Mobile Photography: Creative Exposure

“The best camera is the one that’s with you.” This statement is more true today than ever before, especially when traveling.  You can have the best camera ever made, but unless you take it with you, you’re going to miss out on a lot of amazing picture opportunities. Your cellphone, on the other hand, is with you almost 24/7. 

Ever since the invention of the smart phone, photography has become easier and more accessible. People started to develop a taste for photography, people who normally wouldn’t carry a camera. Fast forward a few years, and we find that the iPhone is currently the most popular camera on Flickr. It’s the most popular camera because it’s the one that’s with you all of the time. This being said, there is much more to taking a picture than just clicking a button. There are certain concepts and rules, that, when applied, help create an even more beautiful picture. These rules beg to be broken, because photography is more about your creativity than your technique. Technique teaches you the basics of photography, while creativity unleashes the real potential of your photographs. Regardless of the platform you use, you’ll be able to walk away a better and more knowledgable photographer. 

 Taking a picture with a mobile phone is simple. All you have to do is click the little button/camera icon and you have a picture you can share instantly, with anyone you choose. While there is nothing wrong with a selfie or quick little snap, we are going to explore a technique that allows you to flex your creative muscle. But before we get started, I want to go over a few terms called “Exposure”, “Highlights”, and “Shadows”.


Exposure determines how bright or dark your image is. When you take a photograph with any camera, exposure is how much light actually gets in through the lens to be recorded on the sensor or film. If a lot of light gets in through the lens the image will be bright or overexposed, if less light gets in, the image will be dark or underexposed. Most of the time, if the light is evenly distributed, meaning there aren’t any really bright or dark areas, you will get a nice balanced exposure. An evenly lit scene produces an evenly exposed image like the example below. 

 However, when you have a wide range of bright light and dark shadows, you will have a difficult time getting a single image to be properly exposed for the bright and dark areas. Your mobile phone’s camera sensor has a limited range of light that it can manage. When placed in situations like this, you will have to be a little creative when it comes to exposure. This brings us to the other two terms.

Highlights and Shadows

Highlights are the brightest or lightest parts of a photograph. Shadows are the opposite, being the darkest parts of a photograph. If you set your exposure for the bright area, you will be able to see the details in it, but you will lose the ability to see details in the dark areas. The same thing happens when you set your exposure so that you can see details in the shadows, you will lose the ability to see details in the bright areas. Don’t think of this as a limitation, think of it as a creative advantage. Exposure can be your friend, helping you create some astounding images.  

In the image below, the sunlight was exposed(The Highlight Detail), which allowed the proper exposure to see details of the sky, while the desert floor remained dark.  

In this image, the desert floor was exposed(The Shadow Detail) , allowing you to see the details of the desert floor, but at the cost of losing most of the details in the sky. 

Exposure and Your Phone

The basics of exposure are simple and now that we know more about them, it’s time to show you how to control exposure on your phone. While it may sound intimidating, you probably know how to do it already. Adjusting the exposure is as simple as tapping on the different areas of the screen. If you touch a bright area, you will notice the image becomes darker. The same thing happens if you’re touching a darker area, the scene becomes brighter. By touching the different areas of your screen, your phone will meter the scene you’re photographing to determine what its exposure should be. 
If you refer to the examples below, you can see that by tapping the darker parts of the screen, the exposure has been set for the shadow areas and we have lost the highlight detail in the brightest areas of scene. And when we tap the brighter areas of the screen, we expose the brighter area of the scene. While we are now able to see the details in the sky, we have lost most of our shadow details.  

Your Assignment

Exposure is a simple way to ensure that you have a quality image. But remember, we’ve only covered the basics. There are times when over exposing a photo or under exposing a photo will come into play and create a beautiful photograph. That being said, I want you to play around with these settings. Your assignment will be to go out and shoot pictures that require you to make some creative exposure decisions. You thought you were going to get away didn’t you 😉 

What you will need to do is find scenes that are high in contrast, so you can practice setting your exposure for either the highlights or the shadows. Make sure to share your photos on Instagram and tag them with #JoeographyCE so everyone can see them. Follow me on Instagram @Joeography as well! In two weeks, our next photography adventure will have us exploring into depths of exposure and focus. We will even post up your best examples of creative exposure. So don’t forget to tag your photos with #JoeographyCE! Until next time, leave any comments or questions below. 

48 thoughts on “Mobile Photography: Creative Exposure

  1. I agree with the quote! make the best use of what you have on hand! I brought my dslr with me to my trip to Europe but I find my phone is very handy and takes decent enough photos that I ditched my dslr for most of the time and just used my phone. perfect.

    1. I usually carry a DSLR as well. I enjoy taking pictures, and when I started using my phone, I found that I can do a lot with it, almost as much as I can with the DSLR. Most phones now come with a decent megapixel count, so you don’t have to worry much about it being too grainy, etc. it’s definitely a great back up and perfect for that quick snap!

