How I capture an event with only my smartphone

Sometimes it isn’t possible or desirable to bring a camera, lenses and lighting equipment to an event. When I have to work without my usual kit there are a few steps I take to get the best results from my smartphone.

Camera Choice

I’ll almost always use one of my phones rear-facing cameras (even for selfies! how old-school) as they offer higher resolutions and greater image quality.

Lens Choice

Most modern smart phones offer more than one focal length for capturing images. Generally there is a telephoto/zoom lens, a standard lens and a wide-angle lens. Certain types of lens are better matched to specific image types.

Use the telephoto/zoom lens for individual people and portraits

I use the telephoto/zoom lens if my phone has one or the standard lens if it doesn’t. Generally a zoomed lens will be more flattering to the subject and prevent distorted facial features. The wide-angle lens can stretch and exaggerated facial features, particularly noses as they are generally nearest the camera so it should be avoided.

If possible I back up to get more of the subject in the shot and move closer if I want them to take up more of the frame.

A selfie image of Nic Cameron taken using a wide angle lens
Say cheese! This image was captured using the wide-angle lens. My nose looks overly prominent and my face looks stretched.
Say cheese! This image was captured with my phone’s standard camera and my facial features look far more normal compared to the wide-angle shot

Use the standard lens for small groups

For groups of 2-5 people I try to use the standard lens rather than the wide-angle lens. The standard lens keeps the focus on the subject and doesn’t bring in as much of the background as a the wide-angle lens. If I can’t get them in shot I’ll try to move farther away rather than change to a wider lens.

The standard lens also tends to be default option and is usually the highest quality of the lenses on a phone.

Use the wide-angle lens for large groups

For large groups there is usually no choice but to use the wide-angle lens. I try to compose my shot so that the group takes up most of the image with an even amount of space around the subject on all sides.

Use the wide-angle lens for room shots

For reportage style photography or images that show the space I will normally use wide-angle lens.

More information on focal lengths

Watch this useful tutorial from Hyun Ralph Jeong for a more in-depth explanation about how focal length (or ‘zoom’) can change the way subjects and backgrounds look in your photos.

Lighting

Indoor events can often be in poorly lit spaces, but phone cameras perform best when capturing brightly lit subjects. I concentrate on finding the brightest areas and try to make interesting images around the available light.

Make use of windows

Window light is generally soft and flattering, it is particularly good for capturing portraits of speakers or important guests. I ask them to stand side-on to a window and look towards me so that one side of their face is brighter than the other.

Find other sources of light

If I can’t use a window, I’ll look for other light sources in the event space. This could be decorative lights, LED displays, Room lighting or signage – anything to help make them brighter than the background of the photo.

Avoid the temptation to use direct flash

The small flash on the back of a phone is particularly unflattering so I try to avoid it. If possible, I will move my subject to a brighter area rather than use the built-in flash.

Composition

Composition is an essential element of all photography regardless of the camera being used, but there are some ideas in my head when working with a phone to make sure the results are the best that I can get from my equipment.

Fill the frame

Phones have very small sensors and small details can be lost in photography captured in dark spaces due to the way they process the image and reduce grain and noise. I try to make sure that I am capturing my subject as large in the frame as reasonably possible so that I don’t need to crop later.

Get close to the subject

It can be tempting to stay at the back of the room when capturing photos at an event but that often puts an audience between me and the subject. If I want a close-up of the action, I’ll move as close as possible before taking an image and move away after so that I’m not obstructing anyone’s view.

Sometimes it isn’t possible or desirable to bring a camera, lenses and lighitng equipment to an event. When I have to work without my usual kit there are a few steps I take to get the best results from my smartphone.

Use the rule of thirds

Events can be busy so I try to make sure that my images are ‘easy to read’ – in other words, I want the person looking at the photo to know what’s important in the composition.

An easy way to achieve this is to use the rule of thirds, a composition that puts key details of my photo on the intersection between an imaginary 3×3 grid.

Most phones have a feature to add this overlay to your camera screen so that you can compose your image in real time.

More information on the rule of thirds

Watch this useful tutorial from Emil Pakarklis (founder of the iPhone photography school) for a more in-depth explanation about using the rule of thirds to create engaging pictures.