Sunday, June 28, 2015

Better Pictures Using Your Smartphone

Also in this issue:

  • Why In-Camera GPS is Going Away
  • Seminar Update
  • I Get Emails...

Better Pictures Using Your Smartphone
I take family snapshots as much as the next guy.  And yet I cringe whenever I see the hallmark of a snapshot: A flash picture taken in a dark room, with the camera’s built-in flash as the sole source of light.  This is the universally acknowledged, Guinness-book-of-world-records worst way to light a shot.

Want an example?  Here's a picture of my wife (she took me to Disneyland for my birthday).  The first picture was taken in front of the world-famous castle with the RX-100 III using the pop-up flash in Program mode:

Point-and-shoot mode.  Even great cameras can take bad pictures.
Yuk, right?

Right after this my wife Carol, who has listened to me lecture about the benefits of wireless flash for nearly a decade, had a great idea.  She reached into her purse, pulled out her smartphone, invoked the "Flashlight" app (which turns on a bright LED on the back of her phone), and held it at arm's length.  The results were "wireless flash without the wireless flash":

And since the camera didn't think a flash was being used, it exposed for the background properly without me having to dial anything in.

Here's another example, taken at the Chattanooga Aquarium.  Now in this instance the background was mostly black and so the camera's automatic exposure was going to get it wrong.  And so I did this shot in two steps:

Step 1) without a flashlight, put the camera into manual mode and adjusted the exposure so the background looked the way I wanted it to look (see below):

First, set your exposure so the background looks the way you want.

Step 2) Turned on the smartphone's flashlight, handed it to the subject, and had her hold it in “Rembrandt position” – 45 degrees up, 45 degrees to one side:

Then, turn on the flashlight on your mobile phone and hold it at arm's length.  Dramatic light!

This is a lot handier than carrying a wireless flash with you everywhere like I used to do! :-)  (The wireless flash is in my right hand.)

Boston and Nashville seminars – and what’s next

Nashville Seminar - what fun!
 Just returned from a month traveling and giving seminars - first in Boston, then in Nashville.  But there's more in store!

Here's what's on the schedule for the rest of 2015:

Seattle - September 26-27
Auckland, New Zealand  Oct. 31 - Nov. 1
Sydney, Australia  November 14-15
Melbourne, Australia - November 21-22

I'm still working on logistics on all of these, so if you want to be put on the notification list, please fire off an email to Gary at Friedman Archives dot com.  More information about the seminars and why they're so important can be found at .

Why In-Camera GPS is Going Away

Have you been lamenting the loss of a built-in GPS receiver in the most recent batch of newly-introduced cameras?.  Manufacturers have been quietly discontinuing this feature without explanation.  I think I know why this is, and I also have some recommendations on alternatives which work better than what’s possible in a camera.

To understand the problem, think back to the earliest GPS units you could buy for your car.  (Garmin and TomTom had the market share for devices like these.)  It could take up to 10 minutes before it could acquire signals from enough satellites to infer its position properly!  Frustrating indeed.

Well, the GPS receiver in cameras can do no better than these early units.  It can sometimes take between 15 seconds and 10 minutes (depending on how much you’ve moved since the last successful position lock) to get a new lock, and very often you can get the shot and turn the camera before the GPS lock can happen.  Some early GPS cameras handled this problem by geotagging photos using the last known position; which often led to a large percentage of vacation shots being geotagged with old info.  Later incarnations wouldn’t geotag at all unless the satellites had been acquired, resulting in a large percentage of vacation shots having no geolocation data at all.  Given that the GPS system was designed for an open battlefield and not for high functionality in a dense urban environment, it’s amazing these things worked in our cameras at all.

“Yes, but hasn’t that problem been solved?”, I hear you ask.  “My mobile phone takes 2 seconds to figure out where I am!”  The answer is "sort of" -  the smartphones actually use a trick that’s not available to your camera: – they can triangulate with nearby cell phone towers to get a “pretty good” idea of where they are very quickly, and then that approximate location is made more accurate once the GPS satellites are locked onto.  Unless you own a Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1, your camera won’t be able to use that trick.

As a sort of stopgap band-aid compromise, Olympus, Panasonic, and Fuji all have smartphone apps that communicate via WiFi to geotag images as you take them.  While nice, it's a huge battery drain on both the camera and smartphone.

