Challenge: Getting a good figure photo with just a cell phone

I’ve seen lots of good figure photography and bad figure photography. Browsing through the daily pictures at will pretty much give you the gamut. This post focuses on bad figure photography, and whether or not we can make it into better (if not good) photography.

Sure, it’s easy to sit behind my desk of judgment with my fancy DSLR and off-camera flashes. I’ve always believed that you need the right equipment to do the job. For product photography, the best equipment is a system camera and controllable lighting.

But what if I was just starting out, or didn’t have the money for all that stuff? What if I’m spending all my disposable income on figures instead of camera gear? Is there no way to take a decent photo? I decided to ditch my trusty Rebel and try to take some pictures with my cell phone camera, just to see if I could get a good result.

The camera I’m using is on HTC’s One X. It used to be a flagship Android phone, but nowadays you can get it for $1 on contract, so I think it’s fair not counting this as fancy equipment (#HumbleBrag). I’ve used this out in the world, and it can produce all right results. Here’s a nature shot:


It saturated the hell out of the colors, and pixel-level detail isn’t great, but at first glance I’d say that photo looks fine.

The same camera at the United Center (huge thanks to my boy Victor for getting me those seats!):


Again, not too bad. The sharpness isn’t great, there’s some flaring around highlights, and Vladimir Radmanovic is in the shot, but otherwise the photo is serviceable.

Maybe we can actually get a nice figure photo with the One X. I started out doing the classic bad figure photo:


I did this because in order to know what to fix, we must examine what needs fixing. You just got a new figure, in this case Wave’s spiffy Rise Kujikawa. You’re excited and want to share this with the world, so you grab the nearest camera you have (which is on your phone) and take the easiest, fastest photo possible. The result is above, and while it communicates the general idea that you have Wave’s Rise figure, it’s not particularly flattering.

The first problem is that the table looks kind of desolate, and you can’t see much of Rise. Let’s get closer.


Now we can see a little more of Rise, and the setup looks slightly less depressing. But that lighting is just awful, isn’t it? The camera decided that the flash should be on for this shot. I decided the flash is best left off, and put a lamp near the figure. To avoid motion blur, I propped my camera up on a chair.


Already we see a big improvement. The biggest step really is to eschew the on-camera flash. After this I experimented with the positioning of the figure relative to the lamp to see if I could get better light on it. I also experimented with the camera’s various scene modes. Unfortunately the only things you can manually control with the One X’s camera are the ISO and white balance. Without manual exposure control, the camera was left to figure it out. Eventually I found a position that added a bit of clarity to the face, and provided some shading for the folds on Rise’s uniform.


The exposure now looks better, so let’s look at the composition. It sucks. I’m just showing the figure. Instead I want to highlight something that I like about the figure. In this case it would be Rise’s face. So let’s close in on her face:


We could stop here, but I’m not entirely satisfied. I think I can do better. For example, up until now, I’ve just been single-mindedly focused on the figure. I don’t like that random bit of table in the background. The focal length is too wide, so it’s capturing extraneous parts of the scene that I don’t want. So I backed up a bit and zoomed in on Rise’s face instead of putting the camera up to it:


Yikes, that’s quite a lot of noise. I generally like the exposure, but it doesn’t mean much with that amount of noise. I tried to clean up the picture a bit by setting the ISO to 100. It led to a darker exposure, but still looked okay.


Again, we could stop here. But I still want to add a little visual interest to the photo. The most common shots are straight on at eye level or, if you’re shooting from a standing position, slightly above the figure. I decided to try out some different angles.


The next one is just me playing around with the One X’s creative filters. This one’s kind of a gimmicky depth of field effect but I like it:


To sum up, we went from this:


to this:


with the exact same equipment. I wouldn’t use the final result as a portfolio piece (though in a way I’m kind of doing that right now), but if I’m just uploading to Twitter or something to share with my friends, I’d feel pretty good about it. No need to Instagram the shit out of this photo!

While I’ve shown that you can indeed get a decent figure photo without a DSLR or even a high quality point-and-shoot, I do want to discuss why equipment matters in the end.

The One X has a fairly capable camera relative to other cell phones, but this isn’t a situation where its particular abilities come into play. The color and resolution may be better than a typical phone camera, but context matters here. If we’re just sharing with some online buddies, the image quality is less relevant than the photo itself. The only thing I needed to do was turn off the flash, and most phone cameras will let you do that.

However the limitations of this camera are pretty obvious. I couldn’t get the exact exposure I wanted because there were no aperture or shutter speed controls. There are some phone apps that allow you to do this, so if you can have manual controls, use them. The One X had difficulty with metering thanks to the contrast between Rise’s uniform and skin, leading to consistently blown out skin tones. I had to trick the camera into getting a usable exposure by constantly exiting and re-entering the camera app.

Exposure control was the main weakness of the phone camera (aside from image quality), but there are other subtle issues. Phones are designed to be light, which means they’ll pick up shakiness that much more. Having a heavier DSLR body reduces camera shake. The zoom on phone cameras is almost always digital, meaning the resolution and noise get worse as you zoom in. Focusing was also problematic as the phone’s autofocus struggled with the softer details on Rise’s face. I ended up focusing on her collar instead. A DSLR’s autofocus system would have been much more sensitive and accurate. The last problem is with handling. This depends on the phone, of course, but the One X isn’t great in this department. My middle finger would often block part of the shot because it naturally sits right where the camera lens is. Changing my grip to compensate made the camera much shakier, and it was awkward tapping on the screen to focus.

Like I wrote earlier, you need the right tools for the job. Even after this challenge I feel that’s true. What I wanted to show was that you can get a usable result even with bad tools as long as you use a little planning and thought. Whether that’s enough depends on your own tastes and your audience.

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