A few thoughts on how to take more satisfying pictures

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The technical side

Smartphone cameras are designed to be easy to use and most people learn how to be passably proficient with them; even me. I use a 5 megapixel Samsung  entry-level smartphone camera - which some will consider prehistoric; but the crucial thing is that most of us have it with us at all times, so when opportunities arise and your camera is on and ready to go, you will need to consider:

FOCUS – The camera should auto-focus on the subject you point at, if it is big enough.  If it focuses on the background, or even part of the foreground, on many phonecams you can spot-focus – press the screen over that part within the frame you want to focus on, and it will adjust.  For a subject which is too small for either of these functions to work, for instance an attractive but feathery grass seed-head, spot-focus on something solid to set a distance for the next shot.  Then remember what that distance was and take a picture from that exact range; this will probably then become the default for autofocus.

You could practice on inanimate subjects to get a good idea of what to expect from your camera; however remember that in the field the phonecam won’t focus on a moving subject.

ZOOM – To zoom or not to zoom? Counter-intuitively, zooming in on a small subject gives a magnified image but with less detail.  Use the least zoom you can get away with, preferably none, and get as close to the target as possible so that your camera will still focus on it.  Very small subjects – greenfly-sized, for instance - may be worth zooming in on, but you can crop the image later.  Additional lenses are available, but keeping it simple is best with smartphone photography.

RANGE  -  For my average specimen, close-ups work much better than landscape shots.  For small subjects this might mean approaching to within a foot or so, and often down to 6 inches.  You will see the target get bigger as you close in for those final few inches, and experience will tell you the range at which your phonecam refuses to focus.

TARGET  - I wouldn’t expect to take really good pictures of landscapes , or trees – and birds are for real photographers! Ideal subjects include flowers and insects, and flowers don’t run away either.


A hairy-footed flower bee seeks white dead nettle, Steve Smailes

LIGHT  - Experiment with light coming from different angles.  In the field you often don’t have a choice, but the results will vary with different conditions. Hazy brightness is probably most forgiving, but good images can be taken in many different circumstances.  Fierce summer sun can be  problematic – a white subject in dazzling light will flare out the image, and insect wings can be fiercely reflective in strong sunshine.

Part 2: How to find your natural subject