Using smartphones for street photography - Amateur Photographer

Using smartphones for street photography - Amateur Photographer

A smartphone is the perfect tool for capturing life on the street. Amy Davies discovers why smartphones are great for street photography in this guide

Often the key to good street photography is becoming one with the street. Being as unobtrusive and unnoticeable as possible is the name of the game. One of the primary benefits of using a smartphone for street photography is that everybody has one – and with many others snapping away on the street, you certainly won’t stand out. This gives you a distinct advantage over those shooting with DSLRs, mirrorless or even rangefinder cameras as interesting subjects will likely fail to notice you and continue to act naturally.

Most modern smartphones have a variety of shooting modes, as well as different lenses to offer various shooting perspectives. Many also offer the ability to add special filters and effects – such as monochrome shooting – which is favoured by street photographers, without ever having to go near a computer. For those that want to take full control, several smartphones nowadays have manual or semi-automatic modes which give you direct access to certain settings, allowing you to get as creative as you like.

Most smartphones have a reasonably wideangle main lens, of around 24-28mm. It’s a good focal length for street photography, but if you find one with a zoom lens, you can also shoot from a distance and emulate the look of 50mm or perhaps even an 85mm lens.

Shooting with smartphones allows you to react to situations as they happen, whether you were preparing for a street photography session or not. You will always be ready to photograph the scene in front of you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your approach, which is where our tips will come in extremely handy. In this guide we’ll be looking at general tips for shooting with smartphones in a street environment. You should also find inspiration from the photographs below – all of which have been photographed using nothing more than a humble smartphone.

It stands to reason that if you’re shooting with your smartphone on the street, you might also want to edit your work while on the go and share it via the plethora of social networking apps currently available.

For that reason, Damien Demolder shares his tips for editing directly on your smartphone, and although there’s a good chance that you already have a smartphone of your own, you’ll find our recommendations for photography-orientated devices at the end of the piece, which you might want to consider next time you’re shopping for an upgrade.

Street photography can be daunting, but by simplifying your gear down to your smartphone it can be a great way to give it a go and get out of your comfort zone. If perhaps you’re considering upgrading your smartphone, scroll down to see the top models we recommend for this genre.

Based in Israel, Dina Alfasi has become well-known for her portraits of everyday moments on public transport.

Currently using an iPhone 12 Pro, Dina favours the smartphone because it’s always with her and doesn’t attract attention. That’s particularly important in the small and crowded spaces in which she takes the majority of her pictures. She says, ‘It’s quite different from using “standard” equipment. In addition to being easy to carry, the response speed is much better. I can capture special moments very quickly. I also choose not to mess with different parameters in the camera settings like in standard equipment.

‘Besides the “standard” mode, I also like to use portrait mode. The results obtained in it create a special intimate atmosphere, especially when photographing people. It puts the focus on the character I am photographing and draws the viewer’s attention to the story of this character. ‘The only limitation for me is a distance problem. Sometimes I see from afar a wonderful situation to photograph, but because of the distance I cannot always photograph the moment as I would like.

‘Shooting in natural light is what makes all the difference. With it, you get wonderful results. For social media, try to find your own personal language. For my Instagram, my personal style is very prominent and I think it’s something that people connect with. I often get responses from people who say they’ve recognised me in my style before they even know who took the picture. Sometimes they even point out that my photos remind me of paintings, which is wonderful to hear.’

An award-winning photographer based in both London and Bombay, Dimpy Bhalotia is best known for her street photography work, all of which is taken using a smartphone – in her case, the iPhone. She is the IPPAwards (iPhone Photography Awards) Grand Prize Winner, and has also won the British Journal of Photography’s Female in Focus Award.

Her work has been published in a variety of international publications including The Washington Post, Forbes, The Guardian, BBC News, GQ magazine, Elle, NPR, The Telegraph and much more. In 2021, she was named as one of the 30 Most Influential Street Photographers of the Year. She focuses more on the philosophy of street photography, rather than getting bogged down in technical aspects – for which a smartphone must surely be perfect.

Look outside your subject

‘Explore the different mediums of art and craft. Read books outside the subject of photography, too. Photographing organically means not just sticking to what you think you already know. Sticking with what you are already familiar with will only suppress the creative vision you have inside.’

‘Presence of mind with acute observation and perception is the key to capturing moments on the street. For me, that means I make a point of living consciously in the present, with my eyes fixed to the world. When taking pictures, I merge myself into the crowd, letting no moment miss me – this always helps to capture the unpredictable moment.’