Other Options You Have Now

One of the simplest and cheapest replacements for the lost GPS in your camera is to use a GPS logging app on your smartphone.  These apps, commonly called GeoTagging apps, log your whereabouts with a time stamp, and then merge the GPS coordinates into your images later on on your computer.  Just make sure the tracking device and the camera’s clocks are synchronized.   Early Geotracking apps made it a tiny hassle to transfer the GPX data to your computer, and then merging them into your photos via a separate program, but newer solutions have reduced to the number of steps to just one or two clicks.

Here are two such solutions that I feel are worth trying out:

iOS and Android: Geotag Photos Pro – USD $3.99

I use this one myself.  My favorite feature is it doesn't drain my battery that much (Samsung Galaxy S5).  Not tied to any particular image editing program, GPP offers 2-click synchronization of your data: one button to upload the data to the cloud, then a 2nd button on your computer to geotag all files in a selected directory. Other than that it's straightforward.

iOS: LrBuddy USD $3.99

This is a relatively new iOS- and Lightroom-only product that is designed to use the Apple Watch as a supplementary user interface.  Here's a more detailed description from the app's author, Neil Katz:

"My App lets you set metadata BEFORE you import into Lightroom, while you are taking photos. Or immediately after you take a photo.  For example if you are on safari and a pride of lions pops up, you can take all the picture you want then tell the app "last 20 photos keywords lions,pride" or last "20 minutes..." or last "100 feet...."

Clearly this product was designed by a photographer and not by a programmer. :-)

Windows phone: Point4Pic (

This is the only program I could find for Windows phone.  It's free, but no reviews after 3 years on the market.  It geotags .jpgs only.

Hardware-based Solution: i-GotU GPS tracking device (

One of the arguments against using smartphone apps in general is that it drains your battery faster than normal (although the two I recommended above do so the least of any I have knowledge of).  If you’re concerned about that, or are going to be in the middle of nowhere where there will be no cell phone towers to aid in location, then a hardware based solution might be right up your alley.

Got your own solution which you think merits mention?  Please share it in the comments section below!

I get emails...

“WOW! I couldn’t stop watching it. LOVED IT!!!! Learned a lot. Informative. Compelling / engaging. Variety of content & visuals. Balanced presentation: (technical vs not so technical, lecturing vs demos & visuals: you vs demos vs audience) . This is sounding like a love fest, but oh well. The content was unpredictable & rich with interesting, varied parts.

Most important for me: your style of instruction at its best respects the minds of your audience — appeals to common sense & first-hand experience. Is not esoteric, or indulges in academic or ultra-technical verbiage. Your manner is inviting, you’re obviously experienced, trust-worthy, benevolent, open & the audience likes & respects you (like I do). You earn all of that early in the talk & that makes the learning experience feel effortless — helps the audience relax & concentrate on what you’re saying.” – Sandra Shaw

What's she talking about?  Day 1 of The Friedman Archives Seminars, thoughtfully titled The Forgotten Secrets of the Kodachrome Shooters.  If you're not able to attend my 2-day seminar in person, the essence of Day 1 has been professionally videotaped and is now available to stream on your internet-connected device.

If you ever find yourself thinking, "I could take better vacation pictures if I only understood all of my camera's various modes", let me invite you to get your head out of online discussion forums and come over to the truth that we used to use in the olden days.  Kodachrome shooters didn't have any of these fancy features, nor was there Photoshop.  If they weren't necessary then, you don't need them now (at least not at first.)  This course will readjust the "all I need is more expensive gear" mentality and teach you how to get "Wow!" shots using ANY camera you own.  The truth is just one click away:

Until next time...
Yours truly, Gary Friedman


  1. The a77 was able to download a month of GPS satellite position information to the camera so that it's internal GPS unit could find the satellites more quickly. That helped a little.

  2. I use GPS4Cam on my android phone.

    1. I second this application and have been using it since it was first released - a great app that doesn't require synching the clock of your camera with your smartphone.

  3. Another reason GPS is going away is that it lowers battery life and makes the camera hot, increasing the noise level. This results in not so good word-of-mouth by users that are unaware of what is causing these problems. - Rick Bolin

  4. On recent trip to Scotland and Ireland the GPS on A77 worked great, even where no or poor cell phone reception.

    Last week was in Sony Store and asked about A77ll and laxk of GPS. Salesman said because of privacy concerns. Photo at home or kids school posted on line, Facebook, etc would have info.

    Suggested turning off GPS when not needed.

