Using Smartphones as a Link to Nature

Where there once was a nature/tech divide, now there isn’t one—or so phone companies would like you to think. Phone manufacturers and sellers are increasingly trying to convince buyers that the latest gear is all you need to become a nature photographer. Think of Apple’s “Don’t Mess with Mother” short film/commercial, for example. But one phone company is not just selling the dream of nature photography, it’s actively making it happen.

Smartphone maker Realme has released a campaign attempting to prove that its equipment can match the best work in what may be the most technically and aesthetically challenging area of photography: nature and landscape photography.

In its recent campaign for the Realme XT smartphone, India’s first 64MP quad-camera, the brand dives into nature and encourages its users to do the same—inviting people to explore their most ambitious creative impulses. The campaign was spearheaded by creative producer Yiwei Zhang, who recruited National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey and managed a video team to film him using nothing but the Realme XT camera. Huey creates compelling images of saturated sunsets and pieces of driftwood along long, sandy coasts [source].

Zhang and Huey both have a history of blending urban and natural settings, breaking down their often-dichotomic relationship. Take, for example, Zhang’s work on the Paul Betenly Thailand 2013 campaign, where, in various scenes, a suave, metropolitan man lounges in front of wood and plaster that the jungle is reclaiming. Huey, of course, has done numerous projects for National Geographic, but he also has a similar project underway called “Shelter.” Like the Paul Betenly pictures, Huey’s “Shelter” images show men in nature and nature reclaiming various shelters for themselves. Both creatives have an eye for the relationship between the man-made and the “natural,” and both seem to challenge that divide.

In this Realme campaign, the image of driftwood signals this creative vision of both Zhang and Huey. It is a reimaging, a transmutation. Through the camera, we turn the urban environments in which these phones are made into something more natural. Through their eyes and the XT lens, this driftwood shifts our focus from cities of steel to a “City of Cloud.”

The Realme campaign proves once again that a phone is able to not only produce images as beautiful as those on film but that it can capture a perspective that may be impossible in a more traditional medium.

The company pairs this campaign with the Shot on Realme Photography Contest, which challenges Realme users to create the best photographs in categories including people, nightscape, travel, and perspective. But it still puts nature photography at the forefront. The Zhang and Huey campaign set the contest into motion. The larger goal of the contest—and the campaign—seems to be proving how technology can exist in harmony with nature’s beauty. And encourage users to find that balance themselves. In the brand’s own words, the Realme phones “let more young people record and enjoy the happy life brought by the beauty of technology. The intent of this contest is to inspire more youth to capture the beauty and express themselves with Realme mobile phones.”  

For the first picture from the campaign, “White Night at the Seaside,” Huey shot a group of people huddled around a distant fire. Creative producer Zhang explains she thought the image was excellent because it carries viewers back to a simpler time when humanity’s ancestors lived more harmoniously with the natural world. This first image shows the true goal of Realme’s project in Zhang’s eyes—to let smartphones transport us through time and space. The images she and Huey crafted show potential customers that when we pick up our new phones with their new, powerful cameras, what we’re really doing is allowing ourselves to be mindful, to pay attention to once-forgotten beauty. Our phones, they posit, allow us to stop and smell the roses and snap a picture for posterity on the way. This image, called “White Night at the Seaside,” is a mission statement: to let the advanced technology packed into our handheld devices bring us back to a time before technology. These phones seek to make us cavemen even as they want us to embrace the future. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Here are our tips for taking nature photography with your smartphone:

  1. Choose the right time. You don’t want your shots to be oversaturated or to feel lackluster. Certain moments of the day add magic to your smartphone nature photos. Golden hour (the time an hour or so after sunrise and before sunset) makes everything feel warmer and brighter. It adds an airy quality to your photos, while “blue hour” is the time closer to sunrise/sunset. During the blue hour, which is right before sunrise and just after sunset, you can see the red-orange rainbow of the sun coming and going. You can track these with JekoPhoto’s golden hour + blue hour tracker.
  2. Utilize your phone’s HDR (high dynamic range) feature. Most smartphones automatically switch this on, taking a bunch of pictures and combining them into one. This helps if you’re taking a bright sky and a dark landscape—a sunset, for example. You don’t want any detail to be lost. Using HDR on your smartphone helps preserve the beauty of the horizon and the ground.
  3. Frame your shot well. Most photographers follow the rule of thirds. This offsetting of the important subject draws the eye in. So, if you want your smartphone pictures to look more interesting, don’t make the subject centered. Learn more about the rule of thirds on Capture Landscape.
  4. Don’t be afraid to touch it up. Even the best photographs taken with your smartphone may need a little TLC after to make sure nothing is overexposed or undersaturated. Maybe you want to make the photo grainy to give it the ole Egyptology touch. Maybe you want it to scream in color. There are plenty of apps like VSCO, Adobe Lightroom Mobile, and Afterlight 2 that allow you to touch up your nature photos right on your smartphone. Just remember to let the natural beauty of what you took shine through.
  5. Have an adventure and keep your eyes open. The most important part about being a good nature photographer is actually being in nature. What Zhang and Huey’s Realme’s campaign shows is that to get the best shots, you may have to go out of your comfort zone. Keep your phone away until you see something you want to take a picture of – that will help you actually notice the beautiful, interesting, weird natural phenomena you want to capture.

*By L. Austen Johnson, with contributions from Yiwei Zhang

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