Using smartphones for street photography
September 24, 2021
A smartphone is the perfect tool for capturing life on the street. Amy Davies speaks with three photographers to discover why 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. As pretty much everyone – photographers and otherwise – has a smartphone in their pocket these days, they have become the perfect way to avoid standing out when taking pictures in public.
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. You should also find inspiration from the photographs below – all of which have been photographed using nothing more than a humble smartphone.
Modern smartphones are extremely well-equipped, usually featuring at least two lenses that work well for typical street photography. In this guide we’ll be looking at general tips for shooting with smartphones in a street environment.
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.
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.’
Capture the moment
‘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.’
Keep it straight
‘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.’
Be in control
‘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.’
Know the reaction time
‘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.’
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.’
Explore your phone’s different settings
‘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.’
Try shooting one-handed
‘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.’
Damien’s tips for editing your smartphone pictures on the go
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.
Best smartphones for street photography
Apple iPhone 12 Pro
l £999 l apple.com
With three different lenses to choose from, you get good scope to shoot street scenes from a variety of perspectives. Also particularly handy for street photography is the way the native camera app makes use of the additional lenses to show you what’s going on outside the frame – useful for spotting the decisive moment. With very little lag and a new ‘ProRAW’ mode, the iPhone 12 Pro is a fantastic creative tool, but it would be nice to have some more advanced shooting options within the native camera app.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
l From £1,149 l samsung.com
Probably the best smartphone camera currently on the market, this high-end model from Samsung boasts four different focal lengths. The zoom lenses could come in handy for discreet street photography, while the large and bright screen makes composition a delight. We particularly like the extensive native camera app which boasts a number of different shooting options, including an impressive Pro mode which enables raw shooting.
OnePlus 9 Pro
l from £829 l oneplus.com
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.
Sony Xperia 5 II
l £799 l sony.co.uk
Taking some of its prowess from its range of ‘proper’ cameras, Sony’s Xperia series includes a lot of appealing features for photographers. The Xperia 5 II is a solid mid-range option that comes in at an attractive price but still has a significant number of high-end specs.
A useful ‘Photo Pro’ mode is comprehensively featured and includes the ability to record in raw format, while functions such as Eye AF can come in handy when photographing people. Unlike some other models featured here, it’s a relatively small size and includes some physical buttons on the side, making it a discreet option compared to some others, too.
Google Pixel 5
l £599 l store.google.com
A great-value option, the Pixel 5 is akin to a basic point-and-shoot camera, but it does the job, and does it well. There are only two lenses – which in comparison to others is a little lacking – but you still get wide and ultra-wide options. The fast processor means that there’s very little lag when using the camera, making it well-suited to fast-paced street photography.
You can shoot in raw format, but the native camera app is reasonably simple (and arguably limited). It’d be nice to have a bit more flexibility – plus an extra telephoto lens – but the price makes this an ideal option for those on a stricter budget.