You're driving down a desert highway (cool wind in your hair...). The warm dry air rushes pass you as your car speeds through long straightaways over slow winding blacktop, up peaks and down valleys. As you crest a hill you are immediately dumbstruck by the natural grandeur before you. A valley bathed in bright sunlight. Here and there are blotches of shadows casted by huge impossibly white clouds suspended in an equally impossible blue sky. The valley is home to cactus and scrub pine each finding purchase among house-size boulders. The far side of the valley is made up rocky remnants of a hill, it shimmers in the heat. You stop your car, get out, whip out your iPhone and snap a shot.
Later that evening, as you watch the dancing in the courtyard below your hotel room balcony, you pull out your phone to relive that vista you saw earlier. But when you look at the shot it doesn't evoke the feeling of awe that inspired you to take the photo. It's a good shot, but something's missing. You sigh in resignation and file it away along side other photos you've taken that almost—but never quite—captured the beauty of the landscapes you feel privileged to have seen first hand.
What the heck happened? Why doesn't your photo look like what you remembered?
There are several reasons for this, but primarily it's because our eyes and our brains are far better cameras than any hardware. The blue in the sky, for instance, may not looks so blue in your photo because your camera gets flooded with light from angles our eyes may not perceive, and that extra light washes out the blue or obscures details in the photo that we see in real life.
Well, maybe not. There are ways to get your landscape photos closer to what you recall and that's the topic for this installment of iPhoneography 101. So let's get to it.
I mentioned earlier that light can be the difference between what you see and what the camera sees. Our eyes do an amazing job in taking in light and creating pictures with it. Our hunter-gatherer vision sees our world in stereo and color, and the subtleties often go unnoticed because our brains filter out what it may consider to be superfluous information. The result is that what we perceive often isn't the entire story, but it's enough to keep us fed and avoid being eaten. The camera isn't so picky. It takes it all in and in post-processing it tries to filter out what isn't needed to make the picture "pretty". The result sometimes isn't what we saw, but a less than satisfying approximation of what we saw.
One way to help the camera see like we do is to filter the light before it hits the lens. In a pro photographer's camera bag you will find several lens filters. One of which is likely a polarizing filter. If you intend to take a lot of landscape photos you should have one too.
Polarizing filters are unique in that they inhibit light from reflections, glare, and reduce the effects of scattered light. What you get are truer colors, less flare, and photos that are a lot closer to what you might see naturally.
Take a look at this photo of a San Xavier Mission outside of Tucson AZ.
San Xavier Mission, iPhone 4 through polarizing sunglasses (All photo by Vern Seward)
It was taken with an iPhone 4, but I got the filtered light through my polarizing sunglasses. Back when I took that shot in 2011 you couldn't get a polarizing lens for your phone. But now Olloclip offers one (Note: The polarizing filter (CPL) is offered with the Telephoto lens, but it works with all Olloclip lenses!) for US$99.00 and it's a fine bit of optics. That's how I got this black and white photo of the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando.
Orange County Courthouse, iPhone 5, Olloclip polarizing filter
As with any decent circular polarizing filter there's a back and front element made so that you can rotate one independently of the other. Each element allows light in from one angle. When the elements are aligned the resulting filtered light is dimmer, but not much different than having no filter at all, but rotate the front element and the angles from which light can get through the filter is reduced. The effect is similar to shading your eyes in bright sunlight.
Of course, there are drawbacks to using polarizing filters, the worst of which is an overall reduction of light that get through to your camera's sensor. You can compensate by using slower shutter speeds, higher ISO settings and, of course, using a tripod, but there will be some shots you just can't take with a polarizing filter. Even so if you intend to shoot landscapes, cityscapes, buildings, or anything outdoors then you want to have a polarizing filter handy.
Lets go back to the scenario I painted at the beginning of this article. There you are on a hill overlooking a sun drenched desert valley. It should make for a great shot, but when you took the shot you found that it was more than a bit overexposed. Maybe the distant clouds that had such interesting details shows up in your photo as white blotches. Perhaps the valley floor had swaths of green cacti, but in your photo all you see are little black sticks where cactus should be.
Your camera took in too much light my friend, there are times when reducing the ISO setting or maxing out the shutter speed just won't work.
When we need to see in very bright light we reduce the light getting into our eyes by squinting, or we put on sunglasses. That's exactly what you need to do for your camera, and it's another filter you'll likely find in the bag of pros.
Neutral density (ND) filters are, in essence, sunglasses for your camera. They reduce the amount of light hitting your camera's sensor so that details that would have gotten lost in the brightness can be better exposed. Unfortunately I don't know of anyone who makes ND filters for iPhones or any other smart phone, but you can fake it by using ND gels you can get from any camera shop, or just by using your sunglasses. (It helps if your sunglasses are clean.)
Unfortunately I don't have a photo taken with my iPhone using a ND filter, but I do have an example where a ND filter could have helped.
Orlando Skyline, iPhone 5, Olloclip wide angle lens
This shot of the Orlando skyline is not bad. The problem is that if I wanted to see the detail of the trees framing the shot then I could use a ND filter to reduce the light so that the bright clouds in the center of the photo retain details. (I probably wasn't wearing sunglasses that day.)
There are other filters that produce other effects, but you can do a lot with just these two in your bag.
That's a wrap. Stay tuned for more iPhoneography 101.