Landscape photography: tips for your smartphone
In many ways, landscapes are the most difficult kind of photos to produce with a mobile phone camera. Most landscape shots taken with a DSLR have the advantage of true interchangeable lenses, depth-of-field control and ultra-long exposure times. Mobiles have none of these options. Yet stunning images of the natural world are produced every day by mobile photographers. How do they do it? We spoke with some photographers known for their mobile landscape shots to find out their approach.
Netherlands-based Robert-Paul Jansen’s ethereal iPhone images of the rural countryside south of Amsterdam are among the best we’ve seen in the genre.
“Smartphones typically have the largest viewfinders of all cameras, and this is ideal for making landscape photos,” Jansen said when we spoke with him recently. “Composition is key in landscape photography and a large viewfinder helps me to compose the shot easily. There are some limitations, like a lack of a true wide angle lens and zoom, but these things can be compensated for by using the right apps.”
Jansen turns to Autostitch for help.
“This app is used primarily for panoramas but you can also stitch photos together to create any aspect ratio.“ Jansen further suggests you use another app to shoot your photos and then process them later with Autostich.
“Make sure you use an app like ProCamera or Camera+ to lock exposure to get a constant result in the final image. And I always make a photo of my thumb or my shoes to mark the beginning and the end of a series of photos which need to be stitched.”
Landscape shooting isn’t always about the awe-inspiring big vista. Often, it’s the little point of interest in a scene that makes an image come alive. These points of interest become more powerful when juxtaposed against their natural setting. A far-away fishing boat in the ocean helps create a sense of scale as well as providing a focal point. The story becomes richer and we gain a better sense of the magnificence of the water.
How do we do achieve this goal with a mobile tool that lacks the creative control and multiple lens choices of a DSLR? We asked Andy Royston, a mobile photographer who uses an iPhone 4 has been posting his live shots of the Ft. Lauderdale beach in Florida on the U.S. Atlantic coast every morning for over three years.
“The limitations are just details, so the solution is to get closer,” Royston told us. “Just today, I knew from the form of the sky, the clouds, the sun that I needed a personality to make the photo come alive. A paddle boarder was making his way out to the surf, I was pretty far away, but I needed him in the shot. I watched the shadows and the shapes, and gave myself 40 seconds to get to right there. As a mobile photographer you soon develop a sixth sense for where the photograph is.”
Royston also emphasizes that a smartphone’s ability to shoot and then immediately process and upload is an essential part of his creative process. “For me, working on images away from the scene is heartless, pointless and ultimately meaningless. My work is an emotional reaction to the scene I witness and this experience is entirely created by the freedom of all-encompassing right-in-your-hand technology. The ability to work on the shot in the ambient light of the scene is vital and exciting. Nothing else gets close.”
Unless we specifically set out on a photo walk, it’s likely that most people won’t carry a DSLR with them on a daily basis. “I use the iPhone to shoot landscapes because it is always with me,” says photographer and designer Todd Lee from Huntsville, Alabama. “Whatever I am doing, it’s always there in an unobtrusive way.”
Lee’s landscape work, shot with his iPhone 4S, has an original quality and is immediately striking in a painterly kind of way.
“I have always liked the classical style in which an iPhone shoots with its fixed lens," he said. "This translates to landscape painting very well, and I always think about painting while I shoot and edit.”
We asked Lee about his processing methods for creating landscape images on his phone and he revealed a fondness for the app Filterstorm.
“Everything I shoot ends up in Filterstorm where it gets all the final treatments,” he explained. “I always use very big, dark vignetting, which certainly helps to draw the eye, but also adds to the feeling of solitude that I try to convey. I dip the RGB curve, then use the vignette mask to adjust the radius and falloff, and finally use the eraser to remove parts of the vignette where it is unneeded.”
While Filterstorm brings a certain power and control over image editing lacking in many mobile apps, for Lee, the creative decision making is intimately tied to the device itself. “Once I started using the brush masks to selectively apply effects, I was hooked. I prefer working in this gestural way to working with a mouse in Photoshop. It just feels more natural to me.”
One of the advantages of shooting landscapes with a DSLR is the ability to use on-camera filters. Neutral density grad filters allow us to stop down the sky and get a more even exposure between the top and bottom of the frame. Most likely, you’re not fitting your phone onto a tripod and attaching a matte box with $200 filters. But that’s what apps are for.
Graduated filters have a darker hue starting at the top of the frame and gradually become lighter until somewhere around the middle when they turn clear. This lets us darken parts of an image so the whole frame is exposed properly. The app PhotoFX by Tiffen has a whole range of grads you can apply in post-processing on your phone. Have an ugly white sky? Snap a coral colored grad on your image, adjust the opacity to your liking, move the positioning around a bit and voila, a lovely sky! Now, we can then take that image and process it in other ways without having to think about whether we’re stuck with a less appealing top half of the frame. Experiment with different colored grads and even try stacking them upon one another to create a new palette of colors.
It is important to remember, however, that the best landscape shots are taken at right time of day and that isn’t something we can fake easily with an app. As Jansen reminded us, “in the end, it is really the right use of the available light that creates the look of a great landscape photo. When the light isn't working, no app can make a great photo out of it. Light and composition are so much more important than the apps used.”
Let's hear from you: What tips can you share for capturing great landscape shots with your smartphone?
Daniel Berman, @Reservoir_Dan, is a fine art photographer, filmmaker & digital artist with a specialty in landscapes, abstractions & people. He is the founder of the Mobile Photo Awards, the world's largest competition and open gallery call for mobile photography and art. With a background as a producer of nature and music programs for television, Daniel brings a lifelong passion for rhythm and the imagery of the natural world to his photographic art. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and now lives in the scenic hills surrounding Milton, Ontario.