Since we last visited this topic a year ago, phone cameras have become even better, and more options have become available for shooting with them. We’ll take you through some of the biggest changes and give you tips on new ways to capture, process, and store your images and videos.
Capture: Should You Rely on Your Phone’s Camera App?
When we reviewed the top camera apps for Android phones in 2017, one reason was that vendor-supplied apps left a lot to be desired. Quite a bit has changed since then. For example, most native phone apps now support RAW captures and a “pro” mode that gives you more control over your settings — although Google is still dragging its feet about adding a manual or pro mode. In many cases, using the native app has become the only way to unleash all the capabilities of a phone’s camera. For example, the super-wide and telephoto cameras on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro only operate in the native app (at least I haven’t found third-party apps that can use them). This is often also true for camera-specific computational imaging features, like night modes and some HDR modes.
Of course, standalone apps often have their own version of these features. So, for example, if you have a phone without a built-in night mode, using an app like A Better Camera will equip you with one.
Capture: Should You Shoot RAW or JPEG?
Conventional wisdom dictates that for best results, shooting in RAW format (which means DNG for just about all phone cameras) and performing custom post-processing is the way to go. For standalone cameras that rely on single-capture images, that’s basically still the case. However, phone cameras have thrown us a curve ball, with sophisticated computational imaging that combines multiple captures to create a better image.
As an extreme example, Google’s Night Sight and Huawei’s Night Mode take many captures over the period of a few seconds to create an impressive final image even in low light. There isn’t any way to replicate that effect by shooting a RAW image and post-processing. (Of course, you could try and shoot a burst of images, and do all the AI-based alignment and color matching they do after the fact, but it might take you most of the day.) Even fairly standard captures in good light benefit from the built-in multi-capture technology loosely described as HDR.
Conveniently, most camera apps turn off RAW when you switch to their specialized modes that require multi-capture processing, as those modes usually only output JPEGs. So I typically leave my camera apps set to capture RAW (or both RAW and JPEG if that is supported) to make the most of times when I’m just shooting a conventional image. For quick sharing, that’s overkill; all you need is the JPEG, of course.
Processing Images on the Go
The gold standard for image processing on the road is still a traditional laptop. You can run your choice of full-on image processing tools, and pick a model that meets your needs for display size, horsepower, and memory. For heavy-duty photo and video editing, I travel with my Dell XPS 15. However, it typically stays in the hotel room, and I use something smaller like a Surface Pro or Google Pixel Slate when I’m out and about during the day. Now that Google’s newer-model ChromeOS devices run most Android apps, you can fire up Lightroom Mobile on them and have your work automatically synced back to your main catalog. Ironically, that isn’t possible if you use Lightroom Classic on a Windows or Mac laptop when you travel, as Lightroom Classic doesn’t know how to sync multiple desktop/laptop computers. You can go cloud-first with Lightroom CC, but then you are beholden to paying Adobe for enough cloud storage for all your images (it would amount to about $1,000 per year in my case) and you’re also stuck needing enough bandwidth to keep all your images synced.
So if you’re okay with the feature set of Lightroom Mobile, a Chromebook is an easy-to-maintain choice for image editing. Unfortunately, for video, the options aren’t as rosy. Adobe’s Premiere Clip is reasonable when you’re limited to a phone screen, but it won’t load on the Pixel Slate. What I’m waiting for is to see Adobe’s Premiere Rush available for Android.
Syncing Photos to the Cloud
It’s easy to forget how many images start to pile up on your phone, and how upset you’d be if they were all suddenly lost or deleted. Fortunately, it’s almost as easy to back them up to your favorite cloud service. Google Photos is by far the most popular, with unlimited free storage of images and videos in reasonable quality. Photos are down-sampled to 12MP if needed, and are re-compressed to save space. Videos are down-sampled to 1080p if needed.
With Google Photos, like iCloud, Amazon Photos, Adobe Cloud, and others, you can of course store original images as long as you pay for the storage space — which averages about $100 per year per terabyte. Amazon Photos also offers unlimited photo storage for Prime members. In my case, I have all my phones set to backup in original quality to Google Photos. Since I’m just using it for my phone photos (and not my main image archive) I can get by with a relatively small and inexpensive amount of storage. Plus, my Pixel photos don’t count against the total.
Creating a Smart Local Photo Archive
While it is unlikely that any of the major cloud vendors will disappear anytime soon, plenty of photo sharing sites have — sometimes taking user content with them. Personally, I’m more comfortable always having my own backups of my images. I’ve written about how I do that for my main photo archive, which mostly starts when an SD card is unloaded. But for mobile, manually transferring images is unnecessarily painful.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to have automated backup to your local archive. Lightroom users have this capability already built in. If you turn on automatic import of images on your phone, they will be pulled into Lightroom Mobile and synced to your desktop catalog (once you enable syncing, of course).
While I do use Lightroom, I don’t want to rely entirely on it snaring every single image, so I use two other systems to create copies of my phone photos. The first is a Cloud Sync task on one of our Synology NAS units that pulls all of my Google Photo contents down from the cloud and stores them in my main local photo library (which I think periodically resync with Lightroom Classic). That’s fairly easy to set up as long as you tell Google Photos that you want your photos to be a folder within your Google Drive. You can then tell Cloud Sync to pull that folder and put it somewhere local. Remember, though, that if you set it up as a two-way sync, images you delete from Photos will also be deleted from your local machine.
A different approach, which I also use, is Synology’s Moments package. Moments mobile app will automatically sync your images to your Synology NAS, which in turn will do some fancy face, object, and location-based tagging (if you want). Plus, you can create and share albums. You can then view images organized that way from your mobile devices or any web browser. The result is a totally private version of a system similar to Google or Amazon Photos, but one that’s completely under your control.
[Image Credit: David Cardinal]