A Tokyo photographer offers tips on taking pro shots with an iPhone 3GS

cats.jpg All images by Koichi Mitsui Koichi Mitsui is a professional photographer in Japan. When he's not on the job shooting for magazines and ads, he wanders around Tokyo taking pictures with his iPhone 3GS. "The iPhone has a single-focus lens with no zoom, and this simplicity keeps me devoted to only composition and the perfect photo opp," Mitsui says. Keep reading for a selection of his work with tips on how you can take amazing photos with your iPhone, too.
I like to take photos of casual, unintentional scenes. That, or snapshots with an element of surprise. Always be on the lookout for change, whether that's lighting, or the movement of people, or just a slight difference in something ordinary.
Walk a lot. The iPhone camera has a fixed focal length. Whether you enliven or kill this feature is up to your footwork. If you need a close up, get real close. If you need distance, you exaggerate that distance. You use your feet to find angles. It's also important to venture far away from your comfort zone to find good subjects to shoot.
Don't just default to vertical shots; take some horizontal ones too. Change the composition little by little by finger-tapping to change the focal point.
Take advantage of your favorite apps. New iPhone apps are being released all the time, but find the ones that fit your taste and learn to create pictures that look just the way you imagine. I snapped this photo of my friends picnicking at the Tama River right when the setting sun and the light from their lantern were in perfect balance, also using Photo fx and CameraKit.
snow bug.jpg
You can see more of his work on his web site, Sasurau.


  1. sadly, while the composition etc. is very good, the photo quality still sucks. Tons of noise, undefined colors… it’s a phone camera, after all. You simply can’t take shots of good quality with this sort of thing.

    1. The pictures are incredibly artistic. I love the grain. That’s the point. Actually, the iPhone took great pictures in these cases and the photographer was able to capture the essence of her surroundings in each shot. As far as camera phones go, the are pretty damn good! Instead of trying to compare the iPhone’s camera quality to a conventional point-and-shoot or SLR, try and see the beauty that the photographer captured. It’s all around us. It doesn’t matter how it’s captured. Be more open and less judgemental. To the photographer: Great job! Thanks for sharing your pictures. I love them. You have a great eye and I hope to see more of your work. Kudos!

  2. Those are pro shots? A couple of them look cool, but some of them are pretty bad.

    I’m all for people being creative, and I think you can get a cool photo with pretty much any camera. But too many people nowadays think they are professional photographers just because they have a good camera. Now people are going to think they can take pro photos with an iphone?

    Sure it is in the eye of the beholder, but the next to last picture in this article is pretty bad, and that is after using 2 apps to improve it? Blurry and full of noise. What exactly is professional about it?

  3. Over zealous in the attribution of ‘professional’ or ‘pro’. The pictures are ‘nice’ but certainly not ‘pro’. Give me my Rebel XTi any day over these rather cruddy shots.

    So much enthusiasm, so little thought in the use of words.

  4. “Pro” or “professional” means you sell pictures for money. It’s that simple.

    Sure, gadgeteers and avid amateurs with superexpensive “professional” or worse, inexpensive “prosumer” cameras (including the Rebel) can take technically excellent pictures. But that doesn’t make them pros.

    Likewise, a photographer can use a simple camera to take technically imperfect pictures, but if people are willing to pay for those pictures, the photographer is a professional. And if the photos have an artistic or journalistic quality to them, people *will* be willing to pay for them.

    When I was a working photog in DC, there was a period of thime when I sold more pictures taken with my Pentax point and shoot than I did with my Hasselblad, YashicaMat, and Contax/Zeiss combined. But they were NO LESS PROFESSIONAL for the technical quality or the equipment used. They were MORE PROFESSIONAL because I was working with the limitations of the point and shoot.

    Google Diana Camera images and you’ll see lots of professional photographs taken with what is famously the world’s crappiest “toy” camera. And there’s some beautiful work.

    So, please, don’t be hasty to dis the use of “professional” with an iPhone or other cell phone camera.

  5. HotPepperMan at #4 doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “professional”. Hint: your fancy camera — and I suspect that this guy owns a a lot fancier rigs than yours — doesn’t make you a “pro”, talent and the selling that talent does.

