Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Exploring the iPhone camera at Niagara Falls

Twenty years ago, the idea that your phone would be a constant companion nearly anywhere you might go, and that it would also be your camera, well it was only a futuristic dream.  Fast forward to a recent camera clubs' convention in Niagara Falls, and cell photo photography was a hot topic where the discussion included how it can be a tool for a new style of creative photography. Change is indeed the only constant, and it is accelerating.

Niagara Falls is, of course, an iconic landscape.  I took some of my free time to further my understanding of what the iPhone camera can do with some understanding of its limitations and attention to traditional wide angle photography.  After all, the best camera is the one you have, and I always seem to have my iPhone with me.

My first outing was before sunrise along the American side of the falls. This was a test of the ProHDR app where the only light was the incident light from street lights. I'd put together a bracket to hold my iPhone on a tripod (using rubber bands no less).  Also, I had learned that the volume control button on my ear buds' cord would operate as a remote release.  So, how did it do?

Well, I would say fair.  It was a very foggy morning so light was very minimal. Looking at the pixels, there was a lot of color noise. The ProHDR did handle the bright tones nicely but dark areas were very noisy. The app only produces a 640x480 pixel image.  On the positive side, the tree branches are sharp, so I was encouraged that the remote release and makeshift tripod mount were sufficient.  I'd just like more pixels and less noise.

I moved on to the falls overlook as civil dawn came.  The view of the falls can be a little "trashy" if the wide angle view includes a lot of the high rise hotels and such, so I worked to distill the image down to just the precipice of the falls. As light built before actual sunrise, the HDR Pro began to pick up the foreground tones better.

This was encouraging, but as other photographers from the convention arrived, I thought the light was becoming harsh, and I knew that I was hungry so I reserved the rest of my testing for the following morning when no fog was expected.

Again arriving early on the next morning, I headed across the foot bridge to Goat Island.  To my surprise, a busload of Asian visitors were already there, but I found an overlook delightfully deserted, and again set up my iPhone, this time without a tripod but using the railing as a support.  No HDR used for this image. The meta data says the following image was 1/20 second, f2.8 at ISO 80.  I again used the remote release on the ear bud cord. I  think this is a critical improvement that avoids blurry results.  I've found it difficult to see if the picture is really sharp on the iPhone, so good technique is required to avoid disappointment when you get the photo ready to display on anything other than a cell phone.

I did post-process this a little in Lightroom. I reduced exposure -0.18 ev, increased contrast modestly and reduced luminance noise a small amount too. Overall, I was pleased with this image from a cell phone camera. I could easily print a 5x7 inches image with this file. As a means of calibrating this result, I also shot a few D300s images that morning. The following is a DSLR image for comparison.

Is the DSLR image better?  Surely. After all, I had control of aperture, ISO speed, and focal length plus the ability to review the exposure on a histogram.  All of these are benefits of the added size and weight.  Still, with a steady support and knowledge of wide angle photography, the cell phone camera came very close.

What is next?  I'll next experiment with making panoramic photos with the Dermander app.

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