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8 tips for better Smartphone photographs

Taken with an iPhone 4

Forgive me for stating the obvious: You get much better photos with a camera than without one. So, whilst I would much rather always be taking photos with SLR body with a sharp Prime lens, the truth of the matter is that you'll sometimes come across moments where you're just bursting to take a photo - and you may not have a 'real' camera handy.

If you're a hard-core photographer, you'll probably have a reasonably recent smart-phone. Great news: The phone comes with a surprisingly capable camera built-in.

It's not without limitations, of course, but here's eight tips to get the most out of your mobile phone snaps...

1) Clean your lens

Mobile phones are usually subjected to all sorts of abuse. Mine lives in my hand and my pocket; neither of which is the greatest environment for a clean lens.

Fingerprints, grease, or pocket fluff are the #1 reason for rubbish smart-phone photos, so check it, and clean it before shooting!

2) Shine a light

Modern mobile phones often come with impressive ISO ranges so you can take photos even in low light; but that doesn't mean you should: The small sensor size introduces a lot of noise, which isn't very nice, and certainly isn't conducive to awesome snaps.

Turn up the lights in the room, or go outside in daylight for the best photos.

3) Rez it up

If your camera has several settings, use 'em! As a general rule, the higher the resolution of your mobile camera, the clearer your photographs will be.

Bear in mind, though, that the higher the resolution of your photo, the larger its file size will be, so if you're e-mailing them, try to make them smaller before you kill your grandma's 28.8 kbit/s modem.

4) Nix the digi-zoom

Using digital zoom to zero in on your subject is fun if you want to use your mobile phone instead of binoculars, but it ain't much good if you're wanting to take photos. For photography, keep it zoomed all the way out, and crop the images later instead.

5) Steady now

When taking photographs, the more steady your camera is, the clearer your picture will be. Simples. If you can, lean your elbows on a sturdy surface, or place the phone against a lamp-post or similar for extra crispness.

6) Don't lose your (white) balance

If your mobile phone has the option of adjusting the camera using white balance, go ahead and experiment how the different settings impact on your photographs.

7) Get closer. No, even closer

To avoid having to zoom in or crop your shots later, ensure that your subject fills your viewfinder.

8) Sprinkle some editing magic

Even though your phone may have built-in editing features out of the box, consider editing them with a separate app instead.

For the iPhone, my favourite editing apps are Snapseed and Photoshop Express - Try 'em out, and use the filters and editing tools to add a bit of sizzle.

Got that? Great. Now go snap some photos you're proud of. Oh, and post them in the comments, I'd love to see what you guys come up with!

Some of my best photos from 2011

2011 has been a pretty crazy year all around. This year, I have:

  • been to four different continents and a dozen different countries
  • taken tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of photos (and 6,000 of them were good enough that I decided to keep them in my Lightroom library).
  • gotten engaged.
  • I've (nearly) brought my photography gadget Triggertrap to market 
  • Seen one of my books go on sale, and finished another one that'll go on sale in 2012. 

It's been an incredible ride. But really, in this post, I just wanted to share some of my fave photos from 2011 with you - they're in the gallery above!

Happy new year, and have a well-exposed 2012!

Rock on,

~ Haje


Review: SeaShell SS-1 Underwater Housing

A nudibranch (colourful sea slugs!)

Life, as most of us are all-too-well aware, can be rather surprising and unpredictable at times. A great example of this was exactly two months ago, when my girlfriend and I left Bangkok to go to Koh Tao - a tiny island in the bay of Thailand - to go do our Open Water dive certification.

Long story short - it's two months, nearly 70 dives, and a whole lot of exams later, we're still on Koh Tao, and I am about to complete my PADI Divemaster certification. Needless to say, I sort of fell for this diving malarkey.

So, what is a poor photographer to do, when you rock up on a little island that doesn't do internet deliveries, and only has a limited number of camera shops? You try your damndest to get the best photos you can with the equipment you have available. In my case, I had a beautiful Canon PowerShot S95, but no underwater housing...

The local shop did have a curious little creature, though: An 'universal' camera housing for compact cameras, made by a company I'd never heard of: SeaShell.


How it works

I was rather sceptical at first... Was I really going to put my several-hundred-dollar highly cherished camera at risk by shoving it into an 'universal' camera body? I decided that yes, it would be worth a shot, so I bought the housing for 6,800 Thai Baht (Around £140 / US$225).

The first thing I did was to close the housing and take it to 18 meters for about 15 minutes. It turns out it was as water proof as I had dared hope for... So it was time to put my camera inside.

The SeaShell SS-1 only has two buttons, and both are at the top. It allows you to control a power button and the shutter, only. It sounds very limiting, but it turns out that, just to snap some snapshots under water, it's all you need. This two-button limitation is also the reason why about 25% of cameras don't work in the housing: If the power button is a slider, or is placed too far away from the shutter release button, the camera housing's little rods can't move it (or reach it).