Know yourself better to develop your own style

‘I travelled a lot around the world and arranged my thoughts together to figure out what makes me happy. As I keep discovering myself, and what I like, it helps me to develop my style. It is very important to understand oneself. Your work always reflects who you are – so make sure to spend time with yourself and let the energy of self-understanding be reflected in your work.’

Regular contributor and ex-AP editor Damien Demolder is a keen exponent of using smartphones, being particularly keen on using them for street photography. He says, ‘Smartphones are great for this type of photography as we always have them with us, and they allow us to capture moments we would otherwise just have to look at.

They are not only available when we can’t be bothered to take a “real’ camera but also when it wouldn’t seem appropriate – such as a trip to the doctor’s or the loo (I once shot a man dressed as a chicken in the loo at Stansted Airport once!). Smartphones also help us to blend in, so other people won’t pay us any attention.

A “proper” camera can sometimes make it obvious we are photographers, and clearly real photographers don’t use their phone to take pictures – this means you’ll be ignored when out with your phone.’

‘Street photography often contains some architecture in the background or foreground, and we all know getting buildings straight is very important if we aren’t shooting a dramatic angle. When we are in a hurry we can easily forget this and end up with slightly wonky backgrounds and falling-over buildings.

With the wide lenses that smartphones tend to have, wonkiness will be exaggerated, so do your best to avoid it at the shooting stage. Of course these things can be fixed afterwards, but this means losing pixels and also a crop that your composition may not welcome.

‘Some smartphone lenses are a bit primitive and will distort at the edges, so when you straighten a picture in software you can end up with some strange effects.’

‘Smartphones don’t really understand what atmosphere is, as they are inclined to make happy bright exposures that average people will be pleased with. Learn how to use exposure compensation, if you have it, or to meter from a bright area to influence the exposure. My street photography relies a lot on the way shadows look and I have to take control of the camera to make it do what I want it to do.

I can shoot in Pro Mode that offers raw files and exposure compensation, or tap on the screen in normal Photo mode and drag my finger down to deepen the exposure. I try to work in Portrait mode when I’m just shooting JPEGs, as this gives me softer contrast and more moderate colour that looks realistic.

Left to their own devices, smartphones will produce too much contrast and colour saturation as they want to impress us with impactful images. These are then hard to correct.’

‘A lot of street photography is action photography, and capturing exactly the right moment can be critical to the success of the image. Most smartphones have some sort of lag between the shutter button being pressed and the picture actually being recorded, so you need to understand what that lag feels like.

It may vary according to the mode you are using – my phone records the moment before I hit the button in one mode, and well after it in another. With practice I’ve learnt how far in advance I need to hit the button to get the picture I want.

‘I have also come to understand which shots are impossible for my phone to capture, so I save myself stress by not attempting them and concentrating on what it can do.’

David has won a number of awards for his iPhone photography, and had his work displayed at various exhibitions. He lives in Los Angeles, but runs workshops which can be accessed online and cover shooting street with your smartphone, creating composites and post processing.

David uses the iPhone 12 Pro, and prefers to keep things as simple as possible. In the past he has used attachable third-party lenses but finds with the advancements in smartphone technology that these are now unnecessary. The only accessory he currently uses is a Mophie battery charger to ensure he always has power available. Speaking about using smartphones for street photography, he says, ‘I realised that, due to their small size and the fact that everyone owns a smartphone these days, they are the ultimate street camera.

It gives me a level of invisibility that I never achieved with a larger, more conspicuous camera. Even if someone notices I’m taking a picture, they don’t take me that seriously and are more likely to ignore me.

‘Even with the continuous improvement in image quality and file size with today’s phones, they still fall short of what a DSLR/mirrorless can offer, but there are trade-offs. For me, the simplicity and convenience of my iPhone makes sacrificing some of the creative control and image quality of a more advanced camera worthwhile. On the occasions when I do tire of the limitations of my smartphone, I will use a Ricoh GR II.

‘I used to shoot using the Hipstamatic app quite a bit. I loved the shoot-from-the-hip simplicity and how it was reminiscent of shooting with film. Now I tend to use the native camera app, zooming or widening the lens depending on my subject. I do miss the shallow DOF I’d get with my old DSLR, using wide aperture settings.

While portrait mode does a decent job of recreating that look, I’ve found it doesn’t work that well for street – at least not with my particular style, so I’ll usually try to create that look in post. I enjoy the post-processing stage, it’s an important step in the creative process. I like to give my images a bold, punchy look, so they jump off the screen or page. I do my processing in phone, using Snapseed and a few texture apps like Stackables and/or Mextures, just to add a bit of a tactile, film-like grit.’

