Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sharper Pictures from your Camera Phone

My father-in-law passed away a little over a week ago.  He did so on his own terms - at home, surrounded by people who loved him.  He was a great man.

For the funeral I was tasked on assembling a slide show of his life, consisting of scans of old snapshots and other media.  Two of the images caught my attention - they were both taken with my cell phone camera, but the apparent quality of one image seemed superior to another.

"What?  You use a cell phone camera?" I hear you ask?  Well, it's true that I just don't schlep around my A550 everywhere (which has now become my favorite everyday camera).  Usually I keep my ancient Sony T10 in my pocket, because as I mention in my seminars, the camera you have with you is infinitely more valuable than the expensive one you left at home because it was too bulky.  

Sometimes I don't even have the T10, for example when I was in synagogue a few years ago and I saw this wonderful picture of my father-in-law with his great-grandson sitting on his knee.  Normally the rule is that you're not supposed to take pictures in a synagogue, especially during services.  "Nuts to that!" I said, and pulled out my camera phone and took the picture below.  The light was bad, but the picture is priceless.  This is the main function of a snapshot - it is designed to jog a neuron of shared experience in the viewer; not necessarily to make a disinterested party go "Wow!".

So both of these pictures (above and at the very top of the blog) were taken with the same camera phone, same lens, same f/stop (there's only one setting in these things!)  Now click on each picture to see a larger version.  Notice how much sharper the first image appears to be!  (It also has way fewer .jpg compression artifacts...)

What's going on?  Simple: The good shot had better light.  More specifically, it had directional light - a strong, harsher light source coming from the side.  Directional light will improve your picture quality (and apparent sharpness) like nothing else.  Even in a cell phone camera.

This is an important lesson, especially if you're a new full-frame camera owner.  I get so many emails from new A900 owners asking if their camera is defective, since they can't seem to get the kind of Leica-esque sharpness that they expected.  Then they'll send me a sample photo taken in really bad light, 1/30th of a second handheld, f/stop wide open and with a moving subject.  Well, of course it won't be sharp!  In order to get sharp pictures you have to be firing on all eight cylinders: good light, good light, small f/stop, no movement, good light, detail in the subject, and good light.  (The picture below is a really good example.)

Other Noteworthy Shots of my Father-in-Law

Again, good light makes the shot - adds drama and increases apparent sharpness.  "Hey, Look at me!" in-your-face composition.

The real reason I get invited to weddings... I invariably get shots that the official photographer misses!
Impossibly bad light saved by the A550.  The father and his three daughters were lit solely from a ceiling fan light.

We'll miss you, Papa.

Nova Scotia seminars and workshops start next week! http://www.FriedmanArchives.com/seminars


  1. Very happy to read you consider the A550 a worthy "carry around".

  2. Nice story, nice photos, nice advice!

  3. Sorry about your father-in-law but great quick lesson

  4. My condolence.

    This is an amazing article that uses a very personal occasion to share some very useful photography knowledge. Your father-in-law must be proud to have a son-in-law like you.

  5. Sincere condolences, Gary.

    Thanks for the short lesson. Yours is one of the few newsletters I'll keep as long as it is sent.

    Greetings from Cologne, Germany!


  6. My warmest condolences, Gary.

    A simple, but important lesson. We should just remember the meaning of the expression "photo".

  7. My condolence, you are great son in law.

    I like the article very much.

    Sunarya D. Marwah,

  8. Sorry to hear of your sad loss and thanks for your great down to earth advice.

  9. My condolences and thanks for the (very personal) tip about lighting.

    I think many of our most personal photos (i.e., family snaps) are taken in poor light just so we can capture the moment. They will often lack that professional touch we all aspire to and yet they remain our most cherished pictures of all despite their imperfections.

  10. Condolences.

    I've noticed so many YouTube clips that were incredibly bad quality, even ones that were obviously staged. If only they'd known to turn on a few more lights, the quality could have been passable or excellent.

  11. La Luz de tu padre, hace que las fotos se vean mejor

    Mi mas Sentido pesame
    Jorge Gro

  12. Condolences to you and your family, Gary.

    Thanks for the timely and quick advice on light and light-angle.

  13. Dear Gary,
    thank you for the illuminative technical lesson about lighting.
    Thank you even more about sharing your father and your view of him.
    Your pictures remind me of the valedictions in my own father's last year (12 years ago when he saw his end coming) and they enlighteed me about my own ultimate wishes.
    I wish you solace when you look at them.
    Take care!
    Martin in Frankfurt

  14. My sincere condolences Gary.
    And that such a sad moment of your life reveals such important yet simple information about photo and light.
    Thank you for sharing your valuable knowledge, even in bad times.

    Remco, Netherlands


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