7 Lessons You Can Learn from Shooting with a Camera Phone


What would your reaction be if someone suggested that you should cut all ties with one of your best friends and closest companions? No, I’m not talking about your significant other or your pet. I’m talking about your camera. And not just any camera. Your main camera. Specifically your expensive, heavy dSLR with all the buttons and dials and switches.

For most of us, we would rather offer up an internal organ (a kidney maybe, or even better, the actually useful but still totally expendable appendix) than part with our cameras. I guess it makes sense to feel that way, considering we sometimes see our technology-laden cameras as being more important than they are, assigning to them a value directly proportional to the photos we make.

But we’re all familiar with the notion that great photographers make great photos regardless of what camera they have in hand. I’m not suggesting that everyone should run around with pinhole cameras just to prove that they are “good” photographers, but it would probably be a fun and worthwhile exercise to undertake. And if you were indeed to put aside your trusty dSLR, your next best alternative wouldn’t be so low-tech as a pinhole camera; you’d likely turn to your mobile phone camera.

interior by paul bica, on Flickr

The Camera Phone as a Teaching Tool

Given the ubiquity of the camera phone and their ever increasing quality, there are people who are perfectly content having their mobile device also serve as their only camera. I, for one, would likely experience something akin to severe withdrawal if I had to give up my dSLR and shoot exclusively with my cellphone.

But, as with everything in life, I am willing to bet that such a circumstance would present you with at least a few important points that you will want to retain. So no matter where you are on your journey as a photographer, consider the following lessons you can learn from shooting with a camera phone.

  1. “Seeing.” Shooting with your phone’s camera is going to free up your head. Obviously, you’re not going to have any gear to lug around and, perhaps most important, you don’t really have any settings to fiddle with. You’re free to spend much more of your time simply seeing; you’ll eventually find yourself looking at everything and everybody in a different way than if you were using a dSLR. Since you have so little control over settings, you won’t be able to fall back on any technical contrivances. You will have to learn to rely solely on your ability to “see” good things in order to make good photos.
  2. Using Your Feet. Have you ever used your phone’s zoom feature? If you have, then you know the results are appalling. It’s a conundrum of engineering: the thinner phones get, the more difficult it is to design a built-in camera with a usable zoom. Zooming in on most phones means it’s using digital zoom, just blowing up and cropping in on an image, causing it to appear pixellated and rather ugly. So, forget the zoom. If you want the subject closer to your lens, your best bet is to use your feet. This idea translates well to the dSLR user also, especially when using a prime lens. Sometimes (but not always) it’s better to get closer to your subject.
  3. Finding the Light. While the sensors found in camera phones improve with each generation of devices, they are still no match for the sensors found in dSLRs and, as such, are prone to struggle when it comes to capturing adequate light. To compensate, you will need to learn to find good lighting, whether natural (wait a moment for that cloud to pass) or artificial (turn on the lights in the room). Applying the same principle to shooting with your dSLR will allow you can keep ISO levels low.
  4. Composing Your Shot. Repeat after me: “composition still matters when you’re using a camera phone.” You may have little to no control over shutter speed or ISO on your phone, but you do have total control over composition. There’s no reason to disregard it just because you’re shooting with a camera phone; in fact, the camera display on your phone is probably equipped with an optional grid overlay singularly purposed to help you compose your shot according to the classic “rule of thirds.” Use it. Strengthening your compositional skills is never a bad thing and it will give you the foundation you need to start breaking the rules of conventional composition.
  5. Companionship. Having a cellphone that doubles as a camera is convenient (a gross understatement, I know). It’s lightweight, fits in a pocket, doesn’t require lens changes — it easily goes everywhere you go, making it possible for you to capture life as it happens. To invoke another old photography adage, the best camera is the one you have with you. Using your camera phone in this fashion just might encourage you to start taking your dSLR with you everywhere, allowing you to document the speed of life in higher quality.
  6. Maintenance. Most people I’ve observed tend to dote over their devices, cleaning and charging them on a very regular basis, and carrying them in protective cases. It’s understandable behavior; after all, what good is a dead or broken phone? The lesson here for dSLR users is that you should maintain your camera with the same dedication. Public charging stations for cell phones are becoming easier to find in most cities; I don’t think such a thing exists for big camera batteries. Thus, it would be to your advantage to keep at least one fully charged spare battery with you whenever you’re out shooting, and when you return home, recharge each battery you used even if it’s only partially drained.
  7. Appreciation. Despite the advancements being made in mobile phone cameras –better sensors, better lenses, more megapixels — it’s never going to be enough to sway dSLR users away from their cameras. But if you have ever spent a significant amount of time shooting exclusively with a camera phone, I can only imagine how eager you were to be reunited with your main camera. No, it doesn’t fit in your pocket and you can’t make calls or play games on it, but it’s your bread and butter. You’re an artist and it’s your paintbrush. Your camera phone makes a great sidekick, but it can never be the main attraction. Give your main camera the love and respect it deserves.

They say good technique is more important than anything else. Is it true? If you think you’re up to it, challenge yourself to shooting for a few days with just your camera phone and consider how what you learn along the way can apply to shooting with your DSLR. If you’re recently transitioning from a camera phone to a DSLR, have you found anything in particular that has been helpful in making the transition a little easier? Feel free to share.

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

Very nice article. I have had personal discussions with friends lately about the usefulness (or lack of) of cell phone photography. A cell phone is not as good as a dslr to take photographs, but it can still be used to take a good image, particularly if one is thinking that a good photo is one that draws an emotional response (it does not necessarily need to be a perfectly artful image).

To prove the point I actually bought some lenses for my phone and have decided to engage on several photoshoots using only my phone.

Thanks for the article and for helping me think I’m really not nuts.

I appreciate this article and its timeliness to my circumstances. For reasons of brevity, I’ll spare the details behind my necessity to shoot only with my cell phone camera for the past several months.

While it’s true that the level of quality and control in my dSLR are sorely missed, it’s also true that composition & subject matter (and a wee bit of post processing) can help one maximize image impact & potential. One recent example taken with my cell phone camera (a Galaxy Nexus):

I can only agree and stress the point on maintenance: I’ve just drowned my dSLR scuba diving (don’t even ask!) and had to resort to my iPhone for the rest of the trip. The shots with the phone camera (in most light conditions) were just impressive!

I love this article! In September I bought my first DSLR, and I am learning the ways with it. I’d drag it everywhere, however thats just not possible, so I do fall back on my previous only camera, the iPhone 5s. I can tell without checking which photo I took with my Nikon, and which with iPhone, however I will put to good use your 7 thoughts here and can improve camera phone photos! Oh and what is this transition you speak of? haha the DSLR and I bonded immediately, my iPhone is jealous. Thank you!

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