November 01, 2018

The Digital Toolkit

Smartphone Photography Tips for the Digital Law Practice

Tom Mighell

In the 11 years since Apple introduced the iPhone and the smartphone boom began, the popularity of the point-and-shoot camera has decreased at a sure but steady rate. When we travel, most of us are content to use our phone as our primary camera; it’s more convenient, and we have seen smartphone photo quality improve to the point where the shots we take on our phone are good enough to include in our vacation albums.

So what about photography in your law practice? You might be a litigator who needs to take pictures of accident sites or property damage. Or you might be a family or probate lawyer and rely on photos of personal property or even of injured clients to prepare your case. These days you’re more likely to pick up your phone to take those pictures than learn to use a digital single-lens reflex camera. Let’s take a look at some tips, tools and apps you can use to up your digital photography game.

Get full manual control.

Unfortunately, the stock camera apps that come with many smartphones do not have powerful tools that allow you to adjust the settings for your shots. The Google Camera app is coming close but is still not quite there. For this reason, if you want more manual control over your photos, download and use a photo app. I mention some of my favorites below. You will definitely need a photo app to try out some of the tips I mention in this column.

Use the right file format.

Most smartphone cameras default to taking pictures in JPEG format. It’s the most common image format, primarily because it compresses the photos. You can take more pictures because the size of each photo is reduced, but the compromise is that each photo displays less information, resulting in lower quality. By contrast, photos taken in RAW format are “lossless,” meaning that no information is lost, you can correct problem areas that would be unrecoverable in a JPEG, and you’ll have a higher-quality photo. The downside to RAW photos, as you might imagine, is they take up a lot of space. You’ll want to watch your phone’s storage when using this format.

Most phones do not shoot RAW by default; you’ll need to use a third-party camera app to activate RAW capability. For the iPhone, some of the better camera apps are ProCam 5, Halide Camera and ProCamera. Some Android cameras feature RAW capability in the stock camera settings; otherwise, you’ll also need a stand-alone camera app. The Android camera apps I recommend are Google Camera, Camera FV-5 and Camera MX.

Know your ISO.

ISO is the level of your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive your camera is to light. For example, if you are shooting in broad daylight, you’ll want to shoot at a lower ISO (say, around 30–35), while indoors you will want a higher ISO level. Remember, however, that the higher the ISO, the more grain or “noise” will appear in your photo. So use the camera app to test out and find the best ISO level for your available light.

Don’t zoom; use a lens.

All smartphone camera apps come with a zoom option, but you should resist the temptation to use it if you find yourself far away from your intended shot. The zoom feature on a digital camera actually degrades the image, so zooming in will add a lot of grain and blur to your photo. If using a zoom on your smartphone is really important, buy an attachable lens. I used a reasonably priced lens from Moment on a recent trip, and it increased my zoom 2x. Several types of lenses are available: wide-angle, fisheye and portrait lenses, among others. Struman Advanced Optics sells lenses with up to 14x zoom at fairly reasonable prices. Keep in mind that the only way to attach one of these lenses to your smartphone is with a case specially designed for the lens. So if you buy one of these lenses, take a look at the cases they have to offer because you’ll need one of those too.

How to focus.

In most cases the autofocus of your camera app will work just fine; if you want to focus on a particular object, however, you should tap the screen to specify where the camera should acquire focus. If you want even more control over focusing on a particular object, or part of an object, you’ll want to use your camera’s manual focus feature, which you’ll find in most of the camera apps I recommend above.

Consider the shutter speed. 

When taking a photo with your smartphone, is shutter speed important to you? If you are trying to take a photo of something (or someone) in motion, you’ll want to use a slower shutter speed to capture as much as possible. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second—the lower the denominator, the slower the shutter is to take a picture. Again, you’ll need a third-party camera app to modify your shutter speed.

Turn on grid lines.

All camera apps allow you to turn on grid lines, which are extremely useful to help you get your image straight, or even position the subject of the photo off-center.

Don’t use flash—ever.

A flash does all sorts of things to your photos. It inserts bright spots and dark shadows where they didn’t exist before, and let’s not even talk about red-eye. Most smartphone cameras have evolved to the point that they can take pretty good pictures in low light. If you really need extra light, find another lighting alternative.

Use a tripod to stabilize your shots.

Let’s face it, it can sometimes be hard to take a photo without moving your smartphone. Holding the phone in both hands and tucking both elbows in by your side is probably the best way to control your own movement. But if you want something more stable, invest in a simple travel tripod. My favorites are made by LOHA and Joby, including the GorillaPod.

Use HDR.

HDR stands for high dynamic range, not high definition resolution. On your smartphone camera this feature helps the camera to detect both bright and dark areas in your photo, take multiple pictures of these areas and then automatically blend them together into one image. This feature is available in most smartphone cameras or in third-party camera apps. Make sure you have HDR set to On or Auto to take advantage of this feature.

Keep your lens clean.

This should go without saying, but our smartphones can get pretty dirty in our pockets or just from our own use. Make sure to keep your lens clean to ensure the best pictures. Android phones can alert you when your lens is dirty. Keeping a lens towel handy will keep your photos smudge-free and clear.

So what do you think? Are you using your smartphone as a legitimate photography tool in your law practice? What are some of your best tips for getting good photos? Let’s continue the conversation online. Send me a tweet @TomMighell or an email at tmighell+dt@gmail.com. I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog (lawtechnologytoday.org).

Tom Mighell

Tom Mighell is vice president of Delivery Services at Contoural and has served as chair of both the ABA Law Practice Division and ABA TECHSHOW. Email him.

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