LA-based Eric Mencher shoots exclusively with an iPhone. He says, ‘Back when film was not only king but was really the only option, I was a Leica devotee. An M6 loaded with Tri-X was my constant companion. In today’s photographic epoch, also known as the digital age, I am an iPhone devotee. It is my camera and companion.

Now, I dirty my thumb not in developer, but on my iPhone screen as I select, edit and tone my images using Snapseed, Hipstamatic, and iPhone filters. The Leica was simple and intuitive and the iPhone – for me – follows in that same tradition. While at times I miss my Leica, when I photograph these days I try to take advantage of what an iPhone is and how it operates.’

‘It’s worth exploring the advantages of the different camera modes your smartphone generally provides, including options such as panorama mode and night mode. Shooting at dusk with the camera set on the Vivid filter can be incredibly striking, while the various “lighting” filters in portrait mode can provide a distinctive look.

Spend time getting to know the different options available – both iPhone and Android models will have various modes other than the generic “photo” mode to explore.’

‘For all kinds of shooting, but in particular, street photography, I use either the native iPhone camera [app] or Hipstamatic. I typically hold the camera in my left hand and use the volume up button as the shutter release.

That makes it a one-handed operation (allowing me to break the cardinal rule that Bresson so vehemently espoused – do not carry parcels), which is much quicker than using the regular shutter button, which requires two hands (and is tricky for klutzes like me).’

Get the exposure right

‘Because the cameras in smartphones typically have very small sensors, it’s imperative to get a good exposure in camera when you can. It’s worth using the exposure lock. For iPhones, you can access this by long pressing on the screen in the native iPhone camera app and manipulating exposure compensation by dragging the slider up and down.

For Android the process is very similar, or you can often access an exposure compensation setting in “professional” or “advanced” modes. If highlights are burned out using a smartphone camera, it’s very hard to get them back – but it’s much easier to get details back from shadows, or darken shadows for added drama. For this reason, underexposing your images slightly – ready for editing later – can be helpful.’

Laurence is a fine-art street photographer, currently based in Tokyo. He has worked with Apple on advertising campaigns, and runs workshops.

At the moment, Laurence is using an iPhone 13 Pro Max, with which he will occasionally use clip-on lenses from Reeflex – the fisheye one is a particular favourite of his. He also uses a Sony A7R II, but loves the convenience and flexibility of a smartphone, as he says, ‘In some situations, by the time I’d have taken the camera out of my bag, I would have probably missed the shot.

‘It’s a lot simpler to use, and it’s much easier to take candid photos with a smartphone. For example there’s no shutter sound, and it’s a lot more discreet. I would say that quality is of course the main limitation – the quality of shooting in zoom mode, and what you would get with a telephoto. But so long as you are aware of those limitations you can work around them. On a bright sunny day, it can be difficult to choose between the quality of the iPhone and my Sony camera. I always try to shoot a few photos with both cameras, and sometimes I’ll get home and prefer the iPhone pics to the Sony pics.

‘In terms of editing, these days my philosophy is less is more. I try to catch as much in camera as possible – I cringe when I look at how much I over-edited old photos. I mainly use Lightroom and Snapseed to edit. I’m not entirely sure what works well on social media any more. Instagram has turned into “reelstagram”. I’ve kind of gone back to Flickr, as Instagram seems kind of pointless for photography these days. Vero looks good and I’ve recently started posting on there.’

Editing the street pictures you take with your smartphone is as crucial as it is with pictures you shoot with any camera, so find an editing app you like that offers the controls you need. I tend to use Pixlr and Photoshop Express, as both provide detailed controls of contrast, colour, shadows, highlights and the ability to add ‘looks’ if you want to.

Here’s a shot I took while waiting in the queue for Sainsburys. I liked the shadows of the late afternoon and the structure of the paving, along with the feet sticker and the actual feet. It’s called Social Distancing For Dummies. I didn’t have time to switch to Monochrome mode, so shot it in colour and tried to use the exposure controls to make the most of the shadows. The picture recorded is still too bright though.

1. I took the picture into Pixlr and used the ‘agnes’ preset to turn it black & white. This preset boosts contrast a bit too and showed that the picture is a little brighter than I want. I used the Exposure control in Adjustments to make it a fraction darker (-12).

2. Now to darken the shadows. Selecting Shadows in the Adjustment menu I pulled the slider all the way down to the left to make the shadows as dark as I could. This worked quite well, but they needed to come down a bit more. Before I did that though I pulled the highlights down a bit (-10) to introduce more detail to the brighter areas where the sun is on the pavement.

