Art of The Smartphone Photo: Seeing With Your Lens

Art of The Smartphone Photo: Seeing With Your Lens

When I was in photojournalism school, a National Geographic photographer told me, “you need to see like your lens.” This was some of the best advice I’ve ever received and can give to any aspiring photographer. While cameras (smartphone and DSLR) continue to improve dramatically every year, they still “see” things differently than our own eyes.  In the case of your smartphone camera, that most likely means that it sees the world through a wide-angle lens. So, what does that mean for your photos and for snapping the best shot?

A wide-angle lens makes things close to the camera look bigger than they are and things in the distance look smaller than they are.  It’s a distorted view of the world, but it can be made to benefit your photos if you understand how it works. Let’s take a look at some examples and discuss how to make the wide-angle lens work for your composition.

Probably the best way to see the distortion that a wide-angle lens creates is to photograph something with a known shape. We all know that the individual squares of a checkerboard pattern at the playground consists of squares that are all the same size and dimension. Yet, in the picture taken here with the wide-angle lens, our view is skewed and we can see much more of the field of view. It doesn’t appear to even be a square pattern with the bowed shape towards the back. The other picture is taken with what’s called a “normal” lens. A normal lens neither magnifies nor makes things look smaller. It more closely represents how our eyes view things, and there is very little distortion in that photograph. 

Squares supposedly wide angle.jpg
Sqaures with supposedly Normal.jpg

Now, take a look at the picture of Teddy in the bright red shirt. No, Teddy’s head is not several times wider than his feet, but it certainly looks that way in the photograph, doesn’t it? Your brain has become accustomed to this kind of imagery and tells you that Teddy’s features are actually proportionally appropriate. (In the interest of full disclosure, Teddy DOES have a big head – but not physically speaking). Hopefully, I have used the distortion of the wide-angle lens to create an interesting composition.

Teddy Big head.jpg

That’s my main point for the day – make that wide-angle lens work for you compositionally. It can be extremely useful! Here is another picture of the two kids in the tree that works because the wide-angle lens has exaggerated the tree branches, drawing your eyes to the subjects in the middle. Once again, wide-angle lens helps to make an interesting composition.

Tree with Kids.jpg

Yes, it’s true that you can zoom in with your smartphone camera to eliminate the wide-angle effect, but you just create additional resolution issues when you do so. While you do resolve one issue of wide-angle distortion, you decrease the quality of the photos as well. It’s best to learn how to use your tools properly rather than to try makeshift fixes. (Personal note – I’m really looking forward to playing with the optical zoom lenses on the new iPhone X, which could allow for some incredible photos.)

In the meantime, take a walk with your wide-angle smartphone camera and see if you can take something beautiful in a way that you’ve never done before by thinking like your lens. The wide-angle lens is also great for selfies, so that you can take wonderful wide-view shots at an arm’s length! Knowing how your tools work will help you truly become a master of the smartphone camera.

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