Setting up the housing

Before you can use the housing, you have to set it up. That sounds like it should be easy, but the manual is next to completely bloody useless, and instead I resorted to trial and error. The SS-1 comes with a metric boatload of little rubber feet of different thicknesses. You have to use 12 different rubber feet (2 at the front of the camera, 2 on each side) to attempt to make your camera fit snugly inside the camera housing.


Next, you need to adjust the buttons so the camera housing's buttons align with the buttons on your camera, by using a tiny little wrench and a nut to move the button pistons left, right, and front and back. It all seems just a little bit fragile, and fiddly to set up, but - as we'll see in just a minute, it does actually work pretty well.

In use

In underwater photography, you're taking photos in a medium that's 800 times more dense than air, and that robs your subjects of their color. Reds start disappearing at about 5 meters, and are all but gone a few meters deeper - depending on how turbid the water is etc. As such, you want to get as close as possible to your subject, to ensure there the light has to travel as little as possible before it hits your camera's sensor.


Imagine, for example, that you are 5 meters down, and 2 meters away from your subject - suddenly, light has to travel 7 meters before you can capture it, and your reds are just about gone.

Having to get really close is the main reason why this housing works pretty well: You won't have access to your zoom buttons, but who cares: The Canon Powershot S95 has better apertures when zoomed fully out anyway - so you may as well leave it zoomed out, and get close.

Of course, since you'll be spending most of your time under half a meter from the things you're trying to photograph, you have to be a pretty good diver. It's bad practice to touch the corals and wildlife, so perfect buoyancy control and good control underwater in general is an absolute must - but then that's true for any underwater photography.

The biggest downfall with the SS-1 in combination with the Canon S95, is that the S95 has a flash that pops up, but the housing is too small for the flash to have enough space to do so. This means that you're limited to natural light photography, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse.

It's a lot harder to get photos that look 'correct' without using a flash, but I ended up writing a camera profile for Lightroom that matches the Canon S95's underwater profile, and the fact that the S95 shoots in RAW helped hugely - I was able to recover the reds even from relatively deep depths (12-16 meters), where the human eye can't see them, but the camera somehow managed to record the colors anyway.

Compared with an official housing

I met someone here on the island who had a S95 as well, and he had the original Canon underwater housing for the camera. Whilst I was envious of his additional control and the ability to use flash, it did look as if my photos were as good as his - and in some cases better.


I'll be honest with you - the Canon WP-DC38 (the official underwater camera housing) doesn't cost that much more than the SeaShell SS-1 (list price is $240, you should be able to find them much cheaper - on Amazon, they're currently going for $180), and if I had the choice of one or the other, I would have put down the extra cash to buy the official housing.

On the other hand, the SS-1 can be reconfigured to fit any number of digital compacts, and whereas the official housing would be useless with another camera, the SS-1 would probably still fit, and you can keep snapping pictures.

The truth of the matter is that there was no way the official housing was going to be available on a little island like Koh Tao. Realistically, the choice wasn't between an official housing and the SS-1, but between the SS-1, and not being able to take any photos at all. Seen from that point of view, I'm pretty happy I bought the SS-1. It kept my camera safe under water, and the quality of the pictures I was able to capture

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© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.

The 12 best photos of 2007


I first covered Earth Shots, the photo of the day contest, back in November 2006 and ever since, I have displayed their photo of the day widget in the side bar of Photocritic (see right!). Even when there’s a rather long time between updates, I keep checking back on my own site just to have a quick look at what the talented Earthshots submitters are up to.

It’s surreal to think about it, but this week Earth Shots celebrated their first birthday, and what an incredible first year it has been! Scanning through their archives you can see 365 fantastic images of our planet and among them are some truly spectacular shots.

To celebrate, I got the guy behind Earth Shots – Will – to pick some of his favourites. 12 months, 12 pictures – makes perfect sense, yes? 


1. Music Man of Jaipur by Sam Stearman »
Music Man of Jaipur
Will: This was one of the first images to be shown on Earth Shots. For me it epitomises a great travel photo; it’s exotic, vibrant and full of character.

Haje: I love the colours in this shot – there’s something incredibly passionate about it. Gritty, well-composed, and genuine. Oh, and did I mention the colours?

2. Rainier Fall by Dean Zulich »
Rainier Fall
Will: This was the most viewed photo of the year on (mainly thanks to StumbleUpon). It is technically excellent and has been processed to perfection; it is razor-sharp, vivid and well composed – a textbook landscape image.

Haje: I can’t fault Will on this one – it’s a positively stunning photograph. There are so much potential for screwing this one up, but the composition is flawless, and yet again, the colours are wildly attractive.

3. A Potter Wasp by Poras Chaudhary »
A Potter Wasp
Will: This is a wonderful macro shot that has been perfectly set up and executed by the photographer. The lighting, composition and timing are all top-notch.

Haje: As some of you will have noticed, I know a thing or two about macro photography, and this photo embodies everything I love about the genre. I wish the background was slightly differently coloured to make the foreground stand out better, but that’s nitpickery – a masterpiece!

