I’ve been shooting a lot of photos on my smartphone lately (Samsung Galaxy s6). It has been so much fun and I’ve enjoyed it so much, that I wanted to write an article about my personal experiences and thoughts about the benefits of shooting street photography (and any photos) on a smartphone.
I often get a lot of questions from aspiring street photographers or photographers in general what kind of advice I would give in terms of what camera to buy. Honestly, my frank answer? Just start off by shooting on your smartphone. There are so many benefits. Some ideas below:
1. You increase your rate of learning
Some of the best street photographers I know shoot with only smartphones. Not only that, but their rate of learning is incredible. Many talented street photographers on Instagram have only been shooting for a year or two, and have made incredible growth and progress in their photography.
How? They have constant feedback and quickly learn through shooting all the time, and by sharing images on social media.
The #1 excuse (and problem) that all of us photographers face is that we don’t shoot enough, and we don’t have our cameras with us.
But if you think about it, the smartphone is the ultimate camera. It is small, unobtrusive, always with you, and convenient.
A lot of people say that smartphones aren’t apt cameras because it isn’t “full frame” or whatever. But to be honest, the cameras in the modern smartphones (iPhone 6, Galaxy S6, LG G4, and many others) are pretty incredible. They’re just as good as high end point and shoots from just a few years back.
Of course a smartphone isn’t going to have the same quality as a full frame, DSLR, or any other “real camera.” But at the end of the day, it isn’t image resolution that makes a good photograph. It is the “quality” of your images, in terms of the emotion, composition, and feeling you give your viewers.
I shoot with several cameras at the moment; a film Leica MP, a digital Ricoh GR, and a Galaxy S6. Funny enough I’ve been uploading a lot of photos shot on my smartphone on Instagram (after processing in VSCO with the a6 preset), and people have thought they were film Portra 400 shots. Morale of the story? Photos shot on a smartphone can look good.
Another example: Michael Christopher Brown shot much of his work on his iPhone in Africa, and have made compelling images (that got him into Magnum as a nominee). He didn’t need a fancy or experience Leica to get him in.
2. You focus on the light
Another thing about smartphones that can help you become a better photographer: you need to focus on capturing good light.
The sensor of smartphones (while pretty good) still don’t compare to the dynamic range of most high end digital cameras. Therefore getting good light and exposure is even more important.
One of the biggest fundamentals in photography I wish I learned earlier on is how important light is. I remember when I got my first DSLR (Canon Rebel XT 350D) and was frustrated that my photos didn’t look as epic as the photos I saw online. My mistake? I only shot in shitty and harsh light, and didn’t know anything about good light (shooting at Golden hour or through windows).
No matter how expensive your camera is, you can’t fake capturing good light. Even if you have mad photoshop skills, you can’t fake good exposure.
Light can truly transform an ordinary image into an extraordinary one. Epic light evokes emotion, awe, suspense, and drama.
Therefore if you shoot street photography on your smartphone, really try to focus shooting in good light. Try to focus shooting sunrise or sunset, or just photographing people next to windows or open doorways (Steve McCurry style).
3. Keep your processing consistent
I think VSCO is the best smartphone app ever made for photography. The minimalist interface runs like butter, but even better: the presets look damn good. Their analog presets (the “a” series) looks the closest to Kodak Portra 400. Their black and white presets also look amazing.
I try to shoot with my smartphone like I’m shooting film; I try to stay consistent with one “look.” I am in love with the A6 preset, and always apply it to my images, and therefore all my smartphone images look consistent.
My advice? Play around with the presets and find one “look” that you dig and stick with it for a while.
A common mistake I see photographers make is that they have too much variety in their photos by using too many different presets or post processing techniques. Would we love Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work as much if he shot with 20 different types of film in his lifetime? Probably not, we love the consistency of his low contrast black and white images (focused on good composition). We also still remember and love the consistency (and beauty) of Kodachrome color film with Alex Webb and Steve McCurry.
It’s still fine to experiment with different “looks” in your photography. Just try to do it in different projects (like how a film director uses different equipment and film for different movies).
3. You can’t make excuses
If you are like most modern people, you are probably connected more to your smartphone than your mother or first born child. I know I’m attached to this thing like a leash. I check it first thing when I wake up, and the last thing when I sleep at night. It is so bad that sometimes I get anxiety if my phone isn’t in my pocket (or a foot away).
In the past I have missed so many shots because I didn’t have a camera on me. But now that I have a smartphone I have no excuses. Sure I would prefer to shoot all of my shots on film. But if I’m at the grocery store or having dinner with Cindy, my smartphone is generally much quicker to take out and shoot with.
So really we have no more excuses for not having “time” to shoot. The only limitation we have is our own imagination, our curiosity of life, and ability to see the beauty in the mundane.
If you’re a photographer who owns a big ass camera (or doesn’t carry your camera with you wherever you go) try this experiment: only shoot with a smartphone for a month. Lock all of your expensive cameras in a drawer for that period of time, and you’re only allowed to shoot on your phone. Not only that but shoot everyday.
After a month, see if this liberates or frustrates you. It might liberate you (and you never end up shooting on a “normal” camera ever again) or you are frustrated enough that you build the diligence to carry your “better” camera with you everywhere you go.
4. Who cares what you shot it on?
The most annoying thing a photographer can ask (I’m guilty of this too) is: “What camera did you shoot that photo on?” Personally whenever I ask another photographer that question what I’m really saying is: “Wow I really love your photos, and I aspire to make photos as good as yours. But currently my photos isn’t good enough and I think it is because my camera isn’t good enough or suitable for the job. If I bought your camera, could I become as good a photographer as you?”
