How to: Twelve Tips for taking better photos on your Nokia N8 or 808 PureView

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It's all very well having a high end autofocus camera in your Symbian-powered Nokia N8 or 808 PureView - but having a great camera doesn't necessarily mean that you'll automatically take great photos. My last 'photo tips' piece on All About Symbian was three years ago, making it high time I updated my thoughts on taking better shots for 2012.

NB. Although written with the Nokia N8 and 808 PureView in mind, much of what follows applies almost equally to every smartphone camera (some tips even apply for EDoF units!) - although there are differences in camera/sensor quality, they're minor compared to the difference you can make in taking care over each shot and applying a few basic principles. In addition, you'll also gain a sense of knowing what will and what won't 'work'.

1. Light

Sunlight is best, of course, so if you're on a day trip out with the family and the weather is somewhat changeable, take full advantage of the moments when the sun's 'out' to grab some snaps of the kids and your location - because trying to do the same an hour later when clouds have obscured the sun will result in photos which are an order of magnitude less pleasing. Sun = Light = Colours. Remember that.

Colour, light

When the sun's not out, there are still wide variations in light levels. Low light means potentially 'noisy' photos. And focussing won't be as quick or as accurate. Shooting snaps indoors (average light level ten more more times lower than outdoors, even if your eyes don't realise it because they're so good and so fast at auto-adjusting) will often produce disappointing results, but you may be able to help by hitting the Settings 'gearwheel' (or appropriate icon on the 808) and forcing (Xenon) flash on. This is called 'fill-in' flash and for subjects a metre or two away in indistinct indoor lighting, can make a big difference, even if your eyes tell you that there should be enough light for a photo. Fill-in flash is most commonly used when the subject is between you and the main natural light source, e.g. a window. In this case, the N8 or 808's flash unit will light their faces and fronts and reduce any 'silhouette' effect.

But, in general, seek out good light and you won't go far wrong.

2. Dirt

Whether you own an N8 or 808, there's one common factor which can ruin every photo and video you take - fingerprints and other dirt or dust on the camera glass (it's actually scratch-resistant plastic on the N8, interestingly). A brief wipe on a tissue is all that's usually needed - try not to use a coarser, non-absorbent section of t-shirt, as this can often smear any finger grease rather than remove it. 

The main effect of dust, dirt or grease is to produce extra blur in the photo - in extreme cases, it can even stop focussing working properly - either way, you'll want a clean camera glass before you shoot. Any dust or finger grease on the glass, in the same way as small scratches, also plays havoc with any direct light sources, whether it's the sun or stage lights or even a bright lamp. The result is unsightly 'flare' on your photos, streaks of smeared light. If you've cleaned the glass and you're still getting flare then the cure is to again know where the strongest light sources are and try to avoid them shining on the camera glass of your device directly (see the tip below). If the light is off to one side and you've no option but to take the shot from your current position, then use one of your hands to shield the camera glass from direct sunlight in particular.

Light, colour

3. Direction

Tip number three is also about light, but I didn't want to duplicate the headings(!) You see, in addition to seeking out light, you also have to bear in mind its direction, as hinted at above. I know it's a 'cliché', but most of the time you want it behind you and lighting up your subjects - leave arty silhouette and sun glare effects to the pros with their SLRs. 

Having said that, bear in mind that if the sun's low in the sky and it's directly behind you, all your subjects (if they're human, at least) will be squinting rather unflatteringly, which won't make for a very natural photograph. Better to have the sun behind you at 45 degrees to the angle of shot, giving your subjects an easier time of it and giving some natural contrast to their faces.

Indoors, your main source of light will be windows - as mentioned above, it's easy to suggest that your subject stand near one, but make sure you're as close to the window as they are, so that you're shooting the light falling on the subject rather than in effective silhouette around them. 

As you move around, whether in the park with your kids or at an event, try to retain this natural awareness of where the main source of light is - even if it's just the brightest part of a cloudy sky - your photos will thank you.

4. Bokeh/Depth of field

The concept of depth of field is an odd one, but it's important to understand. In theory, it shouldn't exist, since the N8 or 808 camera focusses on a particular distance and that's the bit of the photo that should appear sharp, everything else in front of that subject and behind it should be progressively blurry. However, even on excellent cameras, the scale of sensor pixels and optics mean that there's a bit of leeway in what 'sharp' means in practice - take a photo in good light of a subject at 2 metres and there's a good chance that, although not perfectly sharp, most of the background will also be 'acceptably' clear. And this turns out to be what 'depth of field' refers to - the range of distances, given the current focus point and light conditions, over which subjects appear 'acceptably' sharp.

How much you seek to avoid or embrace 'depth of field' effects depends on what you want. EDoF phone cameras famously use hardware and software tricks to achieve massive depth of field, eliminating any need to focus. But with the N8 and 808 PureView you will hopefully revel in the chance to take perfectly-focussed, crystal clear shots of people and things, with a slight artistic blur to the extreme foreground and background. Take this concept to its maximum and, for very close subjects (flowers are a favourite, as shown here), you can blur out the background almost entirely - this is the famous 'bokeh' effect.

On the N8 (in 'Close-up' mode), macro photographs can be taken down to about 10cm (depending on light). The 808 PureView's wide angle lens and optics mean that 'Close up' mode's minimum is more like 12cm, but a great tip is to then use the PureView zoom facility to get some fabulously 'close' shots. I know, the idea of using 'zoom' to photograph something that's less than a foot away is bizarre, but it works brilliantly and enables very easy 'bokeh' effects.