4. Eagle Snatch by Mart Smit »
Eagle Snatch
Will: This is a spectacular photo which illustrates both the power and grace of nature. Another well-timed and technically excellent shot – it takes a skilful photographer to keep a fast flying bird in the centre of the frame with a telephoto lens and to snap such a sharp image!

Haje: There is nothing shy about catching this photo – it must have taken the photographer days of patience and scores of attempts. Boy, did it pay off: I’d be very surprised if they didn’t make a small fortune of it as a stock photo.

5. Tse Bighanilini by Hans van de Vorst »
Tse Bighanilini
Will: There is a strong sense of both art and earth in this image… it is the perfect expression of Earth Shots.

Haje: I’m a sucker for unique textures, crazy colours, and inventive lighting, and this photo really ticks all the boxes. It captures the true beauty of the earth, ironically, by making it look like what I imagine a martian landscape would look like.

6. McNaught’s Comet by John White »
McNaught's Comet
Will: This photo adds an extra-terrestrial dimension to Earth Shots. It is a reminder that our Earth is just a small part of an infinitely large and wonderful universe that lies out beyond our reach.

Haje: Night-time photography is a past-time that many photographers give up all too soon. It’s truly inspiring to see White’s interpretation of what happens at night captured this beautifully. Of all of these photos, I think this is the one that got my shutter-finger twitching the most. I may just have to dust of the ‘ole lenses, and see if I can capture something similar some day. I doubt it though.

7. Dancing Japanese Cranes by Simone Sbaraglia »
Dancing Japanese Cranes
Will: Art and the grace of nature again meet in this exquisite shot of dancing cranes. The symmetry and monotones make it all the more striking.

Haje: This photo agrees with my sense of minimalism and high contrast. I find it a bit disturbing to look at, actually: the first impression I had of this photo gave me images of melodramatic death – not really a picture I want to associate with cranes.

8. Looks Like Hail by Steve Wall »
Looks Like Hail
Wil: This image shows an incredible natural phenomenon that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. These striking clouds helped make this the second most viewed photo on Earth Shots (again thanks to StumbleUpon).

Haje: This has been one of my all-time favourite Earth Shots photos. I described it to a friend on the bus once, as ‘imagine a flock of sheep captured in a supernova, but with a wind mill in front of it’. Okay, perhaps not the greatest of descriptions, but it’s one of those photos that really stick with you in your mind. Fantastic.

9. Tea Plantation by Katie Doran »
Tea Plantation
Will:A beautiful abstract photo; the shades of green, the curve of the hill and the patterned plants makes this one of our most delightful images.

Haje: There is something stunning about combining a monotonous colour palette with wildly varying hues, textures, and the grandeur of rolling hills. I adore this photo for so many reasons, but I think my adoration of it doubled when I discovered what it actually depicts. Black, two sugars, please.

10. Viper by Gunter Leitenbauer »
Will: Another technically excellent photo; the background blur (bokeh) is to die for! You almost feel like the snake could jump out of the photo at any second.

Haje: A great example of how carefully applied narrow depth of field can add a tremendous sense of speed and urgency to a photograph. It is as if the photographer had to take this photo and get the hell out of the way. The tension is really what makes this picture work, and there’s plenty of that.

11. Jurassic Park by Dennis Walton »
Jurassic Park
Will: This is like looking back in time at a world that is still being forged by the elements. The shadows created by the low sun emphasise the scarred texture of the barren land. It is a spectacular vista.

Haje: Another unbeatable landscape, serving as a very firm reminder that everything that seems important probably isn’t. Sometimes, I feel as if a photo like this really helps put things into perspective: Those mountains have been there for a million years before I was born, and they’ll be there for another million after I die. I can’t quite make up my mind if that’s a comforting thought or not, however.

12. Great White by Terry Goss »
Great White
Will: Earth Shots has had many great underwater photos but this one is one of the best because it has so much character… here you go, meet the ocean’s top predator!

Haje: SharQ has been my nick-name on-line for a very long time and I have always had a strong connection with the beasts. Normally, people go out of their way to make sharks look like savage creatures, and in a way, I much prefer this version. The notion of implied threat is as scary as a gob full of teeth, and yet, there’s also the subtle play of light, water, sunshine, and all the shark’s food swimming around it, waiting to be transformed into supper. Glorious.

Of course there are many more great images on the If you fancy it, take a look through their archives! Also, why not post links to your favourite EarthShots photos in the comments below?

If you fancy your chances then why not submit your photos to Earth Shots… anyone can enter and if you win photo of the day three times you’ll get $50. If you want to follow Earth Shots then you can subscribe to their photo of the day by rss feed or email. Or, y’know, just keep checking back here at Photocritic – Earth Shots have proven to be well worthy of their space of honour in the side-bar.

I raise a finely prepared Gin and Tonic to Will and the boys at Earth Shots – here’s to the next year, fellas!

Do you enjoy a smattering of random photography links? Well, squire, I welcome thee to join me on Twitter -

© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.