Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Going steady with your smart phone camera

We’ve all heard this before: The best camera is the one you have with you.

To some, this means $15,000 of equipment so massive that a backpack is inadequate, requiring what looks like a multi-tiered, chrome-plated baby stroller to push it around. Others never leave home without their tried and true point-and-shoot camera with its compact size and ease of use. The great equalizer has become the smart phone, the ultra thin electronic marvel that doubles as a camera and graces nearly every pants pocket from Wrangler to Versace.

At the Arboretum, it would be unusual to spot a visitor without a camera. Half are using DSLRs and point-and-shoots, but the other 50% are using their smart phones—alternately snapping photos, talking, and texting as the scenery and their social circle dictates.

I was a confirmed digital SLR user for a decade, but when my shutter malfunctioned (and I had neither the money to repair the camera nor purchase a new one), I reached into my pocket, pulled out my iPhone 5, and decided to make it my full-time camera replacement.  

Even with all its fancy camera features, like an 8 megapixel image sensor and F/2.4 lens, my biggest disappointment was that there is no way to attach the phone to a tripod. Even pro photographers with image stabilizing lenses use a tripod to get their sharpest image, and every point-and-shoot has a tripod mount, so why doesn’t the iPhone?

There’s no app for that, so over the past year, I have explored a handful of solutions that allow me to capture a satisfyingly sharp image.

The lowest tech way to stabilize any camera is to use what’s nearby. At the Arboretum, I will often brace my phone on a tree, a boulder, atop someone’s head, or lie down and use my knees or elbows for support. When out in the open, I’ve learned to cross my arms Cossack-style, using my locked, horizontal forearm as a rigid support.  This latter technique works for shooting video, too.

But these are just coping mechanisms, and useless for a self-timer, stop-action, slo-mo, or capturing a sharp flower macro.

So I researched and purchased several aftermarket solutions, starting with the Joby Griptight Mount. Despite its name, its spring-loaded grip on my phone was tentative at best. When the wind blew down my tripod and the Joby’s cheap plastic broke into three separate pieces, I cried—but not as hard as I would have if my phone had still been in it.

The Olloclip Quick-flip case was my second purchase, setting me back more than twice as much as the Joby. It’s a more elegant solution that combines a form-fitting case that slides into a U-shaped tripod mount. The mount then screws securely to a tripod. After a few months of use, part of the plastic tripod mount broke off, leaving me a barely useable set-up.

My most recent discovery is the Anycase, a solid aluminum tripod mount that fits any size smart phone, with or without a case. It holds my iPhone securely, feels very stable, and its metal construction gives me confidence that it will outlast anything made of plastic. It’s my favorite so far. 


With the phone now firmly attached to a tripod, you still have to tap the screen to take a photo, and this can cause some vibration. To remedy this, the volume control on the stock iPhone ear buds  doubles as a shutter release, reducing camera shake to nil.

Even better, I recently purchased the Ipega Bluetooth Remote Control Self-timer that works with both iPhone iOS and Android phones. As long as I am within 30 feet of my phone, the Bluetooth connection wirelessly triggers the camera’s shutter to capture intimate portraits or video of stampedes, active beehives, or squirrels—all from an unthreatening distance.The portrait of the rock squirrel (above) was taken with this setup.

There are plenty of reasons to keep your DSLR or point-and-shoot camera, but if your smart phone happens to be the one you have with you, keeping it rock steady is the best way to capture an enviably sharp photo—at the Arboretum, or anywhere. 

Ipega Bluetooth Remote Control Self-timer.

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