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Smartphone photography

Jun 28, 2017
Smartphone cameras usually have wide-angle lenses that are good for capturing a scene, but not so good for getting distant objects.

Smartphone cameras usually have wide-angle lenses that are good for capturing a scene, but not so good for getting distant objects.

John Kettlewell

To the editor: Like most cruisers today, I carry and rely on a smartphone for many things: email, maps, weather radar — even phone calls! However, as someone who enjoys photography and who frequently sells illustrated articles accompanied by photographs, I have learned both the plusses and minuses of smartphone photography on board.

The biggest advantage is, of course, that “the best camera you own is the one you have with you.” When a great photo presents itself, you don’t want to be regretting that you left your DSLR and its heavy bag back on the boat. Since many of us feel naked without a smartphone, we tend to carry one wherever, whenever. This means you won’t miss that shot of the amazing sunset, or the funny-looking dinghy at the dock or the cute town ashore. You will have both your phone and your camera with you almost all the time.

I have benefited from this instant availability many times and can bitterly remember many missed scenes from the past when all I owned were big, bulky, expensive cameras that were likely to be buried in a protective case stored in a locker down below when I saw the scene of a lifetime.

With digital cameras, we don’t have to worry about changing film or running out of film, which was worse. However, the smartphone in your pocket is not always the ideal instrument to capture the scene. One huge disadvantage is also an advantage in certain situations. Most phones today have big beautiful screens that allow for great compositions — if you can see something. Unfortunately, bright sun, shadows, glare and polarized sunglasses mean that you must often take photos using the crudest point-and-shoot technique: Point the phone in the general direction of the scene and hope you’ve captured what you want. In those situations, take lots of photos to make sure that at least one is usable.

Most smartphones are good at capturing low-light images.

John Kettlewell

Even on days without bright, full sun, there can be so much light and glare that using a smartphone screen is nearly impossible. You might be able to see something on the screen if you shadow it or point the phone in a different direction, but then you’re facing the wrong way to get the shot. The bright environment means the photographer only has a vague idea of what they are pointing at, and careful composition relies on cropping the scene later. I have found that a wide-brimmed hat can help in some situations — shadowing the screen enough for you to be able to see something.

There’s good news and bad news with regard to composition. Smartphones have wide-angle lenses, often equivalent to around a 24- to 28-mm lens for those of you who used 35-mm film equipment. Wide angle is great for some things — not so great for others. Typically, a wide-angle lens is perfect for onboard shots illustrating what it is like on deck or down below. But, try to capture that lighthouse you are sailing close to and it will look like you were miles offshore. In general, smartphones are not good for photographing other boats from your boat, or even most scenics from offshore, unless there is something really big and really close to your boat.

I have made some interesting shots underway but most include my own boat in the scene. For example, a wide-angle lens can work for sunsets over the deck, or when passing through a big opening bridge that looms over the boat, or when shooting the wide expanse of a crowded mooring field full of boats. Wide-angle lenses are of greater use ashore when looking for telling details: flowers, brickwork, door knockers, etc. But, you have to get really close to fill the frame. They are great for wide streetscapes with lots of buildings and people. You have to be careful with close-ups of people because wide-angle lenses will distort faces, making for big noses and goggly eyes. Typically, portrait photographers utilize slightly longish lenses in order to be able to stand a bit further away from a subject and flatten features, which in most cases is more flattering. Don’t shoot up at people from close range with a smartphone, as this can make for some silly looks. Try keeping the smartphone camera on the same plane as the other person’s eyes, or be slightly above them looking down for a more appealing look. Again, if you are a lot taller than the other person or are shooting down at them from height, you get a more distorted view.

One huge bonus with many smartphones is they are easy to hold still and don’t create any vibration to mar the shot, while also utilizing digital and other stabilization technology. This means you can take photos in dim light without the use of a tripod, and the best smartphones do a pretty good job of it. Cheaper phones tend to boost ISO (a measure of sensitivity to light) in low light, which results in the equivalent of “grain” that we used to see using fast film. However, in general, with a top-level smartphone camera, you will find many night scenes come out nicely. Try out photography at night with your phone and find out what it can do.

Equipping a smartphone with a grippy covering reduces the chance of dropping it.

John Kettlewell

A big consideration with any camera, smartphone or otherwise, is that on board there is the presence of water and high humidity. Even non-waterproof smartphones are fairly well sealed and I have yet to encounter issues with moisture getting inside and damaging either the lens or the electronics.

Highly water-resistant phones are available, though I would go for photo quality first, then worry about weather resistance. Unless you drop your phone over the side, it should last a good long time in a marine environment. I sometimes resort to using a vinyl case of some sort when going ashore in the dink, though a zip-lock baggie does just about as well. Zippered pockets on your clothing are your friends when carrying phones, and fishing shirts often feature nice large ones.

I like to use a nice grippy case on my phone, though one that is not too heavy as that defeats some of the portability. I added some grippy tape to the outside of my case and it makes the phone much easier to hold. Another thing phones don’t like too much is sand at the beach, so be careful to keep them in that baggy and watch out for sunscreen.

Another huge advantage of phones is the ability to instantly back up all of your photos via services like Google Photos. I have mine set to only upload when on Wi-Fi to save on data charges, but it still gives me peace of mind knowing my boating shots are being stored relatively safely in the cloud. Google Photos stores all of your phone photos for free and you can do it automatically by using their app. It is then easy to search, do minor edits and share photos using the app or from your PC at home.

—John J. Kettlewell is a marine author and photographer based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

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