    1. The iPhone has a great camera and is perfect for everyday. You can take almost all the basic photography rules/guidelines and they’ll translate into better pictures, no matter the platform! Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. It is very true. I often find myself juggling various types of cameras. An iphone, a DSRL, drone, a gopro and in the end although some of the are great at providing perspectives that are not possible (like aerial shots with the drone) in the end I have also managed to take awesome photos with the simple phone. Thanks for the tips!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. There are times when you need certain cameras for certain shots. But 90% of the photos we take can be done with a mobile phone. While I’ll probably never stop using my DSLR or GoPro, my phone is always with me and is perfect for those impromptu moments!

  3. It’s amazing the shots we get by using smartphones. I believe nothing can replace a great camera until a certain point. But there’s no doubt that iPhones, for instance, take great pictures. All of my pictures were taken with an iPhone 5c and I couldn’t be happier with the results!

    1. I completely agree. While it won’t replace a great camera anytime soon, it is something that’s always with you and it has a pretty good camera. It’s a great back up especially since I don’t haul my DSLR everywhere.

  4. I agree with the quote so much!
    At some point I got annoyed with the weight of my DSLR and decided to buy a mirrorless camera – it was after a city-break in Amsterdam, the trip I decided to leave my camera at home because I knew I would be too lazy to carry it around.
    Right now my DSLR is lying on my shelf, I only take my Sony a6000 or just a phone.

  5. Just had a conversation with another blogger about the use of phones as cameras. Crazy where where we are going with technology and how great phone and point and shoots are these days.

    1. They’ve improved drastically over the past few years. I’m using my phone more often, just because it’s easier to carry and I’m able to create some incredible shots. While I doubt I’ll ever abandon my DSLR, the rate at which things are progressing may have me reconsidering that.

  6. Very useful article! I’m always amazed by the great pictures some people manage to take with their cellphones, but I’m sure I’m a step closer to making good pictures myself after having read this post 🙂

    1. Practice, practice, practice! It’s what makes you better. Once you have the fundamentals down, that’s all you need to do. Plus it’s fun haha! Don’t forget to upload your practice shots to Instagram and tag them with #JoeographyCE!

  7. It’s true that I use my smart phone for taking pictures in a lot of situations and i’m not very good at changing the settings to ensure it’s a good picture every time. These are helpful hints. I’ll give them a try and see if I can improve my pictures.

    1. Practice makes perfect Laura. Even if it’s something super simple, I always play around, just to keep my good habits and try to rid myself of the bad ones. Don’t forget to post them on Instagram and tag then #JoeographyCE!

    1. Thanks! The 4s does have a pretty shocking camera, but it’s way better than what we used to have haha! You can still participate, just don’t use the zoom. That’s where the 4s suffers, mainly because it’s a low megapixel camera. What do you normally use?

  8. As a photographer, I agree that having an iPhone on hand issooooo convenient! I even take some trips without my Canon! It’s all about making use of what we have! And I love having a camera with me 24/7 with my iPhone!

  9. Fantastic tips Joey – it’s amazing how far the smartphone camera has come. I heard a few weeks ago that there was a story of National Geographic sent out one of their photographers and told him to bring back the cover shot, though he was only allowed to use a smartphone. I guess the guy initially thought they were nuts, but he made it happen! Goes to show great photos only have to be a smartphoen click away!!!

  10. Thanks for this! I agree about what you said regarding using what you have in hand. When I did my backpacking trip in Europe I only hand a compact digital camera with me and a cellphone. Its about how you use them properly and of course a good eye 🙂

    1. Yes, while there are no ‘official rules’ in photography, there are plenty of guidelines to help you compose a spectacular picture, regardless of the platform. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  11. I definitely agree that the best camera is the one that’s with you. People often say I have a good camera that’s why I have nice photos but in reality, I only take it from mobile and don’t own a camera myself! Will definitely try these helpful tips. Thanks for sharing, Joe! Xx

  12. Totally agree my iphone is my preferred source for photography but will always be limited compared to our camera. But for the social media it’s invaluable. My main gripe about exposure was in low light – particularly on my iphone’s front camera. So I invested in a new iphone 6s which is absolutely incredible for photography (compared to my old iphone 5).

    1. The front camera isn’t the greatest, I completely agree. And while it will be awhile until a mobile phone camera will be an equivalent to a DSLR, it’s a great second camera and almost all you really need as a blogger. Over 90% of my photos are from an iPhone. For issues about low light, try the AE/AF lock. That way you can lock the exposure wide open, allowing the most light in.

  13. I have seen that today, more and more people are increasingly being attracted to video cameras and the industry of images. However, being a photographer, you need to first commit so much time frame deciding which model of dslr camera to buy along with moving store to store just so you can buy the most affordable camera of the trademark you have decided to pick. But it will not end at this time there. You also have to contemplate whether you should buy a digital dslr camera extended warranty. Thx for the good ideas I acquired from your blog.

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