Phone cameras, as well as tablet cameras, are getting better each day. It wasn't long ago that photographers had to deal with relatively heavy and complex equipment, film, special lighting and all kinds of meters and techno gear to get things right. Distributing the images was a hassle as well, usually involving darkroom-processing, prints and snail-mail. Now, we can mindlessly take a photo and send it to friends and social media a second later. That “mindlessly” part has caused a big cultural problem: a world of insanely horrible photos. I’d like to help change that.
Let’s not debate who makes the “best” phone or which has the most features. They’re all great. If you’re taking lousy photos, I’ll wager it’s got nothing to do with the camera — it’s you. All the images in this article were taken on my personal cell phone, which is three years old. Just for good measure, I even drafted this article using my phone. Isn't technology great?
It doesn’t take much training or effort to take a great photo. You just need to stop, think about what you’re doing and follow some basic fundamentals.
Settings for Success
Almost every modern phone allows you to adjust your camera settings. While some of them are legit, others are garbage. Going down that rabbit hole usually isn't worth it. The default (auto) settings on most phone cameras are pretty amazing. If your camera allows you to adjust potential images brighter or darker, get good with that feature. Black rifles are dark by design and can be tricky. Apple products are as easy as touching the image and holding it, then an exposure slider comes up.
Once you master the basics, feel free to add on any other manual settings, features and filters you want, and get creative with it. The number of filters and aftermarket apps for cellphones seems to grow every day. Just remember, the fanciest filter isn't going to make a bad photo any better. You're just slathering lipstick on that pig. Settings apply to your rifle as well. If you’re not shooting live-fire photos, clear the firearm and move the selector to safe. Not only is it safer, you’ll look buttoned-up.
The Devil is in the Details
Resolution refers to how much detail your camera can capture when you take a picture. Make sure that you select your camera's highest camera resolution number, so you're capturing more detail. Capturing more detail creates larger files, so you'll need to be more judicious with the pictures you take. You can always go back and erase pictures you don't need if you get desperate for more disk space. That's one of the many benefits of digital: Training is basically free. We might as well experiment with the greatest resolution our camera will allow. Memory cards are so cheap nowadays that you might as well get one with the greatest storage capacity you can afford.
Also, don't be fooled into buying a newer phone just because its camera has more megapixels. While it's usually correct that a higher number yields a better image, it could be misleading. Sometimes you'll find a better sensor that has fewer megapixels. The simple way this was described to me by one of the big-brand camera manufacturers was that "50 blueberries are more flavorful than 300 marbles." Sometimes the quality of the pixel supersedes the quantity. Do your homework, but most modern phone cameras create excellent images.
Cleanliness Is the Key
A disadvantage of carrying phones in our pocket is that the camera’s lens gets exposed to all types of abuse in the form of body oils, lint and everything in between. If you’re going to get serious about photos, carry your phone in secure manner. A clean pocket is a good start. Be mindful of where your keys, pocketknife and spare mags might be rubbing. A scratch on your lens will permanently cost you sharp images. I keep a small cloth lens wipe with me at all times. Seems like they come with every electronic gadget you buy these days. It’s good to have a couple with you for your shooting glasses, scope lenses and binoculars anyway.
While you’re cleaning your phone, take a moment to clean your rifle, too. Don’t be the dummy who uses their lens cloth and gets grease on it. A paintbrush and a can of compressed air does a superb job. An old T-shirt will do in a pinch. Most paper towels leave lint and should be avoided. Basically, you don’t want to show the world you’re a slob, unless being a slob is your thing. I’m not judging.
Let There Be Light
Photography is a science of using reflected light to capture an image. Firearms are works of art that are composed of beautiful flats, curves and many interesting details. To capture these features at their best, try to cast light across them, not at them. This is especially important when photographing black rifles. I can always spot a rookie when they place their backs to the light-source thinking that if the front is lit, they’re OK. Pro tip: You’ll have much more success if you lay a rifle down and have the sun in front of you, or slightly off to the side and ricochet the light off the rifle back at you. Think of it as playing pool with the light beam. Let the light source be the ball, the rifle be your sidewall and your lens be the corner pocket. Reflect the light into your lens. Master that concept and you’ll have some serious Jedi skills. Never ever use the built-in light. Save that for use as a flashlight.
