How Your Smartphone Snaps Award Winning Photos

Yep, the camera is that good

Key Takeaways

  • A prize-winning photographer says you can take pro-level snaps using just an iPhone.
  • Photojournalist István Kerekes recently won the top iPhone Photography Award for his image, "Transylvanian Shepherds."
  • Kerekes tells Lifewire that iPhone photographers need practice and artistic vision.
Two shepherds with lambs in an industrial area, light snow on the ground.
The winning photo by Istvan Kerekes.

Istvan Kerekes

Your smartphone camera can take professional-level photos if you know how to use it properly, experts say. 

The iPhone Photography Awards recently announced the winners of the 14th annual international competition. The photos show the work captured with just an iPhone and an eye for composing pictures. This year, the Grand Prize Winner and Photographer of the Year Award was granted to photojournalist István Kerekes of Hungary for his image, "Transylvanian Shepherds."

"My iPhone is always with me, so I can take photos whenever I see something interesting, even if I don’t have my camera with me," Kerekes told Lifewire in an email interview. "In comparison with a DSLR, the iPhone is easier to use, but there are special situations where I use only my DSLR."

Developing a Photographer’s Eye

Smartphone camera technology has rapidly advanced in recent years. Still, the key to taking prize-winning photos is understanding what makes a great picture, rather than relying on widgets, Kerekes said. 

"I have taken photos with cameras for more than 20 years, but with phones, and especially with iPhone for exactly two years," Kerekes said. "I can give the same advice as with cameras. Look for unique themes and unique perspectives, practice a lot, and develop a unique vision."

As proof that you don’t need the latest tech to capture great photos, Kerekes’s prize-winning photo was taken with a years-old iPhone 7. 

"Until June 2019, I had a Samsung phone," Kerekes said. "In one Hungarian photo competition, I won a shopping voucher, and from this voucher, I could exclusively buy only an iPhone mobile. And after a few days, I realized that is a very good phone, for photographing, too."

He used the iPhone 7 to capture a stunning scene of sheepherders.

"In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms," the iPhone Photography Awards describes. "The grit of the men and the bleakness of their environment are a moving contrast to the hope and innocence of the lambs in their care."

Pros Using Smartphone Cameras

Kerekes is far from the only pro to use a smartphone to capture fantastic images. Nathan Underwood of Tulipina, a floral design studio, takes photos of flowers with stunning detail and contrast using an iPhone. 

"Everything begins with lighting," Underwood writes on Apple’s website. "Look for diffused natural light, ideally coming from the side. If indoors, this typically comes by setting up about 0.5 to 1 meter from a window. If outdoors, find a space with even light, avoiding hotspots and shadows. Often this means looking for a spot with consistent shade."

A man and horse in the desert.

Sharan Shetty

While many photographers say that capturing great pictures is more about having an eye for subjects, manufacturers are happy to tout the latest specs. Apple, for example, says the camera systems on iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max use new types of computational photography and feature an expansive 120-degree field-of-view Ultra-Wide camera.

There’s also a telephoto camera, great for framing portraits, with an even longer focal length on iPhone 12 Pro Max, and a new ƒ/1.6-aperture Wide camera. The optical image stabilization (OIS) system on the Wide camera makes 5,000 micro-adjustments per second for Night mode shots and steady video.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra also boasts impressive features. Its primary camera is a 108MP f/1.8 alongside a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide one. There also are two telephoto cameras, both 10MP, but one has an f/2.4 aperture and allows for 3x optical zoom, while the other has an f/4.9 aperture and allows for 10x optical zoom.

If you can’t quite bear to give up the classic camera snob appeal, SoftBank has announced a Leica-branded phone for the Japanese market. It has a single 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor which is purportedly the biggest in any phone. There's also a 19mm-equivalent f/1.9 ultrawide lens, meaning other focal lengths need to use digital zoom. The price isn’t available yet. 

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