Visual Gems—from Your Phone

Tips from a lifelong pro on how to make great photographs with mobile phones

  • Text & photos by Jim Richardson
  • Mobile Photography
  • Dec 09, 2021

Using panorama mode on his iPhone, Jim Richardson captured the “glorious calm” of sunrise over Scotland’s Loch Maree.

LONG BEFORE I WAS A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHER, I was taking pictures around my family’s farm in Kansas, using a Zeiss Ikoflex (c. 1959) that my dad had found in a pawn shop. At just 12 years old, I was winning blue ribbons at the county fair for my shots of windmills, horses and my dog, Dixie. The judge, who knew a thing or two about photography (as well as big tomatoes and needlepoint) praised my use of silhouette and the way I framed scenes between tree trunks.

Since those days, I’ve traveled the world making photographs with bags full of high-end gear. I know a good camera when I see one, and I can tell you: iPhones, Androids and their ilk are marvelous cameras. This is heresy, and I will surely burn at the hands of knob-turning photographers who chant about f-stops in the online cloisters. But it turns out apostasy is a lot of fun—and so is mobile phone photography. 

These days, when people tell me they are going on the trip of a lifetime and ask what camera to take, I say, “Have you upgraded your mobile phone lately?” Once folks get over the shock of being told to rely on their phones, I think they’re secretly relieved. (No need to lug around that corpulent camera bag!) Still, there are plenty of pointers that can help you transform a mediocre mobile snap into a frame worthy of your wall. Here’s what I share with students in my classes on mobile photography. 

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A filtered image of a remote Scottish isle

The Hipstamatic app gives a remote Scottish isle where gannets nest the look of an antique glass plate negative (above). Taking a “straight iPhone shot with no apps,” Richardson caught this crisp, macro view of a rain-spattered feather (below).

Basics |  Engineers have tapped the mobile phone’s computing power to create excellent cameras, even in basic models. But if your budget allows, I suggest upgrading to the latest model to ensure the best images and options. An iPhone 13 Pro, for example, offers multiple lenses and zoom options, night and portrait modes and many other features. Memory goes up to 1,000 GB (gigabytes), but the 512 GB option is less costly—and you won’t run out of storage midvacation. Mobile phones with maximum memory can run about $1,500, more than some digital cameras. 

A macro shot of a rain-spattered feather

Light |  Back in the photographic dark ages, flash was all-important. Not anymore. Mobile cameras today have HDR (high dynamic range), which can tame the harshness of most lighting situations. With HDR, the camera rapidly takes multiple images, and the computer extracts the best bits of each to build a picture with excellent tonality. My advice: Turn HDR on and leave the flash off. 

Panoramas |  My favorite phone-camera tool is panorama mode, which is great for grand scenes, and the digital files can be huge. (I sometimes make 20-by-50-inch prints.) But don’t make your pan too wide. If you sweep too far, you’ll get a long, skinny picture where everything is tiny. Combat that effect by standing as close as 5 or 10 feet to a tree, rock or other focal point to add scale and depth. Pan smoothly but not too slowly, and don’t move your arms to pan the scene. Instead, hold your phone in two hands, tuck your elbows into your sides and swivel from your hips to get a much smoother shot. 

Portrait Mode |  If you want a memorable portrait of a face—or of that perfect trout you landed—use the camera’s portrait mode, which can pleasantly blur the background to make the subject pop. The latest iPhones offer several lighting effects in portrait mode, including natural, studio and stage. This tool works best if you stand between 2 and 8 feet from your subject. 

Motion |  Phone cameras offer high-quality video, slow-motion and time-lapse options. For me, the prize goes to slo-mo, which can turn one second of frenzy into eight seconds of dreamy video. Time-lapse is stunning, too—especially for speeding up slow, dramatic events such as approaching storms—but you’ll need to be patient: Hold your camera still for five minutes (a tripod helps), and your phone will give you a 20-second, time-lapse video.

Night Mode |  This recent addition to phone photography allows you to take pictures at night, sometimes lit only by moonlight. The camera will hold the shutter open for up to 10 seconds, enough exposure to capture night street scenes or candlelight dinners. Try to hold the phone as still as you can for those 10 seconds (even without using a tripod), and the software will do a remarkable job of compensating for your wobbles. 

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A man inside the tack room of a Wyoming dude ranch

Inside the tack room of a Wyoming dude ranch, Richardson’s iPhone captured “a timeless portrait” using available light.

Editing |  Any photo can be made better with judicious editing such as cropping or adjusting exposure and color. Mobile phones allow all that and more—enough for an entire course! 

Apps |  There are hundreds of inexpensive apps out there that can transform your photographs in artful ways. Serious photo-processing tools such as Snapseed can make skies dramatic, correct color, adjust head pose and add type. Waterlogue turns photos into watercolors, and Hipstamatic (my favorite) offers “lens” and “film” effects that can, say, make a modern image look like an antique tintype.

It’s liberating having one device that can both make and share images, which have always been the language of my life. Give it a try. You might enjoy the freedom.

Veteran photographer Jim Richardson lives in Kansas and teaches mobile photography.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Night Nature Photography Tips »
Photo Tips: Beauty of Birds »
Blog: 10 Tips to Improve Your Wildlife Photography »

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