  6. #5 & #6 – but I do sell pictures… and the Rebel is just my point and shoot. I shall not get into the semantics of ‘fancier rigs’ nor the overuse of the word ‘professional’. I believe there is a BB post somewhere re the professional wedding photographer that sums it up re my take on these pictures. Ergo, getting paid does may make you a professional but does not necessarily mean they are any good.

    I seem to recall that Van Gogh did not sell any paintings during his lifetime (apart from one to his brother Theo) so technically he was not a professional painter.

  7. I do sell my work. Several of my photos have sold well. However I do not consider myself a professional; for several reasons. 1) It is not my sole or main source of income and 2) (which is in my opinion much more important) I have an awful lot to learn about photography. I take some technically wonderful pictures, but there is so much I don’t know about the art.

    In my opinion, several of the photos above are pretty bad. I wouldn’t pay money for them, or hang them in my home. Someone might though. If that is what makes them “Professional” , well people bought Pet Rocks by the millions. Someone also might pay money for a book of MySpace pictures.
    I use the word “Professional” to equate it with “High Quality”. If the fact that it sold, makes it professional, then the word has a totally different meaning for me.

  8. read better: when he’s *not* shooting professionally, he uses his iphone to capture these, featured, images

  9. @ the commenters carping about how “unprofessional” these shots are.

    “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
    -Henri Cartier-Bresson

    The image second from the top is beautiful. It captures a time and place, motion, light, shadow, and form. I think a super-sharp perfectly balanced image from a modern pro camera would actually miss a lot of the magic that is going on in that shot.

  10. Nice photos, especially the backlit subway one. Many are in low light, hence noise/grain. I have no problem with that. Camera snobs here seems to be more concerned with “picture quality” rather than the quality of the photographs. Not the same thing! The camera in the iPhone 3GS is perfectly fine for most quick pics, and I appreciate the photographer’s embracing of its limitations… which are also a strength (simplicity).

  11. the way you guys speak, oh man… very unprofessionals but with the exceptions to those who appreciate this kind of art amidst its imperfection! Kudos!

  12. You guys are thinking too much. As a working pro, I use ALL kinds of cameras….some I built myself….enjoy the images for what they are. and as the old adage goes:” I may not know what art is, but I know what I like…..” never more true than here…..I think the dude is a genius.

  13. The composition on 2,4 and 6 are excellent.

    The point of the article isn’t “How to make your cellphone behave like a $200 point and shoot”. Read it and ignore the pictures. It’s about divorcing yourself from the equipment and focusing on the barest essential of photography… capturing the moment.

  14. Many years ago, when I was but a young photo major, I took what remains my all-time favorite of all the thousands on thousands of photos I’ve made over decades: A lovely young lady, classmate and friend – and willing subject, under many varying circumstances, swinging on a park swing. I caught her at the apex of a swing, the chains just beginning to slack, her hair flying up to form a crown above her head.

    It’s slightly vignetted, slightly soft, and there’s no surprise at either of those. It was taken with a $2 secondhand Diana camera, and I printed it up only slightly, to a proper 6cm x 6cm black-bordered frame size. Its character comes from the frozen moment, captured at that “decisive moment” Cartier-Bresson so aptly named.

    Is “Casablanca” the cellulose triacetate (Estar, more likely) and print film emulsion, or is it the script, settings, and performances? Is “Huckleberry Finn” the binding and paper, or is it the text?

    I don’t have, and likely will never seek, an iPhone. Doesn’t matter. The advice given is about seeing, and capturing, not about the tools used in any other than this specific context.

    Equipment geeks need not apply.

  15. I LOVE this guy’s photos and I love taking photos with my iPhone. I completely understand where he’s coming from. I went to Slovenia this summer with my Canon 5D (with 35L and 50L glass), my Panasonic Lumix LX-3. Still I ended up taking over 300 photos with my iPhone 3Gs. There is something magical and fun about that camera. Using it is stripping photography back to it’s barest elements and is a wonderful exercise. Limitations can bring some of the greatest creativity.

  16. I’ve done photography for decades. I have even worked at it professionally for brief periods. And I’ve drooled over various gear over the years.