5. Ready

The whole point of camera phone photography, as opposed to using a standalone unit, is that you're ready to snap away anytime, anywhere. Grabbing the unexpected, the fortuitous, the once in a lifetime moments. Which means that speed is of the essence. 

On the Nokia 808 PureView, did you know that, even when keylocked/off you can press and hold the shutter button to wake the phone and launch the Camera application, ready for action? In practice, this means you can be pressing and holding this button even as you remove the phone from your pocket - in theory, you can take a photo less than two seconds after realising that there's a snap to be taken. 

N8 owners will have the extra step of turning off the keylock, but at least this can be done 'blind' while removing the phone from its resting place.

Quick, grab the shot!

6. Subject

There isn't room here for a magic way to become an experienced photographer, of course, but a few pointers might help. Every photograph will have a subject - it's why you want to take that particular snap in the first place, whether it's a coastline or flower or person or pet. The secret is to present the subject in an interesting way. If every photograph just has the subject at its centre, with no context or other surroundings then your images will come across as dull and uninteresting to others.

Think about context then and consider shooting from different angles or heights. If shooting a landscape scene, try getting low down, to include a border of nearby ground at the bottom of the frame - or find a nearby tree or foliage or other feature to add interest at the edge of the frame. If shooting people, don't aim to get their whole bodies in (unless you're snapping Miss UK or similar!), don't be afraid to get close up (or use the 808's PureView zoom, of which more later) - after all, it'll usually be faces you're interested in, not arms, legs and torsos. If shooting a flower, get down near its height, make sure your own shadow's not blocking the available light, be aware of what's in the background and make sure it's sufficiently neutral. And so on!


7. Quantity

Back in the 'old days', we had rolls of film with 12 or 24 exposures and that was our lot - every snap had to count. With digital photography on your smartphone and with truly (relatively) vast amounts of storage available for your JPG photos, there's nothing stopping you going mad and taking more photos than you think you need. For example, you've been invited along to a garden party - it's easy enough to snap each guest 'that you haven't seen for ages' once and reckon that'll do. Back home, later, you'll find that half the shots might have eyes closed, weird expressions or are even motion-blurred. So - take two or three of each scene or subject, just in case - you can then keep the one that came out the best and everyone will be amazed that you nailed every single shot you show them!

8. Smooth and stabilised

Famously - anyone remember Engadget's appalling first look at the N8's camera? - using a phone camera with a proper mechanical shutter button take a modicum of skill and experience. On a standalone camera, the device is heavy enough that the extra resistance of the spring in the shutter button is trivial - on a camera phone, experience is needed to brace the phone with your left hand and right thumb, while the right index finger collects focus and then presses down smoothly and gently, without jarring the device and causing the ultimate beginner's mistake - motion blur.

In the same way as not snatching at the shutter button on your N8 or 808, you should do everything you can to keep the device still relative to the environment. After all, the sensors of the N8 and 808 are large and shutter speeds often quite fast, but you'll often be using the devices in challenging light conditions (dusk, indoors, events) and in such cases shutter speeds need to be longer, which means you need to keep the phone as still as possible.

Taking a tripod with you everywhere is usually over the top(!), but stopping yourself wobbling around while taking a photo isn't always trivial - especially if you're in the middle of a field or on the beach and if it's cold or windy. Stand with your legs apart, braced against any breeze, and hold the N8/808 in two hands. My favourite tip is to use a wall or lamppost nearby, pressing your body to it or, even better, resting the body of the camera phone on it or on one side of it.

9. Move and Zoom

Despite the fact that you might own the 808 PureView, if you're shooting a scene and only really want the central part of it, move closer to the subject if you can so that it fills the natural frame. That's always the purest form of 'zooming'! Having got as close as you can within practical limits (e.g. seating, people, barriers, sensitivity to the subject), you can then use the lossless 3x (or so) zoom on the 808 PureView to get even closer without losing quality (if the light's good enough). See also my relevant Nokia 808 review part.

10. Get Creative

Yes, Nokia put in a mode called 'Creative' in the 808's Camera interface (read all about it here), but most of the same options are also in the N8's Camera interface, on the '...' (more) panel. 90% of the time, you really shouldn't need to change any of the parameters here, but it's comforting to know that as you become more expert, more ambitious and more aware of light, the N8 and 808 Camera applications are there to help. 

In particular, the ones you should head for are:

  • exposure - letting you, for example, snap something in detail even though it has a bright sky behind it, by increasing the exposure by a couple of 'stops', blowing out the sky exposure but perfectly exposing your main subject.
  • 'ISO' - simulating the effect of using 'fast' film (back in the 1970s) - effectively, this deliberately shortens the shutter time, allowing you to freeze low light subjects in situations where Xenon flash won't help (for example, at a concert, where the subject is in the medium distance), at the expense of higher-than-normal sensor noise. This technique is particularly effective on the 808 because the PureView oversampling will reduce this noise. Unless you then zoom in as well.... Trade offs, trade offs....!


11. Fingers

Watch out for stray fingers curling round the back of your camera phone and partially covering the lens or flash - it's easy to do and soooo annoying when you get back home and sort through your photos.

12. Natural

It's all very well taking posed photos of people, but the problem is that they'll always look.... posed. In addition to getting the standard posed shots at events, use the fact that you have a phone-mounted camera to get up close with subjects, get them in the viewfinder, wait for the 'posed' expression and then distract them by making them laugh ("Well, that's a dopey expression!" or similar?) and then snap that shot. 80% of the impromptu shots you take like this may will be complete rubbish (eyes closed, wierd facial contortions, etc!) The other 20% will be gems, possibly better than any of the 'pro' posed photos. Certainly, most of my favourite shots of family and friends were all taken as 'natural' photos rather than in formal poses!