I had a friend (Misho Baranovic) who had a street photography show with my other mate Olly Lang. Both talented street photographers, and had their photos printed for the exhibition. Some random people came by and asked: “Wow, these photos look great. What did you shoot it on?” To pull their let they said: “On a Leica.” One photographer then said: “Oh yeah you can totally tell by the quality of the Leica glass! You really get that “Leica look”, depth, and three dimensional character.” When we told him he was joking and it was shot an iPhone, and we all laughed together.
If you make a memorable photograph, who gives a damn what camera you shot it on? Do you honestly care? Or are you worried that other people care? Do you feel insecure that if people “found out” you shot a photo on a smartphone, it would somehow devalue your photo?
For me, I actually respect photographers more when I see that they shot a certain photo on a smartphone. Why? They were able to make a beautiful image with such basic equipment.
When it comes to photography, sometimes it can be a big dick measuring contest (at least for men). Photography can sometimes be just about showing off your gear and how rich you are, or your status. It’s kind of how the most insecure people buy the most brand name clothes, watches, purses, cars, etc. Funny enough, as a general rule, the more expensive the gear a photographer has, the more insecure they are about their photography.
Personally one of the main reasons I wanted to get a Leica was because I was lured by the prestige, status, and the legend of Leica. I truly did think that buying a Leica would make me more inspired, creative, cultured, whatever.
But in reality, it hasn’t changed my photography much. The only real things that have helped my photography: reading photo books, learning from the masters, and shooting more. Sure at the end of the day, I still prefer shooting on a film Leica for the simplicity and ease of use, but at the end of the day, a camera is just a camera.
5. But what if my smartphone camera sucks?
Unfortunately there are a lot of smartphone cameras out there with really low resolution.
In these cases, use that as a benefit. Dando Moriyama shot with a cheap film Ricoh GR and made super grainy black and white shots, while others were using fancy Leica cameras or sharp slr lenses.
So my suggestion: try shooting black and white and intentionally make your shots high contrast and gritty. Use the downside (low image resolution camera) to your benefit.
If you use an iPhone (older generations), I’m a big fan of Hipstamatic and the filters. If you use android, get the new snapseed app (which is epic and has great monochrome filters).
6. Practical tips shooting street photography on a smartphone
Some practical tips I’ve learned shooting on a smartphone;
a) Shoot a lot
The benefit of shooting digital is that it doesn’t matter if you shoot a lot. It doesn’t cost extra money. I also think it is generally better to overshoot a scene than undershoot a scene. Sometimes subtle differences can make the difference between a so so photo, and a great photo. For further reading on the importance of “working the scene”, watch my YouTube lecture or pick up a copy of “Magnum Contact Sheets.”
So if you see a good scene, keep shooting it until either your subject gets pissed off, walks away, or the moment is over. The problem is that street photographers move on too quickly and don’t shoot a scene enough.
When I see a good scene and shoot it on my smartphone, I’ll take 20+ photos whenever possible. Some of my favorite smartphone photos were shot with 50+ images.
b) Look like a dumb tourist
Shooting on a smartphone makes you look like a dumb tourist. Keep shooting and pretend like you’re not shooting your subject and you’re shooting something in the background.
For extra dramatic effect, flare our your elbows and knees. Fanny packs are a bonus, and make you almost invisible. I’m only half kidding.
c) Use the right apps
Every smartphone is different in terms of performance. I recommend trying out different smartphone camera apps to find what works for you the best.
For iPhone I recommend the “pro camera” app (you can prefocus and tap the screen to shoot). You can always use the default camera app too. Hipstamatic is also good for cool looking effects.
For Android, either use your default camera app, or download the Google camera app. Use whatever is faster and more responsive.
For editing and post processing, I recommend VSCO, Snapseed, or a combination of both.
If you don’t like sharing your photos as squares, use “Squaready” on the iPhone, or “Square InstaPic” on Android (to share your photos as a rectangle by adding a white or black border).
You can also try using mobile Lightroom on an iPad, but I find it still a bit clunky.
7. Instagram tips
To be honest, Instagram is by far the most dominant social media platform at the moment. For this reason, I think it’s the best platform to share your images on.
Don’t focus on getting a lot of likes. Seek to learn. Try to find a few photographers you admire, and seek to get critique or feedback from them by critiquing and giving honest constructive and helpful critique to them.
Focus more on engagement, communication, and interaction on social media. I would rather have 10 followers who is really active and helpful to me on Instagram, than 10,000 passive followers.
As a general rule on social media the quality of feedback you get on your photos is equivalent to the feedback you give others. The more you give the more you will receive in return.
As with hashtags? My personal philosophy: less is more. I try to limit my hashtags to 2 or less. Just try to follow a few hashtags to find good photographers to follow and engage.
Can’t find any hashtags you like? Start your own, like I did with #streettogs and #buybooksnotgear.
Chase Jarvis once wrote: “The best camera is the one you have on you.” To expand on that, I think the best camera is the one you just shot a photo on. Meaning, a camera is only important insofar much as it is a tool to capture a certain image, feeling, or emotion you witnessed. The camera is just an intermediary tool for your eyes and heart.
Nobody gives a shit what camera you use to make images, and neither should you. Shoot with whatever comes is most convenient for you, and “image resolution” doesn’t really matter that much at the end of the day in street photography. Embrace grain, grit, and rawness.
Lastly, just remember to shoot and enjoy yourself. As large format shooters in the past looked down on medium format shooters, and as they looked down on 35mm shooters, and as film shooters looked down on digital photographers, and full frame digital photographers looked down on crop sensor photographers, looked down on compact cameras, looked down on smartphones. Everyone can be a snob with cameras, there is no end.
Let’s preach death to the camera. Long live photography!