Can you really take proper pictures with a smartphone?

I felt this scene needed to be captured with a deep, brooding intensity, and I particularly wanted to hold on to the textured cloud detail in the sky. Capturing a DNG file with Lightroom Mobile gave all the processing leeway needed.

Well, I actually think you can. I like taking pictures with my iPhone. It’s partly a practical thing, as it’s the camera I always have with me. More than that, though, it makes me see things differently.

I see compositions, shapes, light and shadow in a way that I might not when looking through a viewfinder or at the (smaller) screen on the back of a camera.

I can understand there’s a certain amount of smartphone snobbery, but I think that’s because we associate smartphones with a certain sort of selfie-loving snapshot mentality. Smartphone cameras are actually pretty good, provided you:

  1. understand their limitations and work within them
  2. Put the same thought into each picture that you would with a ‘proper’ camera

I can’t speak for the Google Pixel 3 or Huawei P20 Pro as I only ever use an iPhone. They may be way better for all I know, but I have found that the iPhone camera is rather good (I’m using a relatively old iPhone 7 Plus) if you know how to get the best from it.

That means shooting RAW files rather than relying on the standard Camera app and its JPEG/HEIF images. The Camera app does amazing things with panoramas and HDR, but it’s not so good for basic image quality because it tends to over-process and over-smooth images. For image files with any kind of depth and flexibility, you need to shoot RAW, which is where Lightroom Mobile is so useful.

Shooting with Lightroom Mobile

The Lightroom Mobile app isn’t just for browsing and editing images. It has a powerful Camera mode which offers a lot of manual control which you don’t get with the regular iPhone Camera app. You can even shoot using Lightroom presets in colour or black and white, and this simply adds adjustment metadata which you can undo or modify later. The key point, however, is that there is an option to capture images in Adobe’s own DNG RAW format.

So why not take the obvious step and do all your editing in Lightroom too? Well, I’m not a big fan of Lightroom’s RAW processing. I find its detail rendition quite coarse and noisy, especially with small sensors or high ISOs. I much prefer to do my RAW processing in Capture One, and although this requires an extra step I think it’s worth it for the improved image quality.

Exporting DNGs from Lightroom Mobile

It looks like there are a couple of ways of doing this. The method I use is to export an original DNG from Lightroom CC on my desktop machine after it had synchronised with the mobile app. I can then import that image into Capture One.

The Lightroom Mobile app on my iPhone also has an Export Original option on the Share menu, and you can save a DNG file to your camera roll. That will synchronise with the Photos app on a Mac so that you can export the original photo from there. I’m sure there is an an equivalent Android > Windows workflow but I don’t use these operating systems so I can’t check.

Lightroom DNGs in Capture One

Once you’ve got a Lightroom DNG file on your desktop computer you’re home and dry. So can Capture One work with Adobe DNGs? Absolutely, and it does a great job. Adobe’s RAW rendition is quite coarse, but Capture One’s is a lot smoother. It can also recover a surprising amount of highlight and shadow detail. The iPhone has a small sensor, so noise is never far away, especially in the shadows, but the iPhone lens is sharp from edge to edge and while the images you get from it have predictable limitations, its DNG files also show unexpected quality.

I love black and white, and this image was created from a Lightroom DNG in Capture One using both global and local adjustments. This result would not have been possible with a regular JPEG capture from the iPhone’s Camera app, but the extra depth and detail in the DNG file made the iPhone image as rich and as malleable as a RAW file from a regular digital camera.

If you’re interested in how this was done, here’s a run-down:

01 First the base image was converted to monochrome using the Black & White panel.
02 The sky was a little bright compared to the foreground so I used a radial filter centred on the lower left foreground to darken it.
03 I wanted to create a slanted shaft of light across the centre of the frame so I used a second radial filter to lighten that area.
04 I wanted the sky so dark it was almost black, so for this I used another adjustment layer, this time using the gradient filter tool.
05 Finally, I wanted even more contrast and a blue toned effect, which I created with a final layer with Curves and Split Tones adjustments.

Capture One’s adjustment layers and mask tools make it especially effective for this kind of manipulation, but you could get the same effects in Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, Luminar and many other programs.

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