This post is not an iPhone specific post, it will apply to ANY Smartphone that can take a picture. But, since I specialize with the iPhone, that is the one I will reference to the most for this post. Virtually all of the smartphones have a camera now of varying ability. But the one thing they cannot do is a decent zoom. Oh they say they can “zoom” but what they are doing is taking that small marginal image and then cropping it to make it even more marginal.
A real zoom would need moving optics and with our collective lust for thin form factors, a optical zoom on a cell phone is just in not in the offering. Why is this important? Because it points out a hard set limitation of the camera. Other limitations are the lack of adjustable F stops or a real adjustable shutter. These are the things you need to learn about on your phone because knowledge is power. With the knowledge of your phone’s limits, you can overcome the limits and make the phone camera do what you want it to do and how you want it do it.
For an example, lets use my iPhone 4S as our test bed. It has a fixed aperture of 2.8 and works to adjust the exposure in the daylight by keeping the ISO low and the shutter speed high. And I mean very high, I have images with the EXIF data showing 1/10,000 of a second shutter speed. So if I want blur in the middle of the day, what can I do? According to Apple I cannot adjust any of these adjustments. But, there is way to FAKE it!. All I need to do is make the camera think it’s darker outside than it really is. This is accomplished by the use of a special filter called a Neutral Density Filter or ND filter. They are measured in “stops” of darkness, starting at 1 stop then 2 stops and finally 3 stops of darkness. You can even stack them to add up 2+3 to get 5 stops of darkness. Cool you say but my phone does not have any place to attach this filter. True but with a bit of gaffers tape, you can TAPE the filter over the camera lens and the camera wont know any better. I always carry a bit of gaffers tape with me wrapped around a sharpie marker pen.
Here are the ND filter I use on my iPhone. I bought them years ago for my Nikon 950 digital camera so they are too small for anything new but work perfectly when taped in place on my iPhone.
Why would you want to use something like this? In the following example, I’m at Disneyland taking pictures of the submarines going through the waterfall. A rule of thumb is that movement adds drama to an image. But with it being bright, the default shutter speed of my iPhone camera would have been high enough to freeze the water in motion. You can see that freezing in this image but it’s not what I wanted on the waterfall. I wanted the water to show action unlike this shot where I wanted to freeze the action.
To get the motion I needed to slow down the shutter speed. But according to Apple, I cannot do that. But I know if I use the ND filters, I can make the camera THINK it’s dark and it will slow down the shutter to let in more light for a proper exposure. To be frank, shooting in this hack style of photography is a blend of experimentation, luck and guesswork. But it does work as you can see here. I have the submarine sharp but the water which is moving faster than the submarine is blurred. This adds a lot of drama to the snapshot.
Now I have a keeper shot rather then just another poorly done snapshot like everybody else with a smartphone. So the takeaway here is to learn the limits of the camera and then be creative in working around them to get the camera to do what you want it to do. After all, you are the photographer, not the camera 🙂