The art of photography with a smartphone

March 21, 2012

A vertical photo of winter at Starved Rock’s Wildcat Canyon. (Photo provided)

By Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek
Director of Marketing, Starved Rock Lodge

UTICA, Ill. — This has been an unusual winter. Snow fell, and then it disappeared quickly. Photo opportunities are out there, offering a chance to capture unique scenes of what many consider to be doldrums. You have to be ready.

In the old days, you had to carry a cumbersome camera, telephoto lens and film. Today, smartphones are closing in on replacing not only 35mm cameras, but digital cameras as well.

Most of us are tempted to not bring a camera on a hike or to a special event and totally rely upon our smartphone, but how do you get the most from a built-in camera? It all goes back to the fundamentals of photography.

The most basic rule is lighting. Whenever possible, position the sun to your back, with sunlight (daylight) on the subject. Indoors or in low-light situations, it is important to know how to turn on the flash. Read on for details.

If your camera doesn’t have a flash, this is an upgrade you should look for in your next smartphone purchase. As you frame the photo you are about to take, shoot both a horizontal and vertical shot. Vertical photos make better profile photos for Facebook, and horizontal photos are much more fun to look at on a digital screen.

There’s a lot to be said for changing your perspective. If you crouch down low and shoot up, it may offer a unique angle that you hadn’t previously noticed. It’s good habit to take an establishing shot (such as a sign with the name of the canyon you are approaching). This makes for a better scrapbook and a memory of your day, and it documents where you’ve been without question.

There’s no better place to explore than at Starved Rock Lodge & State Park. Nestled in the forest, surrounded by canyons and frozen waterfalls (or not), digital photography was never so inviting. Gone are the days when you had to decide whether to buy a 24 or a 36 exposure roll. There’s no wait time to pick up your pictures, and if all goes well, you can upload the shots to Facebook before you leave the park, directly from your phone. The advantages of new technology are many.

Keeping your shot steady is also important. If you can steady yourself by imagining that you are the tripod, you’ll get sharper, less blurry images.

Learning how to use all the functions of your camera will help you get better photos, too. For example, if you learn how to manually turn your flash on and off, you’ll find that this knowledge comes in handy. The fill flash mode is good when photographing people on winter days. The flash makes skin tones look realistic and not dark when placed against the dim daylight of January and February. Many smartphones come with a built-in way to give special effects to photos such as sepia-tone or black-and-white. There are also free and inexpensive apps to help put spot color and captions on your photos.

A visit to Starved Rock Lodge and State Park offers a variety of photo opportunities and a chance to try new skills with your camera. One of the latest trends in photography is to turn the camera 30 degrees or zoom in close (but at an angle) to the subject. Another fun approach is to take “parts of a whole.” This means zooming in and shooting close to or parts of a larger picture. An example of this would be to shoot one leaf in a frozen stream and then take a photo of the stream as it meanders into the forest.

Imagine being proud of your photos instead of disappointed because they are too dark or too boring. It can be a relaxing and fun way to spend a winter, or any day, when you use your smartphone as your camera. On occasion, you might get really lucky and see a 13-inch pileated woodpecker. These unusually large birds can be seen at Starved Rock (even in the winter), and smartphones are able to zoom in and shoot both still photos and video, if the photographer is very quiet when approaching wildlife of any kind.

Whether you use a point-and-shoot camera, smartphone or the most elaborate professional camera, protecting your camera from winter conditions is important, too. If you store the camera or smartphone inside your coat (around your neck or in an inside pocket), it will help your camera stay warm and function properly without the lens fogging up. It’s a good idea to bring a small towel and a zipper-close plastic bag on any hike. If you happen to drop your phone in the snow, you are prepared to dry it before any moisture can get inside the phone.

Get out there and enjoy the undiscovered season that’s waiting for you to capture it! Happy shooting.

Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center is in Utica, Ill., and can be reached at 800-868-ROCK (7625). Visit http://www.starvedrocklodge.com/ for directions and details.

From the March 21-27, 2012, issue

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