How to Photograph Thanksgiving with a Smartphone

Obviously,  anyone who regularly shoots digital photographs is riding a technological wave or hiking on shifting sand—call it what you want. In other words, the best camera for the job last year may not be the best camera this year. So here’s a little update for Thanksgiving about how to shoot the classic family image: everyone around the  table— this time with your smart phone.

First the headlines. When everyone is gathered around the table you want three things photographiclally. Here are the basics requirements :

  • 1.  A wide-angle lens so you can see everyone
  • 2.  Lots of depth of field so the people closest to the camera and those farthest away are sharp
  • 3.  A camera that behaves well in relatively low light levels

Your smartphone does two of these things in spades.  Just by definition your smartphone has a wide-angle lens that’s great for shooting overalls of rooms and it has a ton of depth of field. ( For those of you that care, the smaller in physical size a lens is the more depth of field it has and your smart phone lens is really, really small. The result is lots of depth of field.)

Where your smartphone is going to fall apart is when the light level becomes really low. The darker it gets the “noisier” your pictures will get. Noise is the digital version of film grain. Basically it’s to be avoided. The pictures start to fall apart in low light.

Having said that, the difference in light levels from my house and your house and Aunt Betty’s house is all over the shop. If you serve your turkey in the middle of the day when there’s still some light coming in the windows the smartphone may just be perfect for the job.

But at Grandma Morgan’s house the turkey usually hits the table at about 4:30 PM and it’s virtually dark outside at that point. So there are candles and mood lighting galore. It’s beautiful but a smartphone challenge.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed from many of the photographs posted by you folks that you follow the North Dakota Kelsh’s  protocol when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner timing and the table if often cleaned up with dishes washed while there’s still sunlight bouncing off the floors from the low hanging sun. (Just in time for another kick-off, I might add.)

In other words, you eat earlier and you might actually have some pretty nice light in the room. If that’s the case, you’re an pretty darn good shape for shooting a high quality sharp photograph of everyone at the table.

What I’m really trying to say here is give your smartphone chance and it may just surprise you. Especially if it’s a more recent model. The newer models perform better in low light.

Now I know that some of you are  looking at my examples and thinking one thing. Nick, you’re not in the photographs! Well, that’s true! Whenever these photographs get taken I’m usually more interested in the food than the photography— I admit it. And by the way, so are all of my subjects. So I essentially spontaneously jump up at the beginning of the meal, shoot a test photograph, and then ask everyone to look up into the camera and click click click. It’s over with before you know it and I’m back at my plate where I’m actually happier if you want to know the truth.

But there are certainly ways to get yourself into the picture. Probably the easiest is to use the built-in self timer that’s on the smart phone. Ideally, if you’re going to use the self-timer on your smartphone you’re going to want two things: A tripod and a way to attach the smartphone to the tripod. Smartphone tripod mounts are usually under $20 and a great stocking stuffer by the way. This is by now means hassle free but the photographer is in the picture.

Some of you are unaware that the self-timer is adjustable. On an iPhone you can set if for 10 seconds which should give the more nimble among you time to get back in the picture. There’s a really nifty countdown on the screen to tell you if you made it into the picture with enough time to pretend like you’re relaxed and not breathing heavily.

Another great function of smartphones that many of you never use is the ability to edit your pics right on the phone. Often times a little brightening is all it needs and makes a big difference. If you’ve never done it it’s definitely worth digging into the editing function of you operating system. Its a good reason to have the most recent version of the software—these functions are better every year. One of the main reasons to edit them on the smartphone is then you’re ready to distribute them right there on Thanksgiving.

The iPhone has a wonderful function for sharing these photos. If you’ve never played with Airdrop you’re going to ask yourself why not. You can select a photo, turn on Airdrop, and people in the near vicinity—with iPhones— will be giving the option to accept the photos you’ve selected for sharing. If that sounds complicated, it’s not. And if you’ve never used it you’re in for a treat. You can even share dozens of photos in one easy blast.

The bottom line is this. Even if you own a wide-angle lens for your big-girl-camera (at my house it’s referred to as the big boy camera)  it’s entirely possible that your smart phone will out perform your much more expensive camera in this particular situation. We are riding a wave of technological improvements here and it’s always worth experimenting.


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