July 20, 2018
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How to get beyond ‘point and shoot’ with your smartphone camera

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

While many midlife baby-boomers are comfortable using their smartphone cameras to snap a quick family photo or a noteworthy vacation scene, few of us take the time to learn some basic techniques for composing more memorable, more creative images. It’s an effort that can pay off, not only in personal satisfaction but also, from time to time, in fame and good fortune.

Just ask Kari Herer, a professional photographer who lives in Yarmouth. At 40, she doesn’t qualify as a boomer, but she does count her Apple iPhone among the important creative tools in her working collection of camera equipment, and she regularly teaches workshops to artists and others to get them more comfortable with the powerful creative capabilities of their smartphone cameras.

“It is so easy and so fun to carry all that capability right in your pocket,” Herer said in a recent phone interview. Between tools built right into smartphones and the user’s good judgement, curiosity and critical eye, she said, it’s possible to create memorable images that rival those created by more traditional photographic equipment and techniques.

Herer knows this first hand. Right now, an image of her younger daughter, Thea, is plastered on billboards and highrises all over the world, from Mexico City to Minneapolis, from Mumbai to Chicago. It was taken with her smartphone. The little girl, who was 3 years old at the time, is being tossed into the bright blue sky by her father, whose secure and waiting arms feature prominently in the photo. She’s wearing a red bathing suit, pink swim goggles and an ecstatic smile, rising above a spray of perfectly focused water droplets and a green fan of palm fronds, framed by a pouf of white clouds.

This is no serendipitous snapshot. Herer had a clear idea of the image she wanted and set about achieving it with settings built into the phone and a deliberate sense of composition.

“I wanted her between the clouds, nothing cluttering up the background,” she said. It took several tries, but finally she had the image she wanted. She liked it so much, she posted it on her Instagram feed.

“Because I’m a professional photographer, I try to make everything I post on Instagram worthy of being seen publicly,” Herer said. So when Apple contacted her about using the image in its worldwide “Shot on iPhone” ad campaign this summer, it wasn’t a complete shock. “They’re looking for raw images, not altered or cropped in any way, that show off the capabilities of the iPhone,” she said. “I think this is just a really feel-good, happy photo.”

She’s being paid for the company’s use of the photo but declined to specify the amount. The best reward, she said, is receiving snapshots of the ad from the global community of photographers and knowing her image is appreciated by an international audience.

But you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy the many attributes of your smartphone camera. If you’re over 50, the chances are good that you own one of these popular devices. According to a 2016 survey from the advocacy group AARP, more than half of Americans 50 and older own an Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or other smartphone with sophisticated online computer functions. Nearly 73 percent of Americans between 50 and 59 use smartphones, the study found, and most use the camera function on a regular basis.

At the Blue Hill Public Library on one recent evening, about 40 people turned out for a free talk on how to make better use of smartphone cameras.

“Most were about my age, from their 50s up into their 80s,” according to presenter Gary Harmatz, who is 72 and has a summer home in nearby Sedgwick. “They have these devices but don’t really know how to use the photographic capabilities to get beyond the ‘point and shoot’ effect. … My goal is to show them how to make a photograph, not just take a photograph.”

As a simple but important example, he said, is that many smartphone camera users don’t know they can easily control the exposure to accommodate different light conditions, or change the focus to blur the foreground or background of an image. By opening the camera and tapping a finger on the screen, users will see a small box that can be moved to define the depth of focus and a fingertip sliding tool that brightens or darkens the exposure.

Users are sometimes surprised to learn they can snap a photo not only using the shutter button on the camera screen but also with the volume button on the side of the phone, with the volume control on their earbuds or headphones or with a special wireless remote.

“So you can set up your camera on a table, put some peanut butter on a cracker, step away and wait for a squirrel to come by,” Harmatz said.

Newer cameras also offer an “HDR” option, or “high dynamic range,” which, when activated, automatically takes three identical shots at different light exposures and combines them for an image with better contrast, color and detail. Another tool overlays a nine-block grid on the image that aids in composing photos for balance and interest.

But beyond the built-in capabilities of the camera, Harmatz also advises people about additional tools that can be acquired in the form of apps purchased from an online store. These apps offer enhanced control and editing functions, as well as creative options like the Waterlogue app, which translates a photo image into a persuasive watercolor “painting.” He also counsels smartphone users on the use of special equipment like snap-on lenses and diminutive tripods that make taking memorable photos easy.

The results of knowing your smartphone camera better, Harmatz said, can be “quite remarkable,” whether you’re taking a close-up portrait of a beloved grandchild, capturing a stunning landscape or sweeping a panoramic festival scene. The one thing a smartphone camera can’t do well is take great wildlife closeups that typically require the use of a powerful zoom lens. Other than that, he said, there’s not much these capable and versatile little cameras can’t do as well as or better than a standard camera.

Apple and other manufacturers provide online tutorials for using their smartphone cameras, and unofficial guides abound; just Google it. But for users who are more comfortable in a face-to-face learning environment, instructors like Herer and Harmatz offer casual presentations, slideshows and more structured workshops for learners of any age.

Harmatz said most people can’t tell his iPhone photos from those he takes with his “heavy camera.”

“If you want to take better pictures, it takes a little learning curve,” he said. “But it’s not hard, and once you do it you’ll never go back to point and shoot.”


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