Imagine you turn up to a portrait shoot and meet your model. You’ve scoped out the location, organized outfits and the weather is perfect. Only thing is, you pick up your camera and it isn’t working… something’s wrong with the lens.
You’re a hobbyist, so you don’t have any spares. You should’ve checked before you left home, but you forgot. Normally this would mean you’d have to cancel or reschedule the shoot.
Then you remember that RAW shooting was recently made available on your iPhone 6s with iOS 10! Could that be enough for a sunny day? It was worth a shot.
My model was pretty curious to try out a smartphone shoot, and the sun was out so we wouldn’t be lacking light. I downloaded Camera+, an app I’d bought a long time ago when playing with manual settings on a previous iPhone. I knew the only way to shoot RAW was with a 3rd party app, and I wouldn’t be able to achieve the post-processing aesthetic I’m used to without the power of RAW files.
And here’s the thing…
It worked. Every single shot in this post was done on my iPhone and edited in Lightroom. I thought I’d write this so I could show you how you can do this yourself and share what I learned.
Firstly, you need a lot of available light. Pushing the ISO even a little bit introduces heaps of noise. It goes as low as 25, and when it gets over 200 it doesn’t look very good. So you really need to keep it low.
Secondly, you need to take advantage of manual settings. You can’t trust the camera if you want to have control over the final look, because it blows highlights quite often.
For me, I wanted to keep the highlights as I’d be shooting mostly in full sun. That required the fastest shutter speed and lowest ISO. The aperture is fixed on the iPhone 6s so I couldn’t use that to help, but I found I didn’t need to.
Then, you need to understand that the editing power of iOS apps on RAW photos is lacking—immensely. I tried edits in both Camera+ and VSCO and they left a lot to be desired. The built in JPEGs produced by the iPhone were much better.
So how does it work? RAW photos are saved within the app environment you’re using. When you’re done, you need to save them to the Camera Roll. This will take a while, be patient and make sure you have battery (perhaps do it in batches of 100 if necessary). There is also a lag in taking the photo and saving it on the phone—we’re talking about a 20MB file vs a 1MB file after all.
Speaking of size, you will need a lot of space. I took ~400 photos and used 6GB.
Once you’ve saved it to your Camera Roll, you need to import it into an editor. I use Lightroom. Plug the phone in with a lightning cable, and use the Import module in Lightroom. Then, edit as you normally would (I delete all the originals off my phone at that point).
As you can see, I had to severely underexpose my shots in order to save the highlights. I also had to use my hand to prevent major lens flare and retain contrast (and then heal it out).
The standard “zoom” on the lens is reported as 4.15mm. The fixed aperture is f/2.2. I had control of ISO and Shutter Speed. With a backlit shot I could let a lot more light in, as long as I didn’t blow out the sky.
Indoors was simpler but you will find the pictures get muddier quickly as the ISO increases. I’d rather increase the ISO than introduce motion blur with a slower shutter speed though, which is the same principle for the pro cameras as well.
How does it perform with full sun? Let’s just say it wasn’t easy, I had to use the fastest shutter speed available and lowest ISO and only barely managed to keep the highlights.
In the Camera+ app, reviewing the photos I’d taken also reset the manual settings I was using so it meant I wasn’t really reviewing my photos as I went along. I found the UI a bit confusing as well as to determining what was in the frame.
Here’s a really high contrast example. The RAW came out quite dark but it was worth it to keep the highlights on the skin. Shooting in an industrial environment meant that a slightly blue and grungy tone would suit fine.
I used some presets I’d created in previous work and based off some free ones you can get online from Nate at natephotographic.com.
Here it is, with most of the information all the way in the shadows. Note the shutter speed of 1/8500 sec. That’s fast!
So there you go. To be fair, I’d already been fairly practiced in limiting myself on shoots. I like to travel light and work without a team, so I don’t use light modifiers or flashes/strobes (I’ve used these in the past). My normal kit is just an Olympus E-M1 with the 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom.
With the m43 sensor and single zoom lens I’m already compromising on dynamic range, depth of field, and a field of view outside 12-40mm. The iPhone limited me even further, so it was a really great challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next in smartphones, especially with regard to different lens options (I could’ve used the portrait lens from the 7+) and depth of field algorithms.
Massive credit to Jasmine, whose patience, positivity, and fantastic modeling talents helped us achieve these photos. You can catch more of her work on Instagram at @jscorsechen.
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