3. I saved these settings and re-opened the Adjustments menu and, returning to the Shadows slider, I again dragged it all the way to the left to make them as dark as I could. This was about right as it gave the shadows plenty of body and added a lot of depth to the image.

4. Pixlr has a function called ‘auto contrast’. It doesn’t adjust contrast as we might expect. It adds contrast to micro details that crisps things up in a way that appears a mixture of clarity and sharpening. It can overdo things and you can’t regulate the effect so I use it with caution. Here though it has enhanced the texture of the stones and sharpened the edges of the shadows.

5. When I shot this I was concentrating on getting the sticker straight and didn’t notice it wasn’t level with the paving joints. So I used the rotate tool (1.2°) to partially correct this. On correcting it completely I lost too much of the sticker to the crop and the sticker looked wonky. The partial correction gives the impression things are straight even if they aren’t quite.

6. I lifted contrast a tad to deepen the blacks and brighten the lightest tones. I generally pull contrast down and use the shadow and highlight sliders to create impact without boosting the very extreme tones; but here, in pulling down the exposure at the beginning of the process I’d created rather grey highlights. This contrast boost adds the sparkle back without losing any tonal detail.

The iPhone 13 Pro has just been superseded by the iPhone 14 Pro, bu the differences are relatively slight – particularly for street photography. The iPhone’s native camera app is straightforward for street use. Not having a manual mode is a shame, but there are many compatible apps to give you extra control or to take advantage of editing opportunities. You can also switch on Apple’s ProRAW format to give you more scope for editing.

A wide lens of 24mm equivalent will probably be your go-to choice, but the 3x zoom can come in handy for even more discreet shooting from a distance. Portrait mode can be used for shallow depth of field effects, which might be useful if your subject is relatively close to you and you’re going for a ‘street portrait’ effect.

Our pick for the best smartphone this year is the Samsung S22 Ultra, which is adept at a wide range of different genres, including street. The four different lenses come in handy for shooting scenes at a variety of viewpoints.

A range of shooting modes make up the comprehensive native camera app, with enthusiasts likely to be drawn towards the Pro mode. You can’t alter aperture, but you can adjust shutter speeds for different effects – you might want to try using a long exposure for busy street scenes to create a sense of movement, for example. Raw format shooting is also only available in the Pro mode, but the standard Photo mode produces excellent shots so you might not feel too worried about using it.

Co-developed with Hasselblad, the OnePlus 9 Pro has a lot of useful features for photographers. One of its standout features is the 48-million-pixel main camera which is ideal for picking out fine detail in street scenes. There’s a triple-lens selectable set-up but a fourth monochrome camera is used for creating better black & white shots, which some street photographers might also find helpful.

An excellent optical zoom lens and a range of extensive features in the native camera app, along with a reasonable price, make the OnePlus a smart option for lots of reasons.

An expensive proposition, but one which might appeal to enthusiast photographers thanks to the advanced native camera app which includes the same kind of modes found on ‘proper’ cameras. This includes shutter priority, program and manual. There’s no aperture priority as the lenses have fixed apertures.

This expert-level operation comes at the expense of other regular modes, such as Night or Portrait, but if street photography is your goal that might not be too much of a concern.

Other useful features include the ability to quickly start the camera app with a double tap of the volume button, plus three lenses to choose from. That said, the zoom lens gives less-than-favourable results, so we’d advise sticking with the wideangle option for most street shots.

Another simple-to-use camera interface makes the Pixel 6 Pro an excellent choice for straightforward street photography. With three lenses, there’s good coverage available no matter where you’re shooting from, and while there’s no manual mode, you can record in raw format for more flexibility in editing.

This model is also at the more affordable end of the smartphone scale, giving you a lot of advanced features for your cash. Night mode is helpful for low-light street photos, while standard photo mode does a good job in most other situations. One feature we particularly like is the ability to launch the native camera app with a quick double press of the power button – helping to make sure you never miss those decisive street moments.

This mid-range option is good for those photographers on a more restricted budget, but who still want a good range of options from their smartphone. Oppo is becoming ever more popular in the UK, with plenty of devices available to suit different budgets and needs. With the Reno 8 Pro, you get two main lenses, one of which is a 23mm (equivalent) and is backed by a 50MP sensor.

Other useful features include its long battery life and wide array of shooting modes, which includes a ‘pro’ mode and raw format shooting. You can also shoot in monochrome directly in the camera app. Read our full review here.

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