Photography using a smartphone & editing app. My story + review. / by Sarah Li

Sometimes, when I have my camera with me, I am not quick enough with a shot, or even worse, there is a beautiful moment in front of me and don’t have my camera on me. In the instance of the latter I've often grabbed my mobile phone to capture the shot. I am reluctant to publish these images as part of a portfolio though because many magical aspects of the craft are missing. Then I began thinking about it: whilst the technical correctness of a photograph is very important, the arresting power of the image is also paramount; what the photographer elects to include or omit in one single frame... So I decided to challenge my approach to photography with an experiment. On a recent trip to the French Alps I left my (D)SLR camera kit at home and took only my mobile phone.

The phone I use is a Redmi 4, which is a great android phone not readily available in The West. Having experimented with a number of in-phone photo editing apps, I settled happily on Snapseed. Equipped with my pocket size piece of kit my trip began. It started well; with an early morning flight and a beautiful light in Southampton airport, I framed the shot concentrating not only on light but on the shapes. The challenge had guidelines; all the photos had to be shot and edited on my smart phone; they also all had to be black and white monochrome, I wanted to play with the negative space naturally created by snow. 

Southampton Airport shot on Redmi 4 with Snapseed.

Southampton Airport shot on Redmi 4 with Snapseed.

Being a reasonable snowboarder but having not boarded for three years, there was no way I was going to take a camera onto the slopes - both for my safety and the wellbeing of my camera. Smart phones are incredibly useful on the mountains, they have replaced the need for walkie-talkies, GPS, piste maps, pre-organised meeting points; and a whole host of other functions which millions of apps cover. From a photographer's perspective, my Redmi allowed me to easily grab street photographs from a very different kind of ‘street’ - a slope. It was through the use of the Snapseed app I was able to results I was happy with. I set out to the slopes.

On the third run of the first day the unexpected happened - I caught a heel edge, did a 180 and fell solidly onto my right elbow.  I knew immediately that I had broken my right arm. What happened next was the most efficient rescue and medical operation I've witnessed; by evening I had been in two helicopters, two ambulances, a medical centre, A&E, an operating theatre and hospital ward. I was by seen by countless mountaineers, doctors, nurses and an anaesthetist. However, strangely, with the realisation of the situation, I felt very calm.

Inevitably, this is where the challenge changed. My anticipated monochrome photos of the mountains and skiers were no longer possible. This did cross my mind as I was in strapped in a hammock, dangling outside the helicopter. Despite the obvious critical situation, it was a fantastic view and I really wanted to take the Redmi phone out and capture it. Sadly, with my upper right arm at more than a right angle, my body strapped down and my left arm full of needles, it was not going to happen. After I’d been given a heavy dose of some hallucinogenic drug and had my arm had been straightened in Avoriaz Medical Centre, I managed to get a shot - from inside the snow ambulance. I got a few photographs until my phone was taken away from me at the hospital.

After being discharged from hospital, the rest of the holiday consisted of hanging out in the chalet, taking painkillers, gently walking around the town of Morzine and meeting friends who had just come down the mountain. I did manage to get up a lift one day as a foot passenger but taking my phone out whilst on snow with skiers and snowboarders rushing all about me was not possible as I had one hand balancing myself on a skittle and the other, well, in a sling.


Conclusion of the Challenge

The results are viewable on my morZINE page on this website and I plan to do a little ZINE too. The whole experience taught me many things; first, to make the most of the unexpected and secondly, perhaps what this blog is really about; what can be achieved on a smart phone camera with the a comprehensive and versatile in-phone editing app.


Review of the Redmi 4 Camera and the Snapseed app.

Redmi 4

  • 13MP camera; 2:0 aperture; autofocus; face recognition, flash and an HDR mode.
  • A lot of presets and not much you can do manually, apart from change the ISO (100-3200 range) and white balance (which again is only 4 presets). You can also change the aspect ration - the options being 4:3 or 16:9.
  • It is quite a gimmicky camera with childish presets such as ‘fisheye’ and ‘tunnel’ and ‘mirror’. Fine for having fun but there is not enough manual settings for people who want to make more specific personalised adjustments. 
  • The colours are contrasty and vivid when taken in good outdoor light. Indoors and in low light the results are grainy, but this is to be as expected without being able to control the aperture or shutter speed.
  • When taking a photo, it’s touch-screen-on-the-screen-where-you-want-to-focus function makes it quick and easy - even with one hand. You can also adjust the exposure manually once you have focussed. 

Snapseed for Android (and Apple)

  • Simple layout with an easy way to import photos from multiple files on your phone.
  • The thing that drew me to Snapseed was it was the only app I found which allowed white boarders without altering the aspect of your photo - incredibly useful for Instagram.
  • Avoiding the gimmicky tools, there are is a good range of editing tools: brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights, sharpness, grain, curves, white balance, etc. 
  • If you choose to use them there are presets, or you can apply your last edit to the next picture (though sadly, you cannot save your presets).
  • You can jump back through all your edits, undoing what you might not have liked which means you can afford to play around a lot more without risk of having to go back to the beginning and start again.
  • You can crop and or rotate the image either to conventional sizes or there is an option for ‘free’ to create whatever aspect ratio you like. You can also rotate the images.

What I enjoyed: 

  • It is always on hand.
  • Mobiles are more discreet than any normal camera so one could argue that you can capture images which are more unself-conscious and natural.
  • The speed with which you can take a photo, edit it and publish it can be under five minutes, if you know your way around the Snapseed app fairly well.
  • And lastly, unlike whenever else a I travel, my hand luggage was free for things normal people take as hand luggage!

Admittedly, it is not how I will continue to take photos seriously, but it was a useful experiment and I will continue to take and edit photos which I may publish from time to time on my Instagram account.

However, my next post is the polar opposite side of photography. I have been working with Film Is Not Dead and The Bright Rooms in London learning about analogue film, and it feels like the beginning of an exciting journey. 

Peace out.