Creativity in Your Pocket: The Power of Smartphone Photography

Throughout a succession of lockdowns, many people have found their options for entertainment beyond the home becoming somewhat limited. Like many folks in these exceptional times, I turned to hobbies as a means of filling the time – cycling, and smartphone photography. 

I had already been cycling for a couple of months when the pandemic kicked off for entirely practical reasons. My new job involved late hours and a commute across unlit parkland, and I had inherited a bike from my late aunt that brought me safely back and forth at all hours of the day. I had to upgrade my phone in January 2020; and the superiority of its camera immediately impressed me.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I spent a couple of weeks working crazy overtime as panic buying struck my workplace. I found myself stressed out, stuck between home and my job, desperate for distraction and adventure. Then, relief: a glorious fortnight off. I found myself with two weeks of unstructured free time, no pressing matters due to Covid, and a plethora of local trails and beauty spots to explore. I also had my new phone, with its excellent camera. 

A Persistent Passion

Ten years earlier, I was a student at St. Aelred’s Sixth Form. In the first year of my A-Levels, I failed my photography course. We were an impoverished family – I didn’t have access to a camera at home. I also struggled with complex anxiety that prevented me from finding the courage to loan one from school. The work I turned in was of good quality, but terrible quantity. The only reason I managed to produce any work at all was because I worked in school itself using their cameras. Alternatively, I relied on the kindness of friends. My friend Jay borrowed a camera on my behalf, which meant I was able to do at least some photography outside school. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to scrape the grade. 

The greatest tragedy of the situation was that during the course I became enamoured with photography – the experience of seeking out art in unexpected places, of composition, the challenges and joys of natural lighting, editing, photomanipulation… and the memories, captured visually. Alas, sporadic camera access meant I couldn’t complete my coursework. I had to drop the A-level. 

I never forgot my love of photography. For a while I had success with my beloved Fujifilm Finepix, chasing the highs that I felt going on photography adventures in college – but after years of use, the camera broke irreparably, and I found myself again bereft of that particular creative outlet. 

My First Smartphone

People often look at me like I’m mad when I tell them that I got my first ever smartphone as late as 2017. For the longest time, my financial situation meant a reliance on budget devices that could only call and text. 

I started with a secondhand Wileyfox Swift. It had a decent – though not spectacular – camera. It did the job for documenting my art degree coursework. I found some of that joy once again, framing photos of my work, selecting and editing the best images. I paid more attention when out and about, snapping things that I found visually appealing. I’d capture nature fighting back through cracks in the pavement, amusing graffiti, the play of natural light on surfaces and materials. 

Then, one morning I was frantically trying to get myself together in the bathroom after hearing that a loved one was in the hospital. In my panic, I dropped my phone in the toilet bowl. I didn’t have time to process the magnitude of what had just happened, given the situation. A few days later, when things had settled and I’d failed to save the phone, it hit me: no more photography, at least for now. Henceforth, I would go mad, noticing beauty all around me without being able to document it to show the world. 

A New Beginning

I think my partner Jason noticed my profound despair when I reported on the demise of my phone. I was happier in at least one respect without constant doomscrolling on social media. However, I could not abide being unable to take photos.

The problem was that I wouldn’t be able to afford a new phone for a while. I was in the early stages of a new job, awaiting a contract change that would better suit my expenses. In January 2020, Jason bought me a new phone – a Samsung Galaxy A10. 

Buzzing with excitement, I set it up straight away and charged it while we sat in Costa Coffee. I immediately started taking photos, and I haven’t looked back. When the pandemic kicked off two months later, I began documenting my journeys through local green spaces.

The Power of Smartphone Photography

The beauty of smartphone photography is the way that it has put creativity into everyone’s pocket. DSLR cameras can be heavy and clunky, especially with the weight of other add-on gadgets. Smartphones, however, are light and portable. Usually, I’ll just pop it in the front bag on my bike, easily reachable on a ride if I see something worth snapping.  

And in spite of their small size and light weight, they’re powerful devices, and rapidly developingIt isn’t uncommon to find a phone camera nowadays with a decent macro setting and abundant editing options to enhance your work.

True, digital zoom often leaves a lot to be desired. For basic point and click stuff, though, modern smartphones are a fantastic option. On a phone camera, you can master the art of composition, paying close attention to things like the rule of thirds or the golden ratio, ensuring that the results are beautifully balanced.  

Afterwards, you can tweak all manner of things. Settings for brightness, contrast and exposure are great for adjusting lighting. Hue and saturation pop the colour, add a touch of the surreal, or introduce a washed-out moodiness. You can even fine tune the zoom and rotation if the picture comes out slightly skewed. 

All of these are things that you can often do on the phone itself. With a few taps of the finger, your photo is Instagram-worthy, without the need for a computer. 

A Surprising Mental Health Boost

Beyond all the technical bonuses of smartphone photography, I love the way that it has made me more mindful. As I mentioned above, my first forays into the hobby led me to start paying much more attention to the things going on around me. First and foremost, this was part of my effort to notice visually appealing and photo-worthy things. It also had the side effect of benefiting my mental health. 

I’ve had episodes of poor mental health for as long as I can remember. When my depression and anxiety flares up, I tend to enter survival mode, withdrawing into myself and losing my connection with the world beyond my own mind. This is an unhealthy coping mechanism – while it may feel like selfpreservation in a crisis moment, it is actually counter-intuitive to recovery as I become lost in my own toxic thoughts.

While unable to afford a DSLR camera, smartphone photography became a brilliant way to rekindle my connection with nature. As an added bonus, it carries a sense of achievement. You begin to feel better by getting out of your own head, and you feel rewarded by the results of your efforts. 

Is It Really Photography, Though?

There remains a pervading attitude in some circles of the photography community that you can’t qualify as a photographer without the right gear. Perhaps I can enter that exclusive club now that I finally have my own DSLR. I’ve always thought of myself as a photographer, though, ever since falling in love with it back in college.

If anything, the idea that you must have a particular piece of (often very expensive) equipment to classify as a photographer is, in my opinion, classist. What about the council estate kids, like me, who have a photographer’s brain and a cheap, yet effective, camera phone?

I’m always telling friends who doubt whether they are writers or artists that if they write, they are a writer. If they create art, they are an artist. This logic should extend to photography as well, whether the person possesses a DSLR or not. If there is effort and consideration in terms of the subject, setting and editing, isn’t that enough? 

The Bottom Line...

There are plenty of resources out there that can teach you how to compose and edit a photo. Additionally, a growing wealth of classes specific to smartphone photography are beginning to crop up. So, if you’ve ever wanted to have a go, there’s a good chance that you have the potential in your pocket, without the need for a DSLR. If anything, it might help you ground yourself in this crazy world, just like I did. 

Thinking of having a go? Why not draw some location inspiration from Cat Woods, who has written a guide on ten stunning green spaces you can visit right here in St Helens?

Or, perhaps you feel like snapping some local art? Get on down to Victoria Park, where UC Crew have teamed up with Kingsyze Graffiti to revamp the ramps as part of Loan Shark Awareness Week!