    But it always comes down to the old photography adage: the best camera is the one you have on you to make the shot.

    It’s always been a battle for me to have a camera with me when I see the shot. Now that I have a iPhone, I always have a camera on my person. Mine’s the 3G, so yeah, it doesn’t have 10 Megapixels, anti-shake, or Leica glass. So what?

    Anyone who thinks it’s the equipment, or even the technical proficiency that makes art good, or bad, doesn’t understand art. And that runs the gamut, photography, music, painting, dance, writing, etc.

  17. Why are people so hung up on the word “pro”? These are nice pictures, all the nicer when you consider the limitations of his equipment. This is not DPreview, so the pixel-peeping doesn’t really matter as much as the photography itself.

    I enjoy taking pictures on my phone camera as well, and think some of them capture the moment better than I can with my better cameras: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poagao/sets/72157608560453443/

  18. Although my primary realm of expression is music (composing, songwriting, singing, etc.), I have become obsessed with iPhone photography. I love the limitations of the lens and the pixel size. The iPhone forces me to look carefully, to position myself, to observe the light, and compose the shot.
    I hope Apple never improves it. But they will.
    And as far as the pictures display, a couple are great, a couple not so great. But very different from my own iPhone photos, indicating to me what a great medium it provides for expression. If curious I’ve posted a number of pictures at my site.

  19. A lot of those touting the ‘professional’ use of iPhone photos are intentionally making the images technically worse than the camera is capable of. There is a definite “SX 70 Nostalgia” aesthetic in charge, and any time another iPhone Photo Application is involved, rest assured they are using that app to ‘artfully degrade’ the image, as that is the only sort of processing such an iPhone app can usually do.

    In other words, they look like crap because the photographer WANTS it to look that way. Look at your own iPhone photos and their typical image quality as comparison.

  20. I think what a lot of people are missing here that this post is really about being mindful of the basics of composition, timing, and mood. These elements are utterly crucial to making a good photograph. All the gear in the world cannot make up for the lack of any of those things.
    Sure, I’d always like to have my pro camera and a bag full of lights and the rest of it to make a shot technically perfect, but I can hardly have it with me all the time. As the saying goes, “The best camera is the camera you have with you”. A great photographer can make a good photo with a terrible camera, but a terrible photographer will never make a decent shot with the world’s most technically perfect camera. It’s easy to get caught up in gear-wank, because, let’s face it – you need the technical stuff to come through when you need it, but the fact is that it’s not the most important thing here.

    Taking more pictures and being aware of your surroundings will make you a better photographer, no matter who you are. In the end, reminding everyone that you can be mindful and still take a good photograph with a cell phone, whether you are a pro or not, is a good idea.

  21. The word ‘pro’ somehow loses its meaning when it deals with subjective matters like art, since it is based on individual opinions. If 99.9+% of the general populace (or rather, clients) would agree that something is good, then it could be called ‘pro’.

    While some may directly associate ‘pro’ with money, I’d rather use the word ‘pro’ to ‘better than the rest’ (which translates to money when dealing businesses). Making money doesn’t necessarily make you a pro and being a pro also doesn’t mean doing it for money.

    1. Pprofession |prəˈfɛʃ(ə)n|
      1 a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification : his chosen profession of teaching | a lawyer by profession.

  22. Bravo #30 Flaubertine, well spotted.

    Proof that the ‘best camera’ is the one you have with you is somewhat diluted if you happen to be carrying around a bunch of cameras.

    “sasurau” indeed has a superb eye for a great photograph but there’s no getting away from the fact that the better back alley photo comes from the better camera.

    I roundly applaud the uptake in photography brought about by accessible mobile phone based cameras but on balance it’s hard to deny – the majority of iphone images are the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

    The upside is… for those who get the bug, they’ll soon start lugging around another camera!

  23. You have to love people who confuse technique with art, isn’t it? Or not. You have to hate them. It’s the same people who dislike black and white movies and love 80s airbrush paintings.
    And professional means: ‘undertaken or engaged in as a means of livelihood or for gain’. It certainly does not mean ‘very bright, very sharp, very shiny’.

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