There are many great light sources, the sun being the simplest; however, anything that casts light can be used. Flashlights, car headlights, headlamps, even candles. Be creative. The important part is that you position that light in a good spot and position the objects until you create a good-looking shot. If the shadows are too harsh or deep, use a piece of white poster board or foamcore to reflect some light back into the shadows. More Jedi skills.
Once you get good at direct lighting, you might want to soften shadows and highlights. If you’re outdoors, move into some shade. Cloudy days make for great photos; most shooting benches are under cover nowadays and also make for great photos. If you’re indoors, try bouncing light off the ceiling, using a piece of white card or using a pillowcase to diffuse the light. You’ve probably seen pros use “soft boxes,” or big, square light diffusers to manipulate light. All they’re doing is diffusing light. Today’s phone cameras handle low light exceptionally well, so you don’t need a lot of uber-bright lamps. Setting up next to a north-facing window or sliding glass door with a reflector is a classic way to get soft light. That's how painters like Rembrandt did his thing. Why reinvent the wheel?
You’ve Been Framed!
Careful composition is worth the effort. I always chuckle when somebody shares a picture of a rifle that includes their nasty feet, pizza boxes, dirty underwear and/or an Easter-egg hunt of other incriminating knick-knacks. When you frame a picture and get ready to take the photo, do your best to remove items that don’t tell the story. If you see it on the screen, so will the audience.
A rifle with a range bag positioned with some ninja ammunition and a target displaying your finest shot group tells a great 1,000-word story. Get creative as to where you set your rifle. A backyard sandbox can make for a Middle Eastern alley.
You don’t always need to show the whole thing; sometimes a tight crop on a small portion of the rifle's receiver can create a really interesting image. Get so close to the rifle that the shapes and forms become abstract. Your viewers will appreciate the challenge of figuring out what type of gun, model, etc.
A really popular image is live-fire with brass in the air. Those images are great, but they’re often ruined by a row of cars in the background or a bunch of other junk. Make sure the viewer sees what you want to see. The overall idea is to keep the viewing area simple and relevant — and be thoughtful about that image. Less is more.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the brain finds horizontal photos more aesthetically pleasing, probably because of a lifetime of sitting in front of the TV and digesting imagery in that manner. You can shoot vertical if there’s a very good reason, such as posting to some type of social media where vertical is the preferred format. But, for the most part, horizontal is king. Vertical video is a cardinal sin.
Zoom with Your Feet
Most phone cameras don’t have optical magnification, they use what’s called digital magnification. Optical magnification uses a series of moving lenses to provide a crisp magnified image onto your sensor. Most phone cameras have a fixed “digital zoom” lens. When you pinch-zoom on a screen, you’re usually just cropping-in and throwing away detail. It is much better to physically move closer to get the crop you want.
There are a lot of decent aftermarket clip-on lenses that can give you optical magnification. They work reasonably well for around $30, and it’s money well spent. A clip-on macro lens works well with small items like bolt faces, turning them into abstract pieces of art. A wide-angle attachment is a marriage made in heaven for both vehicle interiors and crowded firing lines.
Speaking of movement, nothing is more boring than a photo taken from 5-foot, 10-inch eye level. I call them snapshots. Relocate your height by lying on the ground or standing on a chair — do whatever you have to do to force a different angle. A low angle that looks up at a shooter raining brass is dramatic. A high angle of a SWAT team dumping out of a vehicle into an alley is engaging. By changing your perspective, you force the audience to do the same.
Get Those Images Out There
The best part about mastering great images is that you can artfully brag with all your friends about your latest boomstick and leave their jaws on the floor. If you also manage to piss off a liberal anti-gunner (or three), that’s icing on the cake. At this point, you should be a little better than where you started, and your images should draw more attention through email or your favorite social media. Hell, maybe you could even get some prints made for the office. All this can be done right from your phone. We truly live in amazing times!
Most of all, enjoy expanding your camera skills as much as you do working with firearms. Both skills get better with time. Ansel Adams wishes he had it this good!