Smartphone Portraits and Selfies in Mixed Lighting Scenario


In this article we setup a smartphone portraiture scenario in mixed lighting setup and test the capabilities of the smartphone camera in shooting print quality images.  Overzealous DSLR and Point & Shoot camera owners would not even think twice before saying that the ‘humble’ smartphone is a no-match when it comes to serious photography. In reality, however, the smartphone is a very powerful and is capable of producing professional quality images in the right hands.

A significant advantage of smartphones over other cameras, especially DSLRs, is that with smartphones what you see is what you get. Live view, is a potent composing tool, something that DSLR users tend not to use.

Getting Ready

Most top-end smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6, come with excellent cameras which are more than capable of producing great images. Apple iPhone 6 comes with an 8-megapixel iSight camera with Focus pixels. The latest Samsung Galaxy S6 comes with a 16-megapixel camera. Needless to say with better sensor designing, low light performance and the associated qualms about noise are becoming a thing of the past.

Apple iPhone 6 Plus has a wide open aperture of f/2.2. It is responsible for creating those shallow depth of field and is ideal for our needs – smartphone portraiture. Another fine technology is the presence of Focus Pixels. Focus Pixels allow for faster auto-focusing. Comparatively the Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 16 megapixel main camera. It also has auto-focusing but the iPhone wins the race with the presence of Focus Pixels.

The shopping list:

  1. A screen / diffuser / reflector / foam core

smartphone photography reflector

The best thing about shooting portraits in ambient light and even in mixed lighting is that the shopping list is just a bare minimum. The first thing you need, apart from your smartphone, of course, is a way to create shade.

Believe it or not, shade produces the best portrait images. This is because ambient light in shade is uniform and flattering; just the right kind to produce excellent smartphone portraitures. To experiment ask your model to stand under the sun and take a picture. Next, ask him/her to stand under a building or wall (so that there is no dappled light). Take another picture and compare the two.

The one shot directly under the sun is harsh, contrasty and the model is probably squinting. The one shot under shade is uniformly lit and is much better. Thus, you need to be able to produce some shade when shooting outdoors. This is not a requirement when shooting indoors though.

But the problem is you don’t often get a big shady tree or some buildings or even a high wall everywhere you go. E.g., the beach or the Death Valley. This is where a quintessential item like the reflector come into the picture.

Hold the reflector, such as this CowboyStudio Photography Reflector Disc Kit, above the model’s head to create shade. You can also use a foam core or a white sheet for this purpose.

  1. A continuous light source


An artificial continuous light source would be a good idea to use when shooting smartphone portraitures. There are a few external flashes for smartphones, like the Neewer Smartphone Dimmable LED Light, which works with both iPhone and Android systems and comes with its own battery. However, for best and more predictable results a continuous light is a better bet.

Which continuous light to use?

Continuous lights are no different for smartphones, DSLRs and Point & Shoots. You can buy one and it will work across the entire range of cameras that you use. What you need to consider, however, when buying such a light is that it should be daylight balanced and can be used with modifiers such as TDG’s LED Video Light.

That’s it. While there are a ton of other accessories that you can opt for including external lenses, image stabilization in the form of tripods etc. for this experiment we shall limit it to the bare minimum.

Camera App

Which camera app to use? Really, with so many choices you can feel a bit spoilt. But not all apps are really that good in terms of shooting convenience. A few are noteworthy including Google Camera and Camera Zoom FX for the android system. Google Camera features Touch to focus which works particularly well with the Samsung Galaxy S6.

IPhone’s native iOS camera app is a powerful tool for most purposes. The camera complements the Focus Pixels technology to deliver fast and accurate auto-focusing at a touch.

Notwithstanding, start by using the default camera app on your smartphone. In most cases it is fine-tuned by the OEM for the built-in camera to give the best results. Only if you find the built-in camera app insufficient for your needs should you give a try to other external camera apps.

Camera settings

White balance – Check the white balance settings. It should be set to around 5500 ° kelvin if you are shooting under the sun. If you are shooting under shade it should be around 9000 ° kelvin. The logic behind this is shade produces images that are slightly bluish. You need to warm it up a bit. The reverse for images shot under direct sunlight.

ISO – Next is the ISO settings. In most certainly it would be set to auto. It should be fine that way. Just remember, at any point, lower ISO means less noise.

Turn on the grid lines – Next turn on the grid lines. The grid lines divide the frame (the image area) into nine equal rectangles. Try and place the dominant eye of the subject on one of the four intersecting points on the frame.

Turn on image stabilization – Image stabilization is built-in in modern smartphones. Even then it is a smart move to shoot in ‘burst mode’ just so that you can get at least one image out of a bunch that is tack sharp.

Auto-focus tracking – The Galaxy S6 has a tracking auto-focus feature. This is the same as continuous auto-focus on DSLR cameras. This is a handy feature to have. It allows you to keep the subject in focus if she/he moves slightly during the shot. This will not compensate if the movement is exaggerated.

Getting it done: The shooting process

Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for! Place your model outdoors under some shade. If there is not shade use the reflector to create it. In case you skipped the shopping list and went straight to the shooting bit, don’t worry, there is a way out. Ask the model to turn around so that the sun is behind him/her. This way the model’s face is in the shade.

The wide aperture of a typical smartphone camera like the f/2.2 of the iPhone 6 will allow you to use a fast shutter speed. At an outdoor environment that should give you a properly exposed face but a slightly darker background. Remember, aperture controls the depth of field (DoF) white shutter speed controls the ambient light. Bring the continuous light into the mix, to illuminate the face just a little.

An alternate way of shooting to balance ambient and artificial light would be to fire the artificial light from a side. The ambient light source, say a golden hour sunlight, could be placed at the back creating a beautiful rim lighting while the artificial light, exposes the face.

Not always do you have to use artificial light though. In the above golden hour example, the reflector can be used to fill in the shadows. Again, at blue hour the main light would be the artificial light. In such dark ambient lighting situation you will need to expose for the background and then throw in some light to expose the face.

Whatever you do don’t use the camera’s built-in zoom feature. Unless you are using an external lens, which may be a good idea, the built-in zoom is a waste of time and photographic opportunity.

The Editing process: A foreword

The Samsung Galaxy S6 is destined to get a new update which would enable it to shoot in the DNG format. DNG is the acronym used for Digital Negatives. A format that is based on TIFF, DNG is in short what RAW is to DSLR. The ability to shoot in RAW (in this case in DNG format) allows you an incredible advantage in terms of post-processing. In the case of DNG the JPEG file is not created by the software inside the phone. At least you are still able to see a preview JPEG but the main file is not processed. That means you can edit things like white balance, sharpness, contrast, color tone even give the whole image a monochrome treatment without endangering the quality of the image. JPEG and Gif are lossy formats. Any edits you do tend to reduce the quality of the image. DNG, however, is a lossless format. RAW however is not supported on iPhone / iOS 8 as of writing this article.

Editing: The preferred tools

My favorite editing tool is Photoshop Express. It is light, designed for smartphones and has most of the features that you need to ready an image before sharing. If you shot in RAW, the image can be edited on your computer using Photoshop CC / Photoshop Lightroom.