Phonecams for Small Business Photography

by Gerry Blackwell

Phonecams are the perfect tool for capturing acceptable images on-the-go in certain business situations — if you know how to use them properly. We'll show you how.

Most small business folks carry a handy tool in their pockets that they rarely think of using — or at least not for work: the camera in their phone.

Sure, you might pull it out in a bar with friends, but as a business tool?

It's true that phone cameras are inferior in almost every respect to dedicated digital cameras, but they are capable of capturing acceptable images for some business applications. We'll show you how.

It's mostly a matter of understanding and accommodating or compensating for the phonecam's limitations and deficiencies.

If you do that, most phones can deliver useful images, good enough to print in a business document or add to a Web site.

And for visual note taking, to create memory aids, where you don't need stellar image quality, phonecam can also be useful — for shooting pictures of products at a trade fair, for example, or to send a remote technician a picture of broken machinery.

Size Matters

One of the phonecam's biggest limitations is the size or resolution of the image (measured in pixels.) It's rarely more than two megapixels, sometimes now three, compared to eight or 10 megapixels for most modern digicams. This means you can't capture a lot of detail.

How to compensate? First, make sure the camera is set to take pictures at the highest resolution. (Duh!) Read the instructions. While the default is usually the highest resolution (i.e. largest image size in pixels), sometimes it's not. It's not on the phone we use, a Motorola Moto Q9h.

Then choose your subjects carefully. Forget about landscapes, streetscapes, group shots, crowd scenes, clutter. Zero in on one simple subject or aspect of a larger scene. This is a good rule of thumb for any photography, but it's especially important when shooting with a phonecam.

Besides taking small, low-resolution images, phonecam lenses are usually fixed focus, meaning you never get absolutely sharp pictures. And the lenses are moderate wide angle, which means subjects look smaller than they do to the naked eye at the same distance.

A bunch of things follow from this.

First, the larger you view an image, the more noticeable its lack of sharpness. So don't expect to be able to print or post phonecam pictures in sizes larger than a couple of inches by a couple of inches.

Lens Issues

Also, make sure the lens is clean. Most don't have caps, so they will get dirty. If the lens is smeared with face grease (sorry, but that's what it is) or covered in pocket lint, images will be even blurrier and the camera will have trouble getting a correct exposure reading.

Phonecams rarely if ever have optical zoom lenses, though more and more have digital zooms. Don't be fooled. Digital zooms don't really get you closer to your subject, they just give you a flimsy illusion of magnification.

When you digitally zoom, you're actually cropping the scene, choosing a small part in the middle of the frame. This wastes some of the camera's already limited capacity for capturing image detail. Bottom line: you end up with an even blurrier image. Turn digital zoom off if you can. On the Moto Q9h, you can't, and the default mode is fully zoomed. Not smart.

To minimize the phonecam deficiencies we've been talking about, you want to create bold, simple compositions. Fill or almost fill the frame with your main subject in most cases.

And for the reasons explained, you don't want to use the digital zoom to achieve this. How then? Move closer. Your natural tendency may be to hang back, but especially given that most phonecams have moderate wide angle lenses, you need to get as close as possible.

One of the beauties of a phone camera, though, is that it's so small you can get it into tight spaces and close to live subjects without making them terribly self-conscious.

But keep in mind that with fixed focus lenses, image sharpness falls off at some point as you get closer to the subject, or further away. And shooting very close may accentuate lens distortion. Experiment to figure out how close you can get and still produce reasonably sharp, pleasing images.

Stay Still

The other main reason for less than sharp phonecam images: motion blur. The solution is simple but often difficult to achieve: hold the camera still. Don't just wave it at the subject, shooting on the fly.

Phonecams almost always have completely automatic exposure systems. If light is low, as it usually is indoors, they typically make the exposure longer. The longer the exposure, the more likely you'll get motion blur. Even slight hand tremors can cause blurring that makes the image look out of focus.

Most phonecams cannot be mounted on a tripod, which is the best way of overcoming this problem. But there are things you can do to minimize motion blur.

Some phone camera software has a night mode that can partly solves the problem. Instead of making a longer exposure, the camera increases the sensitivity of the camera's imaging sensor so it needs less light to make the image.

But be warned: while this may reduce motion blur, it will probably also produce noisier, grainier-looking images.

Low-tech solutions? Rest the camera on a solid surface such as a table or low wall. Crouch down if you have to to frame the picture. Even leaning against a tree or other support to brace yourself can help.

If nothing else, be sure to hold the phone in both hands, brace your elbows against your torso, take a deep breath, let it out — then shoot.

But there is one other small problem with phonecams to be aware of in this regard. Most don't take the picture immediately you push the button. There's a little lag. The danger is that you'll move prematurely, assuming the picture is taken, which will cause motion blur.

So experiment to figure out how long the shutter lag is. Then practice shooting and holding still until the exposure is actually made.

(Please Continue to Page 2 for more on Lighting Issues, Photo Editing)

Lighting Issues

The ultimate solution to the motion blur problem is more light. In any photography, in fact, lighting is paramount. The better the light — the more there is of it and the better the quality of light — the better the picture will be.

More and more phonecams have flash units built in or even small floodlights. Again, don't be fooled. While phonecam lights might help in some situations, more often they will produce worse images. Avoid flash.

If the subject is portable — a small product, say — move it into better light. Even light from a window can improve image quality enormously. Turn all the lights on in the room. Move lamps closer (but not too close). When shooting people, move them outside or near a window.

The best light for most of the types of shooting you'll want to do for business is even, filtered daylight. Window light is often surprisingly effective. Cloudy bright conditions and tree shade are also good. For prettier pictures try to shoot early in the morning or late in the day.

If you're turning on lights or using flash, understand that they will have an impact on color reproduction. You may, probably will, end up with something that looks slightly off color-wise.

Some phonecams let you adjust white balance for different lighting sources. Experiment to see if you can correct color problems by using something other than the default or auto white balance setting. If you have a white balance control, it will likely allow you to choose between sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent and night.


You can also correct color problems afterwards using photo editing software. Download pictures from the phonecam to a PC or Mac and use a program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, or the software that came with your regular digital camera. Experiment with the color balance adjustment to correct color problems.

Photo editing software can also "fix" other problems with phonecam pictures. Try using the automatic picture correction command. It might improve the image, it might not. You can also manually correct pictures. Increasing contrast, for example, will often improve the image. Sharpness filters that increase the contrast between adjacent areas in a picture can also help compensate for the problems of using a fixed focus lens.

Other tricks to keep in mind? Use tried and true rules of composition to improve pictures,but don't follow them too slavishly. The rule of thirds, for example, says you should divide the frame into nine equal segments, superimposing an imaginary grid like an x's and o's board.

Centre your main subject or the most important element, a human subject's eye, for example, on one of the intersections at the top or bottom of the frame. It's surprising how often this type of composition produces the most pleasing result.

Take lots of photos of every subject, especially those you may not have a chance to re-shoot later. Try using different lighting, different angles. Then you can choose the best shot and throw the rest out. That's the beauty of digital photography.

A phonecam is never the best option for business photography. But it's a tool you'll almost always have available. Why not take advantage of it?

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Mar 4th 2009
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