Obviously it’s not worth taking the same photo 16 times straight, but move around a little! Angle the phone a little different, try a couple different framing options; even a little movement can change your image pretty drastically, so once you see a shot, take it and take it a handful of times!

Thirdly: The lenses themselves. How do they hold up? I find myself turning to the Tele more than anything else, as 28mm is already a pretty reasonable “every-day” lens, and being able to get closer has consistently been the issue, at least for me, but the Wide still has its place to be sure. With the Tele, you get this interesting “fudge” around the outside of the image which looks awesome when you frame a face dead center. It also gives your image a more “vintage” look, in regards to old lesser-quality lenses from back in the day, so that’s cool. It doesn’t quite compress space like a normal lens, but you’d be hard pressed to explain why. You’re clearly just putting a magnifying glass on the existing lens, but that kind of has its own charm and I like it. The wide I find myself using less and less, but works great and gives your images a definite sharpness boost. Whenever I go to hockey games, the Wide comes out and gives a great view of the entire arena. It’s also great, obviously, in confined spaces where you just wish you could take a quick step back. Both lenses, regardless of preference, are built like absolute TANKS. I don’t want to test it but I’m betting they’d survive a good drop, as long as it didn’t land on the glass. The housing feels like aluminium or magnesium or something serious like that.

I love making images, moving or still. The fact that we’re at a place in life where I can do it everywhere brings me a lot of joy. Mobile photography isn’t going to replace my Mamiya any time soon (my camera/system of choice), but being able to capture the little things that happen in my life with the clarity of a traditional camera has lead me to enjoy them more. Mostly because my memory fucking sucks.

Check out the collection of good, great, and average shots below. Some of them are striking, some of them are just memories/snapshots, but each one was taken with my phone. I don’t really think the cellphone is at the point where it can replace the DSLR, but more like a really advanced disposable; sometimes you strike gold, but when it’s in its wheelhouse you’re just capturing the moment.