5 Non-Lame Ways Your Smart Phone Can Improve Your Photography

(© Ian Plant) These days, the Internet is awash with "Top 5 Phone Apps for Photographers" articles, most of which (in my opinion) are fairly lame. They tend to focus on apps for adding all sorts of nifty special effects to photos taken with your phone. Although many people are having fun experimenting with using their smart phone cameras as creative photography tools, most of us eventually return to our "real" cameras and get back to more serious work.

Once you get past all the fads and the fun, smart phones can actually be an important part of your creative process, and can significantly improve your shooting experience. What I present below are some of my favorite smart phone features that have become part of my regular work flow. Since I use an Android phone . . . I'll pause right there for the collective righteous sigh of indignation from iPhone users. Yes, I know—my phone is vastly inferior to yours. Get over it! As I was saying . . . since I use an Android phone, I only have direct experience with Android apps, and as a result don't list the iPhone or Windows phone equivalent (you should be able to find similar apps for these systems with a little bit of research), unless the Android app isn't available. Yes, I know—iPhone apps are all vastly superior . . . commence rolling of the eyes . . . you can tell that I've encountered a few of these iPhone vs. Android debates already.

So, without further ado, here is my "Top 5 Non-Lame Smart Phone Features that are Actually Useful for Nature Photographers" list: 

1. Sun and moon rise and set times. Every outdoor photographer should be equipped with this information when in the field. Now, you can have this at your fingertips whenever and wherever you need it. I use Sundroid (Android), an app that tells me when and where the sun or moon will set or rise, and the current moon phase. It even tells me when the "golden hours" start and stop.

2. Real-time weather forecasts. Weather plays a huge role in my photography, so I need to know as soon as possible if weather is changing and where it is heading. To that end, I use The Weather Channel and Storm Team 5 apps (both Android), which let me keep an eye on changing weather conditions. The Storm Team 5 app comes with a radar map, which is extremely useful.

3. Tide prediction. If you are not photographing coastal areas, then this won't be of much use to you. When I am near the ocean, however, I find tide prediction to be indispensable. I'm using an app called Tide Prediction (Android), which shows me a simple day-by-day graph of tides, with clear markings for high and low tides. Tide Prediction can find me the closest tide gauge stations, wherever I am.

4. Event tracking. If there's a specific natural event you wish to track, there's a decent chance that there's an app for it (or there will be one eventually). Photographing the northern lights? I use the Solaris app (Android), which shows me current solar storm activity and lets me know when significant activity is likely to occur in the near future (living in Virginia, it hasn't proven all that useful to me yet, but I am hoping to go north this winter for some aurora photography). Trying to photograph lightning? Consider BoltMeter (iPhone), which provides real-time lightning strike data. There are even apps that give you real-time bird sightings, such as BirdsEye (iPhone). The ability to have real-time data to track weather and wildlife events in the field can be extremely useful. Right now the app market for natural event tracking is somewhat limited, but it is sure to grow more robust over time. For example, I've only been able to find one fall foliage tracking app, released by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and limited to foliage reports in Minnesota. But hey, if Minnesota does it, over time others will follow.

5. Color proofing. This one's not an app. I use my phone to color proof images I have posted to the Internet, to make sure I haven't made any editing mistakes. Yep, that's right—even though I have an expensive wide-gamut monitor which is profiled using industry standard calibration, I still use my little phone screen to make sure an image looks the way I want it to when I post it on the web. And I'm not alone—I know a number of other pros who do the same thing with their phones and iPads. The sad truth is that even with a calibrated work flow, there are many variables that can affect color editing, and even if you get it perfect on your computer screen, you can't control the way the image looks on other people's uncalibrated systems. Smart phone screens are remarkably consistent, and seem to have excellent color management, so they provide a great reality check when editing an image, and can give you a fairly good idea of how the world at large will view your photos.

So that's my top five! I'm curious to know if others have other non-lame uses for their smart phones. And before I get an onslaught of angry comments from people who take pictures with their smart phones and use "lame" apps to play around with the resulting images, you do realize I'm just kidding, right? So please step away from the pitch forks . . .

 Creative Vision eStore by Ian Plant


    Great article Ian, a smartphone is an incredible asset, thanks for sharing.

    Here are a few other ideas:

    photographer’s ephemeris

    light meter (I use a technical camera which has no metering)

    flashlight app for lighting those foreground details

    depth of field calculators for selecting the best aperture

    viewfinder app makes a great composition tool


    Love this list! So much better than all the “Top Photography” apps lists out there. These are actually useful, not just adding a hipster effect to photos.

    And I should say I love your work. Been following you for a couple months now after finding out about you through outdoor photographer. Keep it up!

    Thanks for the tips. I’m just venturing into my outdoor photography “career” so this is great timing.

    About smartphone screens though: a given screen technology is usually consistent but certainly not across various types. For example, until a few years ago phones used TFT LCD’s which had pretty lame color representation. My Motorola Atrix has a “qHD” screen which is essentially a TFT LCD with better color and contrast, but it isn’t making me weep with joy. Iphone’s use IPS screens which have great color. My favorite is probably AMOLED which has really brilliant colors, but I have no idea how accurate any of them are: they just look really bright and rich.

    My point in that long-winded diatribe was that while it’s a great idea to view your images on your smartphone (and anything else you can get your hands on), it’s not necessarily going to be anything like anyone else’s smartphone.

    I do love looking at my shots on that insanely high pixel-density screen, though.

    Good points Dan. I admit that I field tested only a few devices (a few iPhones, a few iPads, and my HTC Incredible), but they seemed to be reasonably consistent and all had rich color and contrast. I’m sure that there are a number of devices out there that don’t quite match the devices I tried. Thanks!

    Great tips, I’ll definitely check out Tide Prediction!

    Here’s another one – I LOVE Google Sky on Android! I’ve used it to track when and where the Milky Way will be up, plus anything else in the sky. You can move forward and back in time, but I think it’s limited to your current location.

    i use my iphone all the time to color proof… i looked at some of my images on a friends monitor and couldn’t believe how horrible they looked on their screen, it was then i started double checking everything on my iphone/ipad once published to my blog

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