    1. That salesman gave you what sounded like a plausible answer but wasn't speaking from knowledge. Most pics posted to FB are taken with smartphones which geotag by default. Few people have problems with it, and those who do know enough to turn it off. That's not the reason they're going away from cameras.

    2. I have travelled the world with my A77v, and the GPS has been perfect (without any monthly updating). I miss it a lot on my A77 II.
      My first GPS A55 was useless, but i don't understand, it had to go, as it did very well on the next generation.....

  5. I also lamented the loss of the GPS functionality that I had in my a77 when I upgraded to the a77II. It worked really well and never let me down. (In fact, because it was missing from the a77II I almost did not upgrade.) I basically carry a "company phone" so I can't load personal apps on it. My solution was to by a Garmin Etrex which is a relatively small but fully functional GPS. (Any will do if they can output GPS track logs, but make sure it outputs in a format that Lightroom reads natively, like GPX, so you can avoid the step of converting.) Basically I carry the Etrex with me when I shoot, save the track after I shoot, download it to my computer (its already in GPX format natively), and then upload the track into Lightroom. Although its sounds complicated when you write out the steps, its really simple. Its made even simpler by a Lightroom plug-in (donationware) I use published by Jeffrey Friedl (who publishes many handly plug-ins for Lightroom) called "Geoencoding Support" which has much greater functionality than the utility built in to Lightroom

  6. With location history enabled on my phone, when I upload my pictures from my Sony A5100 to Google Photos, Google is able to tell where the photos were taken. Easy, they just match the date and time of the photo, and the location from your phone!

  7. +1 for the i-GotU GPS tracking device - very small (matchbook-size), excellent rechargeable battery (10+ hours), very sensitive

  8. A few months ago I read that some camera manufacturers were eliminating GPS because some countries do not allow having GPS at all so they had to have a 2nd model or disable GPS on cameras sold in those countries.

  9. One thing to remember is that manufacturers had to make a GPS and non-GPS version of the cameras to keep them compliant with certain countries' regulations. Odds are the feature is being discontinued so that they reduce the number of cameras manufactured.

  10. Excellent point about the different-models-for-different-countries problem. I forgot to mention that. That was one reason the "I'm gripping the camera" skin sensor disappeared from cameras since the A700.

  11. Thank you for sharing your hard earned knowledge and bringing better photos into our environment. I will always remember and will share your 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to one side. Brilliant!!

    1. Can't take credit for that one... that goes to Rembrandt. :-)

  12. I was led to believe that GPS was omitted from the A77 II was to make way for wi-fi. As my friend, who has one, comments: "you want to see battery drain? Turn on the wi-fi"! Additionally, has anyone tried to download 2 GB of RAW photos over iffy hotel wi-fi? My friend goes on to comment: "yo lose the will to live and on one occasion we nearly missed our check out time!". Bring back integral GPS: it works (even transitting from Auckland to Hong Kong, 5667 miles, it only took 3 minutes to 'acquire' and that was inside the terminal buildings), it doesn't blow up your camera and, after simple tests, as far as I can see, has negligible effect on your battery.

  13. Some very good tips in here about night or low light shots and how you might illuminate people in the shot. PLUS an interesting discussion on why GPS tagging seems to be being phased out and a useful app to get around the problem. I've read the user guide to the app and it looks really well thought out from every angle, so I'm going ahead with getting the app.

  14. Hi, I have read your post that is wonderful. Thanks for share with us your knowledge and experience.

  15. Hi Gary.
    Very smart use of a smartphones flashlight mode.
    But, just wanna say: the topic that the actual article was about, was not what I was expecting to read about, based on the title.
    With "Better Pictures Using Your Smartphone", as the title, I expected to read about how to take"Better Pictures Using Your Smartphone" - as a camera.
    Not how to take "Better Pictures Using Your Smartphone" - as a photographic accessory! :-)
    No matter. Definitely informative - as always!
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Then the blog post you want to read is this one:

  16. The point4pic app was released few months ago (registered in the Store for some years before being released). Not many reviews because people don't know it exists :)

  17. The short version is that camera GPS is not A-GPS (Assisted GPS) technology unless the camera has a cellular data feature. Modern smartphones can also find position using services such as Google Location Services that correlate WiFi SSIDs with geographic locations. With A-GPS, the information obtained this way (and from cellular towers) is actually used to speed up the process of GPS signal acquisition.

    1. Well, yes and no. It was possible to download an AGPS file to the camera (based on the location of the web browser) which helped speed up satellite acquisition tremendously.